absurdity of race

jones/bhandari djones at uclink.berkeley.edu
Wed Jul 19 01:13:27 MDT 1995

> Any attempt at
>"racial" classification will very quickly lead to absurdity. There is no
>such thing as race, so how can you use it classify people?

Aside from Henryk Grossmann's untranslated chapter on plantation slavery
and Moishe Postone's analysis of modern anti-semitism, one of the most
thought-provoking works I have yet read in my Ethnic Studies Ph.D. studies
(though not on any dept reading lists)  is Barabara Jeanne Fields,
"Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America", New Left
Review 181 (May/June 1990).

I would like to summarize it here but the copy in front of me is terrible,
so I will have to wait.  I sent my good copy out to a dear friend.

But here's a taste of it:

"When virtually the whole of a society, including supposedly thoughtful,
educated, intelligent persons, commits itself to belief in propositions
that collapse into absurdity upon the slightest examination, the reason is
not hallucination or delusion it is ideology. And ideology is impossible
for anyone to analyze rationally who reamins trapped on its terrain.  That
is why race still proves so hard for historians to deal with historically,
rather than in terms of metaphysics, religion or socio-(that is, pseudo-)

"Nothing so well illustrates that impossibility as the conviction among
otherwise sensible scholars that race 'explains' historical phenomena;
specifically, that it explains why people of African descent have been set
apart for treatment different from that accorded to others.  But *race* is
just the name assigned to the phenomenon, which it no more explains than
*judicial review* 'explains why the United States Supremem Court can
declare acts of Congress unconstitutional....

"The most sophisticated of those who invoke race as a historical
explanation--for example, George Frederickson and Winthrop
Jordan--recognize the difficulty.  The preferred solution is to suppose
that , having arised historically, race then ceases to be a historical
phenomenon and becomes instead an external motor of history; according to
the fatuous but widely repeated formula, it 'takes on a life of its own.'
In other words, once historically acquired, race becomes heriditary.  The
shopworn metaphor thus offers camaflouge for a latter-day version of


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