Tuesday, February 5, 2013

These folks could benefit from reading Barbara Fields

I don't think Barbara J. Fields is right about everything, but her analysis of race as an ideology, and her call for historians to be clearer - indeed harder - about the ways they write about race are both very important. I think the contributors to this NY Times exchange on Black public intellectuals could have benefited from taking seriously some of the points Fields makes in her older essays, which have been republished in the book she co-authored with her sister, Racecraft.

Fields has a few main points to consider when thinking about and writing about "race" in America:

1) Race is an ideology, which is different from an idea and from propaganda and information. In essence, an ideology derives its meaning from everyday social interactions, and it is at that level of human interaction at which ideologies are made and remade. I tend to think of ideologies as frameworks through which people understand who they are, or maps that people use to navigate their social worlds. The clearest example of an ideology I can think of is religion, or a system of thinking and acting predicated on faith, and through which adherents order their lives and understanding of the world. Race serves a similar function. It is social and ideological; it is real, not because of science or biology, but because people make it real through social interactions and history.

2) Race has history. Fields spends a lot of time explaining this, but in essence, her main idea is that race is not metaphysical, ahistorical, or timeless. It came into existence at certain times for specific economic, political, and social reasons; and people made and remade it over time. Along these lines, race does not "have a life of its own," nor is it responsible for historical action. The best example Fields has of this is that race did not make slavery; slavery made race. If race continues to have meaning after slavery ended that is because people found new social practices in which racial ideology had meaning. In the US, Jim Crow segregation and ghettoization are the two most powerful social-historical phenomenon that have made and remade race over time.

3) For Fields, liberal and progressive intellectuals perpetuate a sloppy understanding of race and veiled sinister practices (her word is evil) when they insist on analyzing "race relations," which Fields rightly criticizes as an undefined system of social interaction, and when they push for diversity initiatives in curriculum and admissions. (I agree with her first point about race relations, but I disagree with her critique of affirmative action and multicultural education. Both do need to be much more specific with respects to how they deal with histories of racial ideology, but that does not mean that the mission of race-based affirmative action and multicultural pedagogy perpetuate the evils of racism.)

She makes many other provocative points, and this is a very rough summary, but I think the contributors in the above mentioned NYT exchange could stand to think more about what she says about racial ideology.

As I read the exchanges, only the scientists and the historian really wrestled with the socially constructed historical nature of racial ideology. (I am not sure exactly what the political scientist's and the religious studies scholar's point was.) Scholars who identify as Black - either because of their personal history or their political and personal ideology - have to fashion ways that their intellectual and professional work does or does not speak to that particular social ideology, and in what ways. While there is certainly not one way to "be Black" - as an intellectual or otherwise - there are certain socially and historically shaped ways - always multiple and always contested - in which Black people understand themselves and their wider world. Like Fields says, those frameworks are products of history and they exist in time and space. An intellectual who identifies as Black and who wants to connect particular social and political issues that some Black people experience to wider discourses and debates needs to be clear and conscious of the multiple communities she represents and addresses. I don't think this is anything new, and what that does or does not have to do with racial ideology depends on social context and history.

The problem with this NY Times exchange is that it made race a rarefied, metaphysical "thing" that Black public intellectuals either spoke to or ignored.

At their best, the participants in the exchange added context and specificity to their responses. They actually explained what it means to think about and make sense of racial ideology and who Black people are - politically, culturally, socially - in time and space.

(C) Brian Purnell, 2013

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