A Review of Kenan Malik’s Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics (Hurst Publishers, 2023)
Race remains one of society’s great delusions. It is modern civilisation’s most enduring superstition. Our western societies are officially anti-racist. Progressive legislation has outlawed racial discrimination and liberal social mores have made it taboo to utter racial slurs in mainstream company—yet we remain very much in thrall to racial thinking.
Race is still seen as an ineradicable truth about human existence as basic as the fact that there are two biological sexes, a fundamental reality that society must come to terms with. It’s still understood as common sense that the human species is divided into different races, whose respective group interests are to be balanced by a supposedly neutral liberal state to preserve civic tranquillity. The idea of transcending race altogether and relegating it to the rubbish bin of history is still regarded as fanciful, even utopian.
In debates on immigration, structural inequality and police brutality; in culture war quarrels over such things as cultural appropriation and white privilege, race plays a central role. In everything from objections to Critical Race Theory to efforts to decolonise the curriculum, we see the obsession with race. It has influenced both the emergence of progressive identity politics and the recrudescence of far-right ideologies. The overwhelming preoccupation with race overshadows most contemporary political debate.
Kenan Malik’s fascinating new history of race and racism, Not So Black and White, builds upon his previous books The Meaning of Race, Strange Fruit and From Fatwa to Jihad to provide a valuable intervention in an argument that is often both fraught and infested with thought-terminating clichés and sloganeering. The book provides an account of the development of both classical racism and contemporary identity politics and the connections between the two. It also offers a passionate, unabashed defence of Enlightenment radicalism. Malik starts from the assumption that race is a “social not a natural concept.” Premodern civilisations, who divided up their societies on the bases of tribe, clan, caste and religion, were certainly aware of human phenotypical variety, but they attributed such differences to climate and geography, and did not ascribe them to superiority or inferiority. Indeed, for most of human history, the concept of race, as we understand it, simply did not exist. It only emerged as a distinct idea in modernity.
Most recent political thinkers blame the Enlightenment for the invention of race. But the relationship between Enlightenment thought and racism is more complicated than the usual narrative allows. While it is true, as Malik shows, that thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson held unquestionably prejudiced views of non-Europeans, especially black Africans, and sought “limits on equality,” more radical thinkers like Denis Diderot took the Enlightenment’s universalist ethic more seriously, applied it to all peoples and agitated against injustices like slavery and colonialism.
The beginning of the modern epoch brought about a series of tectonic shifts, both intellectual and social. The authority of custom was dissipating; traditional hierarchies were beginning to be challenged; knowledge was being secularised. More people were using reason to try to explain social phenomena. At the same time, the “discovery” of the New World had made the world more interconnected and exposed more people to more different cultures than ever before. Most importantly of all, nature was demystified—no longer regarded as chaotic and mysterious but ordered and governed by laws and hence subject to reason.
Humans came to be understood as part of the natural order, instead of separate from it. As more and more people began to study the natural world, the efforts to classify humans and understand our place within the natural order increased. One key element of Enlightenment thought is the belief in a common human nature. But this posed a question for the philosophes: if human nature is so uniform, why is there so much variety and diversity among humans across the world? If we are so similar, why do we look so different? Why do some of us have very dark and some very pale skin?
The racial classification system developed by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), Carl Linnaeus (also 1707–1778) and Johann Blumenbach (1752–1840) attempted to answer these questions and bridge the explanatory gap caused by this contrast between underlying human uniformity and human phenotypical diversity. Many of their anthropological theories—such as the idea that darker-skinned people were the result of degeneration from a superior prototype—were laced with Eurocentric assumptions. Yet, they were still predominantly influenced by Enlightenment notions of progress and of the perfectibility of man. For these thinkers, human physical and cultural variations were the result of differences not in kind but in degree. Whatever inequalities might exist between the various races, they believed, could be overcome by social progress and development.
In the nineteenth century, the racial discourse hardened and became more pessimistic, less influenced by Enlightenment egalitarianism. A world of liberté, égalité and fraternité had failed to materialise following the French revolution. The ascendant bourgeois society simply created new divisions as it destroyed old ones and social inequality stubbornly persisted and even worsened despite huge advancements in science and industry. As a result, many thinkers began to ascribe poverty, crime and other social ills to race—as though such phenomena were, like differences in skin colour, natural and hence ineradicable, rather than caused by the way in which society was organised. In Malik’s phrase, race then became the “principal lens through which Western societies viewed social differences.”
The rise and fall of particular ideas is often caused by a shift in the balance of social forces. The preoccupation with race in the west throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflected ruling class concerns about social stability, fear of proletarian unrest, anxieties about dangerous classes of people, the consolidation of nation states and the emergence of high imperialism. Race so saturated western discourse at this time that even some anti-imperialists opposed imperialism on racial grounds. For William Jennings Bryan, for example, “an empire suggests variety in race and diversity in government,” which would weaken America—a view that parallels that of the contemporary far-right, who oppose western interventionism abroad because they see it as a cosmopolitan liberal conspiracy to create demographic boomerang effects through migration.
At no point in history, as Malik adeptly demonstrates, has race been conceived of solely in terms of skin colour—as the history of antisemitism, the Nazi belief that the Slavic peoples were Untermenschen, and the more recent racialisation of Muslims demonstrate. As he puts it, whiteness and blackness were often “defined as much by property, respectability and class as by skin colour.” When the intensified exploitation of workers in Victorian England led to increased poverty and social degradation, for instance, disparities between the middle and working classes began to be interpreted as hereditary.
Malik does an excellent job of explaining the complicated intellectual process through which the eighteenth-century attempts to provide a taxonomy of human variety mutated into the scientific racism that defined the nineteenth century. He shows how Johann Gottfried Herder’s idea of a volksgeist and Franz Boas’ cultural relativism have shaped contemporary identity politics and hardened notions of racial essentialism—even though neither Herder nor Boas foresaw or intended this. He does so with critical nuance and a subtle grasp of the complexity and paradoxes that define the history of race.
The central paradox, as Malik points out, is this: the Enlightenment may have inaugurated modern racial discourse as a way of understanding human differences, yet it also established premises that undermine the idea of race altogether.
The heroes of Malik’s history are the slaves of the Haitian Revolution, the communists who stood by the Scottsboro boys, the striking workers at Grunwick, C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon and W. E. B. Du Bois—people who fought to turn the abstract ideals of the Radical Enlightenment into concrete reality. What distinguishes them from the votaries of identity politics is that, for them, “blackness was not something to be embraced in itself but challenged as a mark of oppression and discrimination.” These people were victims of the west, yet their thinking was also profoundly shaped by western thinking and that enabled them to critique the west using its own hallowed idiom. Moreover, they understood that class was the chief social divide and that the notion of race was usually evoked to legitimise class divisions and foil any attempt at cross-racial proletarian solidarity.
Contemporary anti-racism, sadly, is based on a “struggle not to shape the future but to not forget the past,” as Malik puts it. Its purpose has shifted from “demands for political rights and material improvement to calls for the recognition of identity.” Worse, with its obsession with so-called cultural appropriation and language policing, progressive identity politics imitates the tropes of classic racism in its essentialist conformism. It assumes that your “race” determines what your beliefs and behaviour should be. This is anti-humanist to the core.
The prospects for class struggle are looking dim right now. The declining popularity of materialism, the divorce between the economic and the political and the atrophy of socialist radicalism have led to a situation in which class is often viewed as a cultural identity, rather than a result of economic relationships—so much so the working class is often understood to be “white,” while ethnic minorities are perceived to belong to classless communities defined by their volksgeist. This is yet more evidence of the pernicious pervasiveness of racial thinking.
“The number of subjective definitions of ‘racist’ is almost infinite but the only objective definition of the word is ‘one who believes that there are human races,’” according to Christopher Hitchens. This may sound simple—even a tad superficial—yet it is a radical statement. Once you’ve cleared away the intellectual clutter, this is what it comes down to. As Hitchens argues, “People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with.” Combatting racism with racialised modes of thinking is a fool’s errand. No matter how radical or decolonial this strategic essentialism claims to be, it always ends up bolstering racial superstitions, rather than undermining them. To truly abolish racism requires a solidarity that transcends racial consciousness.
Yet, one cannot transcend race by sheer force of will or by individually opting out. What is required is a politics that can transform society from the roots upwards. As Malik’s book shows, there is a need for a radical alternative to liberalism, a class-oriented movement that can truly fulfil the Enlightenment promise of a society based on freedom, equality and fraternity. Marxism, with its vision of a classless society in which human beings can be masters of their own nature, was a movement of this kind—which is why many of the radical universalists Malik admires were part of that tradition.
But since Marxism is historically dormant and liberalism seems unable to fully transcend race, what can? Malik’s excellent history doesn’t provide an answer to this question, nor does it claim to. But if you want to know how and why the superstitious, antihuman ideology of race has taken hold of society, Not So Black and White is an excellent place to start.