I have written much recently on questions of race and culture, as reflected through issues ranging from adoption to cultural appropriation to patriotism to diversity to identity. The common theme has been the way that those who call themselves ‘progressive’ or ‘anti-racist’ often draw upon ideas that are deeply regressive and rooted in racial ways of thinking; and that the consequences of identity politics and of concepts such as cultural appropriation is to bring about not social justice but the empowerment of those who would act as gatekeeprs to particular communities. The articles have inevitably drawn much hostility, especially from would-be gatekeepers, who insist that to challenge such ideas is to challenge antiracism, even to ‘defend white supremacy’.
I am publishing here extracts from two writers, the British sociologist Paul Gilroy and the American political scientist Adolph Reed, both of whom have long explored the relationship between race, class and culture, and both of whom are highly critical of what Gilroy calls ‘cultural insiderism’ and of the ways in which volkish notions of community and culture have become means to buttress the power of certain elites within minority communities, elites that Reed derides as ‘the guild of Racial Spokespersonship’.
The Gilroy excerpt comes from his book The Black Atlantic, a study of the black diaspora, its intellectual history and cultural construction. In this extract he argues that volkish ideas of culture speak to ‘the special needs and desires of the relatively privileged castes within black communities’. As he suggests in Darker than Blue, ‘black vernacular [culture] no longer belongs to any discrete group and cannot therefore be held under ethno-historical copyright’. Here he asks rhetorically, ‘Is this impulse towards cultural protectionism the most cruel trick which the west can play upon its dissident affiliates?’. The desire to ‘protect’, in other words, draws upon ideas that derive from the European intellectual tradition, but regressive ones, and ones that serve to reinforce racial divisions.
Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is fiercely critical of identity politics and contemporary antiracism, and of their negative impact on the struggle for social justice. This extract comes from his essay ‘From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much’ in which he explores the meaning of the different reactions from the left to transgender Caitlin Jenner and transracial Rachel Dozel. ‘Race politics’, he argues here, ‘is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism’.
Gilroy and Reed are significantly different in their intellectual approaches and political perspectives. As am I. There is much on which I agree with Gilroy and Reed, and much on which I disagree. But the approach adopted by both, it seems to me, is a far more fruitful means of thinking about inequality and injustice, and of ways of challenging them, than all guff about identity and appropriation.
Extract from The Black Atlantic:
Modernity and Double Consciousness, pp 32-34
At its worst, the lazy, casual invocation of cultural insiderism which frequently characterizes the ontological essentialist view is nothing more than a symptom of the growing cleavages within the black communities. There, uneasy spokesman of the black elite – some of them professional cultural commentators, artists, writers, painters, and film makers as well as political leaders – have fabricated a volkish outlook as an expression of their own contradictory position. This neo-nationalism… incorporates commentary on the special needs and desires of the relatively privileged castes within black communities, but its most consistent trademark is the persistent mystification of that group’s increasingly problematic relationships with the black poor, who, after all, supply the elite with a dubious entitlement to speak on behalf of the phantom constituency of black people in general. The idea of blacks as a national or proto-national group with its own hermetically enclosed culture plays a key role in this mystification, and, though seldom overtly named, the misplaced idea of a national interest gets invoked as a means to silence dissent and censor political debate… Is this impulse towards cultural protectionism the most cruel trick which the west can play upon its dissident affiliates?
The same problem… is evident in recent debates over hip hop culture., the powerful expressive medium of America’s urban black poor which has created a global youth movement of considerable significance. The musical components of hip hop are a hybrid form nurtured by the social relations of the South Bronx where Jamaican sound system culture was transplanted during the 1970s and put down new roots. In conjunction with specific technological innovations, this rooted and re-rooted Caribbean culture set in train a process that was to transform black America’s sense of itself and a large proportion of the popular music industry as well. Here we have to ask how a form which flaunts and glories in its own malleability as well as its transnational character becomes interpreted as an expression of some authentic African America essence? How can rap be discussed as if it sprang intact from the entrails of the blues?…
An additional, and possibly more profound, area of political difficulty comes into view when the voguish language of absolutist cultural difference associated with the ontological essentialist viewpoint provides an embarrassing link between the practice of blacks who comprehend racial politics through it and the activities of their foresworn opponents – the ethnic absolutists of the racist right – who approach the complex dynamics of race, nationality and ethnicity through a similar set of pseudo-precise, culturalist equations. This unlikely convergence is part of the history of hip hop because black music is so often the principal symbol of racial authenticity…
In seeking to account for the controversy over hip hop’s origins we also have to explore how the absolutist and exclusivist approach to the relationship between ‘race’, ethnicity and culture places those who claim to be able to resolve the relationship between the supposedly incommensurate discourses characteristic of different racial groups, in command of the cultural resources of their own group as a whole. Intellectuals can claim this vanguard position by virtue of an ability to translate from one culture to another… Today’s black intellectuals have persistently succumbed to the lure of those romantic conceptions of ‘race’, ‘people’ and ‘nation’ which place themselves, rather than the people they supposedly represent, in charge of the strategies for nation building, state formation and racial uplift.
Extract from The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.
Extract from ‘From Jenner to Dolezal:
One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much’,
Common Dreams, 15 June 2015
When all is said and done, the racial outrage is about protection of the boundaries of racial authenticity as the exclusive property of the guild of Racial Spokespersonship… Beneath all the puerile cultural studies prattle about ‘cultural appropriation’ – which can only occur if ‘culture’ is essentialized as the property of what is in effect a ‘race’ – and Orwellian chatter about privilege and ‘disprivilege’, the magical power of ‘whiteness’, etc. lies yet another iteration in what literature scholar Kenneth Warren has identified in his masterful 2012 study, What Was African American Literature?, as a more than century-old class program among elements of the black professional-managerial stratum to establish ‘managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem’.
That is to say, as is ever clearer and ever more important to note, race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do. As I have argued, following Walter Michaels and others, within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion in, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class.
This perspective may help explain why, the more aggressively and openly capitalist class power destroys and marketizes every shred of social protection working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations have fought for and won over the last century, the louder and more insistent are the demands from the identitarian left that we focus our attention on statistical disparities and episodic outrages that ‘prove’ that the crucial injustices in the society should be understood in the language of ascriptive identity. The Dolezal/Jenner contretemps stoked the protectionist reflexes of identitarian spokesperson guilds because it troubles current jurisdictional boundaries. Even before that, however, some racial identitarians had grown bolder in laying bare the blur of careerism and arbitrary, self-serving moralism at the base of this supposed politics. In an unintentionally farcical homage to Black Power era radicalism, various racial ventriloquists claiming to channel the Voices of the Youth leadership of the putative Black Lives Matter ‘movement’ have lately been arguing that the key condition for a left alliance is that we all must ‘respect black leadership’. Of course, that amounts to a claim to shut up and take whatever anyone who claims that status says or does.
Extract from ‘From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much’, Common Dreams, 15 June 2015.