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Misidentity Politics | The Nation

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Misidentity Politics

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The high point of liberal faith that the color line might be permanently breached may have been the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From a participant's perspective it is difficult to forget the sea of 200,000 black and white demonstrators behind the figures of Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and other prominent civil rights leaders, arms confidently linked, marching toward an egalitarian future. In the wake of Southern freedom rides and lunch-counter sit-ins to break the racial barriers to public accommodations (while early Northern urban insurgencies began protesting economic oppression), in quick succession Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. By 1965 many were convinced that the long-deferred dream of equality and justice was at hand. But as it turned out, the movement was not equal to its dream. The decade that began with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision against school segregation, and ended with Congressional enactment of legislation that seemed to fulfill the betrayed promise of the Civil War and Reconstruction turned out to be the last great outpouring of racial unity in the twentieth century. The reassertion of the racial divide became the story of the next thirty-five years. Even as antipoverty programs, affirmative action and war-fueled prosperity helped expand the black middle class, housing and school segregation worsened, and, because of the deindustrialization of most major cities, black and Latino unemployment became intractable. In the wake of the misery of many black ghettos we have seen the return of racial thinking, especially eugenics, that hated doctrine developed at the apex of the British Empire by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, among others. Far from earlier belief--shared by scientists, human rights advocates and many political leaders--that there is only one human species, race has made a roaring comeback on the left as much as the right. Moreover, on both sides of the ideological divide science has been mobilized to reassert the legitimacy of race as a "natural" division within the species, not only in the United States but also in other advanced industrial societies.

Paul Gilroy, whose Black Atlantic broke through the nation-specific context of race politics, has written a powerful, albeit minoritarian defense of the position that racial thinking--not just racism--is a key obstacle to human freedom (an aspiration, he sadly notes, that has virtually disappeared from political discourse). In his analysis of the origins and uses of racial thinking Gilroy spares from his critique neither black pride nor black separatism, let alone racism's most virulent forms, fascism and colonialism. He argues, provocatively, for an alternative to antihumanist identity politics that would veer toward defining community as a geographical as much as a racial concept, what he calls "planetary humanism." He also propounds an unabashed cosmopolitanism to replace nationalism as a solution to racial oppression. The result is that he has offered one of the most impressive refutations of race as an anthropological concept since the publication of Ashley Montagu's Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race more than fifty years ago. But where the older work rode the crest of a wave of early postwar antiracial thinking propelled by the general recognition that the crimes of Hitlerism were a consequence of racial populism, Gilroy's attempted revival comes at a time when identity politics, with its ideology of separatism, seems to have displaced forms of universal humanism. Communitarianism, which holds that people have the right to circle the wagons around their territory and impose their group's values on strangers, has reached all corners of political discourse, including the White House. In these times the frequently invoked slogans of human rights enjoy only strategic currency.

Gilroy traces racial thinking to three major sources: First, "raciology," discredited in its blatant, authoritarian manifestation, lives on in the guise of pseudoscientific claims that the black body has biologically rooted attributes of superior strength, beauty and endurance; second, the various movements to counter oppression by affirming racial solidarity on the basis of a separate black identity; and third, colonialism and slavery's systematic deracination of the black self and its consequent denial that blacks should be considered part of universal humanity, which has occasionally but spectacularly given rise to genocidal activities in the name of racial purity.

According to Gilroy, the persistence of raciology is partly attributable to the growing cultural importance of visual thinking, which increasingly influences our conceptions of truth. The dominance of image over writing has had a profound influence over what we take as reliable knowledge. Photography, film and television have altered how we understand the world. Despite overwhelming scientific theory and practice maintaining that there are no fundamental biological differences, physically or intellectually, within the human species, Gilroy contends, the manipulated images of advertising and other artifacts of consumer society apparently belie these judgments. Citing Spike Lee's alliance with a leading advertising agency, DDB Needham, to promote a bland version of multicultural blackness as an example of how raciology has walked through the back door of commercialized black identity, Gilroy accuses some leading black cultural figures of complicity with a crass version of market capitalism to advance their own interests.

Gilroy begins by marshaling evidence, culled from the scientific and technological revolutions of molecular biology and computer science, to support his contention that the concept of essential racial difference has lost its scientific basis even as attempts are made, by means of pseudobiological arguments, to support the view that humanity is divided by inherent, natural differences. "There is no raw, untrained perception dwelling in the body," nor, he believes, is there an inherent black physical superiority. Citing advances in medical imaging that reveal the body on a "nanoscale," he argues that the human body is increasingly understood by science as code and information and, echoing Frantz Fanon, one of his major interlocutors, should not be "epidermalized." In other words, we are not defined by skin color or intrinsic biological traits but by the "patterned interaction" between human organisms and the ecosystem within which we live and develop.

Against Race reserves some of its harshest gibes for identity politics and its companion, "multicultural blackness." Gilroy's criticism ranges from the fairly well-traveled issue of how consumerism shapes identity to how identity may lead to genocide. One of his milder illustrations is that in a society in which the marketplace assumes pride of place, the "car you drive, the clothes you wear" and other items of consumption define who we are. We are identical with our visible signs. But this is only a preliminary consideration to the far more frightening geopolitical tendency to link identity to warring constituencies who sometimes try to exterminate one another, such as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. To underline the horror of the conflation of physical appearance and national identity, Gilroy gives an example of the large-scale killing of Tutsis because their identity card marked them, "or they did not have their card with them...and were therefore unable to prove they were not a Tutsi." Some were killed because soldiers believed "they were too tall" to be Hutu. In calling this an example of the history of "unspeakable barbarity," Gilroy remarks on "how the notion of fixed identity operates easily on both sides of the chasm that usually divides scholarly writing from the disorderly world of political conflicts." He notes that scholarship is often unable to go beyond what it perceives as primal difference, just as political actors seem incapable of seeing the Other as anything but evil.

Contrasting the music of Bob Marley, whom he takes, virtually without reservation, as an authentic black voice for universal human freedom, with hip-hop, especially in its recent incarnations, as a misogynous, cynical and exploitative product of Tin Pan Alley, Gilroy enters the vociferous debate about black popular culture. He chides critics who perpetuate the myth derived from hip-hop's earlier character as a local and rebellious musical expression and who insist that, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, hip-hop is "marginal" and oppositional to mainstream culture. For Gilroy the leading figures of the genre, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and others, rode to their popularity on some of the more regressive masculinist sentiments even as they retain rebellious images in the guise of glorifying the figure of the gangsta. These views are not likely to endear Gilroy to those who find hope in the fragments of social critique that remain in the music. I believe he overstates the case. For all of its commercial uses, "avant-garde" hip-hop remains quite subversive to the dominant theme of the American Celebration.

This leads to perhaps the most controversial sections of the book: Gilroy's attempt to demonstrate the link between the fascist politics of racial identity and black nationalism, especially the views of Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s and early 1930s organized and led a mass Back to Africa movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

Reflecting recent scholarship, Gilroy denies that fascism was a singular, exceptional event limited to the time of Hitler and Mussolini. Instead, he connects its appearance in the interwar period--and persistence after the defeats of the German and Italian armies and the collapse of their governments--to the history of colonialism and to the contradictions between the universalistic, humanistic claims of Enlightenment culture and the militarism that marked its sordid record of conquest.

Invoking the bloody history of Western imperialism's subordination of colonial peoples in the name of civilizing the "barbarians," Gilroy makes the explicit connection to Hitler, whose rise to power was not merely a reflection of German resentment at its humiliation by the Allies and the legacy of colonialism. Germany's drive for European and African conquest was based on Hitler's doctrine of racial purity and superiority. More than a dictator, he was an impressive ideologue whose ideas attracted substantial support among Germans and have had enduring influence in the emergence of contemporary ultrarightist movements, some of which, like those in France and Italy, have won considerable popular following. The core of fascism is biological essentialism manifested in the marriage of racial identity with nationalism, ideas that won the admiration of Garvey and some other black nationalists. Moreover, like many nationalisms, Garvey's was anti-Semitic, and Gilroy shows that he admired Hitler.

Not that Gilroy equates black separatism with fascism. But he places considerable weight on the deracination of the Jews by fascism as the major modern form of racism and as a precursor to the calumnies that followed their extermination. His point is that the Holocaust and the Rwanda tragedy--indeed, all genocidal acts grounded in racial purity and racial separatism--contain the potential for unspeakable barbarity because they entail the denial of the Other's claim to humanity. Once the Other has been endowed with essential qualities that may be coded as subhuman--or evil--there may be no question of observing its fundamental rights. Thus, for Gilroy, black anti-Semitism is not only wrong, it is self-defeating.

In promulgating his viewpoint Gilroy relies on the authority of three thinkers who, as it turned out, vainly fought for the notion of human liberation: Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychoanalyst who decried all attempts to link humans to their skin color and never tired of reminding the metropolis of its obligation to live up to the promise of the Enlightenment; Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite the violence and humiliation suffered by American blacks, insisted that the task of the civil rights movement was to secure entrance into American society but who also recognized toward the end of his life that rights are not enough and integration into an unjust society is not desirable. King became the principal tribune of the indivisibility of freedom and, in its pursuit, lost his life while participating in one of the monumental struggles of the Southern labor movement. The last thinker, Richard Wright, is Gilroy's model of a cosmopolitan intellectual who removed himself to France rather than bear witness to the disintegration of the promise of freedom in his own country. Wright is the exemplar of the intellectual exile, yet he remained rooted to the problems and pain of blacks in his native land. Disdaining what he called "tribalism," Wright used his celebrity to make a spirited case that the newly independent African states should embark, despite all, on the road to modernity.

Gilroy's reach is dazzling, his analysis acute and insightful, but in the end he recognizes that, lacking a political constituency for his planetary humanism, his ideas remain not a program but a utopian hope. Significantly, in the last chapter he invokes Theodor Adorno, who, in his years in California, made shrewd but ungenerous commentary on various aspects of US popular culture. Gilroy's sharp criticisms of black elites--especially the middle class, who, even as they distance themselves from the black working class have embraced a mixture of black separatism and assimilation into the dominant market culture--do not lead him to consider global class politics as a practical way to achieve the cosmopolitan movement he would create, any more than Adorno could see beyond the "the totally administered society" he abhorred. At the end of the day, Against Race remains the brilliant jeremiad of an out-of-step intellectual whose main weapon is criticism. There are few who do it better.

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