Book Review: Racecraft| by Thoko Madonko

by Apr 15, 2013Magazine

racecratWhat can an American book tell South Africans about race and racism that they don’t already know?

Racecraft: The Soul of the Inequality in American Life

Karen Fields and Barbara Fields

Verso, October 2012

What can an American book tell South Africans about race and racism that they don’t already know?

In 2013, South Africans have been called to reflect on the anniversary of the 1913 Land Act which, some argue, committed apartheid’s ‘original sin’ by reserving 87% of South Africa’s land exclusively for ‘white’ ownership and institutionalising the highly exploitative migrant labour system for the mining sector. In addition, the Land Act entrenched an elaborate classification system that has racialised the population of South Africa to this day.

Yet, after 1994, South Africans were encouraged not to draw their poetry from the past but only from the future. This was because we had achieved new, hard-won freedoms and it was now everyone’s duty to embark on nation building. The Constitution now provided South Africans with the opportunity to move away from the manifold forms of legislated and institutionalised racism. The so-called white South African was now a part of Archbishop Tutu’s ‘rainbow nation’.

It is in the expression ‘so-called that American historian Barbara Fields and her sister sociologist Karen Fields offer South Africans something new about race and racism in their book, Racecraft: The Soul of the Inequality in American Life. The authors call on us to strip ourselves of the superstition that is race and to see it for what it truly is. Focusing on disparities by race renders those between rich and poor invisible. This is where racecraft comes in. Modelled on the concept of ‘witchcraft,’ the Fields provide an account of why there is no such thing as a race, just as there is no such thing as a witch. They argue that what Americans – and I believe South Africans, too – ‘designate by the shorthand “race” does not depend on physical difference, can do without visible markers, and owes nothing at all to nature’. Despite the fact that there are no races in nature, why then do we continue to believe in race? They argue that it is only through ‘the social alchemy of racecraft’ that Americans come to believe in race. The paradox is that even though there is no truth to race as a biological concept, the ‘first principle of racism’ is the very belief in the existence of race as such a biological concept. The Fields argue that ‘racism, unlike race, is not a fiction, an illusion, a superstition, or a hoax. It is a crime against humanity’.

It is only through understanding the ‘falsities’ of racecraft, like those of witchcraft, that South Africans could begin to see how the debates about race and racism force the issue of inequality to the margins of the public agenda. National discourse has been dominated by black economic empowerment, affirmative action, race-based quotas, and who can/cannot claim disadvantage on the basis of race. As the Fields suggest, ‘racecraft has stranded [South Africa] again and again over its history…permitting an economic sickness that arose from inequality to be treated…by further doses of inequality’.

This takes us back to why reflecting honestly on the legacy of the 1913 Land Act becomes so critical for South Africans. It is clear that the dispossession at the heart of the apartheid politico-economic system made use of racecraft before 1994. The post 1994 order continues to use racecraft to systematically exclude the poorest part of the population from economic participation. The language of racecraft works within the discourse of transformation in the post-apartheid politico-economic system as a means to stifle a legitimate cry – the cry that since 1994, the majority of South Africans are faced with an ‘economic system that is rigged against them’. The book invites readers to ‘observe racecraft in action, study its moves, listen to its language and root it out’. If this were to happen here, then perhaps South Africa could be better prepared to tackle the harder work of rooting out inequality.

Thoko Madonko is an aspiring writer and political thinker.

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