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Race, pluralism and the meaning of difference

Monday 18 November 2013, by siawi3

New formations, no 33 (spring 1998)

by Kenan Malik

It’s good to be different’ might be the motto of our times. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics - these are regarded the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook. At least in part, the antiracist embrace of difference is fuelled by a hostility to universalism. For most antiracists today, the Enlightenment project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world, and of deriving certain universal principles from fragmented experience, is not only a fantasy, but a racist fantasy. It is a fantasy because the world is too complex and too heterogeneous to be subsumed under a single totalising theory. It is racist because universalism has become a means of imposing Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples and of denying the possibility of non-Western viewpoints. For many antiracists, the intellectual arrogance of universalism has led to the attempt to eliminate not just non-Western thought, but non-Aryan peoples too. The road that began with Enlightenment universalism ended in the Nazi death camps.

I want in this paper to show this to be a naive and dangerous view. Far from establishing a critique of racial thinking, the politics of difference appropriates many of its themes and reproduces the very assumptions upon which racism has historically been based. Most critically, the embrace of difference has undermined the capacity to defend equality. The very title of the final debate at the Frontlines/ Backyards conference - ’Equalities and the politics of difference’ - expresses the problem. Equality cannot have any meaning in the plural. Equality cannot be relative, with different meanings for different social, cultural or sexual groups. If so it ceases to be equality at all, or rather becomes equality in the way racists used to define it - ’equal but different’ - in defending segregation or apartheid. Equality requires a common yardstick, or measure of judgement, not a plurality of meanings.

Richard Rorty has observed that the embrace of diversity and the desire for equality are not easily compatible. For Rorty, those whom he calls ’Enlightenment liberals’ face a seemingly irresolvable dilemma in their pursuit of both equality and diversity:

Their liberalism forces them to call any doubts about human equality a result of irrational bias. Yet their connoisseurship [of diversity] forces them to realise that most of the globe’s inhabitants do not believe in equality, that such a belief is a Western eccentricity. Since they think it would be shockingly ethnocentric to say ’So what? We Western liberals do believe in it, and so much the better for us’, they are stuck.

Rorty himself, a self-avowed ’postmodern bourgeois liberal’, solves the problem by suggesting that equality may be good for ’us’ but not necessarily for ’them’. While few would go as far as this, nonetheless Rorty’s relativist vision of equality has become an implicit part of antiracist theory and practice. The meaning of equality has been rewritten in the cause of diversity. We cannot afford, however, to be so careless with equality, not because it is a concept that ’we Western liberals believe in’, but because it is at the heart of any form of emancipatory politics. Abandoning equality means in effect to abandon the possibility of emancipation. The debate between pluralism and universalism is more than simply of theoretical concern; it relates to fundamental issues about political and social change and it is in this context that I want to discuss the meaning of ’difference’ in contemporary society.

There are three basic points I want to argue in this paper. First, I want to show that ’difference’ has always been at the heart, not of the antiracist, but of the racist agenda. Second, I want to argue that cultural pluralism, far from being a means to liberate the voice of the oppressed, is rooted in the same philosophy that gave rise to the discourse of race. 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 irony in the contemporary embrace of difference is that antiracist hostility to universalism mirrors that of traditional racial theorists. Nineteenth century racial thinkers despised what they regarded as the abstract universalism of Enlightenment thinkers which they believed denied, and even undermined, the concrete reality of human differences. In its stead racial theorists embraced the relative and the particular. Dismissing claims of a universal humanity, they advocated instead the notion that human groups are in profound ways distinct and should be treated accordingly.

French historian and racial thinker Hippolyte Taine mocked the Enlightenment belief that ’men of every race and century were all but identical: the Greek, the barbarian, the Hindoo, the man of the Renaissance, and the man of the eighteenth century as if they had been turned out of a common mould, and all in conformity to a certain abstract conception, which served for the human race.’ Echoing the jibe of Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre that ’I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on... but I must say, as for man, I have never come across him anywhere’, Taine believed that Enlightenment philosophes ’knew man, but not men’: ’They did not know that the moral constitution of a people or an age is as particular or as distinct as the physical structure of a family of plants or an order of animals.’ Or, as the French psychologist and racial scientist Gustav LeBon put it, ’the substitution of relative ideas for abstract notions’ was ’one of the greatest conquests of science’.

The discourse of race arose out of the degradation of Enlightenment universalism, and in particular the espousal of Romantic notions of difference: the belief that humanity can be divided into discrete groups; that each group should be considered in its own terms; that each is incommensurate with the others; that the important relationships in society arise in some way out of the differences between groups; and that equality is a meaningless abstract term. It developed in response to a central contradiction in post-Enlightenment society - the contradiction between an abstract belief in equality and the reality of unequal society.

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 which has accepted the possibility of social equality and a common humanity. The achievement of the Enlightenment was that it helped produce just such a world. Whatever their other differences 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. Again, the debate about slavery that raged through the eighteenth century was rarely a debate about race. With one or two notable exceptions, those who defended of slavery did so not on racial grounds but as a defence of the sanctity of property.

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 feudal 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.

The tolerance, egalitarianism and optimism that characterised the Enlightenment derived, at least in part, from the relative stability of Europe in the first part of the eighteenth century. There existed an almost universal conviction that the social order was static, or at least that change would be orderly and contained. The social upheaval created by coming of market relations upset such convictions and brought into focus the immanent contradictory attitudes of the bourgeoisie towards the idea of equality. Belief in equality was at the heart of the bourgeois political programme. Yet the pursuit of equality threatened to undermine that very political programme, for, as Adam Smith suggested, the defence of private property seemed to require a defence of inequality.

At the same time the emerging capitalist social relations placed constraints upon the extension of equality. Capitalist ideology expressed hostility to the parochial, irrational, nature of feudalism and proclaimed a belief in human equality and a universal society. In practice, however, the particular forms of capitalist society placed limits on the expression of equality. Capitalism destroyed the parochialism of feudal society but it created divisions anew; divisions which, moreover, seemed as permanent as the old feudal ones. As social inequalities persisted in the new society, and acquired the stamp of permanence, so these inequalities began to present themselves as if they were natural, not social.

The discourse of race emerged as a means of reconciling the conflict between the ideology of equality and the reality of the persistence of inequality. 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. Humanity was divided into discrete groups, each with particular properties, and the divisions between the groups were immutable and unchanging. 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. Race came to be the way through which people made sense of the world around them.

There are two important points here. First, the concept of race was not implicit in Enlightenment categories. It emerged out of the interaction between Enlightenment categories and the social relations of emergent capitalist society. The Enlightenment helped establish for the first time, in theory at least, the possibility of human emancipation. But it did so in social circumstances that limited the expression of its emancipatory potential. Where social forces drawing on the logic of Enlightenment discourse had sufficient strength - as, for instance, in the Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint l’Ouverture - they could pursue the goal of equality beyond that envisaged by those who drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man, or the American Declaration of Independence. But where such forces were weak, the contradictory attitude of the capitalist class towards equality ensured that increasing limits were placed upon its expression. The narrative of race is thus also the narrative of the containment of the movements for social emancipation.

The second point that emerges from this discussion is that universalism did not give rise to race; rather the discourse of race developed in opposition to the notions of universalism and rationalism. It was through the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment that racial ideology first found expression. Romantics rejected what they saw as the abstract nature of Enlightenment universalism, and championed instead particularist accounts of human difference. They considered every people to be unique, and that such uniqueness was expressed through a its volksgeist, the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. The idea of volksgeist became transformed into the concept of racial make-up, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential and the basis for division and difference within humankind. At the root of modern racism, therefore, lie not Enlightenment concepts of universality but Romantic visions of human differences.

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 nineteenth-century social Darwinist Herbert Spencer expressed this idea well when he explained how his views differed from that of Enlightenment philosophers:

In early life we have been taught that human nature is everywhere the same... This error we must replace by the truth that the laws of thought are everywhere the same.

For Spencer, therefore, the same, objective social laws operate in every society and culture, but different peoples respond to these objective laws in different ways, 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 (or more specifically the discourse of scientific racism) 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 worlds. Of course the distinction between the two is not a clear cut or straightforward one. Many racial formalists have also denied the possibility of a single truth, while cultural relativists have often accepted the idea of biological differences within humankind. Nevertheless we can perceive in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth a shift from the discourse of race to the discourse of culture which is largely embodied in a shift from a belief in a single world inhabited by different types of humanity to a belief in a single type of humanity inhabiting different cultural or symbolic worlds.

The discourse of race and the discourse of culture both emerged out of the degradation of universalism, but they did so in different ways. Nineteenth century racial theorists, for all their disdain of universalist ideas, maintained nevertheless a belief in the idea of reason as a weapon of social transformation and of social progress as the companion of a teleological history. Given this belief 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, 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.

he 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.

The central figure in the story of the remaking of anthropology was the German American Franz Boas. It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of Boas, not simply on anthropology, but on our everyday perceptions of race, culture and difference. Contemporary ideas of pluralism and multiculturalism, of respect for other cultures, and of the importance of tradition and history are all significant themes in Boas’ work. His legacy, however, like that of pluralism itself, remains an ambiguous one. Boas, and his students such as Melville Herskovitz, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, played a prominent part in the replacement of racial theories of human differences with cultural theories, and in so doing helped undermine the power of scientific racism. Yet the concept of culture Boas helped develop to a large extent rearticulated the themes of racial theory in a different guise. Influenced both by the German Romantic tradition and by a liberal egalitarian view, the problem facing Boas, as the historian George Stocking observes, was how to define the Romantic notion of ’the genius of the people’ in terms other than racial heredity. His answer, ultimately, was the anthropological concept of culture.

Boas’ philosophical egalitarianism and cultural relativism arose from his disillusionment with ’Western’ values. He related in a letter the impact of meeting the Inuit on a field trip to the Arctic:

I often ask myself what advantages our ’good society’ possesses over that of the ’savages’. The more I see of their customs the more I realise we have no right to look down on them... As a thinking person, for me the most important result of this trip lies in the strengthening of my point of view that the idea of a ’cultured’ person is merely relative.

Boas’ disillusionment was at the root of the ambiguity in his treatment of the idea of equality. The revolutionary egalitarianism that arose out of the Enlightenment was positive and forward-looking. From Condorcet to Marx, such egalitarians held that social progress could overcome artificial divisions and differences and reveal our essential commonality. Boas’ egalitarianism arose, on the contrary, from the belief that such progress was not possible. Humanity was equal, not because differences could be overcome, but because every difference was equally valid. But this approach elided ’differences’ and ’inequalities’. What were considered differences between individuals and peoples were in reality the product of social inequalities. For Boas ’equality’ meant the acceptance of the actual inequalities of society but the regarding of these inequalities as different manifestations of a common humanity.

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 to both 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. 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.

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, a disdain for humanism and a philosophical, and occasionally epistemological, relativism.

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 assumption, however, were cast not in biological terms but in the language of cultural pluralism. Pluralism provided a vocabulary with which to articulate 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.

We have seen how the concept of a plural society developed in the prewar years out of anthropological studies of colonial society. In the postwar world it became refashioned in response to the impact of mass immigration into Western societies. Eleven million workers came to Europe in the fifties and sixties, encouraged by an economic boom. In the USA a different kind of mass migration took place - the huge movement of African Americans to the Northern cities in the fifties and sixties. In both cases the newcomers found themselves on the margins of society, subject to racism and discrimination, and unable to gain access to levers of power. The ideology of pluralism developed as an accommodation to the persistence of inequalities despite the rhetoric of integration, assimilation and equality. As immigrant and black communities remained ghettoised, excluded from mainstream society, subject to discrimination and clinging to 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 a plural society. 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.

In the America of the sixties, 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 ’apartness’ of black and immigrant communities in Western Europe is probably not so great as that of African Americas in the USA. Nevertheless, here too pluralism has become a means to avoid debate about the failure of equality. Many young people in Marseilles or East London call themselves Muslim, for instance, less because of religious faith or cultural habits, than because in the face of a hostile, anti-Muslim society, calling oneself Muslim is a way of defending the dignity of one’s community. Young Muslims are often not religious; they have mores and outlooks and habits little different from that of their white peers. But racism imposes difference upon them and forces them to adopt difference themselves. Their Islam is not the free celebration of an identity, but an attempt to negotiate a difficult relationship with a hostile society as best they can. In celebrating such cultural differences, we are danger of celebrating the differences imposed by a racist society, not identities freely chosen by those communities.

I am not, of course, objecting to pluralism in the sense of a society in which there exists the right to free and open political, cultural and religious expression. Rather, what I fear is the one-sided embrace of ’difference’ and denigration of universalistic concepts. The irony is that the blind pursuit of pluralism undermines our capacity to defend those very rights of free expression. Such rights can only be defended through a defence of equality. In an equal society, our universal capacity to act as political subjects can take a myriad of forms, and hence can become the basis of true difference. Indeed, only in an equal society, can difference have any meaning, because it is only here that difference can be freely chosen. In an unequal society, however, the pursuit of difference all too often means the entrenching of inequalities. Inequalities simply become reframed through the discourse of difference. In such circumstances, there is little possibility of true freedom to express one’s political, cultural or religious identities.

A pluralist might reply that the principle of ’difference’ implies a truly radical egalitarianism, because it recognises no standard by which one individual or group can be judged as better than another. But the point is that this principle of difference cannot provide any standards which oblige us to respect the ’difference’ of others. At best, it invites our indifference to the fate of the Other. At worst, it licenses us to hate and abuse those who are different. Why, after all, should we not abuse and hate them? On what basis can they demand our respect or we demand theirs? It is very difficult to support respect for difference without appealing to some universalistic principles of equality or social justice. And it is the possibility of establishing just such universalistic principle that has been undermined by the embrace of a pluralistic outlook.

The dangers of a pluralist outlook are much more acute today. Through much of the postwar period, the pernicious impact of pluralism upon the struggle for equality was kept in check. From liberation struggles in the third world to the civil rights movement in the USA, there were vigorous social struggles for equality. The demise of such struggles over the past decade, however, has 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 - it says little more than ’We live in a diverse world, enjoy it’.

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 fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In particular, they have thrown into question the possibility of social transformation. In this context the quest for equality has increasingly been abandoned in favour of the claim to a diverse society. I suggested previously that the narrative of race was also the narrative of the containment of movements for social emancipation. Much the same may be said about pluralism. The celebration of difference is an intellectual outlook that has been forged out of the seeming impossibility of transforming social relations. It is the product of political defeat, and in particular the product of the defeat of movements for social equality. But the very pursuit of pluralism has itself helped constrain the possibilities of social change, for, in the absence of a universalistic outlook, and in an increasingly fragmented world, the promise of any form of collective action becomes increasingly chimerical. Unless we challenge the blind pursuit of difference, our capacity for meaningful social change will continue to become ever more diminished.

This paper was originally presented to the ’Frontlines / Backyards’ conference, London, July 1996.
For extended discussions of the relationship between ideas of race and pluralism see :
The Meaning of Race:Race History and Culture in Western Society
(Macmillan Press, 1996)
and Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008)