Kenan Malik considers why race is back on the modern social agenda?
The idea of race has returned in a big way to scientific research and medical practice. Where once only the lunatic fringe embraced racial ideas, now they have become the currency of distinguished, mainstream thinkers.
• The US government has licensed a heart drug to be used only on African Americans.
• Anthropologists have developed software to determine an individual’s race from the shape of his skull.
• A genetic study suggests that white Britons are genetically distinct and can trace their ancestry back to a few hundred Stone Age hunters who lived here some 14,000 years ago.
This shift has led to a fierce debate about the scientific meaning of race, with some geneticists suggesting that ‘there is no such thing as race’, while others insisting that recent research has ‘documented biological differences between the races’. It has also led to a debate about whether scientists should investigate racial differences at all, with many worrying about a return to old-fashioned racial science, of the kind that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became the justification for savagery and genocide, culminating in the Holocaust.
One reason that we have such difficulty with the idea of race is that while human populations are not usually naturally created groups, but have been forged through social and historical developments, there are, nevertheless, biological consequences to being a member of such groups.
There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ human population because migration, intermarriage, war, and many other social, economic and religious factors have all helped transform the genetic character of human groups. Yet, many of the ways in which we customarily group people socially – by race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, and so on - are not arbitrary from a biological point of view. Members of such groups usually intermarry more often than they marry members of other groups and two members of any such group are likely to be biologically closer than two people chosen at random from across groups. The difference will only be slight, but it can, nevertheless, be useful sometimes in medical and scientific research. The danger is that such research can be taken as suggesting that there is something ‘natural’ and deep-seated about the differences between such groups. And this is why many anti-racists want to stop scientific research into racial differences.
Out of the mouths of liberals
The irony in this is that racial talk today is as likely to come out of the mouths of liberal anti-racists as of reactionary racial scientists. Today few people believe that races exist in the old-fashioned sense of clearly delineated groups of people each with a special, essential quality. Rather, the idea of race expresses today a much vaguer belief about the importance of human differences, a sense that what matters are our particular identities, and that preserving and celebrating such differences and identities is essential to the healthy functioning of human societies.
And such a celebration of difference has today become the hallmark, not of old-fangled, reactionary racism, but of modern, liberal anti-racism. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics - these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies.
The old arguments about race have become recycled through new ideas about culture and identity. Take, for instance, the current mania for genealogy. For many, the tracing of family history has become a fundamental act of recovering an authentic identity, an attitude that is helping rehabilitate racial ideas about human differences.
In October 2003 Rachel Hunt and Matthew Barrett got married. And they traced their genetic background ‘to bring something from their ancestral roots into the ceremony’ so they could understand ‘who they are and where their culture comes from’. Where once black identity might have been seen as a cultural or a political expression, now it is increasingly seen as genetic heritage, inextricably linking race, culture and identity.
The new language of diversity
The changing concept of identity has provided new opportunities for racists who now use the language of diversity rather of racial superiority. Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party, talks of the need to protect ‘white history and heritage’ and insists that only those who can ‘trace our ancestry… through to the tribes who came to what is now the British Isles at the end of the last Ice Age’, are true Britons. Any later migrants are ‘colonists’. A BNP member interviewed for BBC Radio’s Newsbeat programme decried racial integration on the grounds that ‘If everybody integrated it would take away everybody's identity.’
What all this suggests is that we worry too much today about scientific research into racial differences but not enough about the ways in which cultural ideas of identity are helping resurrect racial concepts of human differences. The irony is that it is not so much reactionary racial scientists but liberal anti-racists whose ideas should give us cause for concern.
Kenan Malik is a lecturer, broadcaster and author, whose publications include Strange Fruit (2008), Man, Beast and Zombie (2000), and The Meaning of Race (1996).
Find out why Kenan Malik believes that when it comes to the modern language of race, liberals and the far right share more similarities than differences by downloading the The New Language of Diversity PDF.
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