Abolishing Race in Theory?

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Bill Mullen

Against Race
by Paul Gilroy (Harvard University Press, 2000) 406 pages,
$26.95 hardcover, $16.95 paperback.

PAUL GILROY’S THE Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) was probably the most influential academic book on race published in the 1990s. Gilroy’s study of political and cultural routes of the African diaspora popularized the theory of “hybridity,” a description of migration, ethnic mixing and border crossing as markers of identity.

Gilroy posed his theory as an alternative to Marxism, which, he argued, failed to adequately capture or describe the traumas and aspirations of Black experience. This was interesting given that Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois, the two most famous Black Communists in U.S. history, were offered as case studies of Gilroy’s diasporic idea. Gilroy in fact never cites Marx or Marxism in the index to The Black Atlantic.

In 2000 Gilroy published Against Race. The book is primarily an examination of the legacy of fascism. It attacks “essentialist” ideas about race, i.e. scientific, political or ideological definitions of race that are absolutist.

Gilroy argues that Nazism, by fixing ideas about race to biology — what Gilroy calls “biopolitics” — determined later ways race has been represented by both racists and non-racists. He demonstrates how fascist thought has influenced Black nationalist politics, and how in contemporary popular culture Black “identity” is often defined through graphic representation of the body.

Fascism thus creates its own forms of resistance which partake of what he calls “raciology,” the preservation of false, destructive or denigrating myths and ideas about race.

Abolishing Race in Theory

Gilroy is uneasy about this and argues that a new understanding of race is necessary. Particularly appalled by the prevalence of “epidermal” definitions of race in color conscious America, he calls for a “credible, postanthropological, and resolutely nonracial humanism.” Its foundation is the elimination of racial thinking and the abolition of the category of race.

There are several key sources for this idea. One is the writings of Frantz Fanon. Gilroy frequently invokes Fanon’s appeal for a “new man” (sic) as a figure who will transcend not only fascist but colonialist definitions of the human.

Another is cultural work that goes beyond what he calls “lazy essentialism.” Gilroy offers the mixed-race example of Bob Marley, whose music floods the planet from American malls to Chinese nightclubs, as diaspora’s potential for providing liberating examples of hybridity.

A third source is the utopian longing for Black freedom of colored intellectuals of the World War II and Bandung generation of the 1950s. Gilroy argues that the writings of Richard Wright, Fanon and W.E.B. Du Bois provide examples of a “distinctive cosmopolitan culture” that resists raciological thinking.

Their personal negotiations as Black outsiders to the West, their questioning of racial and other forms of nationalism, and their adamant opposition to racism everywhere is a model for what he, and other writers on race, should aspire to.

Alternative to Marxism?

As in The Black Atlantic, Gilroy’s humanism is also offered as an alternative to a Marxist analysis of race. He in fact launches his argument by subtly discrediting Marxism. He does this through critical shorthand and punning.

In the only reference to their writing in the entire book, he argues that “Marx and Engels appropriated the idea of political solidarity in opposition to the power of nation-states when, at the start of The Communist Manifesto, they described the world they saw progressively divided `into two great hostile camps . . . facing each other.’”

He continues, “The class-based identification of the countryless proletarians was thus also a matter of camp-thinking — a mode of solidarity so powerful that it broke the historic allegiance of their universal class, industrial workers, to its respective national bourgeoisies. They saw antagonistic social forces more profound than those of the nation constituted in this distinctive arrangement.” (83).

Gilroy does not diagnose or apply Marx and Engels’ theory of class struggle and bourgeois nationalism. Rather, he proceeds to assign a “camp” mentality to a wide range of thinkers about race and national identity, those drawn “by the lore of blood, bodies, and fantasies of absolute cultural identity.” (83)

These include fascists, hyper-nationalists, scientific racists, eugenicists, cultural nationalists, fundamentalists — everyone who is “for” the idea of race which Gilroy is against.

Those familiar with The Communist Manifesto may be surprised by Gilroy’s use of Marx. Assigning Marxism the historical responsibility of creating “camp” mentalities subtly aligns it in his argument with the history of racism.

Appropriating Fanon

Gilroy was raised in the United Kingdom, and his previous books like There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation and The Black Atlantic were critical of both the British right wing (for its racism) and the British intellectual Left, including E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams and other founding members of British Cultural Studies, for not addressing race as a key element in British life. (The British edition of Against Race is titled Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race.)

Gilroy’s long battles against racism have influenced his interpretations of European radicalisms so that the two have become conjoined in his critical imagination.

Thus, Gilroy spends a good deal of time in Against Race favorably quoting Frantz Fanon while referring to the “indiscreetly anti-Marxist spirit” of his work. This despite the fact that Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon’s most influential book, takes as its frontispiece to its last chapter a passage from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire.

In fact Marx helped Fanon articulate the Hegelian idea that one epoch must give way to another; that the colonial era of the “wretched of the earth” demanded a “new man” conceivable only after a social revolution productive of a revolution of human consciousness.

This was Fanon’s own program for escaping what he called the “two camps: the white and the black.” Gilroy wants the new man, but cannot wed himself to Fanon’s (much less Marx’s) call to revolution. This is because Fanon’s work, he writes, “becomes less than helpful precisely because his thinking remains bound to a dualistic logic we must now abjure.”

Antiracists For What?

Thus when Gilroy asks of himself (and his readers), “What, after all, are antiracists in favor of? What are we committed to and how does it connect with the necessary moment of negativity that defines our political hopes?” he admits, “There are difficulties in framing those objectives, utopian and otherwise.”

Well, sure there are. But what a reader really wants from a polemic with a commendable idea like Against Race is some understanding of where, for lack of better words, ideas can intervene in the real world.

Unfortunately, the closer he comes to offering definition of effective antiracism, the further Gilroy tends as a writer and thinker towards abstraction, a move he ironically acknowledges has helped to create the symbolic matrix of ideas about race and racism he is trying to destroy.

This passage from Against Race, for example, is pretty close to Gilroy’s thesis:

“As an alternative to the metaphysics of `race,’ nation, and bounded Culture coded into the body, diaspora is a concept that problematizes the Cultural and historical mechanics of belonging. It disrupts the fundamental Power of territory to determine identity by breaking the simple sequence of Explanatory links between place, location, and consciousness. It destroys the Naive invocation of common memory as the basis of particularity in a similar Fashion by drawing attention to the contingent political dynamics of Commemoration . . .

“. . . Consciousness of diaspora affiliation stands opposed to the distinctively modern structures and modes of power orchestrated by the institutional complexity of nation-state. Diaspora identification exists outside of and sometimes in opposition to the political forms and codes of modern citizenship . . .” (123-124)

Why discuss race, nation and culture as “metaphysics”? What, exactly, are “mechanics of belonging?” Is the link between place, location and consciousness as “simple” as Gilroy asserts?

As Brent Edwards has written of Gilroy’s work, “One is left uncertain about what `the African diaspora’s consciousness of itself’ might refer to — where that self-awareness might be located.” (61)

Charging “Ethnic Absolutism”

This problem of dislocated ideas is underscored by Gilroy’s tendency to dismiss or abstract other contemporary ideas about race. In both The Black Atlantic and Against Race Gilroy has indiscriminately accused almost everyone besides himself of holding essentialist, nationalist or pluralist ideas about race.

Gilroy inveighs in The Black Atlantic, for example, against “the ethnic absolutism that currently dominates black political culture.” It is difficult to square the variegated ideas about Blackness of artists like Issac Julien, Julie Dash, Toni Morrison, the Wu Tang Klan, and writers like Robin D.G. Kelly, Wahneema Lubiano, bell hooks and others with “ethnic absolutism.”

In Against Race Gilroy likewise slights or ignores a wide range of ongoing theories and practices against racial absolutism: from academic work in Ethnic Studies among Chicano/a, Asian-American, African-American and postcolonial scholars, to the politics of anti-globalization, to indigenous environmental movements in the developing world, to the ongoing interracial struggles on the streets of the United States, many of them led by Marxists, socialists and others on the Left.

To his credit, Gilroy does sharply criticize the cynical use of American multiculturalism and pluralism to promote benign liberal reform — he refers to pluralism as a “strategic” essentialism.

But Gilroy refuses a clear definition of a political praxis along the lines of Vijay Prashad in his recent book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asia and the Myth of Cultural Purity. That book is also about race, hybridity and diaspora. Yet Prashad chooses a redistribution of resources over what Gilroy calls “planetary humanism” as the desired outcome of an anti-racist politics.

Prashad, too, attacks what he calls liberalism of the skin, but recognizes anti-essentialism as a mere first step towards the dismantling of what he calls “frozen privilege” and unequal power relations. This difference points out what Gilroy loses by caricaturing the history of materialist, socialist and Communist work against race.

Moral Contempt

Gilroy’s idea of “planetary humanism” is relief — one might call it false consciousness — from the contradictions under capitalism which, he points out, have often brutalized African-Americans.

For example, Gilroy argues that the recent global commodification of Black culture (like rap music videos) also recalls the fascist aestheticization of difference. So considered these artifacts “retain the power to destroy any possibility of hu<->man mutuality and cosmopolitan democracy.”

Gilroy supports his argument by reading the recurring image of the “dog” in rap. About Snoop Dog, he writes, “His low-down, dirty, animal self directs critical attention to the difficult zones where some people fall through the cracks in the Kantian moral edifice into the fiery pit of infrahumanity.”

Yet Gilroy’s discomfort with doggy style comes through primarily as a form of moral contempt. He laments that graphic sex has replaced erotic love (or at least romance) in African American popular music. A la Cornel West, he uses the language of “nihilism” to describe the abjection rap music at times performs.

This liberal humanist critique dressed up as post-anthropological idealism does not offer a way of seeing past the infrahumanity about which Gilroy rages. A fundamentally conservative way to talk about race and culture, to quote Prashad, it “refuses to accept that biology is destiny, but it smuggles in culture to do much the same thing.” (Prashad, xi)

Gilroy’s book is useful as a powerful indictment of racial orthodoxies and political myopias, and as in The Black Atlantic Gilroy’s challenges to shopworn identify politics enliven possibility for new discussions in the field of Ethnic Studies. But his own vulgar anti-Marxism is a drag.

Celebrating “Rootless Cosmopolitanism”

Gilroy returns to the relationship between Fascism and Black diaspora in the final pages of >Against Race. He invokes the World War II era exploits of Josephine Baker, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, along with jazz music, as demonstrating the persistence of freedom in the face of fascism. “These histories of rootless cosmopolitanism,” he writes, “become a catalyst for the multiculture of the future.”

Several things need to be said about Gilroy’s closing argument. First, cosmopolitanism suggests an attempt to mystify the threat to diasporic culture Gilroy elsewhere clearly identifies in his book: global capitalism.

Gilroy won’t take seriously enough the ideological link between the current phase of U.S. economic and cultural imperialism and the totalitarian impulses that precede it; in keeping with his cosmic rhetoric he refers to it euphemistically as the “planetarization of profit.”

Secondly, celebrating “rootless” cosmopolitanism obscures rather than sharpens the role of nations and nationalism as dominant elements in the production of racist theory and practice. Here perhaps Gilroy should be more candid and intellectually honest in his citation of Marx and Engels.

Gilroy borrows Marxism’s own optimism for a “universal” proletarian class to challenge bourgeois nationalism only to re-write it as a metaphor for “cosmopolitan” diasporic culture. That is why it becomes predictive of a “multiculture of the future” and not something a little more dangerous.

Finally, Gilroy fails to explain why we should root for a “multiculture” of the future at all. The one we have, he argues, is responsible for preserving fascism’s legacy of festishizing difference and preserving raciological thinking.

By the logic of his own argument, writing against race should mean writing against multiculturalism, past, present or future.

Gilroy’s avoidance of contradictions within his own argument leads him into a intellectual dead end in Against Race. Gilroy would be a much more effective critic of racism and its discontents if he would face squarely his own tendency to red-baiting and his distortion of the contributions to Marxist and socialist theory and practice by many of the Black radicals from whom he builds his writing: Fanon, Mandela, C.L.R. James, Richard Wright, Bob Marley, W.E.B. Du Bois.

Gilroy might also spend more time thinking about women in the diaspora. Many feminist critics before and since the publication of The Black Atlantic have offered profound and important studies of women’s migration and politics in diaspora, and the ways “biopolitics” play out not just across the color line but the gender line.

The Real World

Gilroy’s argument for a “planetary” view of race would also be more compelling if he were to wrench free from the U.S-Africa-Europe Atlantic paradigm for discussing it. So much of the world is occluded in his Black Atlantic map.

Finally, more attention to the diasporic flow of human capital — not culture <197>across real borders might also flesh out the “biopolitics” practiced every day against migrants, refugees, day laborers, mothers, sweatshop workers and others who are contemporary modernity’s “rootless” cosmopolitans.

The people who die in freight cars and deserts and organize in barrios and hillsides far away from the metropole are also “against race” as Gilroy describes it. But their lives are testimony to something critical theory and writers against race should be for: a program of social justice not afraid to face with sober senses the way people live in the face of something as terrifying and immediate as the legacy of fascism.

Other Works Cited:

Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Uses of Diaspora. Social Text 66. Spring 2001. V.19, n.1., 45-74.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Prashad, Vijay. Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity<D>. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

ATC 102, January-February 2003