Wednesday 9 July 2008

A different race

Strange Fruit: why both sides are wrong in the race debate, by Kenan Malik (Oneworld)

It’s hard to think of a more fraught issue for contemporary society than race. It’s become taboo: the wrong word can lead to social opprobrium but unspoken racial distinctions still lurk in the background. Kenan Malik’s gloriously sharp and combative new book, Strange Fruit, Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate, cuts through the cant and confusion that so often surrounds this issue.

Malik starts out from the seemingly obvious, but clearly still touchy observation that there is genetic variation across human populations. This is beginning to have an impact on medicine, most famously in the case of BiDil, the anti-heart disease drug marketed explicitly for African Americans. But as Malik demonstrates, variation can’t be crystallised into any rigorous scientific category that resembles a ‘race’.

Commonly understood ‘races’, such as Hispanics in the US, are in fact often multi-origin groups. Those from Mexico, Cuba or Puerto Rico have different frequencies for different genes, alongside varying proportions of mixed Native American, European and African stock. But continental and national groups are equally spurious scientifically: no matter how you cut it, you can always find a populational genetic difference. Even the racial prescription of BiDil isn’t a perfect guide since skin colour is merely a ‘biomarker’ for a higher chance of having a particular genotype. Race is a pseudo-scientific set of assumptions about human difference that has its basis ultimately in society, at best a ‘social representation of certain aspects of genetic variation’.

So if there’s no genetic reality to race, where does the idea come from? Rather than blame evolved human nature or insurmountable cultural chauvinism for why people group ‘others’ as they do, Malik takes a sweeping historical view of changing ideas about human difference, an analysis familiar from his earlier work, The Meaning of Race.

In medieval Europe, there was no real idea of race. Identity wasn’t rooted in biological terms, but in cultural ones of ‘faith’ and ‘law’, with an imagined bestiary of monsters taking their place in the ‘great chain of being’ along with God and the angels. The medieval understanding of humanity was a rather confused affair, and Europe had a strange relationship with outsiders, where the same black man could be a prince in Portugal, and a useless slave in Africa. The undoubted brutality of the pre-modern era was not racialised in any modern sense; in fact black people were sometimes associated with regality since one of the Magi was traditionally depicted as black.

‘Adoration of the Magi’, 1624, by Dutch painter Abraham Bioemaert

This worldview was challenged by the revolutionary humanism of the Enlightenment, when human beings could for the first time be conceived unique, unified and equal. But the political revolution of the Enlightenment was accompanied by the bourgeois economic revolution and the advent of capitalist production, which reinforced endemic inequality between individuals and classes within society. How could the circle of an ideological commitment to human equality and meritocracy be squared with an economic system that entrenched inequality and social immobility? By naturalising that social, class inequality into a biological, racial inequality; not amenable (they hoped) to the revolutionary solutions on offer at the time – or as Malik quotes Condorcet, by making ‘nature herself an accomplice in the crime of political inequality’.

Malik expertly picks out the competing and interacting strands of radical, moderate and reactionary thought that went into creating the modern world. It hasn’t always been the usual suspects who opted for racial thinking: scientific racism appealed more to Northern liberals than Southern slave owners in the US, who always invoked the authority of the Bible to justify their rule. Its scientific airs attracted those impressed by pseudo-rational justification – an association which would go on to do science some damage.

Interestingly, he shows how race hasn’t always been the (literally) black and white issue it seems today. The origins of much racial thinking actually lie with class divisions within the West, where the working classes are seen as a ‘race apart’, and the discourse of biological difference developed at home is later applied abroad. Malik gives the example of Lady Gordon, who explained that her white nurse was perplexed by her treating high status Fijian women as her equals: ‘she looks down on them as an inferior race. I don’t like to tell her that these ladies are my equal, which she is not!’

Malik could have stopped here, content with having shown the historical development of racism, and successfully demolishing it as a set of ideas, but instead he takes aim at contemporary multiculturalism and subjects it to the same withering analysis.

Explicit racial thinking reached its apotheosis in the brutality of colonialism and industrial slaughter of the Holocaust during the first half of the 20th century. Thoroughly discredited by these experiences, many turned away from race and found a new paradigm that seemed to offer a less degrading understanding of human difference: culture. In Malik’s metaphor, all this did was turn the ‘ladder’ of racial difference on its side; human difference was still an insurmountable obstacle and inequality had to be explained, but ‘culture’ stripped away many of the normative associations of race.

Kennewick Man provoked an ownership row between scientists and Native Americans

Starting with the furore around Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton discovered in North America, which provoked a spat between Native American groups and scientists, Malik demonstrates how the essentialist (and often perversely biological) understanding of cultural authenticity held by many anti-racists owes a great deal to the Romantic, anti-Enlightenment prejudices that first cemented racial thinking. Arguing against racism from a perspective that doesn’t value human universality is a sure way to undermine your argument.

Malik’s concluding chapter focuses on how, despite the ferocious disagreements between the biological determinists of sociobiology and the cultural determinists of postmodern anti-racism, their respective ideologies actually lead them to startlingly similar conclusions: ‘what is lost in the dichotomy between biological universals and cultural differences is the sense of human agency’. He argues we need to understand that ‘humans are able both to create social distinctions (and view them as natural or fixed) and to ignore natural differences (as irrelevant to social intercourse)’.

Malik also hints at how race could be overcome in practice, citing the inspiring example of British cotton workers, whose solidarity with Southern slaves during the American Civil War came even at the cost of their direct economic interests. The historical reality of race can be overthrown by finding more profound commonalities, achieving real equality, and fulfilling the revolutionary promise of the radical Enlightenment. Even in these more politically constrained times, Malik’s critique is a vital tool to anyone who wants to do just that.


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