Dog Days Classics: A Look Back at Barbara Fields’s “Ideology and Race in American History”

Thirty years after its original publication, Barbara Fields’s essay, “Ideology and Race in American History,” remains one of the preeminent academic investigations into the development of race and racial ideology within American history. I was first exposed to Barbara Fields’s work during a graduate seminar at Columbia University on the post-Reconstruction American South. Fields’s analysis of the roots of racial ideology in American society had a profound impact on my own intellectual outlook. In this post, I aim to reexamine Fields’s classic essay, “Ideology and Race in American History,” along with a later piece, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” in order to highlight how her historical framework transformed my own thinking in regards to the function of race within American society. [1] This post is not meant as a comprehensive survey of Fields’s work, something that I could not do in so short a piece; rather, I focus specifically on her examination of the origins of racial ideology in the early years of the American Republic.

Published in 1982, Barbara Fields’s “Ideology and Race in American History” attempted to do for historical inquiry what scholars like Stephen Jay Gould, in his classic book The Mismeasure of Man, were simultaneously achieving within the realm of human genetics. Primarily, to debunk, in Fields’s words, “the assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological” (Ideology, 144). Despite decades of mounting scientific and scholarly evidence, Fields argued, “Americans, including many historians, tend to accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding” (Ideology, 144). In an attempt to counteract such misconceptions, Fields challenged the common presumption by historians that the creation of racial classifications was a natural, reflexive, response of human beings to stark physical differences—the most obvious of which would be skin color. In contrast, Fields asserted that human differences contain in themselves no inherent meanings. Rather, as Fields argued, “Ideas about color, like ideas about anything else, derive their importance, indeed their very definition, from their context” (Ideology, 146). Fields used the example of Portuguese traders’ early engagements with African peoples to show that Europeans were forced to reckon with not only the political supremacy of their African hosts, but also the varied cultures of different local groups. No matter how much they may have maintained some sense of superiority, any attempt by Europeans to label Africans as an inferior homogenous “race” was clearly impossible within the political realities of the time (Ideology, 147-148). In challenging the notion that racial classifications emerged, almost instantaneously, out of the contact between different groups, Fields aimed to show that race had a far more specific historical lineage. “Contact alone was not sufficient to call it [race] into being,” Fields argued, “nor was the enslavement of Africans by Europeans, which lasted for some time before race became its predominant justification.” (Ideology, 152) Rather, American racial ideology emerged at a specific historical moment as a way of legitimating the enslavement of individuals of African descent at a time when traditional explanations were becoming untenable.

According to Fields, race was the product of “bourgeois social relations and the ethos of rationality and science in which these social relations were ideologically reflected” (Ideology, 152). Meaning, that the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment had called into question “natural” forms (such as the notion that the inferiority of other human beings was divinely ordained by God) of “identifying and classifying differences among people.” Race represented an attempt to reassert the innate inferiority of African peoples along “scientific first principles,” which were increasingly becoming the only legitimate basis for ordering human groups (Ideology, 152). Within the context of “English society and its American offspring,” race emerged during the “Age of Revolution” as a way of solving the contradiction between a society that considered itself to be made up of free individuals while simultaneously holding other human beings in bondage. Following the American Revolution, slavery “could be neither taken for granted nor derived from self-evident general principles.” If it was indeed true that “all men were created equal” and that freedom was their natural state of being, than the lack of equality and freedom for some human beings required explanation. Therefore, race offered a means of justifying the enslavement of those of African descent along principles consistent with bourgeois rationality (Ideology, 161). Once African slaves were determined to be racially inferior, the abnegation of their freedom and democratic rights required no further explanation.

Before moving on, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the impact these initial observations had on my own understanding of race in American society. Despite having entered graduate school as a self identified African American historian, I was shocked, after being introduced to Fields’s work, by the fact that I had never put any serious effort into trying to conceptualize race as an analytical unit. Even Fields’s attempt to put race into a historical setting seemed novel to me at the time. As a historian I should have known that race, like all things, must have come into being at some point in the past. And yet, I must admit that I believe I tended to accord race the very “transhistorical” features that Fields criticized. For example, if asked why European traders ultimately chose to enslave Africans, I would have reflexively responded that it surely was a result of their racist attitudes. But then where exactly did their racism originate? Where did it come from? The only conclusion that I ultimately think I could have come to would be that racism was a basic feature of human psychology, a form of prejudice so innate as to be timeless. It was this very misconception that Fields aimed to unravel by placing racial ideology within its correct historical framework. By removing race from the moment of European and African contact, Fields showed that racial classifications were not a natural psychological response of human beings to actual physical differences. Rather, race was created at a distinct historical moment to perform a sort of societal work. Its primary function was to legitimate a system of power and oppression already in place—that of chattel slavery—but with new principles that were consistent with scientific rationality and the natural rights doctrine espoused in the Declaration of Independence.

Fields further examined the historical origins of racial ideology in her later work, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” where she more explicitly laid out the historical processes that gave rise to a new scientifically based concept of race within American society. “Those holding liberty to be inalienable,” Fields explained using the very language of the Declaration of Independence, “and holding Afro-Americans as slaves were bound to end by holding race to be a self-evident truth.” (Slavery, 101) In a short synopsis of the rise of slavery in colonial Virginia, Fields made several critical points that showed that race was neither an explanation for, nor the inevitable outgrowth of, African slavery. First, Fields notes that Virginia’s early development was initially predicated on the labor of indentured servants, many of whom were brutally abused and violently oppressed by their planter overlords. Indeed, the notion that indentured servants’ skin color saved them from the ultimate fate of later imported Africans—the full enslavement of themselves and their posterity—is highly suspect. There was no end to the planter-class’s greed and ambitions. As Fields points out, the historical examples of ancient Greek and Roman slavery, Russian serfdom, and numerous other cases shows that “race” can hardly be an explanation for the domination of other groups. White indentured servants avoided becoming chattel because planters knew that this would limit the continued migration of the British poor. Added to this was the centuries long struggle of the European lower orders, which bought indentured servants some protection against the avarice of the planters. (Slavery 101-105)

Second, drawing from the work of Edmund Morgan, Fields noted that African slavery only emerged in Virginia after the 1660s when life spans had increased enough to make it profitable to purchase a slave for life. Prior to this, it made more sense to import indentured servants, who would likely die before their contracts were completed, than to buy relatively expensive African slaves who would only live a few years. Longer life expectancies, coupled with an increasingly volatile white freedmen population, who rebelled against the colonial authorities in 1676 in response to planter domination of the colonial government, led local elites to view African slaves as a safer alternative to the growing free white yeomen population (Slavery, 101-105). An important point to note is that if European notions of Africans’ racial inferiority ensured their enslavement, as one line of historical reasoning maintains, it is puzzling why American planters did not pursue this option from the beginning. In fact, colonial Americans only turned to African slavery when political and economic forces made it a more desirable to do so.

Finally, Fields highlighted that race and slavery did not develop simultaneously. “[A]n ideology of racial inferiority,” Fields argued, only became necessary following “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” (Slavery, 106). In other words, race was less a creation of American slavery than American democracy. Prior to the American Revolution, slavery needed no racial justification to legitimate its existence. Slavery was endowed with the power of tradition, an institution present in every ancient society, and backed by scriptural authority. Likewise, in a political economy where indentured servitude and other forms of bound labor predominated, slavery was not an anomaly but merely one of many forms of unfree labor. However, this all changed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The rise of a natural rights doctrine espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the simultaneous emergence of a wage labor regime throughout the northern United States made slavery seem an aberration within an otherwise “free” society. As Fields concluded, “Racial ideology supplied the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights; and, more important, a republic in which those doctrines seemed to represent accurately the world in which all but a minority lived. Only when the denial of liberty became an anomaly apparent even to the least observant and reflective members of Euro-American society did ideology systematically explain the anomaly….Race explained why some people could rightly be denied what others took for granted: namely, liberty, supposedly a self-evident gift of nature’s God” (Slavery, 114).

Since my initial introduction to Barbara Fields’s work on race and racial ideology, I have come to approach the topic with a much greater sensitivity in my own work. Like Fields, I have aimed to think of race, or more precisely racism, as an ideological framework for making sense of social relations and systems of power. For example, in my current work on the post-World War II rural South, it has been a primary aim to think about how different racial ideologies function, what ends they are meant to achieve, and how they change over time with transformations within the region’s larger political economy. As many rural areas throughout the South attempted to achieve industrialization in the post-World War II era, they initially found the Jim Crow system, and its corresponding ideology of racial segregation, as a necessity for maintaining the social stability that would insure corporate investment. However, as these very processes helped to give rise to the socially disruptive forces of the modern civil rights movement—leading many corporate firms to question the tranquility of the South as a safe place for investment—rural Southerners often found their understandings about the benefits of racial segregation immediately called into question. As a result, many rural Southerners were forced to reckon with their traditional ideological framework, which maintained that the segregation of supposedly racially inferior African Americans would indirectly benefit their economic interests. On a different level, merely to think of race as a historical creation that was called into being as a part of a societal project undercuts the terrain on which racial ideology supposedly stands. As Fields’s analysis highlights, race did not come into being merely as a result of contact between different groups, nor was there anything “natural” about the classification of human beings into distinct racial categories. As Barbara Fields has argued, human beings chose to believe in race, and as such, human beings can choose to not believe in it.

For more by Keith Orejel, see “The Rural Roots of America’s Cities of Knowledge” and “Why Rick Santorum Won in Iowa: A Historical Perspective.”

            [1] Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 143-177); “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review 181 (May/June 1990): 95-118. For citation in this essay, each article will be cited by its first word, ie. “Ideology” and “Slavery.”