Coloring Outside the Lines: “Racecraft” and Inequality in American Life

By Maria BustillosOctober 17, 2013

Coloring Outside the Lines: “Racecraft” and Inequality in American Life

Racecraft: The Soul Of Inequality in American Life

On October 10 we published the first of two feature articles from the inaugural edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's "De origin actibusque aequationis." Today we publish the second: Maria Bustillos's essay below.  

The Journal is now available at bookstores for $12, at and B&, and is also a premium via the new LARB Membership Program. We will officially launch the Journal at Skylight Books tonight at 7:30 PM. Bookstores interested in ordering the title can go to Publishers Group West

Quarterly Cover


RACECRAFT: THE SOUL OF INEQUALITY IN AMERICAN LIFE is the first book I’ve read on the subject of race that speaks accurately to my lived experience. The average writer on race, whether his subject is sociology, politics, or cooking, is liable to draw a line around one kind of people, and base all his reasoning on matters relating to what is inside versus what is outside of that line. By contrast, the authors of Racecraft, Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields (who are academics, and sisters — Barbara a historian, and Karen a sociologist) have undertaken a great untangling of how the chimerical concepts of race are pervasively and continuously reinvented and reemployed in this country, all without drawing a single circle themselves. Instead, they describe the circles drawn by others, you might say, and patiently erase each one. “Racism is first and foremost a social practice […] an action and a rationale for action,” the Fieldses write. Though the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis, the hierarchical structures we’ve built using this false idea are alive and well, and we’re all complicit in their persistence.

The flavor of the Fieldses’ reasoning is evident from the first sentence of the authors’ note that precedes the text:

Some readers may be puzzled to see the expression Afro-American used frequently in these pages, African-American being more common these days. We do not take a dogmatic view on such terminological questions, preferring the approach of our grandmother, who used all but two of the terms that prevailed in her day (she died in 1987, just short of ninety-nine): Colored, Negro, Afro-American, and black. She used the term nigger and its close South Carolina cognate nigra only when quoting others with disapproval. Although we leave our fellow citizens to their own choice, we prefer Afro-American. We prefer it because it is time-honored, having deep roots in the literary life of American English. Moreover, it leaves room for useful distinctions. Karen’s husband Moussa Bagate, a naturalized American citizen born in Ivory Coast, is an African-American. Barack Obama, the child of a Kenyan father and a Euro-American mother, is an African-American. Karen and I, like Michelle Obama, are Afro-Americans. Karen’s daughter Maïmouna, the child of an African-American like the Obamas’ daughters, and an Afro-American, may choose whichever term she likes.

Lucidity, insight, elegance, inclusiveness, friendliness, a keen sense of history: it’s all there, and sets the tone for the rest of the book. This passage made me think, too, of my own approach to “terminological questions.” I’m the first one in my family born in this country; my parents came to Long Beach, California — my father from Caracas, and my mother and her family from Havana — in 1958. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. Today when people ask me whether I speak Spanish fluently I might say yes, or if my interlocutor really knows Spanish well I tell the truth, which is yes, with the vocabulary of a somewhat foul-mouthed eight-year-old. My cousin Zulema, who arrived here as a teenager, has a slight Cuban accent still; her sister Teresa, who was four or five, has no accent at all. Teresa speaks Spanish at work — she’s a publishing executive, plus which she is a brain — so her Spanish accent is superb, and she writes far better than any of the rest of us do. When I try to have a real conversation in Spanish, I spend half the time asking, Cómo se dice “bicameral legislature”? Cómo se dice “food processor”? Etc.

All this by way of saying that my Americanness marked me in my family as much or more than my Latinness did in school. Nobody from an immigrant background ever  quite fits in. This is a significant thing I have in common with my husband, an Englishman born in Malawi and educated in England; a lack of deep roots in the place and culture where you were born creates a distinct kinship between people, no matter where they’re from. What it really means is that you grow up something of a chameleon.

I was very young when I understood that sometimes a person’s mind could change about me completely, right before my eyes. I’d be the same on the inside, but found that I might really shock someone by speaking Spanish (it might be a comforting kind of shock, or a disquieting one); or by speaking English (ditto). That is to say, there’s nothing unusual about surprising people, but what I’m talking about is a more elemental shift: I thought you were this kind of person, and now I realize you’re this kind. And even as a child I would fleetingly reflect: Well, you thought wrong. You know no more about me than you did before; I am just myself, a person.

How best can I connect with you? Will you prefer me to be a Cuban woman, I have the tools for that. Or I can seem basically “white” too, if that’s easier for you. My skin is just pale or olive enough that my background isn’t easy to determine; when I’m in Europe people ask me whether I’m Greek or Italian. When in Los Angeles, where I live, people ask me if I am Mexican. All that is very natural and has never concerned me in the least. Indeed, it’s a weird advantage that I have only recently come to appreciate fully. In a certain way, blue-eyed blondes are in the same condition as African Americans in most parts of America: they carry on their skin information that telegraphs a set response from a lot of people. But with me, you can’t exactly be sure “what I am” until I’ve had a chance to take your measure. If you have preconceptions you’ll slip up, almost certainly reveal more than you intended, give me a chance to recalibrate. So that we can talk.

Maybe because it’s in my nature to want to communicate with people, pretty much at all costs, I never felt the need or desire to identify particularly with in-groups of any kind. I would no more give up my Latinness for an absolute assimilation into white culture than I would give up Star Wars for Dostoevsky, or my native Valley Girl-ish Long Beach accent for an NPR-correspondent one. In my ideal universe, I’d be able to speak every language fluently, understand all cultures everywhere.

But obviously I can’t, and Racecraft helps explain why not. There are a lot of things that divide Americans from one another: class, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, language. Race provides some of the thickest, most stubborn walls between us, and despite being discredited as a scientific concept, it is still a sure-fire conversation-stopper. In asserting that race does not exist, the Fieldses do not argue, as many have since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that we are now living in a “post-racial society.” (Indeed, the Fieldses cite Obama not as a symbol of the end of racism but as a kind of living avatar of racecraft: “Even as commentators at the time of Obama’s election claimed to discern the coming of a ‘post-racial’ era, their very harping on Obama as a ‘black president’ reprised an age-old feature of racecraft: the turning of one person of African descent into a synecdoche for all.”) “Whatever the ‘post’ may mean in ‘post-racial,’” the Fieldses write, “it cannot mean that racism belongs to the past”:

Something is afoot that is the business of every citizen who thought that the racist concepts of a century ago were gone — and good riddance! — as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. The continued vitality of those concepts stands as a reminder that, however important a historical watershed the election of an African-American president may be, America’s post-racial era has not been born. Perhaps it can be made if America lets those concepts go. But if they are hard to let go, why is that? What are they made of? How do they work?

That’s what Racecraft provides: a working model of how “race” operates in American society. In their introduction, the Fieldses distinguish between “three different things: race, racism, and racecraft”:

The term race stands for the conception of the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from the members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank. […] Fitting actual humans to any such grid inevitably calls forth the busy repertoire of strange maneuvering that is part of what we call racecraft. […] Racism refers to the theory and practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard.

In other words: if there’s no rational basis for racial discrimination, where does it even come from? It works like this: racecraft, a kind of magical thinking that is ready, even eager, to embrace insane notions from eugenics to the Bell Curve, is everywhere employed to lend credibility to the illusion of something called race. Racecraft fixes the illusion of race in the cultural consciousness as a reality, thereby creating a basis for the many and various oppressions that constitute racism.

The Fieldses then go on to break down how the magical concept of race implicitly provides political and philosophical cover for class oppression, “the need to manage politically the radical redistribution of income toward the well-to-do and the suffocation of public sentiment favorable to civil rights.” The long history of racecraft has produced a whole a host of confused ideas, experiences, and values, all based in a false inequality that has by now become utterly entrenched and institutionalized.

Racecraft methodically constructs an argument that should be self-evident, but isn’t: equality isn’t a matter of noble idealism, but a plain truth. It’s not a utopian dream to be aspired to, but reality always, and reality now. Human beings are already factually equal in everything that matters, down to the molecules of our DNA (which, they remind us, cannot be analyzed to determine the color of a person’s skin). And yet discourse after discourse finds a way to rank us, divide us, and create measurements of status linked to race. What use are these artificial layers of status and privilege, when there are seven billion of us in the exact same condition? Scared, fragile, and — above all — temporary?

In my lifetime, “racism” has generally been taken to mean a form of oppression inflicted by white people of privilege upon the rest of us. But in the Fieldses’ view, racism is a form of oppression created by the illusion of “race,” which is in turn created everywhere, by everyone, through the weird occult science of racecraft (which, as they point out, is every bit as mythical, and powerful, as “witchcraft” was in the Middle Ages). Racecraft is practiced all around us, and by all of us, by those who view themselves as the victims and opponents of racism as surely as by those who are most obviously guilty of it. “Distinct from race and racism,” they write, “racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits […] It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief […] Do not look for racecraft, therefore, only where it might be said to ‘belong.’”

One can be a non- and even antiracist, in other words, and still practice racecraft. “Racecraft operates on both sides of the screen,” the Fieldses insist:

It provides a template for understanding inequality whose taken-for-granted rules are so pervasive that knock-off versions of them move through the echelons. At a high school in a neighborhood where young black men had attacked Mexican immigrants, black students disparaged black classmates from backgrounds poorer than their own. In the same neighborhood, Mexican-Americans who had been born in the United States disparaged classmates born in Mexico. A black sophomore at a high school in the neighborhood apparently felt no stirring of either irony or historical memory when he pulled out of moth balls an old standard of segregationists: “I’ve got nothing against [Mexicans]. They work for my Moms. One even made me breakfast this morning.”

Anybody can point in any direction and see inequality being constructed in real time, in exactly the manner the Fieldses describe above. Here, too, is a useful way to interpret conservative accusations of “reverse racism,” so long bandied about by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. There are conservatives who would nominally agree with the Fieldses that race doesn’t exist, an attitude exemplified by satirist Stephen Colbert’s oft-repeated dictum “I don’t see race.” Bragging that you are “race-blind” to score political points is intrinsically nonsensical, something like saying you are “aura-blind” or “mark-of-the-beast-blind.” But the corollaries that conservatives draw from this idea, by seeking to ignore or deny the long history of racial oppression in America (say, by opposing the Voting Rights Act or affirmative action) are certain to intensify rather than alleviate inequality. If we are to transcend its evils, ignoring the historical practice and effects of racecraft is a wrong-way strategy.

And we are indeed largely going about our altering our “race consciousness” in a counterproductive way. Reading Racecraft, I was irresistibly reminded of the story of The Entryway, a 2010 blog written by the white Los Angeles journalist Devin Browne. In January of that year, Browne arranged to move in with an undocumented Mexican family in MacArthur Park, along with photographer Kara Mears (also white). The fact of the reporters’ whiteness was interestingly jarring in itself, drawing attention to the fact that hardly any white people ventured into MacArthur Park, ever — the first question raised by the Entryway project being, why not?

Browne’s posts were extraordinarily personal and immediate, as were Mears’s beautiful, intimate photographs. This blog embraced culture shock, rather than shying away from it. An early entry examined the fact that Browne’s new housemates, Juan and Maria, had no particular interest in learning English (they weren’t planning on staying in the United States permanently). Browne compared their lack of interest in English to her own father’s attempts to learn Spanish, and to her parents’ efforts to “expose their children to other cultures” in the bourgeois American manner. Another post recounted a night when the police mistook Browne’s house for a neighboring one that had allegedly been harboring gang members. Here she explored the difference between her attitude toward the police and that of her housemates.

Initially, there was a flutter of interest and buzz surrounding Browne and Mears’s project. The following week, however, all hell broke loose. In a blog post titled “Safari in Los Angeles, in a home in MacArthur Park,”  reporter Daniel Hernandez pitched a fit over The Entryway, accusing Browne and Mears of “vanity,” “self-satisfied gloating,” and “voyeurism.” “[I]f independent media workers (or wealthy foundations, or documentary filmmakers) truly care about giving voice to marginalized voices,” he wrote, “they should empower immigrants and poor people to tell their own stories. […] MacArthur Park deserves better. ‘The barrio will have its own voice,’ another friend responds, a young immigration lawyer, and a native of the neighborhood. ‘That’s the only way it can be.’”

In short, there was a right way — indeed an “only way” — and a wrong way to report on MacArthur Park, and Browne and Mears were unfit even to try, according to Hernandez. His remarks set the tone for, and were cited by, a dozen or so similar posts that quickly appeared on websites like Racialicious, CyberFrequencies, and Guanabee, all of them full of accusations of “othering” and “patronizing” and “tourism,” and attracting a hail of comments deploring “elitist sheltered hipster racists.” None of these critics contacted Browne to ask for a comment. This, too, is how racecraft works: not only though the top-down perpetuation of an artificial hierarchical structure, but also through a corresponding denial of good-faith attempts to interrogate that structure from the outside. Any attempt at discussing someone else’s “racial identity” — let alone making the suggestion that “racial identity” doesn’t really exist — is itself almost certain to be attacked as racist.

At the time it seemed to me that all these commenters were missing the point. Browne appeared as a figure in her own story because the schism between herself and her subjects so clearly and honestly reflected the real schism in our city. Perhaps that’s why former MacArthur Park resident Felipe Gonzalez wrote to congratulate her in a long letter that appeared in the 13th post at The Entryway, which included an interesting side observation:

When I lived in that neighborhood, I never thought I would ever talk to a white person or trust a white person. My only recollections of white people in that neighborhood was the white cops that frisked you and mistreated you for no reason. If you were 10 years old or more and something went down in the neighborhood, they just stopped every boy and mistreated them.

This letter demonstrated that Gonzalez, at least, understood Browne’s point perfectly, even if the self-appointed media guardians of MacArthur Park did not.

So here’s what appears to have fueled the outrage from so many bloggers and commenters, long used to viewing the undifferentiated mass of “the voiceless” and “the disenfranchised” through a comfortable lens of liberal detachment that pleasantly blurs the relative disparity in education and ease enjoyed by the reporters who commonly write such stories. Having to face that disparity explicitly, in the inconveniently snow-white middle-class person of Devin Browne, created about a thousand kinds of useful discomfort. The reader was invited to consider his own relationship to our large and disadvantaged undocumented Latino population, and to the privileged, educated class that writes just enough about their condition to enable the rest of us to ignore it.

Another example of how racecraft works in practice is provided by “Mea Culpa,” a piece by Phoenix Tso for the recently launched blog The Toast. In this piece, Tso described her anger at a white stranger who, in passing, said “ni hao” (“hello” in Chinese) to her as she read on a bench in the park. Tso is not Chinese; she was terrifically insulted by this remark, and instinctively replied, “Fuck you.” “Ni hao,” she claimed, was a casually racist remark, though no exact facts as to why she thought so are supplied in the piece (the rest of which details a few other, truly racist remarks made to her at other times, by other people). With respect to being addressed in Chinese, Tso writes, “Some of these attempts really are just someone’s way of ‘saying hello,’ and some other times the intent is malicious.”

Either way, people don’t realize how wearing it is to deal with someone who just seems interested in you because you’re an Asian woman, who can’t look past that fact. It’s worse when it’s a stranger, because you have no other information about them, and no chance to show them that you’re more than just your gender or ethnicity. It’s enough to make anyone defensive and suspicious, when these incidents add up over a lifetime.

Here’s exactly what makes this an example not of racism, in the Fieldses’ terms, but of racecraft: Tso was so conditioned by her anger about the legacy of “incidents [added] up over a lifetime” that she was, by her own admission, entirely robbed of her ability to see this other “ni hao”–saying person as a regular person, a fellow human being. Perhaps also to say to this other, ordinary, quite possibly well-intentioned person, “You nut, I am not Chinese.” Or, alternatively, to ignore him, and just think, “Eh, whatever, I am busy reading.”

So I had a decidedly negative reaction to this piece (very like that of Tso’s friend Luke, whose Facebook comments on Tso’s actions are quoted throughout). For Pete’s sake, I thought exasperatedly, discern the man’s intent before you go yelling “fuck you.” My default position has long been that anyone with enough to eat and a clean, safe place to sleep is already privileged in all the ways that matter most. Each of us walks around with some kind of baggage, so we all have to let some things slide; to make too much of personal slights to oneself is a distraction and impairs your ability to put your shoulder to the wheel. Giving other people the power to disturb your equilibrium to such a degree is not empowerment, it is weakness: thralldom, even, to the good behavior of strangers, an uncertain quantity at best.

But the sad fact is that racecraft is the water we are all swimming in, and Tso’s reaction was simply inescapable for her. People I don’t know speak Spanish to me all the time, and also English, and other languages that I do not know, and always have; these experiences have shaped my own way of responding to such overtures as inevitably as Tso’s experiences have shaped hers. (Which is to say, in my own case, pretty blandly, though as a younger woman I did resort to pretending not to understand unwelcome remarks in the street from time to time.)

Reading Racecraft helped to show me how Tso’s baggage is no less ineluctable than anyone else’s; it is all the result of an ongoing oppression with the authority of centuries behind it that we renew every day, all together. Though Tso’s anger, the echo of a very old anger, also serves to perpetuate the oppression, my own impatience with her wasn’t helping any, either. Nobody here is in the wrong, and yet somehow everyone is.

On the flip side, this analysis throws the klieg lights on our best weapon against racecraft: all our kindness and understanding for one another has a force behind it, too, the powerful result of the kindness and open-mindedness of centuries past. That is a shared mindset that also belongs to everyone, can be practiced by everyone, and conditions us to meet new people as equals while still making an accurate assessment of the costs of historical oppression. Everyone can take some advantage of the ability to be understanding and empathetic. Nobody can do it all the time! But, sometimes, we can.

Granted, this may be harder to do in times like ours, where people are unequal in an objective, economic sense. Beyond the anti-egalitarian suspicion harbored by writers like Hernandez and Tso toward people who attempt cross-racial communication lies a bigger, even more pervasive series of illusions: the individualist, hyper-competitive mindset of modern careerist/consumerist culture. This is a different kind of inequality from that underwritten solely by race, but is intimately related to it, involving concepts like “social mobility” and “elitism.” Maybe the worst effect of racecraft, the key cog in the machinery of American inequality, is its implicit sponsorship of social Darwinism: it provides a quasi-rational undergirding to the purely social idea of a hierarchy, so that there is always one’s “race” or “class” either to transcend, or to live up to. In this way, Americans are tacitly persuaded that they must compete with one another in order to climb some illusory ladder. We are not equal, not the same — that is the fraudulent premise granted at the outset: like it or not, there are always and will always be people “below” us, and people “above,” and it’s our job to “succeed” within that hierarchical framework. This means not only that others must be harmed so that one can rise oneself — we should feel mildly regretful but basically okay about that — but that the self and its “progress” is the center of life.

An institutionalized selfishness, in turn, opens the door for all the in-groups and isms, so that we can feel self-righteous about our narrow, solipsistic concerns: if the self is the center of your world, what the self identifies with and aspires to is king. It won’t matter if we give up our basic decency, swear at a stranger in the park, or write pathetically rude, cruel comments on an internet message board, because our only real responsibility is to ourselves, and to the tribe(s) with which we selfishly and noisily identify. We don’t have to try to understand anyone else, let alone our opponents. Why try to make common cause or even coexist with them? “Those people” don’t count, and they hate us anyway!

In reading the Fieldses’ book, I was recalled to so many scenes in my own life, such a jumbled mixture of impressions seen through this new and truer lens: times when my own children were embarrassed by my Latin background; showing a boyfriend how to salsa dance; friends laughing with delight at my mom’s classic Ricky Ricardo Cuban accent, and teasing her by asking her to say in English, “Sure, I’ll share a chair!”; traveling to Europe the summer after high school and, on a verdant hill near the Alhambra, hearing a group of handsome young people speaking Castilian Spanish for the first time; the sweet girls who’ve been cooking at Yuca’s on Hollywood since back when it was still Casa Diaz. The way all these pieces of one life are caught up in sociopolitical hierarchies that, while one may not believe in them oneself, have implications that can’t simply be wished away.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t understand very clearly that anyone who would try to offend you by saying some daft thing about your ancestry, your coloring, or the language you speak was an ignorant person, a basic saddo, someone to be pitied from as afar as possible. Lately, though, I no longer feel so separate from anyone. Detachment alone can’t actively advance the cause of equality; it has to be tempered with the knowledge that we’re all implicated in how we treat one another, and must therefore engage each person’s convictions freely and in an open spirit, if we are ever to become a “post-racial” society.


Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles–based journalist and author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork.

LARB Contributor

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles–based journalist.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!