Brute Ideology

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2014-12-11 15:55Z by Steven

Brute Ideology

Fall 2014

Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History; Professor of African and African American Studies; Director, Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History
Harvard University

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields. Verso, 2012, 310 pp.

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis. Knopf, 2014, 448 pp.

The field of U.S. history today is characterized by a mania for management. The “new” history of capitalism has focused its attention on the creation and daily reanimation of the grand abstraction from which it draws its title: the mid-level market makers who take capital and transform it into capitalism. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, increasing numbers of historians have turned their attention to the histories of powerful historical actors we have too long ignored or dismissed as “dead white men” unworthy of the attention of the properly progressive historian: financiers, bankers, and businessmen of all kinds. Despite the obvious importance of the task and the avowedly critical purpose of the turn towards the study of the mechanisms of market practice, however, some of the bolder claims that have been used to mark out the novelty of this “new” history seem unwarranted, perhaps even misguided. Can historians really set aside the study of racial and sexual domination now that they have discovered the economic exploitation underlying all other history? Can they really write a better history of capitalism by simply replacing the history of the marginal with the history of the powerful? Amidst the end-of-historiography enthusiasm for the “new” history of capitalism, two recent books remind us of the enduring importance of some of the questions posed by the old history of capitalism: questions of determination, ideology, and hegemony, and of collective action, resistance, and (even) revolutionary social change.

Bringing together previously published and new essays treating U.S. history from the time of the American Revolution to the eve of the Occupy movement in 2011, Racecraft reminds us that, at the very least, the “new” history of capitalism has some very distinguished antecedents. Taken together, the writing of the historian Barbara J. Fields and the sociologist Karen E. Fields (sisters; hereafter “Fields and Fields”) provides a sustained and brilliant exposition of the history and practice of race-marking in America. If race is “socially constructed,” as virtually every educated person in the United States knows it officially to be, then why do we believe we can determine the race of the person on the other end of the line as soon as we pick up the phone?

As the title’s invocation of witchcraft suggests, the book is framed by the idea that there is something occult about such everyday practices of divination. For the authors, race is a kind of magical thinking, a way of isolating a few of the surface features of near-infinite human diversity and over-generalizing them into an architecture of biological, social, and even metaphysical difference. Race thinking, they suggest, is a sort of transubstantiation that adduces essence out of circumstance, made up of turns of phrase and ways of thinking so familiar and yet so powerful as to persistently remake the material world in their own image.

Fields and Fields illustrate and expose this sort of magic through a close reading of the printed matter of our times: newspaper accounts of proudly segregated high-school proms and white supremacists carrying guns to Obama campaign rallies; peer-reviewed articles published in scholarly journals and the bureaucratic memos that established the “multiracial” category in the U.S. census. They juxtapose the “troglodyte racism” of the crypto-Klan birthers to the breathless intonations of historical transcendence (“the end of racism??!!”) common among twenty-first-century white liberals. The main argument of the book is with the latter’s sometimes unwitting, sometimes self-congratulatory engagement with the dark magic of racial difference itself.

Take the “multiracial” moment—the idea that the bad old days of “black” and “white” may finally be giving way to an embrace of “mixture” and “difference.” But wait: “mixture” of what with what? According to Racecraft, the Census Bureau defines a “multiracial” person as “someone with two monoracial parents.” Through the heart of the celebration of the new multiracialism circulates a notion of blood purity worthy of The Birth of a Nation. For Fields and Fields, any invocation of “race” as an explanatory or even descriptive category is in and of itself racist. The use of “race” to explain anything from ancestry to economic inequality unwittingly reinforces the false belief in deep-rooted biological differences between black and white people. “Ancestry,” according to the authors, should be understood as a way that individuals are linked across generations without being thickened into “race.” Heredity, whether responsible for visible traits like curly hair or hidden ones like the sickle cell, is just that and nothing more: “‘genetic’ is not equivalent to ‘racial.’”

If we had only to worry about a mediascape where relevance is measured by the ability to attach ideas to beginnings and endings (the “post-racial” election of the “first black president”) things would be bad enough. “Racecraft,” however, has infiltrated even the hallowed ground of academia. Precisely and compellingly, Fields and Fields demonstrate that scientists use “racial” causes to explain what are in fact social effects. A recent scientific study of high asthma rates among schoolchildren in the South Bronx, for example, concluded that—in addition to heavy traffic, dense population, poor housing, and lack of preventative health care—the neighborhood was characterized by “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with very high rates of asthma.”…

Read the entire review of both books here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s

Posted in History, Law, Louisiana, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2011-04-25 02:36Z by Steven

The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s

Journal of American History
Volume 87, Issue 1
(June 2000)
pages 43-56
DOI: 10.2307/2567914

Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

In January of 1857 Jane Morrison was sold in the slave market in New Orleans. The man who bought her was James White, a longtime New Orleans slave trader, who had recently sold his slave pen and bought land just up the river from New Orleans, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Morrison, apparently, was to be one of his last speculations as a trader or one of his first investments as a planter. Sometime shortly after her sale, however, Morrison ran away. By the time White saw her again, in October 1857, they were in a courtroom in Jefferson Parish where Morrison had filed suit against him. Before it was settled, that suit would be considered by three different juries, be put before the Louisiana Supreme Court twice, and leave a lasting record of the complicated politics of race and slavery in the South of the 1850s. The reason for the stir would have been obvious to anyone who saw Morrison sitting in court that day: the fifteen-year-old girl whom White claimed as his slave had blond hair and blue eyes.

Morrison began her petition to the Third District Court by asking that William Dennison, the Jefferson Parish jailer, be appointed her legal representative and that she be sequestered in the parish prison to keep White from seizing and selling her. In her petition, Morrison asked that she be declared legally free and white and added a request that the court award her ten thousand dollars damages for the wrong that White had done her by holding her as a slave. She based her case on the claim that her real name was Alexina, not Jane, that she was from Arkansas, and that she had “been born free and of white parentage,” or, as she put it in a later affidavit, “that she is of white blood and free and entitled to her freedom and that on view this is manifest.” Essentially, Alexina Morrison claimed that she was white because she looked that way.

In his response, White claimed that he had purchased Morrison (he still called her Jane) from a man named J. A. Halliburton, a resident of Arkansas. White exhibited an unnotarized bill of sale for Morrison (which would have been legal proof of title in Arkansas, but was not in Louisiana) and offered an alternative explanation of how the young woman had made her way into the courtroom that day. Morrison, he alleged, was a runaway slave. Indeed, he said, he had it on good authority that Morrison had been “induced” to run away from him by a group of self-styled “philanthropists” who were “in reality acting the part of abolitionists.” In particular, White blamed Dennison, whom he accused of having used his position to “incourage” Morrison to run away and of having “afterwards harboured her, well knowing that she was a runaway.” White was drawing his terminology from the criminal laws of the state of Louisiana and accusing Dennison and his shadowy “abolitionist” supporters of committing a crime: stealing and harboring his slave.

The record of the contest that followed is largely contained in the transcription that was made of the records from the lower court hearings of the case when the state supreme court considered Morrison v. White for the final time in 1862. As codified in the statutes of the state of Louisiana and generally interpreted by the Louisiana Supreme Court, the legal issues posed by the case were simple enough: If Alexina Morrison could prove she was white, she was entitled to freedom and perhaps to damages; if James White could prove that her mother had been a slave at the time of Morrison’s birth or that Morrison herself had been a slave (and had not been emancipated), he was entitled to her service; if she was not proved to be either white or enslaved, her fate would be decided by the court on the basis of a legal presumption of “mulattoes’” freedom under Louisiana law. Captured in the neat hand of the legal clerk who prepared the record of the lower court hearings of the case, however, are circumstances that were apparently considerably more complicated than the ones envisioned by those who had made the laws.

Testimony from the lower court hearings of Morrison v. White provides a pathway into the complex history of slavery, class, race, and sexuality in the changing South of the 1850s: particularly into slaveholders’ fantasies about their light-skinned and female slaves; the role of performance in the racial identities of both slaves and slaveholders; the ways anxieties about class and capitalist transformation in the South were experienced and expressed as questions about racial identity; the babel of confusion surrounding the racial ideal on which the antebellum social structure was supposedly grounded; the relationship of the law of slavery as made by legislators and appellate judges to its everyday life in the district courtrooms of the antebellum South; and the disruptive effects of one woman’s effort to make her way to freedom through the tangle of ideology that enslaved her body. In the South of the 1850s, Alexina Morrison’s bid for freedom posed a troubling double question: Could slaves become white? And could white people become slaves?

Whiteness and Slavery

By the time Morrison v. White went to trial, Alexina Morrison would claim that her whiteness made her free, but when Morrison and White first met, in the slave market, it might simply have made her more valuable. It is well known that slaveholders favored light-skinned women such as Morrison to serve in their houses and that those light-skinned women sold at a price premium. What is less often realized is that in the slave market apparent differences in skin tone were daily formalized into racial categories—the traders were not only marketing race but also making it. In the slave market, the whiteness that Alexina Morrison would eventually try to turn against her slavery was daily measured, packaged, and sold at a very high price.

The alchemy by which skin tone and slavery were synthesized into race and profit happened so quickly that it has often gone unnoticed. When people such as Morrison were sold, they were generally advertised by the slave traders with a racial category. Ninety percent of the slaves sold in the New Orleans market were described on the Acts of Sale that transferred their ownership with a word describing their lineage in terms of an imagined blood quantum—such as “Negro,” “Griffe,” “Mulatto,” or “Quadroon.” Those words described pasts that were not visible in the slave pens by referring to parents and grandparents who had been left behind with old owners. In using them, however, the traders depended upon something that was visible in the pens, skin color. When buyers described their slave market choices they often made the same move from the visible to the biological. When, for example, they described slaves as “a griff colored boy,” or “not black, nor Mulatto, but what I believe is usually called a griff color, that is a Brownish Black, or a bright Mulatto,” buyers were seeing color, but they were looking for lineage.6 The words the buyers used—griffe, mulatto, quadroon—preserved a constantly shifting tension between the “blackness” favored by those who bought slaves to till their fields, harvest their crops, and renew their labor forces and the “whiteness” desired by those who went to the slave market in search of people to serve their meals, mend their clothes, and embody their fantasies. They sectioned the restless hybridity, the infinite variety of skin tone that was visible all over the South, into imagined degrees of black and white that, once measured, could be priced and sold…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,