No Subject

lnp3 at lnp3 at
Wed Jun 28 16:58:42 MDT 2000

Jeanne Fields. New Left Review, May/June 1990.

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 or even simple hypocrisy;
rather, it is ideology. And ideology is impossible for anyone to
analyse rationally who remains trapped on its terrain.[11] 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-) biology.


11. A well-known historian once illustrated this fact for me in the very

act of denying it. Challenging me for having made a statement to the
effect in an earlier essay (Barbara J. Fields, "Ideology and Race in
American History," in *Region, Race and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor
C. Vann Woodward*, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M.  McPherson,
New York, 1982), he declared: "Someone could accept the evidence that
there is a racial disparity in IQ and still believe in integration."
but trapped in racial ideology, he cannot bring himself to question the
status of race itself, let alone IQ. Nor, although an accomplished user
statistical methods, can he perceive the fallacy of stastistical studies
claiming to
have eliminated the social determinants of intelligence and isolated the
ones, while perforce using social criteria--there are no others--to
subjects to their proper "race" in the first place.


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
apart for treatment different from that accorded to others.[12] But
is just the name assigned to the phenomenon, which it no more explains
than *judicial review* "explains" why the United States Supreme Court
declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, or than *Civil War*
why Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865.[13] Only if
is defined as innate and natural prejudice of colour does its invocation

as a historical explanation do more than repeat the question by way of
answer. And there an insurmountable problem arises: since race is not
genetically programmed, racial prejudice cannot be genetically
either but, like race itself, must arise historically. The most
sophisticated of those who invoke race as a historical explanation--for
example George Fredrickson and Winthrop Jordan--recognize the
The preferred solution is to supose that, having arisen 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 hereditary. The shopworn metaphor
thus offers camouflage for a latter-day version of Lamarckism.


12. Inseparable from this conviction is the reification of race that
impels many scholars to adopt and impose on others, as a pious duty, the

meaningless task of deciding whether race is more "basic" to historical
explanation than other--and similarly reified--categories;  a waste of
time to which I draw attention in "Ideology and Race in American
p. 158. Someone might as well undertake to decide in the abstract
the numerator or the denominator is more important to understanding a
fraction, instead of settling down to the more sensible task of trying
define and specify each one, recognizing their difference as well as
relationship and their joint indispensability to the result. A recent
example is David Roediger, "'Labor in White Skin": Race and
History," in *Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1880s*,
Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker, Verso, London, 1988, pp. 287-308.
Roediger apparently beliefves that distinguishing analytically between
*race* and *class* necessarily implies "privileging"  one over the other

(to use his slang). And, in defending the identification of racism as a
"tragic flaw" that helps to explain American history, rather than as a
part of the history that needs explaining, he confuses a rhetorical
with a historical explanation.

13. Alden T. Vaughan, "The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in
Seventeenth-Century Virginia," *Virginia Magazine of History and
Biography* 97, July 1989, is a good example of the use as explanation of

the very facts needing to be explained. The argument ends in explicit
tautology: "It may be more useful to see Anglo-American racism as a
necessary precondition for a system of slavery based on ancestry and
pigmentation." That is, Anglo-American racism is a necessary
for Anglo-American racism. The argument ends as well in unseemly
agnosticism abut the possibility of rational explanation: "[R]acism was
one cause of a particular type of slavery, though it may be better to
avoid the term *cause*, for causation itself is a shaky concept in
situations." The quoted sentences appear on p. 353.}


*The History of an Ideology*

Race is not an element of human biology (like breathng oxygen or
reproducing sexually); nor is it even an idea (like the speed of light
the value of *pi*) that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal
of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence
a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical

reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons. The revolutionary
becentennials that Americans have celebrated with such unction--of
independence in 1976 and of the Constitution in 1989--can as well serve
the bicentennial of racial ideology, since the birthdays are not far
apart. During the revolutionary era, people who favoured slavery and
people who opposed it collaborated in identifying the racial incapacity
Afro-Americans as the explanation for enslavement.[15] American racial
ideology is as original an invention of the Founders as is the United
States itself. Those holding liberty to be inalienable and holding
Afro-Americans as slaves were bound to end by holding race to be a
self-evident truth. Thus we ought to begin by restoring to race--that
is, the American version of race--its proper history.


{15. In elegant fashion, David Brion Davis has located the moment when
racial ideology came into its own in the United States precisely in the
era of the American Revolution, and has had the courage to admit that
anti-slavery publicists and agitators were complict with their
counterparts in establishing race as the frame of the discussion. See
*The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823*, Ithaca,
N.Y., 1975, esp. chs. 4, 6, and 7.

More information about the Marxism mailing list