Nice idea, shame about nano-politics

Between Camps
August 18, 2000

Let us get rid of race and think more deeply about real human differences,cultural and political. This proposal comes from Paul Gilroy, a black activist, now a professor at Yale University, who has previously worked in Britain's race industry. But in a world of apartheid, ethnically inspired genocide and an undeclared civil war between the races in the very land Gilroy now calls home, this proposal reads like a futurist fantasy.

Gilroy is not ashamed of his utopian gospel of "planetary humanism": he wants blacks and whites to aspire to "a raceless democracy", "a cosmopolitan utopia". He aspires to a humanism that is planetary, not global: "planetary" (from the Greek planetes, meaning wanderer) better fits his interest in travel and the exiled communities that he believes escape the lure of fascism more effectively than those settled ones who are infatuated with the idea of the fatherland, victims of "the obsession of nationalism".

Gilroy finds racial differences, if these exist, trivial: we might as well classify people "on the basis of their eye colour". Fair enough, but the skin is the largest and most visible of our organs. Besides, even an instinctively private aesthetic preference can have public consequences. Could we not fall in hate for as trivial a reason as we fall in love? Certainly, the record of human history is mostly a record of racial injustice. Racism was the real impulse behind all the great imperial adventures of the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs and the more recent colonialisms of European origin. If we dismiss the concept of race, how do we explain this imperialism, often a civilisational rite of passage for entire cultures? Why do nations feel the need to be holy or special? Is there some innocuous way to satisfy that universal urge? Gilroy does not have time for these puzzles.

There is a crucial distinction Gilroy overlooks despite the length of this essay. The question of the equality of races, assuming there are races, is a political and ethical one. The question about whether or not different races are identical or biologically distinct is a scientific one.Fortunately, recognition of such a distinction has already started in the area of gender.

I had to read the book twice: I could hardly cope with its jargon. And the arguments, where these are intelligible, are gracelessly strenuous. Where the topic is something as universal as race, we expect prose that is accessible and effortlessly urgent. If something is worth saying, it should be said in plain English. Instead, we have a nightmare of nomenclature that reduces the audience and detracts from the rawness of this bloody theme.

Take the opening sentence of part three, "Black to the future": "The period in which genomic raciology articulated nano-politics also involved bitter conflicts over the civic and commercial status of cultural differences." What on earth is "nano-politics"? And "genomic raciology" takes us back to the days when we used words to impress our tutors. Nor is this quotation by any means the worst offender against clarity and the obligation to be intelligible.

Gilroy insists that race is an absurd and anachronistic notion; it is high time we started exploring cultural differences between peoples in the context of a universal, planetary humanism. Ironically, he claims, we can tackle the injustices of racism better if we refuse to think in terms of race in our theories. Gilroy implies that while anti-racist policy may not be incoherent, it is nonetheless infective. But surely minorities need all the help they receive.

Jettisoning existing anti-racist policies, inadequate as these are, does not affect a professor at Yale but it does ruin the lives of unemployed inner-city youth, recovering from drugs problems, whose only hope is some puny government funding for ethnic-minority projects.

Gilroy sees race as a local cultural notion with a long history and no future. But he is impressed by the cultural intelligence of the races who practise racism. The Germans had a surfeit of composers and philosophers; the architect of Sarajevo's ethnic cleansing "wrote eight books on Shakespeare". But need one be impressed by eight books on Shakespeare? Aquinas was fond of the maxim: Timeo hominem unius libri (I fear the man of one book).

Gilroy notes angrily that Americans can gracefully transcend racial differences only against the background of outer space: the first public inter-racial kiss was during an episode of Star Trek. Gilroy criticises blacks for abandoning their earlier radical political ambitions and settling instead for a private liberation through music, sex and sport. He describes mainstream black music and videos so raunchy that one need not subscribe to an adult channel. He laments the way in which the black body has become a symbol of sexual prowess and stamina and is used to sell products.

From cover to cover, Gilroy hungers for "a world that is undivided by the petty differences we retain and inflate by calling them racial". It is an idle wish: it gets us nowhere. No one, outside the securities of academia and the conference hall, will heed his slogans.

Shabbir Akhtar was formerly community relations officer, Bradford City Council.

Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race

Author - Paul Gilroy
ISBN - 0 7139 9144 5
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 406

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