Presentation given by historian Barbara J. Fields
at a "School" for the Producers of RACE - March 2001

edited transcript

Historian Barbara J. Fields is a professor at Columbia University specializing in southern history and 19th century social history. She is the author of several books, including Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (1985) and Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (1992).

Larry asked me to talk about the emergence of racial ideology in the era of the American Revolution. And I will try to say at least a few words about that if only in self defense before going on to trespass I suppose on ground that has really been set aside for tomorrow and Sunday.

And I say self defense because I am so tired of being cited as having argued in a much cited article in the New Left Review that race is socially constructed. If another person tells me I said that I will go ballistic. The implication that such a truism, which is readily available to a German Shepherd dog or even to a Golden Retriever, would be a conclusion to a scholarly article I suppose for a starting point seems to me very insulting and that is what I tell my students.

We should not any more need to belabor a point like that than Emil Durkheim thought it was worth his time to prove that an Australian aborigine's self-proclaimed identity as a kangaroo emerged out of social process rather than out of nature.

The interesting phenomenon as Durkheim recognized is how a human being's likeness to a kangaroo and thereby to other human beings who are similarly related to the kangaroo, and his difference from a tree louse and thereby his difference from other human beings similarly related to the tree mouse, came to be for the aborigines a self-evident fact. From which emerged the further self-evident fact that such a human being more closely resembled a kangaroo than he resembled a human being who was of the tree mouse clan. That's the same problem that we are dealing with. It is just that we can see it vividly because the kangaroo and the tree mouse seem so exotic. Race is the same sort of thing. To say that you have to look for its source in social process seems to me to be where you would obviously have to begin. Where else are you going to look for it? But to stop with saying that is to stop before you've said anything.

So the point in brief is that freedom did not become possible for Americans of European descent - and I am cribbing as those of you who have read this literature, most of you on the project have, I cribbed from Professor Morgan, I cribbed from David Brion Davis, I cribbed all over the place.

Freedom did not become possible for Americans of European descent until they had established slavery for Americans of African descent, had defined Afro Americans as a race and had identified their innate inferiority as a justification or at least a rationale for enslavement. It was during the era of the American Revolution that that ideology coalesced in the debate between opponents and proponents of slavery, thus it was during that era that the Siamese twins as I call them - American democracy and American racism - were born.

I don't say that racial ideology developed as a justification for slavery because I think that is not right. The view that slavery is so obviously wrong that anybody who practiced slavery would need an elaborate self-justification is a very modern view, because slavery has been a characteristic form of social organization for most of recorded human history. It is only in relative modern times that human beings have seen a need to justify it in the first place. Instead they have for the most part taken it for granted just as people today take for granted the sovereignty of the market without seeing it as something bizarre or indeed as something animistic. There is no need to justify bondage in a society in which everybody stands in the relationship of inherited subordination to someone else: servant to master, serf to nobleman, vassal to overlord, overlord to kings, and king to king of kings.

It required, I argue, extraordinary circumstances to make people think that slavery called for any rationale beyond the common sense. And so it was the prevalence of freedom rather than the fact of slavery that created the extraordinary situation calling for the extraordinary invention that American racial ideology represents. English people might find Africans and their descendants to be heathen in religion, outlandish in nationality, and weird in appearance but that did not become a ideology of racial inferiority until one further ingredient became part of the mixture, and that was the incorporation of Africans and their descendants into a polity and society in which they lacked rights that others not only took for granted, but claimed as a matter of self-evident natural law. That is why the slave society of the United States was the only one in the hemisphere that developed a systematic pro-slavery doctrine. You don't find that anywhere else. Bondage does not need justifying as long as it seems to be the natural order of things. You need a radical affirmation of bondage only where you have a radical affirmation of freedom.

Brazil, which is the closest relative of the United States in terms of creating a slave society, as opposed to a collection of slave plantations that were overseas investments of absentee owners, did not develop as the United States did, a systematic ideological pro-slavery rationale. And by the same token Brazilian abolitionists offered pragmatic arguments against slavery, arguments from political economy, raison d'etre rather than making high-minded deductions from first principles or deriving their stance from higher law of notions, etc. Czarist Russia had no systematic rationale for serfdom, a form of bondage that embraced a majority of the population. In Russia and Brazil there was no call for a radical justification of bondage because there was nothing in day-to-day life to support a radical affirmation of freedom.

Colonial Americans did not develop a systematic rationale for bondage either. Because as long as numerous people of European descent were bound by legal servitude, freedom was not something to be taken for granted as the natural order of things. The Anglican catechism used to include language in which persons seeking confirmation promised to do my duty in that station of life unto which it has pleased God to call me. When people take it for granted that God has ordained subordination then that's generally enough. Special justification for bondage is needed when freedom is widely seen as something to be assumed as part of the natural order. The "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal" kind of summary that is not simply a formula of words but actually represents something that people living around them could see as a more or less normal fact of everyday life. In other words, the everyday world encouraged Americans of European descent to define freedom as a self-evident natural right, to which persons of African descent were an anomalous exception. The same everyday world called for a rationale equally self evident and equally natural to account for that exception. People holding liberty to be unalienable at the same time that they were holding Afro Americans as slaves, were bound to end up by holding race to be a self-evident truth.

Some years ago there was a virtual cottage industry of tracing Europeans' supposed racial attitudes back to the most remote historical past - sometimes it seemed virtually back to Mount Ararat, if not to the Garden of Eden. So the extent that such exercises are intended to account for racism as an ideology, they all come to grief on the fact that American racial ideology is unique among the world slave societies, including those of the Anglo Caribbean, whose rulers one would think were heirs to the same attitude as their counterpart in the British North American Colonies. Indeed I recommend, I said this to Larry, I said it earlier today and will say it again, I recommend frequent recourse to the world outside the United States, as the best solvent and astringent for the sort of nonsense that Americans are very apt to take for granted because that's our world, that's the fabric of our world.

For example, every time I read linguists' learned discussions of something that with a straight face they call black English, complete with structural analyses of the African languages that are thought to assert such a powerful continuing influence over Afro American speech, I want to shake them and ask them why is there no such thing as black French or black Spanish or black Portuguese. For that matter why there isn't even black English among the children of Afro Caribbean migrants in England - these are the children of parents who actually speak Creole language that if you are not familiar with you might not even understand it. In one generation they are speaking English with the accent of their class and their region. There's no black English. As soon as we confront that fact then we have to confront things that have to do with continuing history of our country. And in particular to the overwhelming social influence of segregation that set it apart from other New World societies.

That was a digression: Once people stop believing that God either assigns human beings their social status, or that God has created everybody equal and endowed everyone with an inalienable natural right to liberty then society needs, what I call intellectual heavy artillery, to accomplish subordination and enslavement. The heavy artillery, in a word, of science. That is why biology doesn't have to be a kind that you would engage in carefully in a laboratory or even in a library. But the rough and ready kind is good enough and indeed that is the kind that gives birth to the more elaborate type. That is why the notion of innate biological incapacity came in by way of the doctrine of racial inferiority. To account for why some people are exceptions to the universality of natural rights. And that ideology was part of a defensive rationale for slavery - slavery as a necessary evil.

And for the social apparatus of racism including segregation and exclusion from citizenship, that the free states of the United States largely pioneered. Scientific racism, that is racial ideology dressed up in the garb of science, found its natural habitat in the free society of the northern United States where both slavery and the presence of Afro Americans increasingly by the era of the revolution were becoming minor exceptions. I emphasize that race was part of the defensive rationale of slavery because when slavery acquired an affirmative as opposed to a defensive rationale - slavery as a positive good rather than as a necessary evil - race did not provide the rationale for it.

But racism was manifested and woven into the fabric of southern society. It was not the primary ideological rationale for slavery. In the mature slave society of the old South, where slavery was not a minor or anomalous exception but rather was the central organizing principle of society as a whole, which allocated social space not just to slave holders and slaves, but to the free black population and to the non slave-holding white majority as well, which determined relations, in other words not just between black and white, but between upper class and lower class, between parents and children, between men and women.

Nor was inequality in mature slave society a necessary evil to be tolerated only in the instances of uncivilized Negroes. As I have said, it governed all sorts of hierarchical relations, providing a template for them. As far as slave-holding southerners were concerned, inequality was ordained by God, and for them God was heavier artillery than science. The heyday of scientific racism (as of scientific sexism for that matter) in the American south was not during slavery but after emancipation. Just as systematic legal segregation and lynching as a legal ritual applied more to Afro Americans than anybody else, are all post-slavery.

Americans of European descent invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery. But Americans of African descent did not need the detour and therefore they did not invent themselves as a race. I say that because there's a lot of scholarship now - because of the silly idea of attributing agency all around - that tries to make the people, the very people who are the victims of race, collaborators in the devising of it. There are two ways that you could resolve a contradiction between the natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery. One of them is to explain why some people are exceptions to the rule. The other is to call for slavery to be abolished.

Petitions by slaves of the revolutionary era, asking for their freedom, make it clear that the slaves understood natural rights to extend to them as well as to Americans of European descent. They understood the reason for their enslavement as Frederick Douglass was later to put it, `to be not color but crime, not God but man' - and so they did not take the detour through race. You will search the historical record in vain for evidence that Afro Americans contributed to the voluminous 18th and 19th century literature purporting to prove their innate biological inferiority and to justify their enslavement on the basis of it.

Terminology is apt to fool us on this point, as is the current fad of turning relations of power into encounters and negotiations in which the victim shares agency with the victimized. Because everybody uses a vocabulary that we now regard as familiarly racial, it does not follow that everybody means the same thing by it. When Euro Americans spoke of Afro Americans as a race - they implied an innate biological difference and indeed inferiority, but when Afro Americans used the same vocabulary they were speaking of something closer to what we mean when we say `nation'. Not Nation state but nation. The Ojibwa or the Cherokee may think of themselves as a Nation or the Palestinian too - that holds for much of modern history. Two letters written by Afro American soldiers during the Civil War era illustrate what I mean. One of them refers to Afro Americans as `the poor nation of color' and the other uses the phrase `we poor nation of a colored race.' To us those are contradictory terms; to them, they are the same.

Larry asked me to suggest documents that you might use by way of illustration. For reasons of time I am not going to explicate the one I would suggest at length, although you might talk more about it in the discussion, but I canot think of a better document to use than Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the state of Virginia. Which shows you the impulse to arrive at a scientific rationale for a fundamental raison d'etre and shows you the difficulties that Jefferson tangles himself up in, in trying to do that. You also have the nice juxtaposition of the Negro and the Indian in Notes, illustrating by the way, why I think it would be a mistake to try to assimilate the two problems together under the rubric of race.

The fact that Jefferson brings up the Indians in response to a query in Notes on the State of Virginia dealing with the natural floral and fauna, of the country, while the Negroes come up in a query about that fundamental aspect of civilization loss, tells you that slavery for Jefferson is part of the civilizing apparatus, while the Indians are part of the nature that however admirable - and Jefferson presents it as admirable - requires civilizing. And then the contradiction between what he says and the query on laws about Negroes. Then he turns around and says in query 18 on manners, they're virtually flat contradictions, and he doesn't deal with the contradiction at all. And I think that has something to do with Jefferson's problem, which is not a problem about how I think about this group of people and that group of people but what I think is a viable basis on which to build my country. Anyway we can talk more about that.

Because with what remains of my time I want to do some trespassing in case I don't get to do this tomorrow and Sunday. I don't need to tell you that you have a challenge to deal with all the complexities of the subject, complexities that would be hard enough to deal with in a written form and are even more difficult to set forth in visual terms. The greatest challenge I think is to do justice to the importance of the subject without lending respectability to the concept.

Race is all the rage these days - just look at the ballyhoo that went along with the multiracial option on the 2000 census. And people who would be aghast at the suggestion that they are soft on racism, are nonetheless busy trying to provide race with a morally respectable basis. And morally respectable content. It reminds me very much of the humanitarian movement for reform of slavery in the early 19th century. A reform whose object was not to abolish slavery, but to shore up its weaknesses and insulate it against criticism so that it would be fit to last forever.

The humanitarian reformers of race today shore up race by means of devices that while perhaps disinfecting it of its pole cat odor, preserve it as a concept that occupies exactly the same social space as before, and fulfills the same purpose - thus the reformers redefine it as diversity, or more insidiously as culture or as identity. And they dress it up in the entirely specious symmetry of multiracialism and whiteness. Concepts that by converting race into racial identity and thereby managing to attribute one to everybody, evade the key fact about racism in its American form, which is its irreducible asymmetry. The very rule of ascription of race that we continue to use even today illustrates the asymmetry - the one-drop rule for any known ancestry rule does not assign each person to a race. Instead, it separates the people who are black or whatever you want to call them, from those who are not. That is how the rule works. One drop of blood could identify a person as anything other than black then one drop of blood would not work to identify a person as black.

We had a recent example of this in the decision of the Seminole nation - apparently backed by the Federal government to distinguish between blood Seminoles and black Seminoles. And that preposterous terminology, that's the smoking gun right there, to exclude black Seminoles from compensation for land stolen during and after the Seminole wars of the 19th century. Even in the multiracial dystopia and that is what I think it is, that well meaning fools are preparing for us, the census bureau can nevertheless report how many black people consider themselves to be multi racial. And how many white people can, that tells you exactly what those categories are doing.

Culture, identity, diversity, racialization, multiracialism, whiteness, to me those concepts are the most resourceful adversaries that you are going to face introducing this film because they're the concepts that give people a way of understanding race as having some other paternity of racism. Racism, the assignment of people to an inferior category and the determination of their social, economic, civic and human standing on the basis of that assignment on several fundamental instincts of American academic professionals, especially the ones who consider themselves to be liberal or left. Because racism is an act of peremptory, hostile, and supremely consequential, indeed sometimes fatally consequential, identification that unceremoniously overrides the object's sense of themselves.

Racism thus unseats two beloved but in my view, incoherent concepts - identity and agency. If identity means sense of self, then agency means anything beyond conscious goal-directed activity however trivial or ineffectual. Because the targets of racism do not make racism. E.B. Thompson got us all talking about how the working class made itself. The targets of racism do not make racism, they are not free to negotiate it. They may challenge it or its perpetrators, they may try to navigate the obstacles it places in their way, but they don't have agency in that sense.

Even as racism exposes the hollowness of agency and identity it violates the two sides to every story expectation of symmetry that Americans are so attached to. There is no voluntary affirmative side to it - and it has no respect for symmetry at all, as the one-drop rule illustrates. Which is why scholars today are much happier speaking about race than they are racism. Race is a homier and more tractable notion than racism. It's a rogue elephant that has been gelded and tamed into a pliant beast of burden.

Substituted for racism, race transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object. And because race denotes a state of mind, feeling or being, rather than a program or pattern of action, it radiates a semantic and grammatical ambiguity that helps to restore an appearance of symmetry, especially with the help of some sort of concept such as whiteness that imperceptibly moves the pea from race to racial identity. Whiteness, and I think this is going to be even if you never use that word it's going to be out there in the audience that you reach with this film - it operates by a series of displacements. First it substitutes race for racism. Then it postulates identity as the social substance of race. And finally it attributes racial identity to persons of European descent and indeed other persons of non-European and non-African descent. By these maneuvers it is possible to reinstate, at least it would appear to reinstate agency and identity.

Whiteness and just ordinary white people with agency even if only agency in doing evil, and furthermore by equating race with identity and attributing it to white persons, whiteness seems to banish the asymmetry that is so troubling but that is also the essence of racism. The vagueness of the concept and its ability to cross back and forth across the border between individual and collective, between subjective and objective and between optional and compulsory have tempted scholars to collapse racism, which is a forcible and authoritative assignment of race from outside, into racial identity. Once racism - having passed through what I call a buffer zone of whiteness - crosses the border into identity and volunteerism it returns to a starting point with an alias. Which is race and a new passport. The blurred photograph seems to show a neutral face and the impostor goes surrounded by the benevolent trappings of agency. What is actually a brand becomes an identity and those who wear the brand become agents of its burning into their own flesh. This is a quotation from a recently well-regarded historical scholar. `Race as an embodied category of difference and a constructed aspect of identity is not imposed by one group upon another. It is a product of an ongoing dialogue. Racial identifications function as tools above domination and resistance.' This is what I call gelding and taming the rogue elephant. So that once the domestication is complete, those to whom race has been attached as a stigma instead appear as its willing coauthors and the coauthorship has been popularized as an act of resistance.

Travelling under this alias, let me just say one more thing of race or racial identity. Race, racism remains nevertheless despotic. Since it remains racism whatever the name on its passport may say, it forbids its objects to be anything other than members of a race. When the New York Times reported on, I am sorry our reporter has left, he's not the one, but he can tell his colleagues when a New York Times reporter refers to Anglo blacks and Hispanics, it is not through ignorance that persons of African descent speak both English and Spanish, but because once people are known to have African ancestry no other characteristic is admissible as a public identification of them. Nor can persons of African descent escape the consequences of the imposed identification by assertion or manipulation of the sense of self. That is their identity. There is an inevitable conflict between identification and identity. New York City police officers, having identified an African immigrant as a black man, killed him on the spot and I might say he could have been a black police officer. That is what you would call `mistaken identity.'

Keeping the distinction between race and racism in mind is vital. If you were making a film about the Salem witch trials you would not waste your time evaluating the factual status of the courts about familiars and broomsticks and midnight meetings with Satan - instead you would probe the social world that terms those spectral imaginings into social facts and armed those which imagine them with the authority to accuse, try and execute their neighbors. If you were making a film about the Nazis murder of European Jewry you would not waste your time investigating the habits or characteristics of Jews or weighing evidence of a world of Jewish conspiracy - just as communion with the devil does not account for witch hunts and Jewishness does not account for the Holocaust, so race does not account for racism.

And the danger - I will foreshorten the rest of what I have to say - the danger of confusing the two is that you put the accent on the wrong syllable. You end up focusing on a trait of the object of action and the perpetrator of the action then escapes scot-free. That's in the shadows when you're dealing with race - any number of characteristics that you define however you want to define them - and not with the social apparatus and its reasons for putting the person in that situation. Moreover, and I know this is an even harder point to make and I can tell that by the earlier discussion, to try to collect the experience of everybody of every American of non-European origin into a single story line, is to falsify the experience of all of them. Because they are not all the same story. They don't all work the same way.

And I know that is a hard one to get our minds around, because we've all been bombarded with multiculturalism and now multiacialism, but I think it's a trap. And you can't have multiracial unless you can have multiracism. And I don't think that you can solve one problem by compounding it, spreading it around. And racism does not become an attractive thing, once you define 5 or 6 different groups of people instead of one.


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