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.