Can humanity transcend racial divisions? It might seem like a quixotic venture, given how pervasive race-related thinking still is in society. Not a day goes by without a race-related controversy flaring up somewhere. Ideas about race are a key battlefront in today’s so-called culture wars. And yet there is not even general agreement on what race means. Although most people are unable to explain clearly what they think races are, they have an intuitive sense of what they mean by racism: most decent people abhor genocide and ethnic cleansing, support laws against racial discrimination and hate crimes, have no problem with interracial relationships, believe that national identity can co-exist with multiracialism—and regard calling someone racist as one of the most damning accusations possible.
Being against racism is a creed of our liberal, multicultural society. And yet, ideas about race still shape our lives. We continue to categorise human beings according to their so-called race, labelling them white, black, Jewish, etc. We continue to talk about culture and history in terms of race (black history, black culture, Asian values etc.) The term Muslim has come to be seen, erroneously, as referring to a race, though, in fact, it is a religious identity.
Race seems to be an ineradicable fact of life, like biological sex differences, that society has to somehow come to terms with. The idea of race dominates much contemporary political debate, including debates about immigration, about the place of Critical Race Theory in the classroom, about efforts to decolonise the curriculum, about taking the knee as a protest against racism, about the Muslim question in Europe and about the recrudescence of far-right ideologies. Thoughts about race are ubiquitous on both left and right. You can’t avoid the subject. It began to saturate public discourse in western societies in 2016 (when the UK voted for Brexit and Trump was elected president in the US) and reached flood proportions after the widely publicised murder of George Floyd in 2020.
It is therefore refreshing to read Christine Louis Dit-Sully’s sharp polemic, Transcending Racial Divisions: Will You Stand By Me?. The book is a well-written, impressive analysis of contemporary racial thinking and identity politics and of their historical precedents. It is also a humanist critique of identity-based anti-racism, a movement which, instead of challenging racial thinking, has emphasised it and abandoned the goal of eliminating racial divisions.
Sully, a self-described woman of colour, grew up in a Paris suburb as a member of a family that had immigrated to France. She writes that, for her, questions about race and racism are both a “political and a personal concern.” She relates that she used to believe that race was becoming less of an issue in western countries due to decades of social liberalisation, and that society was beginning to see her, not as a black woman, but as a “specific individual with my own good and bad sides.” However, in recent years, she has begun to fear that progress toward this goal has suffered a reversal with the rise of identity politics, which racialises all aspects of human existence. She now feels that she is right back in the straitjacket of being seen as a black woman, whose “opinions and beliefs are apparently determined by her race.”
Dit-Sully describes how identity politics has become so dominant that even self-described opponents find themselves conceding some of its premises. As an example, she points to the furore that ensued after Serena Williams was caricatured in the Sydney Morning Herald in September 2018. Although this was clearly a racist caricature, based on vintage cultural tropes about the angry black woman, Williams suggested that the basis for her belief that the caricature was racist was her personal emotional reaction to it, rather than an objective analysis of the tropes it uses. The lesson Dit-Sully draws from this is that the prevailing debate today isn’t between those who support identity politics and those who oppose it. Rather, as she puts it, “the fight is between groups of people” all of whom “have divided the world into different, competing identities.”
Sully’s core argument is that the idea of race is a product of history rather than a permanent feature of human nature, and that it was not invented by white devils or by the ruling class but instead “developed within specific historical, intellectual, social and economic circumstances.” She explains that race as we understand it now would have been an utterly alien concept in antiquity. While the ancients were aware of human phenotypical differences, they attributed those differences to geography and climate, “with no notion of superiority or inferiority due to skin colour.” In ancient Greece, for example, people were judged not by their race but by whether they were citizens: a privilege reserved for a minority and not extended to women or slaves, who were excluded from the public sphere. And in medieval Europe, people categorised and ranked themselves according to their religions, not their races. It was only in the late fifteenth century that the precursors of consciousness about race started to emerge. Spanish Catholics wished to preserve what they saw as the purity of the Christian lineage by excluding people of Jewish or Muslim ancestry, by enacting so-called blood purity laws. Still, strictly speaking, blood purity was “not a biological notion, but a religious, genealogical one.”
According to Sully, “for the idea of race to finally develop … the classical Greco-Roman political view of members of society and the Judeo-Christian idea of the faith community had to be replaced by a new and purely biological idea: that of natural Man.” During the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, humans came to be seen as part of the natural order, rather than outside of it; natural philosophers and scientists began to organise and classify aspects of the natural world, and the question arose, Where is humanity’s place in nature? How do we classify and categorise humans?
Sully explains that the attempt to divide humans into differing biological groups—in the same way that one would classify different kinds of plants and animals—emerged fully only in the eighteenth century, with thinkers like Johann Blumenbach, who classified humans into five races, and chose the label Caucasian for white Europeans. Along with Georges-Louis Leclerc (Comte de Buffon) and Carl Linnaeus, Blumenbach promoted the theory of monogenesis, which held that all humans were descended from a single common ancestor, rejecting polygenesis, the idea that different races originated from different ancestors.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, ideas about race were still influenced by the Enlightenment belief in progress, in the perfectibility of humans, and in the idea that any differences and inequalities that might exist between the races could be healed by social progress and enlightenment.
In the mid to late nineteenth century, however, the Enlightenment’s egalitarian and universalist attitude began to have less influence on discussions about race. Thinkers such as Count Gorbineau argued that there were racial differences that were permanent and unalterable, and that these different races could be organised into a hierarchy and ranked according to their relative superiority or inferiority. Although discussions of race became somewhat less pessimistic with the abolition of slavery and the political emancipation of European Jews, racial ideology persisted. There was aggressive volkish nationalism, imperialism (European empires competed with each other to determine which of them would subjugate what they saw as the inferior races), and racial antisemitism (whereby people were labelled Jews in the blood based on their ancestry, regardless of whether they were personally affiliated with Judaism). From the 1850s to well into the 1950s, ideas about race dominated the western intellectual and social mentalité. Racism developed into a coherent ideology and achieved a veneer of scientific respectability. The idea of race helped give western ruling classes a sense of superiority and moral authority, which was institutionalised through selective immigration policies and, in the US, laws enforcing racial segregation.
Sully makes a persuasive case that the idea of race developed as a reaction against the Enlightenment ideals of universalism and egalitarianism. Both the Enlightenment and the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries provided people with a new lexicon with which to talk about freedom and equality, and this undermined previous notions that God or nature had arranged humans into a hierarchy and accorded them different degrees of privilege. But the ascendant capitalist society created new divisions and hierarchies that seemed as permanent as the old ones had once seemed. This led people to pessimistically accept unequal treatment of races as natural and unalterable. The idea of race became entrenched as a means to justify these inequalities. Social ills such as poverty and crime could be explained as rooted in biological race, rather than in how society is organised. As Kenan Malik has noted, the idea of race “was the product of the persistence of differences of rank, class and people in a society that had a deep-seated belief in the concept of equality.”
After World War II, in the midst of a shattered Europe, scientific racism lost moral credibility because of its association with Nazism, which had taken its ideas to what some saw as their logical conclusion, with genocidal consequences. The early twentieth-century anthropologist Franz Boas promoted the idea of cultural relativism, which was intended as an antidote to scientific racism and an alternative, more egalitarian way to explain human diversity. On this theory, humans are not divided into biological races, but into cultures that are bequeathed to them by their ancestors, and that provide spiritual sustenance and shape their destinies and worldviews. However, Sully argues that, while racial and cultural essentialism are different from each other in some respects, they are both equally reactionary, because they both force humans to identify with a specific Kultur, diminish the roles of human reason and individual agency, “cement the status quo and deny the possibility of social transformation.” Cultural essentialism is what undergirds today’s complaints about cultural appropriation, multicultural communitarianism and immigration policies.
Sully argues that what has today come to be called identity politics is not a form of politics, but merely the “politicisation of personal and cultural identities that enter the political realm in order to advocate for narrow, sectional interests.” By implying that our ideas are “determined by our narrow identities,” she says, identity politics “degrade” the classical notion of citizenship, which envisions people from different backgrounds coming together and working to persuade each other of the rightness of their views.
Sully notes that identity politics was not invented by mid-to-late-twentieth-century progressive leftists, but by much earlier counter-Enlightenment thinkers, as a reaction against the universalism epitomised by the American and French revolutions. For example, the late-eighteenth-century counter-Enlightenment thinker Joseph De Maistre, an ardent apologist for throne and altar, found the idea of universal man absurd: “There is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world,” he wrote. “In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on … But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.” Sully points to these historical ideas about race and national character as examples of politicised identities that are based on the “notion of sameness” and are considered to be “an essential part of an individual, defining his behaviour and mental characteristics.” And she points out that, regardless of how identities are defined, a belief in essentialist identities leads to conformism, because it ignores people’s individual identities.
According to Sully, identity politics is most useful to those who wish to preserve the status quo because it “obscures the foundation of the capitalist system that is responsible for inequality and exploitation.” She regards today’s identity-based anti-racism as a fool’s errand because “challenging racism using politicised identities does not challenge racial thinking,” but “promotes racial thinking as a progressive step.” Today’s anti-racist activists seem to believe that the way to address what they see as white privilege is to racialise white people, rather than to challenge the very idea of using race to understand and categorise humans. This position is fundamentally reactionary.
The idea of race is also deeply anti-humanist; it is one of the most inhumane ideas ever created. The belief that your so-called race determines or predicts your beliefs, ideas and behaviours is perniciously fatalistic. It robs people of their agency and dignity. Sully’s book is an effective rebuttal to claims that the Enlightenment was racist or that all politics is identity politics. It is a passionate cri de cœur advocating a politics based on humanism, universalism, individual agency and the use of reason to alter the human condition. The racial divisions that still plague the human species aren’t natural or eternal; they are human-made. Therefore, they can be unmade by humans—but only, as Sully writes, by fighting “for freedom, for a freer society, where we all refuse the destructive domination of race, ethnicity and culture over our decisions and actions.”