How to overcome racism: a hopeful subject

A new book explains how both racism and multiculturalism have been state-led projects. The way out, the authors argue, is to revive a sense of common, purposeful humanity.

James Heartfield

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Race Defaced is an exceptional contribution to the debate about race because it does so much more than most writing on the subject. In a field where moral stances usually get in the way of thinking things through more deeply, Kyriakides and Torres have pulled together a pointedly philosophical reflection on the meaning of race.

Rather than taking for granted the view that racism is abhorrent, Kyriakides and Torres set out a foundation from which the idea of racial difference can be criticised – the standpoint of what they call the ‘hopeful subject’. As they lay out the argument, the naturalisation of racial divisions can only be understood as a kind of falling away from the common standpoint of humanity. Further, they insist it is humanity as a future-oriented, or hopeful, subject that is denied in the reduction of peoples to races. A very readable opening chapter shows how the idea of the subject as author of his own destiny is both alive but also denied in modern history, in the competing and ideologised versions of the Collective Man of Stalinism and the Lockean individual of Cold War liberalism.

Drawing on examples from Britain and America, Kyriakides and Torres explain that ‘whiteness’ as an identity is weak at its core. The claim that the indigenous working class has the same needs and outlook as the ruling class just does not stand up – as the authors show with such cases as Saint Patrick’s Battalion fighting on the Mexican side in the war against America. On the other hand, they argue, movements of the left in the mid-twentieth century, from Stalin’s Communists through Europe’s socialists to America’s New Deal, were all committedly statist, and therefore nationalist, reinforcing the link between indigeneity and reform. Strident nationalism, though, aggravated racial tensions, as governments appealed to nativist sentiments.

In a very useful discussion, Kyriakides and Torres show how official responses to the heightened race conflicts sought to re-cast the problem as one of psychology: racism was a matter of personal and irrational prejudices. Attention quickly moved on from white racists to black reaction, as in the 1959 television documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced. Here, they show, were the foundations of the management of race differences that would later become the complex of state and human-resource policies known as multiculturalism.

Looking at the different ideas of the key thinkers in the field – like Paul Gilroy, Sivanandan, Kenan Malik, David Theo Goldberg and Robert Miles – the later chapters of Race Defaced draw out the limitations and failures of the policy and theory of multiculturalism. They argue that though the explicit claim of multiculturalism is to attend to the harm done by racism, its actual meaning is to reinforce racial (more often reconfigured as cultural) differences. This shift towards difference, they argue, is parallel to a falling away of the general idea of equality, tied to the forward-looking movements of the left.

Kyriakides and Torres are particularly interesting on the question of America’s affirmative action programmes, which (following Kevin Yuill’s excellent book, Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action) they show was never really an anti-racist policy, but one with a conservative intent aimed at managing disorder. Where they go beyond Kenan Malik’s The Meaning of Race, though, is in pointing to a post-national cosmopolitanism that de-couples cultural differences from the project of national reform.

Looking at such examples as the racial profiling of that peculiar category of US policing ‘other than Mexicans’, the police shooting of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, after the London bombings of 2005, and the fallout from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, Kyriakides and Torres show how the reduction of living agents to the facts of social administration is at the heart of today’s confused politics of race.

James Heartfield’s British Workers & the US Civil War is published by Reverspective.

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