Ruha Benjamin’s review of Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields’s Racecraft displays Benjamin’s admirable ability to recapitulate others’ work and to distill the nugget pertinent to her own argument. So I am surprised by how Benjamin couches her criticism of the book. Benjamin’s criticism pertains to how Fields and Fields (referred to as “FF”) maintain the existence (and possibility) of science contra “bio-racism” (686). The point of this criticism is to foreground the importance of adopting a science studies perspective to investigate the “institutional and economic structures that normalize and incentivize a return to race as a genetic category” (687). She writes:
“Throughout the text, the binary that FF inadvertently reinforce between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science is misleading and runs counter to a key argument around racial thinking as grounded in rationality. It is precisely the human propensity to form concepts that lends itself to racial abstractions, as they explain, but the authors nevertheless idealize an insulated realm of scientific rationality that is non-racial” (687).
What Benjamin fails to recognize here is that without a distinction between “good” and “bad” science, or between science and ideology, the entire argument against race falls to pieces. This distinction does not “run counter to a key argument” but is essential to it. Fields and Fields do not “inadvertently” maintain a distinction between good and bad science but, on the contrary, they deliberately maintain a distinction between science and ideology. When the authors they read pronounce racist perspectives, Fields and Fields are quick to highlight how such racist pronouncements are made in spite of the scientific work performed by the same person. For example, in their critique of how blood transfusions were organized according to geographically based ancestry, they explain how the evidence used to support such segregation in fact fails to support it. This is a scientific argument because it argues via logic, the concepts of statistical analysis, and evidence. When Fields and Fields point out the lack of a correlation between the trait of sickle-cell anemia and African ancestry, they engage in a cross-examination of concepts. In more general terms, science is a dialectic of reason and evidence, whereas racecraft—the set of ideas and social practices that transforms racism into race—accepts as fact an imaginary correlation between mental concepts and evidence. The logic of racecraft is the transformation of an effect into its cause. “Calling genetic racial simplifies analysis by cutting it off” (54).
Perceiving and ordering the world according to socio-genic concepts is not the same as scientific rationality. I am surprised that a scholar of science and technology studies such as Benjamin would equate all the different kinds of mental production of forms/concepts with such illogical practices as witchcraft and racecraft (maybe I shouldn’t be, given Latour’s position). Fields and Fields do not argue that racecraft, like witchcraft before it, is a form of rationality. Instead, they explain that for people living in those societies, racecraft feels like it makes perfect sense. Hence the metaphor deployed in the first chapter: one must adopt the perspective of an alien (or, in some cases, a person from another country) in order to see through the spontaneous naturalness of racecraft. Nor do Fields and Fields “insulate” science from racism—their examples, including the one about James Watson that Benjamin cites herself in the same passage I excerpted, shows that for the authors science is always open to ideological contamination, that is, to becoming non-scientific. In other words, there is no such thing as bad science: either it is science or it is ideology.
For Fields and Fields: there is the science of genetics along with its conceptually delimited object, the gene, and there is an array of social forces that, counter to the rational exigency of the science, push scientists and their public/non-scientific interlocutors toward unscientific assertions of the biological reality of race.
Consider what, according to Benjamin, the “social scientists studying genomics reveal”: scientists’ investment in “racial terms, in part, to redress scientific and medical neglect of subordinate populations” (687). Or similarly in the same passage: “well respected researchers are employing race as a genetic category in what is otherwise considered ‘good’ work by conventional standards” (687, emphasis added). Fields and Fields would take exception that race is empolyed as a genetic category. Instead, I suspect they would reject such a possibility and maintain the reverse: a scientific concept (the gene) is being represented as a racial category (“blood” as a metaphor for kinship and inheritence). Fields and Fields are explicitly interested in the non sequitur by which science turns into ideology. The point is not to discount the whole of genetics because it is the site of a spontaneous ideology. The point is to draw the line of demarcation between the two.
Benjamin is conflating the scientific and the ideological: on one hand, there is a resurgence of non-scientific interpretation of valid genetic research (tracing inheritence) as racial identity (e.g. the “purely political concoction” of “a multiracial population”); on the other hand, there is the fact that “racecraft permeates genomics as part of a color-conscious anti-racist agenda,” plus the rhetorical strategies for expressing that agenda. And I am baffled that Benjamin would characterize racecraft’s presence in such anti-racism as evidence of scientific findings being used to “undermine racial thinking.” Trying to reframe genetic biology in racial terms is exemplary of racial thinking. What is really happening here is, first, the recognition of certain populations having been oppressed, and those oppressions having been excused by (as well as inclusive of) racial fictions of innate inferiority, followed by, second, a counter-privileging of one of the categories by which the oppressed have been oppressed in an effort to counter that inequality. The Fields sisters would point out that this approach accepts from the start the racist’s underlying belief: that there are different races. (It is no surprise that they recommend Adolph Reed, Jr.)