It can be difficult to distinguish the latest woke diktats from the rantings of David Duke. Credit: Thomas Krych/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

January 6, 2023   7 mins

A little more than a year ago, I was sharing a boozy dinner with a prominent conservative pundit when the conversation turned to matters racial. Reflecting on the unrest that had roiled America in the summer of 2020, my companion looked beyond the immediate controversies to venture what he saw as the “real problem”.

White people, he said, have been “too polite” to state obvious racial truths. Like the superiority of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven over all other musical forms and practices. There is no equality between these glories — white glories — and the simplistic rhythms and disconsonant noises that prevail among other peoples (save for East Asians, he granted, who have admirably made Western classical music their own).

I was repulsed. Not, mind you, because I’m any sort of an aesthetic relativist. While liberality demands that we approach each artistic tradition on its own terms, respecting its inner integrity, there finally are objective standards; and by any measure, the Mass in B Minor leaves the drone of the didgeridoo in the Australasian dust. No, what got to me was the weird racialisation of classical music: the idea that Bach & co. embody the achievements not of Christian or even European civilisation, but of the white race, and that this racial “reality” is supposed to bear (unspecified) political consequences.

Race chauvinism is an all too typical “meme” these days, part of a global resurgence of particularism. Ever since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc shuttered the utopian horizon of socialism, questions of belonging and identity have shoved their way back to centre stage, usually at the expense of the more universalist aspirations that used to animate the modern world.

Among the competing particularisms, the dumbest and most pernicious is race particularism. And yet I worry that it’s bubbling just beneath the surface of our “anti-racist” societies, in part as a reaction to the official pieties. If elite institutions applaud assertions of race-and-identity grievance, then why can’t white people celebrate their race and identity, with its ways of knowing and being in the world, its runes and cross stones, its Bach and Beethoven?

Liberalism, the last modern universalism still sort of hobbling along, has increasingly come to rely on racial disparities to perpetuate itself. In their neoliberal form, advanced capitalist economies did away with many of the social-democratic elements that once helped bridge the gaping inequalities in income and power generated by the unrestrained market. But fortunately for those getting rich, any remaining inequalities could be laid at the feet of “discrimination”.

No longer were political-economic explanations sought for social dysfunction, much less political-economic solutions. At its most ludicrous, this tendency impelled supposedly “progressive” institutions to adopt racialised modes of thinking scarcely different from the type of classical-music chauvinism espoused by my dinner companion. Excellence, punctuality, orderliness and objective thinking came to be regarded as “White” values, not to be expected of “Black” people (the capitalisation of these terms required by the new orthography underscored their essential, immutable, and “natural” quality). At times, it became genuinely difficult to distinguish the latest woke diktats — such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s claim that “hard work” is a white value — from the rantings of David Duke.

For Kenan Malik, this strange mirroring, of progressive identity politics and reactionary racism, is no accident. He argues, in his new history of race and racism, Not So Black and White, that both are reactions to one of the Enlightenment’s most persistent and bedevilling paradoxes: the fact that this new order asserted the radical equality of all human beings, and heralded their emancipation in the political sphere, even as it allowed profound inequalities and vicious exploitation in the material, economic sphere.

His history briefly touches on the premodern era before very quickly shifting to the modern. This is for good reason. The premodern world, as he rightly notes, knew tribe, nation, and cult, and it certainly knew prejudice. But race — as a dubious biological category sometimes elevated to the ontological — is distinctly modern. As he writes, “race did not give birth to racism”. Rather, “racism gave birth to race”. It was only after the Enlightenment proclaimed the basic equality of human beings that racism sprung up, as a way to justify the social realities of the post-Enlightenment world, its hierarchies and brutalities.

In Malik’s telling, faced with the tension between their self-proclaimed ideals and the realities of exploitation and colonialism, too many Enlightenment liberals ditched those ideals or narrowed their radius to only certain groups of people: those who looked like themselves.

Immanuel Kant, for example, claimed that the “greatest degree of perfection” lies in the white race, while at the bottom were “the Negroes”, who could at best be trained as “servants”. In between were “yellow Indians”, American natives, and “Moors”. That last group, he advised, should be punished using split canes, rather than sticks, lest their thick skins prevent the blood from finding release. Likewise, even as Thomas Jefferson declared that all men are created equal, the American Founder determined that black people were by “nature” childlike creatures, incapable of abstract thought and fine art.

In the 19th century, these incipient racial attitudes hardened into supposedly “scientific” knowledge. And yet, as Malik shows, the new race “science” was anything but. Why, for example, did early race theorist Johann Blumenbach pioneer the term “Caucasian”? Get ready for the hard science: “I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, because its neighbourhood 
 produces the most beautiful race.” In other words, aesthetic biases were transmuted into “scientific” categories that remain in use among government census-takers and statisticians to this day.

Malik’s book is full of delicious nuggets of the kind, and though his claims about the modern invention of race and racism aren’t news, he must be commended for the sheer accumulation of evidence in their favour. Through it all, he maintains a consistent and compelling argument: that race and racism served as alibis for class-based regimes of domination and exploitation that took hold — again, paradoxically — in the wake of the Enlightenment.

Slavery in the American South, for example, was racialised after the fact, as a way to break alliances between European indentured servants and African slaves, and to legitimate the greater use of slaves (whose bondage had no limits). In Europe, meanwhile, as capitalist development necessitated imperial expansion, good Enlightenment liberals increasingly adopted racialised claims about the need for the higher races to discipline the lower.

In the imperial cores, meanwhile, they came to treat their own outwardly “white” working classes as a different race. Indeed, race “scientists” ranked various European peoples according to the different quotients of Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean mojo that supposedly coursed in their veins; it just so happened that the Irish were found to have an outsize portion of Mediterranean “genes” — a fact that naturally explained their subjugation.

Even within individual European countries, the working classes came to be coded as black in their supposed laziness and antisocial nature. An item in The Daily Telegraph, for example, lamented that “there are a good many negroes in Southampton, who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe”; the paper, to be clear, was referring to the overwhelmingly white English working class.

Perhaps his most discomfiting argument — discomfiting in its unassailability — is that Nazi Germany didn’t rupture the ordinary development of Euro-American ideas on race and equality, but fulfilled them. Long before the National Socialists set out on their racial project, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the moral rightness of subjugating Native Americans, for they were “but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than
 wild beasts”. In the Congo, Namibia, Australia, and, yes, British India, good liberals carried out their “compulsion to civilize”, as Malik puts it, with unspeakable tortures and mass atrocities.

America, especially, provided a racial template for the Nazis. The 1934 National Socialist Handbook for Law and Legislation noted that “the dominant political ideology in the USA must be characterised as entirely liberal and democratic” made it “all the more astonishing how extensive race legislation is”. The premier Nazi scholar of American law admired its “artificial line-drawing”, which dealt with the problem of “mongrels” by dividing the entire population into two groups, “whites and coloreds”, without fretting too much about details. In places, Nazi jurists felt American laws went too far, such as the rule that people with even a drop of “negro blood” are to be treated as black.

Did this affinity — between the world’s leading liberal regimes and their National Socialist foil in World War II — represent a betrayal of Enlightenment values? Yes and no, per Malik. The Enlightenment, he argues, may have inaugurated the modern ideology of race, but it also set forth the premises necessary to emancipate people from all arbitrary hierarchies.

The problem was that the radical, anti-racist Enlightenment of, say, a Diderot was eclipsed by the more moderate posture of a Burke or an Adam Smith, which was prepared to accept domination in the name of pragmatism and even “progress”. And as the liberatory promises of the Enlightenment crashed on the rocky shores of capitalist political economy, with its need for colonial expansion, darker racial sentiments took hold, as did the impulse for national purification and separation.

It fell to others — to Europe’s victims — to bring Enlightenment ideas to their logical conclusion. The heroes of Malik’s book are the “black Jacobins” of the Haitian revolution as well as C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, and even Malcom X in his later years. These were figures who saw — or in time came to see — that class and economic exploitation form the more fundamental power relationship in modern society. Race, in many ways, works to legitimate class-based domination and, especially in the United States, to forestall the emergence of a cross-racial labour movement.

Progressive identity politics, he suggests, obsessed with “cultural appropriation” and language-policing, harkens back to old ideas of racial separateness. It, too, helps forestall class solidarity across skin colour. At one point, Malik notes archly that one of the earliest “Black Power” conferences, in the Nixon era, was sponsored by
 makeup brand Clairol.

Malik’s class-based analysis is largely correct: once you notice how 21st-century identity politics helps uphold today’s neoliberal political economy — offering diversity in the boardroom, but not living wages, good health care, and safe retirement — you can also see how the 19th-century variety served to uphold that era’s class-based hierarchies.

In the face of this, what is desperately needed is a more robust universalism, capable of generating and sustaining solidarity across cultural divides. Malik puts his hope in the ideals of the radical Enlightenment. Yet as he concedes early on, the Enlightenment notion of equality is socially constructed — that is, it rests on a social, rather than metaphysical, claim made about the radically free and equal status of all members of the human race. That’s good, so far as it goes, but as his masterful history shows, it often didn’t go very far. Indeed, these very same claims about progress and liberation came to form the basis of new dominations.

I wonder if the way forward lies (partly) in going back, in recovering what the moderns too rashly swept aside. In his early chapter on the premodern, pre-race world, Malik notes in passing that the Enlightenment made explicit a universalism that was always “implicit” in Christianity. In fact, Christian universalism is very much explicit. In the secularised West, it’s easier said than done, but having endured the modern horrors of racism, it might be worth taking inspiration from the universalism that proclaims that there really is “neither Jew nor Greek”. As I shudder at sentiments like those of my dinner companion, which seem to be rising, I take great comfort in the presence, however residual, of a religious doctrine that human beings share fraternity, not according to social construct, but owing to a common, divine paternity.

Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact and author of the forthcoming Tyranny, Inc: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What To Do About It