For readers who wonder about the impact, for better or worse, of racial framing and discourse in America, Jacqueline Jones weaves a powerful narrative argument against the construct of race in A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America. Instead of looking at racial epistemology, Jones mines the rich lives of free black men and women, Civil War veterans, activists and entrepreneurs to write about the human impact of race.
"People talk about the social construction of race, but that's a scholarly term. It lacks specificity," Jones says. "The purpose of the book is to make these ideas come to life through the struggles of individuals."
Slave owners, for instance, did not assign stereotypes based on race as much as they exploited the vulnerability of Africans that had been stripped of all their rights in a political system. When Thomas Jefferson joined the concept of race with biological and social hierarchies to perpetuate white privilege during the 18th century, "race and racism became artificial and political ruses to maintain power," Jones says.
She argues that racial rhetoric has obscured important class and ethnic divisions that have contributed to deep stratifications in American society, especially as America continues to attempt to reconcile its sordid racial past with the election of President Barack Obama.
Throughout history, as in the present, Jones says, “I found whites speaking in terms of a zero sum game, as if civil rights are finite and if black people get to vote, it will diminish white people's rights. It's like there are only so many rights to go around. But it is true that white privilege is diminished when black people get rights."
But the fluidity of racial mythologies, in Jones' words, also underscores inherent contradictions to the myth of a social hierarchy based on white superiority. Through the narratives in A Dreadful Deceit, Jones portrays racism’s conflicting storylines. “This myth was that black people were lazy and at the same time, they were also predatory and trying to take white people’s jobs,” Jones says. “Because these internal racial contradictions change over time, that suggests that they're ultimately political strategy as much as anything else.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist.