How identity politics has revived racial thinking

Kenan Malik's Not So Black and White explores the development of a reactionary idea.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Books Identity Politics Politics UK

Kenan Malik’s new book, Not So Black and White: A History of Race From White Supremacy to Identity Politics, lives up to its title. It dispenses with simplistic views of racism as a matter of privileged whites lording it over people of colour and gets to grips with its complex history.

Malik, a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, focuses on two key themes. First, the history of the concept of race, where he argues convincingly that race only emerged as an idea in the 18th century. Malik also counters the widespread assumption that race has always been understood in terms of skin colour. As he points out, there were times when the working class was also viewed as a race apart.

Second, Malik focuses on the politics of identity, rightly arguing that classifying people according to race was the original form of identity politics. Malik reminds us that, although identity politics is often seen as a radical force today, it actually expresses old reactionary ideas about social divisions between people.

Not So Black and White can be seen as a necessary reworking of Malik’s 1996 book, The Meaning of Race. There Malik also explored the history of the concept of race, before mounting a critique of the then contemporary discourse of cultural difference. But things have moved on significantly since then. Few had heard of ‘critical race theory’, ‘white privilege’ and the pursuit of ‘equity’ in the 1990s. Now they are thoroughly mainstream.

To his credit, Malik also includes anti-Semitism in his analysis, which was absent from The Meaning of Race. He argues that critical race theory, with its focus on white privilege, tends to be blind to anti-Semitism as a particular form of racism. From this identitarian perspective, Jews are cast as exemplars of white privilege rather than the victims of a particular form of racism.

Malik takes Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about the Holocaust last year as an example of where this blindness to anti-Semitism can lead. The Hollywood actress notoriously suggested that the Nazi murder of six million Jews was essentially an example of white people fighting among themselves. She refused to recognise that the Jews were specifically targeted, or that the Holocaust needs to be understood in the context of racial thinking.

Malik’s analysis of anti-Semitism allows him to examine its relationship to racial thinking more generally. He also teases out its complex connection to anti-black racism. He explains that, although the Holocaust was a uniquely terrible episode in history, it did not emerge out of nothing. Racialist ideologies, often linked to practices of colonialism, helped provide the basis for the Final Solution. For instance, both the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws regarding Jewish ancestry and the United States’ ‘one drop rule’ regarding African-American ancestry sought to classify citizens according to notions of racial purity.

The strongest part of Malik’s book is the historical analysis. He argues that, paradoxically, the idea of race could only emerge once the notion of equality as an ideal had been accepted. In pre-modern times, it was generally assumed that society was inherently hierarchical – inequality was viewed as a natural state of being. The promotion of egalitarian ideals during the Enlightenment overturned these assumptions. This egalitarianism is perhaps best summed up by the words of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, announcing that ‘all men are created equal’.

The problem was that America did not live up to its ideals. In practice, ‘all men’ meant all propertied white men – only they had the right to vote at the start of the electoral franchise. So, in the US and in Europe, too, the idea of race became a way of rationalising these inequalities. It allowed elites to justify the exclusion and subordination of certain people on the grounds that they were part of a supposedly naturally inferior race.

‘Colourblindness’, advocated by the likes of Martin Luther King, emerged to challenge racial thinking. Anti-racist movements insisted that Western societies live up to the ideal of equality. They argued that racial discrimination was a betrayal of the promise that all men are born equal.

Less well known is how the Enlightenment ideal of equality relates to the Jewish question – that is, the political and legal status of Jews as a minority within society. It was only in the late 18th century that European Jews started to gain equal citizenship rights, most notably in post-revolutionary France where, in 1791, Jewish equality became law. The French republic then spread this idea of Jewish equality across large parts of Western and Central Europe during the Napoleonic wars of 1799-1815.

However, as Malik shows in a particularly strong chapter, the drive towards Jewish emancipation (as the granting of citizenship rights to Jews was called) was also uneven and generated its own problems.

Up until their political emancipation, Jews had been mainly subject to religious hatred. They were regarded as superstitious and backward by many Christians – indeed, it was common for Jews to be portrayed as the killers of Christ and of Christian babies. But their emancipation during the 19th century radically changed society’s perception of Jews, and gave rise to a modern form of anti-Semitism. They were increasingly viewed as symbolising modernity and cosmopolitanism – ideas and forces to which a reactionary section of society was virulently opposed. Although this anti-Semitism sometimes deployed the imagery of old, religious anti-Semitism, it was very different in intent and substance. Jews were no longer seen as a pre-modern hangover, but as a powerful force of capitalist modernity. Anti-Semitism also acquired an annihilationist character. In its most developed form, it sought not just to persecute Jews, but also to exterminate them.

While Malik’s treatment of historical anti-Semitism is impressive, his discussion of its contemporary manifestation reveals the main weakness of Not So Black and White. He is simply not critical enough of left-wing forms of identity politics.

In a particularly jarring section on contemporary anti-Semitism, he barely mentions the role of Islamism in fomenting Jew hatred today. This is puzzling. Islamism, a religio-political ideology rather than a faith, is one of the main threats to Jews in the West today. Indeed, it can be understood as an Islamic form of identity politics, and it often leads to physical attacks on Jews.

It is an unfortunate omission. Not least because Malik is well-versed in the problems of Islamism in the West, having written widely and impressively on the subject.

The dangers of Islamism are exacerbated today by its affinity with mainstream identity politics. Both Islamists and identitarians tend to view Jews as exemplars of white privilege and Israel as symbolising the evils of colonialism. Indeed, both Islamists and identitarians, especially on the left, tend to support or sympathise with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which openly call for the murder of Jews. Malik fails to recognise the true depth of the threat identity politics now poses to Jews.

Indeed, Malik underestimates the dangers of left-wing identity politics throughout Not So Black and White. This is a problem, given it is the left-wing version of identitarianism that is in the ascendance today. Virtually every institution, from the public to the private sector, tends to support the ‘progressive’ view that society is divided up into different identity groups, with people of colour suffering permanent oppression. This view is so pervasive today that even mainstream Conservative politicians often go along with it.

There is much to applaud in Not So Black and White. It provides an illuminating history of the idea of race, and systematically outlines the key concepts necessary to understand the development of racial thinking. But the role and significance of contemporary left-wing identity politics is a blindspot here. And, as a result, Malik fails to see that it is left-wing identity politics that has helped turn racial thinking into today’s official orthodoxy.

Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics, by Kenan Malik, is published by Hurst Publishers. Order it here.

Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking anti-Semitism. Follow him on Twitter: @danielbenami

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Identity Politics Politics UK


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