Racism is no illusion. "Racecraft" is.
Why race is like Santa Claus—a pervasive myth we love to convince each other of.
In the months since police killed George Floyd, a clear cultural shift has taken place. Not only has there been a dramatic increase in public support for reforms to address police violence across the U.S., but racial inequality is being tied to the invidious treatment of black people. It’s a sharp break from the “post-racial” rhetoric popular a decade ago when Barack Obama ascended to the presidency. But as progressives and leftists navigate a social terrain where racist practices are increasingly recognized as a source of inequality, racecraft is, unfortunately, bubbling up as well.
Racecraft, a term coined by Barbara and Karen Fields, refers to the belief that racial differences can affect the physical world, even if race itself is a social construct. In other words, racecraft occurs when we treat the superstitious, pseudo-biological belief in "racial" traits amongst humans as if they were real and can "obviously" explain material outcomes that we can observe, such as income inequality or premature death from diseases.
The Fields’ argue that racecraft is like a conjuring trick that “transforms racism into race, disguising collective social practice as inborn individual traits [and] entrenches racism in a category of itself, setting it apart from inequality in other guises.” Therefore, races do not exist prior to racist practices. Instead, racist practices follow the conjuring of racial differences.
Here comes Santa Claus?
To understand how racecraft operates, consider a different conjured reality: Santa Claus.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, millions summon the myth of Ol’ St. Nick to explain the meaning of the season’s gift-giving to children. Songs, books, movies, malls, and school teachers all play a role in the effort to reinforce the belief in children that Santa exists and magically provides gifts around the world, especially if they behave in accordance with their parents’ and guardians’ expectations. To ensure this narrative remains intact, parents take measures such as wrapping gifts while children sleep and hiding the gifts in their bedroom closet or the trunk of their car.
Children do not adopt the belief that Santa exists because they are stupid or unreasonable, but rather because they have grown up in an environment where institutions and authority figures have put enormous effort into rituals that bring Santa to life.
Race is a pervasive myth that adults don’t seem to grow out of—even if it works like Santa. When the make-believe figure of Santa is taken-for-granted as a reasonable explanation for why gifts are under the Christmas tree, the production, purchasing, and wrapping of gifts by parents or guardians are rendered invisible. When the myth of racial differences is used as a reasonable explanation for social problems, the actual causes of those problems (like racism and exploitation) are rendered invisible.
Of course, some adults believe in racial differences and Santa. Ex-Fox News host Megyn Kelly who once stated, “for all you kids watching at home, Santa is just white.”
World of Racecraft
One of the most visible consequences of racecraft occurs when we substitute the word racism, an action, with the word “race.” It’s what the Fields’ call the “race-racism evasion.” The differences between the two concepts may seem trivial to some. Still, the race-racism evasion ensures that "immoral acts of discrimination disappear, and then reappear camouflaged as the victim's alleged difference."
Consider the claim that “George Floyd Jr. died because of the color of his skin.” The claim treats skin color (which is often equated with “race” in the United States) as the explanation for his premature death as if skin color were itself the perpetrator. This framing makes it appear as if Floyd's "racial" characteristic (i.e. his skin color) caused Chauvin to commit his violent action, removing the agency and responsibility from the officer to the victim. Ultimately, it is the perpetrators of violent practices who benefit when race is conjured as an explanation.
This is the most obvious manifestation of racecraft in our culture right now but it’s possible to see it almost everywhere these days.
Consider employers’ favorite response to complaints about racial discrimination in the United States: diversity training. Robin DiAngelo, the most famous diversity trainer in the country, is paid thousands of dollars by corporate executives and administrators—not because she is effective at stopping hiring discrimination, but rather to make racist practices in the workplace disappear and reappear as “racial” differences in stamina, knowledge, and identity.
If the problem is seen as a lack of diversity (as opposed to a violation of civil rights), then the solution is “dialogue” about racial differences (as opposed to lawsuits). If you need further proof, DiAngelo admitted in an interview with Jimmy Fallon that the first step towards addressing racism is for white people to ask themselves, “what does it mean to be white?” One study suggests that unions can decrease racist beliefs. However, DiAngelo will still promote diversity training as the real remedy for racism because her job is to reinforce the view that race is the explanation for inequality. She consciously remains silent about the relationship between capitalism and racial inequality because she said, "I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me."
Likewise, there’s a dangerous racial discourse surrounding COVID-19. African-Americans are disproportionately represented amongst the population of coronavirus cases, including my father, who nearly died from the virus. But attempts to frame coronavirus as a “racial issue” with “blackness” as an explanation mean the problems with the commodification of health insurance and medical care disappeared and reappeared primarily as the racial demographics of COVID-19 victims and racial identification of doctors.
It’s no coincidence we’re seeing an ugly re-emergence of race science, whereby the pseudoscience of race is linked to adverse health outcomes and medical remedies. The boardrooms of health insurance companies are quite happy to make the push for Medicare for All disappear from the public discourse and reappear as a demand for more discussions about whiteness. CEOs are more than willing to replace demands for protective equipment and hazard pay with conversations about the ways to diversify their workforce.
Likewise, it will be hard for all workers to unionize and collectively bargain in a terrain where employers can fire workers they deem to be “racist,” as the decision can be framed as addressing the obviously inherent racism in the so-called “white working-class;” anyone who contests that ruling will probably be dismissed as an agent of white supremacy.
In a recent piece, titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class,” political scientist Cedric Johnson notes that hundreds of corporations published statements and messages promoting the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and pledged millions of dollars mainly to support black businesses. While “anti-racist experts” like Ibram Kendi proclaim that African-Americans should appreciate the fact that the Trump administration has made it impossible to deny the existence of racism, Johnson explains that the corporate investor class signals their appreciation of black workers “while deflecting attention from the unjust conditions on the shop floor.”
More broadly, the mostly-symbolic gestures are using commitments to support “black lives” to promote solutions “that fit squarely within the realm of the market economy, voluntarist action, the rehabilitation of individual attitudes, and the promotion of entrepreneurship and wealth creation.” It is why people continue to believe that the selection of Kamala Harris as the Democratic party’s candidate for vice president actually does anything to improves the lives of people identified as Black or Indian that are struggling to survive in this country. In other words, racecraft pairs nicely with the interests and imperatives of powerful elites.
Racecraft allows elites to convince us that the only remedies for racial inequality are “racial solutions,” as if the targets of racism will not benefit from programs to address universal inequality. In delegitimizing Bernie Sanders’ pleas to address the corruption on Wall Street, Hillary Clinton infamously asked the rhetorical question, “Would breaking up the banks end racism?”
Plenty of other politicians and pundits have used racecraft to conflate the harms of colorblind racism—the mistaken belief that race should be ignored because racist practices no longer exist in the post-Civil Rights era—with universal programs, claiming that Medicare for All would somehow harm black people because the program would not eliminate discrimination. Elizabeth Warren justified her opposition to Sanders’ plan to cancel student debt for all Americans on the grounds that it wouldn’t effectively reduce the racial wealth gap. A better solution was to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for families making less than $100,000.
As Toure Reed notes in his case against race reductionism, this separation of racial inequality from the political economy mainly serves the interests of neoliberal politicians while the plight for poor and working African-Americans remains undisturbed. Treating black people as a homogenous group, as if there really is a “black community” with similar needs, interests, and political beliefs, which former vice president Joe Biden recently reaffirmed on CBS, is an example of racecraft that we’ve come to take for granted.
The logic may seem harmless, but it reifies the myth that any person with the census category of “black” can serve as a representative for all people identified as black. It authorizes the view that inconsequential gestures like capitalizing the “B” in “Black” or changing the names of buildings at Ivy League universities are a commendable response to the nationwide protests against police brutality, even if the proponents of this view are individuals with high levels of wealth and/or status.
Pundits like MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid and Jason Johnson get to present themselves as the arbiters of black authenticity and suggest that racial identification determines the political ideology and decisions of Americans—unless, that is, they were among millions of black supporters of Bernie Sanders. Then he characterized Sanders’ supporters as racist white “Bernie bros” regardless of evidence.
Black like me?
Racecraft is difficult to resist and I have not been personally immune from believing in it. Growing up in a society filled with racecraft helps to explain why I foolishly believed that—because he was black—Barack Obama would feel compelled to address the poverty I witnessed and experienced in Rochester, NY, even after he argued African-Americans should stop feeding their kids fried chicken for breakfast.
It helps to explain why I used to believe and was told to believe that my presence on a college campus was a demonstrable benefit for all people who “looked like me.” Or why I used to think that unions would be harmful to other African-American workers or me because our material interests necessarily conflict with the interests of white people even if we are exploited by the same employers. It’s why I failed to realize that a manager is hired to manage dissent rather than hold executives and other managers accountable—even if they have the word “diversity” in their title.
None of this is to suggest that racism doesn’t exist.
In fact, the opposite is true: racecraft, as the Fields sisters argue, is “a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene.” Our task, especially as progressives or leftists, is to resist the pressure to treat racial differences as an explanation for why social problems exist or as a basis for distinguishing our allies from our foes. If we continue to succumb to the illusions of racecraft, it’s likely that we will be unable to build the solidarity necessary to address racism or exploitation.