Hearing around corners

April 21, 2000

Paul Gilroy wants to kill off the concept of race and ditch anti-racist policies. Nick Groom meets the 'professor of hip-hop' to talk about why black nationalists will hate his most recent book and why the research assessment exercise is 'bollocks'.

Paul Gilroy is a great bear of a man crowned with dreadlocks a yard long. He has been a DJ and a music journalist, although he is currently professor of African-American studies and sociology at Yale University, having recently been brain-drained from Goldsmiths College, London, and he is just about to publish the final volume in his trilogy on race, identity and nationalism.

Between Camps follows the acclaimed There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack and The Black Atlantic but, unlike them, does more than simply stir up black-and-white thinking about racial identity. This is a challenge to reject race as a valid way of thinking in the 21st century.

We meet for Sunday brunch at the Noho Star in New York City. Gilroy is proposing a renunciation of the whole concept of race, which he calls "absurd" and "anachronistic". "I think we'd do better politics without it andI a better job of dealing with the injuries that race has created if we could divest ourselves of the idea of race."

This means dispensing with anti-racist policy as well: "I don't think that any policy of anti-racism makes sense." Anti-racism is not only simplistic in promoting oppositions such as victim and victimiser; its very vocabulary depends on racist definitions.

Gilroy argues that race is a cultural idea and has a history, but that this history has been mystified whenever race has been turned into a universal concept. His alternative to discriminating by skin colour is to explore cultural differences between individuals in the context of "planetary humanism".

His new book is, then, idealistic and utopian, and it looks forward a long way. "That's true, and it probably fails and I'll probably get kicked; but you know what, I don't care because you have to write the books you want to read. People got Black Atlantic and I never thought anybody would - and I wrote that in a very lonely way, but that was maybe too easily assimilated, so I've tried to reach a point now of hearing around corners." This image neatly expresses Gilroy's sense that he is trying to catch a notion of what the future could be, and to use this as an opportunity to move things in new directions. "I want to expand the way in which we understand history - if the 20th century was the century of the colour line, what next?" In Between Camps, Gilroy also wanted to write for an audience his son's age, disrupting some of the ways in which the next generation might understand the 20th century. This ambition partly explains the generous range of reference and stylistic technique. Gilroy moves between elegiac autobiographical passages and an ideological analysis of the Nazi uses of mass communication, from an impassioned examination of the Stephen Lawrence case to deconstructing pronouncements of the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Still, this "professor of hip-hop", as he has been called, is quick to say that he does not uncritically endorse such music. "Rap comes up in this book not because I love it but because I feel it's been corrosive and destructive for everybody, it is corporate multi-culture that has ****-all to do with black American culture. I could see the damage it was doing in my neighbourhood in England, and I can see the damage it does here in New York."

Behind much of Gilroy's thinking lies a sustained analysis of fascism. One contention of Between Camps is that conflicts with fascism have contributed to the formation of our multicultural society, and so fascism is submerged under contemporary thinking. Gilroy argues that it is not only neo-Nazi groups but any overtly nationalistic movement that signals a threat. Fascism flourishes, he says, wherever innocent identity is inflated by the romances of race, nation and ethnic brotherhood. "I wanted to find a benign way of showing people what it means to be enamoured of power, or sameness, or national solidarity through that desire for innocence. Everyone can understand that desire - what I say is when you encounter it in yourself, let the alarm bells ring because that is the point at which you are in danger."

This is why he wants Between Camps to provoke debate: "Nationalists of all kinds will hate it - a lot of black nationalists, even Jewish nationalists," and he smiles, "I'd like to think a few English and European nationalists will hate it too."

Gilroy argues against sameness: he holds that identity is a process and not fixed. He desires, in effect, a revolution of everyday life; a rejection of allegiance to a corporate logo, or a nation or a race. Instead, he argues, try to enjoy a shared sense of changing identity.

Indeed, Gilroy received considerable abuse from black nationalists for Black Atlantic: "A lot of what made me turn to study fascism was seeing the violence they were turning on me and wondering where that came from. Why did people feel free to unleash that violence on dissent towards their particular forms of nation-building?" Black American culture, he argues, is proposed by its adherents simply as "black": a theory of nation-building and national consciousness - "the same imperatives that European fascism deployed".

But Gilroy's reading of European fascism is really historical. He analyses the processes by which non-whites have been written out of certain accounts of the war (including the liberation of concentration camps) and develops this into an account of the relationship of the black to the Jewish experience, based on the links between colonial killing and genocide. It was Olaudah Equiano who in the 18th century first suggested this affinity, but the key point for Gilroy is that both groups became focuses for redefining race: moving racial identities beyond skin into family history, legal status and scientific experimentation. Indeed, Gilroy dismisses activities such as the Human Genome Project as profoundly facile in many of their suppositions and symptomatic of science's naivety. "People like (University College London geneticist) Steve Jones are very casual in the way they allow race discourse to live on in their pronouncements. When they're prepared to start engaging in the history of scientific discourse on the subject of race in a critical manner - its own history of complicity - then I'll start worrying about what they have to say."

The Holocaust itself is glimpsed at many moments in Between Camps, and it gave Gilroy the book's title. He sees the camp (a temporary ghetto) as characteristic of 20th-century politics of space, and thus a place to understand various moral and philosophical pressures. This connection brought him back to the idea of diaspora - dispersed communities surviving as minorities scattered across countries - that he has been thinking about since his PhD. "Diaspora promotes the idea of what I call a different ecology of belonging. The different ways peoples have dodged or worked with the problem of the nation-state have implications for how we understand the idea of culture itself." Which is why he sees diasporic communities as ways of escaping totalitarian systems, and why he suggests they might be seen collectively as a "planetary humanism."

"I try to play off 'planetary' against 'global' because planetary is about travelling - that's what the word 'planet' means. It's an alternative to the sedentary ways of understanding culture rooted in a place."

Gilroy remains a moving target himself. He is writing two very different books - both about England, although he is glad to be out of the place at the moment: "There's a lot of creative stuff going on, but these impulses are strangled at birth by the general meltdown of British higher education. Nobody asks me at Yale what I want to teach, nobody asks me to fill out a form hardly, there's no research assessment exercise - there's none of that bollocks, so you can free your brain to do some thinking."

Perhaps more immediately frustrating, Gilroy is missing the campaign for London mayor: in particular "not being able to mouth off in support of Ken Livingstone". Gilroy worked for the Greater London Council for three years when he could not get an academic job after completing his doctorate at Birmingham. "There was a sense that this was a radical administration and there would be a chance to do things, many of which, like changing the relationship between the police and the government (on which Gilroy published policy papers after the Brixton riots), are now mainstream Labour Party policy." Naturally mild-mannered as he is, Gilroy's time on the GLC also perhaps inspired in him the possibility of political action at the intellectual level, which has become the justification of his academic career. He may be biding his time, but my guess is he will be back in London one day. Gilroy hints that he is already sharpening his polemic for the next general election.

Nick Groom is a visiting professor at Stanford University, California. Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race (Pounds 22.50) is published by Allen Lane on May 25. Gilroy will be in conversation with Gary Younge at the Purcell Room, Royal Festival Hall on May 13. Box office: 020 7960 4242.

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