the changing meaning of race

dayschool on 'the reinvention of race', oxford university department of continuing education,

22 september 2001

If the proverbial anthropologist from Mars were to land in Britain today, he would probably regard us as schizophrenics when it comes to the question of race. He would find a population within which there is a general consensus that racism is morally abhorrent and yet is keen to define itself in terms of its ethnic or racial background. He would find a Commission for Racial Equality that stresses the importance of promoting diversity, and also a former chair of the CRE who blames racial violence on the entrenchment of differences between different ethnic groups. He would find a government about to embark on a war against the Taliban and yet which refuses to admit into the country refugees fleeing from that regime. He would find a prime minister who stresses diversity, pluralism and respect and yet who wants to lock up foreigners simply on grounds that they are seeking asylum.

My talk is aimed at the puzzled Martian. For what I want to do is to try and explain these contradictions not as expressions of a schizophrenia, or even of official hypocrisy, but rather as expressions of the changing meaning of race. I want to suggest that much of our attitudes to race appears contradictory because much of what passes for antiracism today is in fact rooted in the same philosophies that gave rise to racial thinking in the first place.

The celebration of difference, the promotion of a pluralist society, tolerance for a variety of cultural identities - these are regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook. As the American academic, and former critic of pluralism, Nathan Glazer, puts it in the title of a recent book, We're All Multiculturalists Now. I want to show this to be a naive and dangerous view. I want to argue, rather, that contemporary pluralism is a deeply ambiguous outlook. Far from being a bulwark against racism and tyranny, a plural outlook appropriates many of the themes of racial ideology and reproduces the very assumptions upon which racism has historically been based. Most critically, I want to argue that the embrace of 'difference' as a political goal has undermined our capacity to defend equality - and led to all the contradictions that so puzzle our Martian friend.

The ambiguities of pluralism can be seen even, or maybe especially, in the work of its most trenchant proponent - the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Berlin's key idea was that of 'value pluralism'. For Berlin, there was no such thing as a universal truth, only a variety of conflicting truths. Different peoples and cultures had different values, beliefs and truths, each of which may be regarded as valid. Many of these values and truths were incommensurate, because there was no common language we could use to compare the one with the other. Hence, argued Berlin, we have to accept that society is irredeemably plural.

Berlin linked his belief in pluralism to another of his key beliefs: his commitment to freedom and liberty. Freedom, for Berlin, lay in the acceptance of the plurality of society and of the incommensurability of cultural values. Pluralism, he argued, was the best defence against tyranny and against ideologies, such as racism, which treated some human beings as less equal than others. This link between freedom and pluralism has become the cornerstone of modern liberalism.

Shortly before he died, Berlin was interviewed by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Lukes asked him whether it was ever possible for peoples of different cultures - such as Arabs and Jews - to live together. 'When you have two peoples of different origins and cultures', Berlin replied, 'it is difficult for them to live together in peace'. He added that 'it is quite natural that each side should think that they cannot lead free lives in an integrated society if the others are there in quantity'.

Such a view, claimed Berlin, 'is not sheer bigotry'. It is a view, however, not too different from that of many politicians who most would accept are bigots. For instance, consider the following: 'Every society, every nation is unique. It has its own past, its own story, its own memories, its own languages or ways of speaking, its own - dare I use the word - culture.' That's not Isaiah Berlin talking but Enoch Powell, one of the most openly racist of postwar mainstream politicians. Because every culture is distinct, Powell argued, so immigrants, who belong to different cultures and different traditions, could never be fully British.

Anyone who saw Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, being interviewed on BBC's Newsnight in the wake of the violence in Oldham and Bradford will know how he rang rings around Jeremy Paxman by pursuing the logic of the pluralist argument. Asians are not inferior to whites, he argued, they are simply different, with different cultures, values and lifestyles, all incommensurate with white cultures, values and lifestyles. That's why whites should live in their own communities, Asians in theirs.

Isaiah Berlin abhorred the claims of the far right. Yet it is difficult to deny that the logic of his claim that two peoples of different origins cannot live together in peace, and that it is not bigotry to believe this, leads inexorably to the arguments of Powell and Griffin.

Indeed, Berlin himself, in his magazine interview, observed that 'the ferment of the French Canadians, the Flemings in Belgium, Basques in Spain, Corsicans, Bretons, Tamils, Irishmen, Jews and Arabs, Georgians, Armenians, Indians and Pakistanis' had made him question the 'nineteenth century [idea] that multicultural societies were desirable'. Moreover, he questioned whether black immigrants to the Western nations were 'ready for assimilation'. Black immigration was 'a problem' he said, because 'Cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided.'

These views are not an unfortunate aberration, the illiberal thoughts of a man with otherwise impeccably liberal credentials. They are the inevitable consequence of a pluralist outlook. What I want to do is to explain why this is so by looking at three things: first, at the development of the idea of race to show how the celebration of difference has always been at the heart of the racist agenda; second, I want to look at the development of the idea of pluralism, to show how it developed out of a skepticism about progress and an ambiguous attitude to immigration. Finally, I want to show that in a world that is profoundly unequal, the pursuit of difference inevitably leads to the accommodation to, and exacerbation of, such inequalities.

The idea of race has not been ever-present in human history. In historical terms it is a relatively new concept, and has only become to our thinking over the past two centuries. Before the modern concept of race could develop, the modern concepts of equality and humanity had to develop too. Racial difference and inequality can only have meaning in a world that has accepted the possibility of social equality and a common humanity. It was through the Enlightenment, the intellectual transformation of Europe in the eighteenth century, that such ideas became firmly established in the modern imagination. Most Enlightenment thinkers held that humans were by nature rational and sociable, and that there existed a common human nature. Implicit in these beliefs was the idea that all humans were potentially equal. Through Enlightenment philosophy humanity had for the first time a concept of universality that could transcend perceived differences.

What is striking about Enlightenment discourse is the lack of any discussion of race. Compared to writings both before and after, eighteenth century writings show a remarkable disdain for racial arguments. When in 1800 the French anthropologist Joseph-Marie Degerando wrote a methodological text for the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme, the principal anthropological society of its time, he did not think it necessary to deal with the question of race.

Of course Enlightenment thinkers clearly held racist views, some very openly and overtly. It would have been astonishing if it had been otherwise. The racial comments of the likes of Kant, Hume and Voltaire are well known. But what was absent at this time was any sustained discourse of race. Michael Banton, Robert Miles and Anthony Barker, in their various surveys of racial thinking, have all argued, in Banton's words, that 'though there was a substantial literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth century about Africans and other non-European peoples, the word "race" was rarely used either to describe peoples or in accounts of differences between them.'

The Enlightenment, however, was not simply an intellectual movement. The belief in equality and a common humanity was the ideological embodiment of a wider social and political movement through which the pre-modern order crumbled and a new society - capitalism - emerged. Out of the complex interaction between the ideology of equality and developing capitalist social relations emerged the discourse of race.

Most Enlightenment thinkers believed that all humans were potentially equal, and in principal all could reach the summit of civilisation. Progress would overcome the divisions within the human family. But it had become clear by the early decades of the nineteenth century that such optimism was misplaced. Far from progress healing social divisions, it appeared to exacerbate them. In an address to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, the leading French physician Philippe Buchez considered the meaning of social differentiation in France:

Consider a population like ours, placed in the most favourable circumstances; possessed of a powerful civilisation; amongst the highest ranking nations in science, the arts and industry. Our task now, I maintain, is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form - not merely one but several races - so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

The dilemma that a man like Buchez faced was this. He, like most men of his class and generation, had a deep belief in equality, a belief that had descended from the Enlightenment philosophes. Like the philosophes, he trusted in progress and assumed that potentially progress could touch all men. In practice, however, his society was not like this at all. Social divisions seemed so deep and unforgiving that they seemed permanent, as if rooted in the very soil of the nation. France was a highly civilised nation, whose scientists, engineers, philosophers and novelists were the envy of the world. Yet sections of French society seemed trapped in their own barbarism, seemingly unwilling to, or incapable of, progress. How could one rationally explain this?

For many prominent thinkers, the only answer seemed to be that certain types of people were by nature incapable of progressing beyond barbarism. They were naturally inferior. Here were the origins of the nineteenth century idea of race. 'Race' developed as a way of explaining the persistence of social divisions in a society that had a deep-set belief in equality. From the racial viewpoint, inequality persisted because society was by nature unequal. The destiny of different social groups was shaped, at least in part, by their intrinsic properties.

It was the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century which gave birth to the thought that the whole of humanity may not possess a common, innate nature. This shift in perception was encouraged by the Romantic view of human groups, not as static constructions, but as moulded by history. The idea that different groups had different histories gave rise to the view that every group had a unique history, and this in turn led to the belief that each had a unique nature.

Many Romantics believed that the values of different cultures and societies were incompatible. Each people was unique, the uniqueness given by its particular culture, language, history and modes of living. For the German philosopher Herder, for instance, the people or volk was both a contract between contemporaries and a continuing dialogue between generations. The nature of the people was expressed through its volksgeist - the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history expressed through myths, songs and sagas.

Once it was accepted that different peoples were motivated by sentiments unique to themselves, it was but a short step to view these differences as racial. Herder's volksgeist became transformed into racial make-up, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential and the basis for division and difference within humankind. Herder had accounted for cultural variety by imagining that different peoples had unique histories. Nineteenth century racists explained social inequalities by reasoning that different group had distinct natures. At the roots of modern racism, therefore, lie Romantic visions of human differences.

What transformed the Romantic notion of difference into the dominant view of race was its alliance with positivist philosophy and with science. Positivism was a philosophical tradition, developed largely from the work of the French thinker August Comte, who looked to science to legitimise social order. For positivists, the laws of nature also underpinned social laws. Inequality was the inevitable consequence of the working out of nature's laws. 'True liberty' as Comte put it, 'is nothing else than a rational submission to the preponderance of the laws of nature.'

The reorientation of the scientific outlook towards the positivist vision of the world transformed the way in which scientists looked at the relationship between humanity, society and nature and opened the way for racial science. It catalysed a shift from a view of human beings as primarily social creatures, governed by social laws, to a view of human beings as primarily biological entities governed by natural laws. Racial science viewed humanity in terms of a hierarchy generated outside of society and governed by natural rather than social laws. As the English naturalist William Smellie put it,

Independently of all political institutions nature herself has formed the human species into castes and ranks. How many gradations may be traced between a stupid Hottentot and a profound philosopher! Here the distance is immense but nature has occupied the whole by almost infinite shades of discrimination.

Racial theories accounted for social inequalities by ascribing them to nature. Racial thinkers divided humanity into discrete groups, each with particular properties, and the divisions between which seemingly immutable and unchanging. I am not suggesting that the concept of race was created or invented to meet a particular social need. Rather, as social divisions persisted and acquired the stamp of permanence, so they began to present themselves as if they were natural, not social, ones. Racial ideology was the inevitable product of the persistence of differences of rank, class and peoples in a society that had accepted the concept of equality. People came to understand the world in racial terms because there seemed to be no other way through which to make sense of the world around them.

The idea of race helped give a sense of order to the Victorian world. The issue that taxed so many Victorian brains was the search for a way of reconciling order and progress. Victorians had a great belief in the inevitability of progress, but also feared the disruptive consequences of such progress, particularly through the creation of class conflict and social disorder.

The idea of race helped bind together order and progress. It allowed Victorian to thinkers to imagine that progress was inevitable, but only in the hands of certain races. White, middle-class males were destined by nature to progress to the summit of civilisation. Others - women, the lower orders, non-European primitives - would travel so far, and so far only, on the road to civilisation. Progress, therefore, brought about a natural order to society, with every group finding its ordained place in the scheme of things.

A vignette in the Saturday Review, a popular English Victorian magazine, is typical of mid-century attitudes to race and working class life:

The Bethnal Green poor... are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact... The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring... marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.
This separation of the classes is important because each had to keep their allotted place in the social ladder: the English poor man or child is always expected to remember the condition in which God has placed him, exactly as the negro is expected to remember the skin which God has given him. The relation is both instances is that of perpetual superior to perpetual inferior, of chief to dependent, and no amount of kindness or goodness is suffered to alter this relation.

We have become so used to thinking of race in terms of skin colour that it is often difficult to understand the Victorian perception of race. For the Victorians race was as much a description of class differences within European societies as it was of ethnic differences between European and non-European peoples. Class division denoted the relation of 'perpetual superior to perpetual inferior', a distinction that to the Victorians was every bit as visible as that between black and white, or slave and master.

Not till the end of the nineteenth century did race become identified with skin colour in the contemporary sense. Imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century, in particular the 'scramble for Africa', exacerbated the sense of difference between Europeans and non-Europeans. At the same time the development of democracy modified the application of the language of racial inferiority to the working class. The belief that the lower orders were inferior did not disappear but it became less public and increasingly confined to private diaries and dinner table talk. The public language of race was refocused exclusively on black and white, the West and Rest, helping to establish the 'colour line' in its modern form.

Understanding the historical and intellectual roots of the idea of race is important because Romantic notions of human differences also lie at the heart of contemporary visions of cultural pluralism. Racial theory and cultural pluralism both display a hostility to Enlightenment universalism, but in different ways. Ernest Gellner has pointed out that there are two sets of questions that arise from the debate between universalism and relativism: 'Is there but one kind of man, or are there many? Is there but one world, or are there many?' While the first questions the biological unity of humankind, the second questions the very idea of a single truth or objective understanding of the world.

Belief in a single world assumes that common laws and values operate across all societies but that different people respond in different ways to them, the nature of the response being determined by the racial make-up of any given people. Belief in many worlds, on the other hand, denies a common objective understanding of the world and in its place posits a plurality of ways of understanding and evaluating the world around us. Since the social world is constructed by the people who inhabit that society, not given in nature, so every world is specific to the people who inhabit it and incommensurate with the social worlds that other people inhabit.

Schematically, one may say that the discourse of race holds that there is one world but that it is inhabited by different types of humanity, while the discourse of culture holds that there is one type of humanity, but it inhabits different cultural or symbolic worlds. Both emerged out of the degradation of universalism, but they did so in different ways. Given the belief of nineteenth century racial theorists in inevitable social progress, the growing gulf between 'civilised man' and the 'primitives' that was evident both within and without European society led many to see such differences in natural, and hence in racial, terms. Victorian social evolutionists were led to posit a hierarchical view of humanity, seeing different groups of peoples as arrested at different point along the evolutionary scale and believing that progress and reason were the prerogative only of certain races.

The discourse of culture, on the other hand, reflected a disenchantment with the notion of social evolution, a disbelief in the doctrine of inevitable social progress and a disillusionment with the values of one's own culture. It was the emergence of such trends in the early part of this century, and in particular in the wake of the First World War, that gave rise to relativist theories of culture. In the context of a general pessimism about social progress, the idea of difference was transformed from the notion of 'many men in a single world' to a 'single type of man inhabiting many worlds'. If social development had not overcome the vast gulfs that separated different peoples, many argued, then perhaps that was because such differences reflected the fact that different peoples inhabited different social worlds, each of which was as valid and as real as the other. Pluralism grew out of despair about progress.

The main force in the shift from a racial to a cultural view of human differences was the science of anthropology. Anthropology had always been the most particularist of the human sciences. In the context of Victorian positivism and social evolutionism, this manifested itself through physical anthropology and theories of biological differences. As the positivist outlook disintegrated along with the long nineteenth century, so anthropological particularism re-expressed itself in cultural terms.

We can see the way in which the new anthropology reframed the meaning of inequality by looking at the development of pluralism in the colonial context. The concept of a plural society first emerged through anthropological analyses of colonial societies in the first decades of this century. In a study of Indonesia and Burma, the anthropologist JS Furnival wrote that 'the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of peoples - European, Chinese, Indian and native' that constitute the society. The different groups, Furnival wrote, 'mix but do not combine'. Each group 'holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its ideas and ways'. The result was a 'plural society, with different sections of the society living side by side but separately within the same political unit.'

This concept of a plural society proved attractive both to colonial administrators, grappling with the problem of imposing law and order on the territories, and to Western liberals keen to protect colonial subjects from the ravages of imperialism. Pluralism quickly moved from being a description of colonial society to an explanation for it. The inequalities of colonial society were rationalised as products of the different cultural outlooks and lifestyles of the various groups that constituted that society. Through this process inequality became reframed as difference. The social and economic cleavages caused by colonial rule, and the limits on social development imposed by colonial policy, were reread as the fruits of such autonomous cultural development.

Like racial theory, plural theory provided an apology for social inequalities, portraying them as the inevitable result, not of natural variations, but of cultural differences. Whereas nineteenth century racial theory was an attempt to reconcile order and progress, pluralism was an attempt to think about social order in a world that no longer believed in progress.

Pluralism effectively turned on its side the evolutionary ladder of Victorian racial theory: pluralists conceived of humanity as horizontally, rather than vertically, segmented. Humanity was not arranged at different points along an ever-rising vertical axis, as the social evolutionists had believed, but at different points along a stationary horizontal axis.

Humanity was composed of a multitude of peoples each inhabiting their own symbolic and cultural worlds. But whether differences were seen as biological or cultural, whether they were seen in terms of inferiority and superiority or not, racial theory and cultural pluralism were characterised by a common hostility to universalism, and a belief that differences between human groups mattered more than the commonalities.

The consequence of all this can be seen in the debate about race and difference in the postwar world. Following the experience of Nazism, the Holocaust and the Final Solution, biological theories of human differences became discredited. But if racial science was buried in the postwar world, racial thinking was not. While the biological arguments for racial superiority were thrown into disrepute and overt expressions of racism were discredited, many of the assumptions of racial thinking were maintained intact - in particular the belief that humanity can be divided into discrete groups, that each groups should be considered in its own terms, and that differences, not commonalities, shaped human interaction. These assumptions, however, were cast not in biological terms but in the language of cultural pluralism.

In the interwar years the concept of plural society was applied almost exclusively to colonial states. In the years following the Second World War, however, the concept of a plural society became applied in an increasingly promiscuous way to Western societies. The impact of mass immigration and the political context in which this immigration took place combined to engineer this transformation.

Eleven million foreign workers came to Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, encouraged by the economic boom. The political context in which this mass immigration occurred was an ambiguous one. On the one hand, immigrants were seen as 'different' or alien. On the other hand, in the liberal climate of the postwar years, racial arguments could not be openly expressed. Pluralism provided a language through which to understand social differences without having to refer to the discredited discourse of race. It provided both a sense of continuity with prewar racial discourse and a means of asserting the aversion to racism that exemplified the postwar years.

Key to such an ambiguous use of pluralism has been the presentation of social differences in terms neither of culture nor of race but of ethnicity. 'Ethnicity' is a peculiarly postwar word. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a first recorded usage in 1953. It was the biologists Julian Huxley and AC Haddon who first suggested that 'race' should be replaced by 'ethnic group' in their book We Europeans. We Europeans was immensely influential in the challenging racial theory in the 30s. But the ambiguous nature of Huxley and Haddon's arguments are important as they presage the ambiguous nature of pluralism. They were not so much opposed to the concept of racial differences as to its political uses, particularly by Nazi Germany. Replacing race with ethnicity, they suggested, would remove the political connotations of racial difference, and allow social distinctions to be studied in a neutral, value-free fashion. In the postwar years ethnicity has indeed come to replace race as a politically acceptable means of describing social differences.

Like race, ethnicity is a term that is used in a fairly promiscuous way, without there ever being a consensus as to its meaning. Definitions of ethnicity are largely tautological: an ethnic group is that which is defined as an ethnic group. But the very utility of the definition of ethnicity lies in its tautology. Ethnicity does away with objective, biological distinctions and instead introduces subjective, cultural differences. Ethnicity is defined through learned or cultural criteria and boundaries between ethnic groups are fluid. Yet in actual use, the concept of ethnicity is not so different from that of race. In practice it is used to define social groups according to old-fashioned criteria of race or nationality. Ethnicity, in many ways, is race after an attempt to take the biology out.

Pluralism developed in the postwar years not as a means to establish equality but as an accommodation to the persistence of inequality. As immigrants remained ghettoised, excluded from mainstream society, subject to discrimination and clinging to their old habits and lifestyles as a familiar anchor in a hostile world, so such differences became rationalised not as the negative product of racism or discrimination but as the positive result of multiculturalism.

In the nineteenth century, the persistence of inequalities had led to the emergence of the discourse of race, in which economic, social and technological differences between groups were attributed to natural distinctions. In the postwar years the persistence of inequalities in the context of mass immigration led to the development of a pluralist outlook, in which differences were welcomed as expressions of cultural diversity.

It may be useful to compare the treatment of postwar immigrants with early waves of immigration. It is often forgotten that earlier immigrants - east Europeans or Italians into Britain, Poles, Italians, Portuguese into France, East and south Europeans into the USA - were often met with the same hostility and claims of inassimilability as were postwar immigrants. They too were seen as alien, as mentally defective, as socially immoral and promiscuous, as given to violence, drugs and drink. This is a useful reminder that the difference of postwar immigrants had little to do with skin colour or religion.

But the contrast between earlier and postwar immigration lies to a large extent in wider social trends. There was sufficient dynamic in early twentieth century society, sufficient self-belief and belief in equality, and sufficient economic progress to ensure that immigrants, even if they were initially regarded as alien and inassimilable, eventually lost their marks of difference and become an integral part of the nation. Despite the hostility to immigrants, this earlier immigration was not regarded as turning Britain, France or the USA into multicultural nations. Rather immigrants became part of, and helped transform the common culture (despite the fact that, in the USA for instance, most of these immigrants were eventually to become double-barrelled Americans).

Today the picture is very different. At the heart of this has been two major social changes: First, the very idea of a common culture has weakened as has a sense of national identity. The break-up of the postwar consensus and the end of the Cold War has created a fragile and anxious mood, in which the idea of a coherent national identity has become problematic. Particularly in the USA, the Cold War provided a common external enemy and a sense of mission around which to articulate what it meant to be American. The loss of that has sapped the belief in a common culture to which all belong. The consequence has been a fragmentation of identity.

While the roots of these changes go back several decades, it is striking that in America, for instance, the idea of multiculturalism is an almost exclusively a post-Cold War phenomenon. Nathan Glazer searched a data base of the major newspapers for the word 'multiculturalism'. There were no reference as late as 1988; 33 references in 1989, 100 in 1990, 600 in 1991, 900 in 1992 and 1200 in 1993 and 1500 in 1994. The fit between the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the idea of multiculturalism is almost too good to be true.

Second, the notion of equality itself has transformed. The inability of struggles such as the civil rights movements in the USA to transform the lives of the majority of African Americans sapped the morale of antiracists. Campaigning for equality means challenging accepted practices, being willing to march against the grain, to believe in the possibility of social transformation. Conversely, celebrating differences between peoples allows us to accept society as it is - after all, all it says is 'we live in a diverse world, enjoy it'; it allows us to accept the divisions and inequalities that characterise the world today. The disintegration of the civil rights movements, and elsewhere of liberation movements, the demise of the political sphere itself, has gnawed away at antiracists' self-belief and their willingness to take a stand.

In the America of the 1960s, for instance, most commentators, both black and white, hoped and expected that African-American migrants to the North would eventually integrate into US society, as fully as had European immigrants. The title of a 1966 article by Irving Kristol in the New York Times captured that hope: 'The Negro Today is like the Immigrant Yesterday'.

Three decades later it has become obvious how misplaced were such claims. Virtually every social statistic - from housing segregation to rates of intermarriage, from infant mortality rates to language use - shows that African Americans live very different lives to the rest of America. The experience even of Hispanic Americans is far closer to that of American whites than it is to that of African Americans.

As the possibilities of equality seemed more and more constrained, so there was an increasing tendency to celebrate 'difference'. The black American critic bell hooks observes that 'civil rights reform reinforced the idea that black liberation should be defined by the degree to which black people gained equal access to material opportunities and privileges to whites - jobs, housing, schooling etc.'

This strategy could never bring about liberation, argues hooks, because such 'ideas of "freedom" were informed by efforts to imitate the behaviour, lifestyles and most importantly the values and consciousness of white colonisers.' The failure of equality has led radical critics like hooks to declare that equality itself is problematic because African Americans are 'different' from whites.

Politicians and policy-makers have responded to such arguments by reinventing America as a 'plural' or 'multicultural' nation. Pluralism is premised on the idea that America is a nation composed of many different cultural groups and peoples. But in reality it is the product of the continued exclusion of one group: African Americans. The promotion of pluralism is a tacit admission that the barriers that separate blacks and whites cannot be breached and that equality has been abandoned as a social policy goal.

'Multiculturalism', Nathan Glazer has written, 'is the price America is paying for the inability or unwillingness to incorporate into its society African Americans, in the same way and to the same degree it has incorporated so many other groups.' The real price, however, is being paid by African Americans themselves. For in truth America is not plural or multicultural; it is simply unequal. And the promotion of pluralism is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of that inequality. Indeed, in his own way, Glazer himself recognises this. 'We must pass through a period in which we recognise difference, we celebrate difference', he writes, because of 'our failure to integrate blacks.'

The social changes that have swept the world over the past decade have intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the crumbling of the postwar order and the fragmentation of social movements have shattered many of the certainties of the past. In particular they have thrown into doubt our capacity to change the world for the better. In this context the quest for equality has largely been abandoned in favour of the claim to a diverse society.

A truly plural society would be one in which citizens have full freedom to pursue their different values or practices in private, while in the public sphere all citizens would be treated as political equals whatever their private beliefs. Today, however, pluralism has come to mean the very opposite. The right to practice a particular religion, speak a particular language, follow a particular cultural practice is seen as a public good rather than a private freedom. Different interest groups demand to have their 'differences' institutionalised in the public sphere. This has led not to greater equality, but to a greater racialisation of society, a greater entrenchment of differences, rationalisation of inequality, and the abandonment of political struggles for equality.

These are the developments that have led to the contradictions that so puzzle our Martian friend. The question we have to ask ourselves, therefore, is: do we want an equal society or a plural society? We cannot have both.