On racial ideology and its sources. Some Excerpts from Barbara Fields

Carrol Cox cbcox at rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu
Sat Jul 4 06:21:32 PDT 1998

These are excerpts from Barbara Jeanne Fields, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America," NLR 181 (May/June 1990), pp. 95-118. (Fields has also written an important book, which I am now reading, *Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century*, Yale, 1985).

The excerpts I include here deal directly with ideology, and they contain embryonically my reasons for holding that a working class movement in the United States will become viable only if its leadership is primarily black, and that that condition depends on the prior and continuing self-organization of blacks, of which the BRC may or may not be a start.

I especially like her contemptuous dismissal of talk of "attitudes."



Ideologies are real, but it does not follow that they are scientifically accurate, or that they provide an analysis of social relations that would make sense to anyone who does not take ritual part in those social relations. Some societies (including colonial New England) have explained troublesome relations between people as witchcraft and possession by the devil. The explanation makes sense to those whose daily lives produce and reproduce witchcraft, nor can any amount of rational "evidence" disprove it. Witchcraft in such a society is as self-evident a natural fact as race is to Richard Cohen of the *Washington Post*. To someone looking in from outside, however, explaining a miscarriage, a crop failure, a sudden illness, or a death by invoking witchcraft would seem absurd, just as explaining slavery by invoking race must seem absurd to anyone who does not ritually produce race day in and day out as Americans do. Ideologies do not need to be plausible, let alone persuasive, to outsiders. They do their job when they help insiders make sense of the things they do and see--ritually, repetitively--on a daily basis.

So much ideology is. Here is what it is not. It is not a material entity, a thing of any sort, that you can hand down like an old garment, pass on like a germ, spread like a rumour, or impose like a code of dress or etiquette. Nor is it a collection of dissociated beliefs--"attitudes" is the favoured jargon among American social scientists and historians they have mesmerizedd--that you can extract from their context and measure by current or retrospective survey researh. (Someday the reification of conduct and demeanour in "attitudes" will seem as quaint and archaic as their reification in bodily "humours"--phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic, sanguine--does now.) Nor is it a Frankenstein's monster that takes on a life of its own.

Ideology is not the same as *propaganda*. Someone who said, "Anti-slavery *ideology* infiltrated the slave quarters through illicit abolitionist newspapers," would be talking rather about propaganda than about ideology. The slaves' anti-slavery ideology could not be smuggled to them in alien newsprint. People deduce and verify their ideology in daily life. The slaves' anti-slavery ideology had to arise from their lives in slavery and from their daily relations with slaveholders and other members of slave society.[35] Frederick Douglass was not propounding a paradox but speaking the simple truth when he said that the first anti-slavery lecture he ever heard was delivered by his master in the course of explaining to his mistress why slaves must not be taught to read. By the same token, slaves who decided at the first shot of the Civil War--or even earlier, with Lincoln's election--that emancipation was finally on the nation's agenda were not responding to prevailing Northern propaganda (which, indeed, promised nothing of the kind at that time). It was their exprience with slaveowners, not least the slaveowners' hysterical equaation of the Republican Party with abolition, that made slaves see Lincoln as the emancipator before he saw himself that way. And, I might add, it was the slaves' acting on that foreknowledge that forced Lincoln to become the emancipator.


{35. The slaves' religion arose in the same way. In an astute and eloquent passage, Donald G. Mathews diagnoses the error of supposing that the slaves should or could have had a "correct" version of Christianity by an outside agency. To argue that way, Mathews correctly insists, presupposes that the slave could "slough off his enslavement, ancestry, traditional ways of viewing the world, and sense of selfhood in order to think the oppressor's thoughts after him. . . .The description of action in which the slave is expected to remain passive while receiving a discrete body of ideas and attitudes which exist apart from social and cultural conditions reveals one of the most mischievous and flawed assumptions which scholars make." *Religion in the Old South*, Chicago, 1967, p. 187.}

pages 110-11


An ideology must be constantly created and verified in social life; if it is not, it dies, even though it may seem to be safely embodied in a form that can be handed down. [37] Many Christians still think of kneeling with folded hands as the appropriate posture for prayer, but few now know why; and the few who do know cannot, even if they choose, mean the same thing by it as was meant by those to whom the posture was part of an ideology still real in everyday social life. The social relations that once gave explicit reality to tht ritual gesture of the vassal's subordination to his lord are now as dead as a mackerel, and so, therefore, is the ideological vocabulary--including the posture of prayer--in which those social relations once lived.

{37. Some people imagine that ideology can indeed be handed down in the form of law. If that were so, then the law could do without courts, lawyers, judges and juries.}

(page 112)


It will not do to suppose that a powerful group captures the hearts and minds of the less powerful, inducing them to "internalize" the ruling ideology (to borrow the spurious adjective-verb in which this artless evasion has so often been couched). To suppose that is to imagine ideology handed down like an old garment, passed on like a germ, spread like a rumour, or imposed like a dress code. Any of these would presuppose that an experience of social relations can be transmitted by the same means, which is impossible.

And yet, power does somehow become authority. A red light, or the upraised palm of a traffic policeman, brings people to stop (at least in places where people tend to obey them) not by the exercise of power--neither a light nor a hand can stop a moving automobile--but by the exercise of authority. Why? Not, surely, because everyone shares a belief, an "attiude," about the sanctity of the law, or holds the same conception of a citizen's duty. Many citizens who would unhesitatingly stop for a red light, even at a deserted intersection at 2:00 a.m., would painstakingly calculate the relative cost and benefit of breaking laws against environmental pollution, insider-trading of securities, or failing to report income to the Internal Revenue Service, and then obey or violate the law according to how the calculation worked out.

(page 113

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