Talking about it more to make it matter less

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

Alana Lentin, Why Race Still Matters, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2020, pp x and 242.

As Alana Lentin states in her new book, ‘speaking clearly about race is difficult’.  Reasons include the different forms and levels of knowledge which people apply to the issue; the many ways that race interconnects with many – all – other social issues; peoples’ varied and not always well-informed or well-considered views and assumptions about these issues; the ‘multiple and competing meanings’ that are contested as we discuss race and racism; the ‘myriad interpretations’ which are possible of different situations; and the strong emotions and interests which people have invested in their positions. Even defining racism has itself ‘become a site of political struggle’.

These difficulties and issues underline Lentin’s achievement in Why Race Still Matters. Although the issues she covers are sometimes complex, her writing is clear, her arguments coherent and systematic, and her points are always concretely illustrated by reference to varied episodes and arguments. This book will help focus the thinking of any reader concerned with ‘trends in the politics of race’.

Each of the book’s four key chapters covers an important field of debate. They are framed by an introductory overview and a concluding confirmation of the importance of naming and studying race in order to dismantle it (rather than fearing that ‘referring to race risks naturalising and solidifying human distinctions’). Lentin confirms the necessity of using ‘race as a tool of analysis to interpret other structures of power – capitalism, gender, sexuality, class and ability – as fully as possible’.

Lentin’s first chapter is a survey of and intervention in debates about the very nature of race. It establishes a pattern which becomes familiar in her arguments: engaging with positions which are common amongst antiracists; criticising some inconsistencies and equivocations in these from a sympathetic but rigorous standpoint, often on the basis that they are insufficiently attentive to the actual forms and dynamics of how race is working in particular situations; defending the core values of antiracism against current expressions of what sometimes passes for liberal or left-wing argument, but which actually involves racist logic; and on the basis of all this, putting forward developed arguments on the basis of which Lentin believes antiracism could succeed.

The chapter begins by evidencing the ‘proposition that race is a social construct that has no basis in scientific fact’. But Lentin argued that this ‘truism’ is an ‘insufficient proposition’: it ‘only takes us so far’. In a context where so-called ‘race realists’ are busy promoting eugenics and biological conceptions of race (and secure space for their views by falsely presenting themselves as the victims of persecution and silencing from ‘politically correct’ activists and ‘social justice warriors’), Lentin argues that it not enough to argue against their reactionary contentions ‘on scientific grounds alone. To do so is to misconstrue the terms of the race project, which were never purely scientific, but inherently political’.

Her point is that ‘antiracists are very good at denying the biological facticity of race, but not very good at explaining what is social about race’. The social constructionist can ‘prove’ that race is not biological, but doing this can perversely suggest that the key issue is whether or not race is biological. ‘Pure’ (or crude) social constructionists can go so far as to argue that because race is not a biological ‘thing’, we should not talk about it. The ‘ta-da!’ discovery that race is a social construct becomes the end point of the discussion, as if there is nothing more to say.

In fact, this is the point at which the real work begins. Accepting that race is a social fact, a historically-determined concept by which people think about difference, does not mean that it does not exist or have consequences. Antiracists’ job is to explain how racism is social, and to critique the many and complex ways in which it operates as ‘a political project with ongoing effects’, including through actions which create, perpetuate and (mis)use difference. Unless this is done, antiracists will find themselves ‘ill equipped to counter the ahistorical redefinition of racism as a universal form of prejudice’. Our task is therefore to develop ‘a much more historically situated account of how race is produced and reproduced on a range of registers’.

In interplay with the arguments summarised above, Lentin discusses important issues to do with how race as social and political oppression has bodily impacts. Although there is no fundamental ‘biological’ or ‘genetic’ cause of differential propensity to any particular health issues, ‘we cannot disentangle the fact that a taxonomy of biological race is invented from the equally true fact that the experience of being ruled by racial technologies of power from birth can have a physical impact on the individual’s racialised body as well as a psychological impact on the mind’. And, again: ‘repeating the mantra that race is a social construction is not enough to dismantle its effects on either the social or the physical body’. Furthermore, such effects of social oppression can be intergenerational. These points are immediately relevant to discussions about the reasons for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people being disproportionately affected, in terms of illness and death, by the current Covid-19 emergency.

The second chapter – ‘Not Racism TM’ – pitches into direct polemic with some writers and journalists who have argued against multiculturalism whilst insisting that their views and motivations are ‘not racist’. Lentin illustrates how these opinion-formers position their arguments by promoting a conception of racism as ‘a moral wrong based on bad science’. This perspective, currently a ‘dominant understanding’, is one which ‘yields a thin understanding of racism as aberrant behaviour, measurable and punishable in individuals, a view which, in turn, lends itself to being something that can be expressed by anyone regardless of how they are racialised … consequently, the boundaries around what can be defined as racist extend ever outwards, especially at times of perceived crisis around racially indexed topics such as migration, crime and terrorism. This can be seen in the acceptance of terms such as “anti-white” or “reverse” racism, and this has serious institutional and political implications … the (re)definition of racism as universal, ahistorical and a question of individual morality, rather than being structurally engendered, is the linchpin on which “not racism” hangs’.

Lentin applies her arguments in a polemic against Eric Kaufmann, who in his book Whiteshift and elsewhere has argued that ‘racial self-interest’ is ‘not racism’, and that immigration controls can be conceived as policy approaches separately to structures of racism. Kaufmann’s liberal co-thinker David Goodhart is also critiqued, along with ‘other proponents of “not racism” [who] bracket the workings of racial capitalism off from their identification of “the normal definition of racism”, which is confined to the irrational attitudes of the outlier groups [e.g. far-right organisations]. Such a view is derived from a social psychological approach to racism which dominates the field … the failure to ground social psychological research in a critical history of race formation leads to “racial self-interest”  being theorised as a question of “in-group favouritism and out-group animosity”’.

In the third chapter of Why Race Still Matters, Lentin extends her argument to those who want to downplay or narrow the significance of race from left-wing positions. ‘On the left as well as on the right’, there is ‘a dangerous tendency to downplay effects of race by dismissing those who talk about it as defensive identitarians’. In fact, the argument that ‘antiracism – re-labelled and dismissed as “identity politics” is responsible for elevating an anti-material and superficial recognition-based politics over a universalist – and, it is intimated, a more serious – politics of class plays a role in disabling race-critical analyses that foreground the imbrication of race in capitalism and the state’.

The book’s fourth chapter is an impressive negotiation of issues around the contemporary uses and abuses of opposition to antisemitism. One of Lentin’s achievements here is to demonstrate how care and thoughtfulness can go along with the firm and unequivocal assertion of controversial points. She looks at how failures to theorise antisemitism adequately have led it sometimes being reduced ‘to a cipher for performative outrage’, stating that ‘in the present moment, publicly performing opposition to antisemitism and support for Israel – the two having been made equivalent – has also become a proxy for politicians and public figures’ to express a commitment to antiracism. On this basis, right-wing politicians can implement racist policies whilst being seen to ‘absolve’ themselves from the ‘sin’ of racism by making ‘the right noises’ about antisemitism and Israel.

Lentin points out the importance of ‘a race-critical reading of what function the equation of all Jews as white and, variably, of all Jews as Zionist has on the operations of racial rule in the current conjuncture’. Without this, there is an unchallenged ‘equation of all Jews with Zionism’, and ‘whether this comes from the pro-Zionist establishment or from those opposed to Israel, [it] is itself a form of antisemitism that refuses the possibility of Jewish divergence from pre-scripted alignments’.

One issue covered in this chapter is how opposition to antisemitism has, in some versions, become a resource for Islamophobia. There is also a deft and scathing treatment of how opposition to so-called ‘cultural Marxism’ has moved from being a fringe obsession on the far-right, to becoming a more generally promoted right-wing and antisemitic meme, and has more recently been repeated and promoted by mainstream politicians.

Like social constructionist views on race, clear writing can only take us so far, and Lentin’s book cannot of course solve the problems and issues which she brings into focus. As she states in her conclusion, her exploration of selected current debates raises ‘more questions than it has provided answers’.

For this reviewer, some of those questions are to do with how we can establish processes to draw many more people into talking more about dynamics of discrimination and oppression. Lentin’s rigorous arguments are contributions to establishing the shape of an effective antiracism. It is notable that some of the other thinkers she draws differences with are people who would also be widely identified as progressives, themselves strongly opposed to racism and oppression: Wendy Brown, Nancy Fraser, Asad Haider, Wolfgang Streeck. Of course, there should be no backing off from noticing and defining differences with other people in the work of developing accurate and consistent perspectives as a basis for fighting oppression. The writers and intellectuals whose work Lentin critiques are used to the culture of debate between academic-activists, and will reply, or not, as they think appropriate.

But we also need to develop cultures of discussion on race in civic life, as well as in academia. Here, peoples’ expectations and levels of confidence are different. In local municipalities, communities and voluntary organisations, there are many people with uncertainties, questions, assumptions and understandings about race, and these are often shaped by currently powerful right-wing trends. We need to set up productive opportunities for people to test and develop their opinions in extended dialogue with others. In these contexts, the impulse to quickly and firmly state antiracist positions, and in particular to focus on and address differences of emphasis and methodology amongst antiracists, can have the effect of inhibiting expression. It can block and narrow the debates that we need to open up. Going forward, there will be a need to balance the imperatives of rigorous insistence on precise positions with the craft of encouraging flexibility in dialogue so that, hopefully, we can one day get to a point where someone will be able to write the book on why race no longer matters.

Review published June 2020

Illustration: excerpt from report by Public Health England, ‘Disparities in the risk and outcomes of Covid-19’, published June 2020