If a Martian social scientist were to visit America, he surely would assume that Black History Month had been concocted by racists. And he’d be right — for a racist qua racist need not bear ill will toward a particular group. What makes someone a racist is the very concept of human groupings, in this case, persons of African ancestry. In other words, what all racists have in common most fundamentally is the scientifically baseless idea that the species homo sapiens is divided into three (or more) segments that differ significantly at the genetic level. Like so many things we “know,” this one ain’t so.
The myth of race is what Barbara Fields and Karen Fields call “racecraft,” and yes, they do mean to analogize it to witchcraft (Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life). What most people, benevolent and malevolent, mean by race could not differ more from what biologists mean by race. As the Fieldses write:
Race in today’s biology is not a traditionally named group of people but a statistically defined population: “the difference in frequency of alleles between populations (contiguous and interbreeding groups) of the same species.” Unlike the units of bio-racism, these populations are not held to be visible to the naked eye [emphasis added], or knowable in advance of disciplined investigation. [Link added. The internal quote is from Anthony Griffiths et al., Introduction to Genetics.]
Racecraft saturates the language of even well-intentioned people, which is why the Fieldses’ book is so damn important.