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23 January 2023

How identity politics props up racism

There are many ways to be black, as new books by Kenan Malik and Colin Grant show –and a fixation on racial identity is anything but progressive.

By Tomiwa Owolade

What does it mean to be black? This is a question examined by two authors who have written and spoken about race for more than two decades: Kenan Malik and Colin Grant. Malik, an Observer columnist, argues in his excellent new book Not So Black and White that we “live in an age in which our thinking is saturated with racial ideology and the embrace of difference”. But “the more we despise racial thinking, the more we cling to it. It is like an ideological version of Stockholm syndrome.”

Grant takes a slightly different approach. Unlike Malik’s book – an intellectual history of the concept of race, and a critique of contemporary left-wing identity politics – Grant’s I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be is a family memoir. It is not a conceptual account of what it means to be black. It is visceral.

In his 1940 book, Dusk of Dawn, the influential black American intellectual WEB Du Bois offered an answer to the proposition: “The black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” To be black is a social condition. It is not a natural or essential state.

This is the view Malik takes. He argues that anti-racism must be rooted in an understanding of material conditions rather than an attachment to racial identity. This is because race is not a biological reality but was invented to explain and justify pre-existing social inequalities. “Race did not give birth to racism,” he writes. “Racism gave birth to race.”

When north Europeans colonised North America in the 17th century, they didn’t see themselves as “white”. They were English or Dutch or French. The racialisation happened afterwards as a way to justify the practice of importing enslaved Africans. We often think of the 18th century – the age of enlightenment – as the period that nurtured universal moral equality. But it was also a time that gave birth to race science. Between the Enlightenment and the 19th century, Malik argues, race increasingly became the lens through which to explain social differences between groups of people.

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Black people were not the only ones to be denigrated on the basis of their “race”. European groups and working-class people were racialised too. In the 19th century, for instance, Irish immigrants in America were seen by nativists as black people “turned inside out”. In 1864, the London newspaper Saturday Review described the Bethnal Green poor as “a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion, persons with whom we have no point of contact”.

In the middle of the 20th century, noxious ideas of racial difference culminated in the Holocaust. The Nazis’ beliefs had not come out of nowhere. They were partly inspired by the US, where 32 states passed laws between 1907 and 1932 on the compulsory sterilisation of mentally disabled people. Hitler said the Passing of the Great Race, a 1916 book by the American white supremacist Madison Grant, was “my bible”.

But Malik is not an anti-Western polemicist. He argues that the barbarism that engulfed Europe in the 20th century sprung from the racist thinkers and politicians who denied the values of the Enlightenment to all of humanity. It is his attachment to these values that explains his opposition to the “politics of identity” now fashionable among today’s left.

“Many who have taken up the Black Lives Matter banner,” he writes, “conflate the necessity of challenging racism with the building of racial solidarity. Pursuing the second aim makes achieving the first more difficult.” Black elites and black workers, for instance, do not share the same material interests: a black sanitation worker may share the same race as a corporate lawyer, but on many of the substantive issues that underpin people’s lives – work, housing, education, healthcare – their experiences are too different for us to rely on race as a unit of social analysis.

[See also: The limits of black and white thinking]

Malik also points out that mass incarceration should not be seen as an exclusively racial issue. More than anything else, it is about class. He quotes analysis by the UK think tank the People’s Policy Project which found that, “race is not a statistically significant factor for many incarceration outcomes, once class is adequately controlled for”. However, black Americans are disproportionately working-class and any politics that focuses solely on race undermines the case for a progressive politics based on class solidarity. Malik quotes from another study, by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, which found that “a white high-school dropout was about 15 times more likely to be in prison than a black college graduate”.

Malik is a partisan of a “radical universalist tradition”.  His heroes include CLR James, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin, and he believes political belonging should be defined by shared moral values rather than a shared racial identity. But this tradition, according to Malik, was continuously diluted in the 20th century by the decline of trade union movements and the rise of neoliberalism. “There have always been identitarian movements insisting on embracing racial categories as a means of escaping the burden of racism,” he writes. “But these were mostly seen as conservative.” These movements assumed race was a scientific fact, while today’s progressives claim to view it as a social construct – but in practice their fixation on race resembles that of their conservative predecessors.

For Grant, however, a black identity seems important. Indeed, in the preface to his book, he confides to the reader that he is giving us the “black nod”, which is when two black people walking down the street nod to each other, even if they have never met. It is a way of saying: you are not alone, I recognise your existence. By giving us the black nod, Grant – who has written a lot about the black Caribbean experience – is writing his most revealing work.

By its very nature, I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be does not offer any clear answers on what it means to be black. It is not a polemic. It is a series of stories, each of which revolves around an individual in Grant’s family, and which read almost like folk tales. The first is about Doc Saunders, Grant’s grand-uncle, who moved to Britain from Jamaica in the late 1930s.

No one in the family had seen Doc Saunders for decades when in 1981 Grant, aged 19, won a place to study medicine at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. He goes to stay for a few months with Doc Saunders in Manor House in north London. He later finds out that Saunders was not even a doctor. He had driven ambulances. 

Transformation is a key theme. Selma, Grant’s sister, is an effortless code-switcher. She can change from raw Jamaican patois to the diction of an upper-middle-class English woman. She is no longer the daughter of West Indian immigrants who live in a Luton council estate. She has now fashioned herself as a wealthy Ghanaian princess called Salome working in the high-end advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi.

We are also reintroduced to the character of Bageye, Grant’s father. He is a raffish figure who funded Grant’s fees at a private school by selling cannabis and finds his greatest pleasure in gambling on horse races. He is physically and verbally abusive to Grant’s mother. He abandons the family when Grant is still a teenager. He is not, by objective standards, a good man. Yet Grant is still fascinated by him. And one of the most moving passages in the book is when he takes his young children to meet Bageye. It is moving because Grant retains Bageye’s humanity. He doesn’t represent his father as a demon. Or as a symbol for West Indian identity. He simply presents him as an old man seeing his grandchildren for the first time.

The stories are haunted by the question of racial authenticity. Uncle Castus, whose quip “I’m black so you don’t have to be”, gives the book its title, teases Grant about not being black enough. “What self-respecting black man, he wondered, would move to Brighton, ride a bike, prefer lentils to chicken, allow his children to call him by his first name, read feminist literature, give up the chance to become a doctor?”

[See also: ChapGPT proves that AI still has a racism problem]

There is a constant push and pull between the desire to belong to a black Caribbean identity and the reality of being estranged from it. This is experienced most vividly in family surroundings. Attending his father’s funeral, for example, Grant writes that “perhaps if I hadn’t left home, gone to university and mixed predominantly with white middle-class people, I’d have felt more at home in their company”.

Related to the question of “Are you really black enough?” is the question “Are you really British enough?” The people accused of not being sufficiently black are considered too British. Grant’s compelling and poignant book gives a convincing answer to the first question: that there is more than one way to be black.

It is through his British-born children that he most feels a connection to a black identity, not through his Jamaican-born relatives. He describes how his mother, Ethlyn, “like so many West Indian mothers who were petrified for their children, counselled that we should avoid conflict. The same sober advice has not been necessary for my children.” They feel no need to “prove” their Britishness. This means they can confidently embrace a black identity. I hope they, and other black people, will soon feel no need to prove their “blackness” either. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah once put it, racial identity is part of “the lies that bind”. We must push against rigidly enforced racial categories to be truly free.

Not So Black and White
Kenan Malik
Hurst, 328pp, £20

I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be
Colin Grant
Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better