The colour purpose

Race - The Meaning of Race
March 21, 1997

W. E. B. DuBois's prophetic remark, issued in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Fold, that the "color line" would dominate the 20th century has proved all too accurate. The authors of Race and The Meaning of Race, although different in their style, maintain that racial politics are premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of the category "race".

In a sweeping and ambitious survey of the concept of race from the ancient world to the 20th century, Ivan Hannaford argues that the modern notion of the term is misconstrued. Our conception of race is a garbled post-Enlightenment one, injected with an inaccurate historical content: "the Greek account of the differences between the peoples of Greece, Asia Minor, and Ethiopia was based on criteria entirely different from those introduced into Greece by interpreters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries". Confusion is located in the Enlightenment period when scholars systematically confounded their own conception of race with that of the ancient world.

In Hannaford's view, when the Greeks and Romans allude to social distinctions they had in mind hierarchies based on different categories, principally that of the capacity to engage in politics. For Hannaford, the "mutual antipathy between Greek and barbarian shown in the work of Herodotus is not about the innate superiority of one over the other. It is about the fundamental nature of political life and the moral axioms that ought to guide it". Furthermore, the Popperian version of Plato's Republic as a treatise for selective breeding misreads that text: "the discussion of breeding is not a recommendation for eugenic action but a model against which states may be compared to see whether they come close to the abstract Idea of the most just and most rational."

Nineteenth and 20th-century racists embraced the alleged racial hierarchies of the ancient world writers, wilfully discrediting the corresponding conception of the political state and its expectations about citizenship. As Hannaford argues, "antiquity gave to Western civilisation an idea of politics and a concept of liberty under the law that were, in the 19th century, increasingly held up to ridicule."

Hannaford's book is ambitious and worthwhile. It is also badly edited. In his 400-page tome, the author engages in a relentless examination of writers which reads, at many points, as a prolix review article. In the space of one ten-page section, the reader encounters reviews of Hobbes, Locke, Boulanvilliers, Dubos and Montesquieu; and in a mere three pages Hannaford dispatches Schiller, Goethe, Fichte, Hegel and von Schelling. The reader wonders why this frenetic pace was not corrected by an editor at Johns Hopkins University Press. Inevitably some of this reportage appears undigested, and Hannaford explicates texts without explaining their relevance to his thesis. It exposes also the author's concentration upon the history of ideas to the exclusion of or quite often insufficient or unsatisfactory treatment of, political, social and economic factors affecting those ideas. He makes valiant attempts to record some of the historical context within which the distortions of ideas about race occur but these are insufficiently dense to pack analytical punch.

Hannaford gives little attention to the writings of black thinkers. Consequently, the political significance of the concept of race for those who most experience its fetters is neglected. There is no doubt that this has been a heavy lot to bear and that Hannaford's claim about the spurious basis of such distinctions is well founded. But wrong or bad science hardly precludes malevolent politics.

Hannaford rejects any policies premised on difference. This stance shows, however, a lack of empathy with and understanding of the whole black American separatist movement from Booker T. Washington to the Nation of Islam. Hannaford may, for good reasons, dislike this tendency but his intellectual framework prevents him from understanding why it has developed and acquired political significance. He lambasts Gunnar Myrdal's great work, An American Dilemma, for reifying instead of eradicating the sociological conception of race and embodying all the flaws Hannaford ascribes to modern usage of the term. Hannaford excoriates Myrdal: "I believe that the race relations approach of the social engineers has outlived its purpose and needs to be fundamentally reevaluated in terms of contemporary reality". It is ironic that his discussion of American race relations is dominated by the account presented in Myrdal's work rather than by reference to the words and arguments of the people about whom the Swedish scholar was writing. It also belittles the decisive influence of Myrdal's study in bringing civil and voting rights to African Americans in the United States.

In his important and readable book, The Meaning of Race, Malik covers some similar ground to Hannaford though his starting point is the Enlightenment inheritance. Malik also wants to denude the idea of race of its intellectual and scientific pretensions given the irrefutable findings of modern genetics: "Race exists only as a statistical correlation, not as an objective fact. The distinction we make between different races is not naturally given but is socially defined". He finds that many well-intentioned writers on race damagingly assume its sociological validity. Thus, Malik notes that Julian Huxley and Alfred Hadden's text, We Europeans, despite objecting to assumptions of racial superiority or inferiority, "maintained a distinction between the scientific study of race and the social meaning of race". These premises were uncritically imitated and reproduced in United Nations and Unesco statements on race.

Malik argues that race assumed sociological significance as a mechanism with which to offset the insatiable demands for equality generated by the Enlightenment. He argues that "'race' developed as a way of explaining the persistence of social divisions in a society that proclaimed its belief in equality". Social conflicts are racialised, both within society and between the West and non-western worlds. Malik demonstrates this tenet in his excellent discussion of the underclass.

Malik makes a cogent case for universalism, ardently rejecting the claims that have built up around the politics of difference. In common with Hannaford, Malik criticises the race relations "industry". Yet he is conscious of the urgency of careful consideration of race, recognising that the sorts of internecine conflicts manifest in the postcommunist societies are likely to exacerbate rather than reduce racial demarcations, however sociological. He argues, gloomily, that "race is becoming the lens through which is refracted our understanding of society".

Intellectually and politically, these two books mark important statements. Both authors are challenging, in Malik's case more explicitly and powerfully, the way in which race is deployed as a category in public policy and social science. They conjoin with many others in dismissing the significance of biological distinctions in place of the sociological meaning ascribed to race. For Hannaford, in particular, the idea that race relations can be improved through rational discourse and education is a vapid one because this view buttresses the false concept of race entrenched since the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see how the view of race favoured by both authors can be disseminated other than through education. It is also poor consolation for those citizens who daily experience racial discrimination and the realities of DuBois's "color line".

Desmond King is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

Race: The History of an Idea in the West

Author - Ivan Hannaford
ISBN - 0 8018 5223 4
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 448

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments