Gilroy and Reed on Race, Class & Culture
Publisher: Pandaemonium - Kenan Malik's blog
Date Written: 06/07/2017
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21059
The common theme has been the way that those who call themselves 'progressive' or 'anti-racist' often draw upon ideas that are deeply regressive and rooted in racial ways of thinking; and that the consequences of identity politics and of concepts such as cultural appropriation is to bring about not social justice but the empowerment of those who would act as gatekeeprs to particular communities. The articles have inevitably drawn much hostility, especially from would-be gatekeepers, who insist that to challenge such ideas is to challenge antiracism, even to 'defend white supremacy'.
I am publishing here extracts from two writers, the British sociologist Paul Gilroy and the American political scientist Adolph Reed, both of whom have long explored the relationship between race, class and culture, and both of whom are highly critical of what Gilroy calls 'cultural insiderism' and of the ways in which volkish notions of community and culture have become means to buttress the power of certain elites within minority communities, elites that Reed derides as 'the guild of Racial Spokespersonship'.
The Gilroy excerpt comes from his book The Black Atlantic, a study of the black diaspora, its intellectual history and cultural construction. In this extract he argues that volkish ideas of culture speak to 'the special needs and desires of the relatively privileged castes within black communities'. As he suggests in Darker than Blue, 'black vernacular [culture] no longer belongs to any discrete group and cannot therefore be held under ethno-historical copyright'. Here he asks rhetorically, 'Is this impulse towards cultural protectionism the most cruel trick which the west can play upon its dissident affiliates?'. The desire to 'protect', in other words, draws upon ideas that derive from the European intellectual tradition, but regressive ones, and ones that serve to reinforce racial divisions.
Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is fiercely critical of identity politics and contemporary antiracism, and of their negative impact on the struggle for social justice. This extract comes from his essay 'From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much' in which he explores the meaning of the different reactions from the left to transgender Caitlin Jenner and transracial Rachel Dozel. 'Race politics', he argues here, 's not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism'.
Gilroy and Reed are significantly different in their intellectual approaches and political perspectives. As am I. There is much on which I agree with Gilroy and Reed, and much on which I disagree. But the approach adopted by both, it seems to me, is a far more fruitful means of thinking about inequality and injustice, and of ways of challenging them, than all guff about identity and appropriation.