Review: Retelling race and critiquing identity politics

by Anneke Demanuele • Published 30 October 2023

Kenan Malik, Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics, Hurst, 2023.

“White freedom”. “Black betrayal”. “Stay in your lane”. To be antiracist in the twenty-first century is to view political values in racial terms; to insist that if one is reactionary, one has lost the privilege of being black; to erect racial boundaries beyond which certain people should not step. Where once anti-racists might have seen these as prescriptions to challenge, now they are regarded as edicts to embrace. And where once antiracists saw their mission as combating racism, now many see it as confronting whiteness. (p.236)

In Not So Black and White, Kenan Malik puts forward a radical challenge to the identity politics that dominates the left and asks how such a defeatist and dangerous worldview arose. In doing so he explores the roots of race as a category and the purpose for which it was developed. Malik shows that race is a decidedly modern concept. He also shows that far from being a politics rooted in left-wing traditions, identity politics has its origins in the construction of race as a category itself, that is, it actually has its theoretical origins in the racist right.

Malik instead wants progressive, anti-racist politics to revive the approach he believes typifies the radical Enlightenment period – universalism. This is the idea that all people share a common humanity, that people are born equal, and that they should have equal rights.

Malik’s book is a genuinely exciting and stimulating work, one that hums with rage at the injustice of our modern society. He wants to revive the traditions of working-class militancy and solidarity to overcome this. There are limitations to the book; importantly it lacks a discussion of what social transformation will be needed to overcome racism and oppression, and has an almost uncritical analysis of radical liberalism. Despite these deficiencies, Malik’s book is still a valuable read for radicals who want to understand why racism persists today, and for the discussion of identity politics.

There are four narratives running through Not So Black and White. First, there is a retelling of the story of race (p.4.). Second, Malik points to the powerful resistance movements against racism and colonialism and shows how this resistance expanded the meaning of universality and inequality. The third narrative is the relationship between race and class, where Malik rightly argues that issues that seem straightforwardly about race can sometimes be best understood through the prism of class, and that “our preoccupation with race frequently hides the realities of injustice” (p.6). The final narrative of the book seeks to explain the emergence of modern identity politics.

The retelling of race

The most common understanding of racism relies on a conservative understanding of human nature, whereby humans are innately scared of “the other”. According to this theory, we fear people who look different from us and therefore engage in racist behaviours based on more or less conscious racist ideas. This supposedly explains the full spectrum of racist behaviour: from derogatory language and exclusion of racially different people from certain spaces, right up to violent attacks, police killings and war. There also is a widespread acceptance of the idea that race is something fixed and timeless, and this is linked to people’s acceptance of racism as inevitable. In this view, the concept of race itself is never really challenged. In fact, it is largely assumed from the outset: “certain people are treated unequally because they belong to, or are seen as belonging to, a distinct race” (p.12). Malik helpfully points out that “the trouble with this argument is that race, like equality, is a social not a natural concept. It, too, had to be ‘invented’” (p.12). Malik’s book is an attempt to overturn all of these ideas, and discusses how they developed alongside modern capitalism. As part of this, he largely recapitulates the Marxist argument about the capitalist roots of modern racism, particularly in the slave trade.

As capitalism started to spread across the globe, it required vast swathes of territory and people in order to expand. That meant invasions, occupations and the stealing of people for slave industries. At the same time, the development of capitalism also meant the development of new ideas and ways of thinking. The bourgeois revolutions, aside from bringing a new ruling class to power, also created a revolutionary way of thinking about the world. Instead of there being a divine order, in which the king was the earthly representation of God and every man (and woman) had their position and station in life, we instead had “equality, liberty, fraternity”; the idea being that all men (for most Enlightenment thinkers, this did not include women) were equal.

To solve this contradiction between a system reliant on slavery and colonialism and the progressive republican ideal, race, racial categories and racism were developed. Where previously slaves from Africa and indentured servants from Ireland were often treated similarly, now a racialised hierarchy and set of laws and institutions had to be formed.

In the excellent chapter “The Invention of White Identity”, Malik takes the reader through a history of the development of these new racial hierarchies.

Transatlantic slavery did not develop for racial reasons. European elites would have developed a slave system utilizing poor whites had it been practically possible. Attitudes to black slaves and white servants were, in the seventeenth century, similar. Over time, though, slavery became racialized. Partly, this was for pragmatic reasons – slaves were cheaper and easier to control. Partly, also, there developed deeper, more ideological motives. It was necessary to justify the acceptance of servitude in a society that proclaimed its fidelity to freedom and liberty. The racialization of slavery became a means of doing so. (p.70)

Malik sheds light on the faux science of race – including eugenics, phrenology, discussions of blood purity and intelligence tests – all of which attempted to give a rational and logical backing to what was a totally illogical idea: that humans from different places are inherently different, with some being superior and some being inferior. Malik writes of these scientists and thinkers that “asking the questions ‘how do we classify a race’ and ‘how many races are there’”, led them down one of the “blindest alleys in modern science” (p.40).

It also gave rise to justifications for the worst horrors of the modern age. For instance, Malik rightly argues that Nazism and the policy of concentration camps were not an aberration but were developed out of practices drawn from other capitalist nations. In the chapter “Barbarism Comes Home”, Malik rejects the idea that the Nazis or the Holocaust emerged from thin air: “they were made possible by the ideas of race that had become deeply rooted in Western societies and by the practices of colonialism” (p.117). He also shows that much of the precedent for the categorisation of races and a legal framework for this was drawn by the Nazis from the United States. “Nazi lawyers, James Q. Whitman notes in his study of American influence on Nazi racial jurisprudence, ‘regarded America, not without reason, as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law’” (p.130).

Malik draws these connections and links, not to take away from the absolute barbarism of the Holocaust, but to show that:

Nazis drew upon pre-existing cultural attitudes and practices; that ideas about extermination and about “who should and should not inhabit the world” were commonplace in discussions of colonialism and “primitive peoples”. If we fail to recognize this, we not only entrench historical amnesia about colonialism but also face the jeopardy of normalizing colonial behaviour and attitudes. (p.139)

Of course, even when slavery was defeated through revolutionary struggles and social movements, racism did not disappear. It has continued to serve useful functions for the capitalist and ruling classes and remains deeply embedded in society. Black and brown people can be paid less than their white counterparts, forced into jobs and conditions that others won’t accept, made into scapegoats, and subjected to racist prejudice and abuse. However, identifying the origins of all these complex and contradictory processes is vital, both to reassert a materialist understanding of oppression and to point to the need to overthrow capitalism to end it.

Racism, colonialism and resistance

Malik argues that many anti-racists now dismiss the Enlightenment, including its universalism and rationalism, as Eurocentric, racist or conservative. But in contrast to this popular reading, Malik insists that for all its limits, the Enlightenment was given meaning through the struggles of oppressed and colonised people, and that its ideals inspired resistance among those who were oppressed.

To flesh out this argument Malik draws on the revolutionary experience of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution. He argues that this was the third great Enlightenment revolution, following the French and the American revolutions (p.141). The Haitians also took the meaning of the Enlightenment further than their European counterparts and imbued it with new meaning. Where Enlightenment thinkers fused ideas of universalism with a cynical defence of slavery, the Haitian rebels were the first to truly champion justice for all. In doing so, they transformed the meaning of universalism and resolved one of the key contradictions of the Enlightenment (p.142). Malik recounts a story about slaves who had risen up against their masters and burned down buildings:

Just one building was left standing, in which had lived the insurgents’ commander. Inside, on a mahogany table, he had placed the single book that had survived the incineration of Leclerc’s library – Raynal and Diderot’s Histoire des Deux Indes. It was open on the page that warned of the “terrible reprisals” that colonists would face if slaves were not emancipated.

It was revolutionary trolling at its best. It is also a reminder of the complex relationship between the radicalism of the Enlightenment and the obscenity of slavery, of both the willingness of French revolutionaries to maintain human bondage and the inspiration that Enlightenment writing could provide for slave insurrectionists. (p.143)

Malik wants readers to remember this relationship between the radical Enlightenment ideals and the racially oppressed. Discussing CLR James’s writings on the Haitian revolution, Malik writes:

Louverture was significant to James not just because he had led the first great slave revolution; it was also that in so doing, he had made concrete the distinction between the immorality of European colonialism and the moral necessity of the ideas that flowed out of the Enlightenment. Most importantly for James, Louverture had shown how a struggle for emancipation could transform the meaning of universalism. (p.154)

More broadly, discussions of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values are central to the overall argument in the book. In discussing the shifts made through the Enlightenment period, Malik writes: “Over the following century, nature, not God, would come to sanctify the placing of ‘men in different stations’. Why did different peoples occupy different places in the social hierarchy? Because they were naturally – racially – different” (p.29).

Malik argues that there are two strands to the Enlightenment and universalism – the liberal and the radical. He rightly points out that some of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hume, Kant and Jefferson, combined “a defence of liberty and equality with profoundly racist ideas”. But others, such as Diderot, represent a radical strand that strove to “tear the old house of ancien régime society down and put another in its place” (p.24). These thinkers drew on the actions of revolutionaries such as the Levellers, which they believed could actually “make good” on the claims of the Enlightenment. They realised that to do so would require a fundamental transformation of society.

So tension developed within the Enlightenment, and through the broader transformations going on at the time. Would the bourgeois revolutions end with a codifying of social differences masked by a rhetoric of equality, or would the ideas of the Enlightenment be pushed to their logical extreme? Malik sees current debates about race and identity as similar to those that played out in the Enlightenment. His central claim is that we need to return to the best of the Enlightenment’s universal ideals to confront racial oppression.

But this raises a key weakness of the book, which is that Malik is fairly uncritical of classical liberal ideas. There’s a reason why the ideas of equality and fraternity were important for the emerging bourgeoisie. They were needed to justify the abolition of the rigid hierarchy of the feudal era, to allow them to climb up the class ladder and emerge as a new ruling class.

Malik’s views echo those of the modernist writer Marshall Berman, who was similarly hostile to contemporary politics’ dismissal of the universal ideals of the Enlightenment:

Post-modernists maintain that the horizon of modernity is closed, its energies exhausted – in effect, that modernism is passé. Post-modernist social thought pours scorn on all the collective hopes for moral and social progress, for personal freedom and public happiness, that were bequeathed to us by the modernists of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. These hopes, post-modernists say, have been shown to be bankrupt, at best vain and futile fantasies, at worst engines of domination and monstrous enslavement.[1]

Both Malik and Bermann bristle at the way that postmodernists, or for Malik, Identitarians, reject modernism and Enlightenment thinking. But radicals and anti-racists need to go beyond the Enlightenment, building on its best elements while transcending its inherent limitations. For this project, Marx is a better guide than Malik and Berman, in that he abandons radical liberalism in favour of a perspective that is rooted in the class struggle, and sees the liberation of humanity tied up in the project of working-class self-emancipation. As capitalism has developed, and the working class has established itself as the largest class, a collective class, and one that tends towards struggle, Marx was right to say that the only road to a universal humanism runs through working-class revolution. This class is the only one that is capable of transforming society and overcoming both class and oppression.

Race and class

“Racial ideology was the inevitable product of the persistence of differences of rank, class and peoples in a society that had accepted the concept of equality.” (p.50)

To give Malik some credit, however, he is far stronger on the question of class than most writers today. Throughout the book, Malik emphasises the close relationship between race and class and the way one’s class position informs one’s experience of racial oppression. He also makes the useful point that some questions that are usually understood as issues of race are actually laden with questions of class.

To point to how we could overcome the “sharp end of racism”, Malik excavates the history of united working-class struggles against racism. He cites a number of examples, such as the trial of the Scottsboro boys, which was dismissed as unimportant by the middle-class NAACP. While the NAACP abandoned the Scottsboro boys to their deaths, the Communist Party fought for their freedom. It was the Communists, white and Black, who organised Black sharecroppers and the unemployed. Malik retells the important history of civil rights unionism which challenged colour bars, struggled for equal pay and campaigned against segregation through the Great Depression onwards. He shows how “as blacks organised side-by-side as equals ‘the aura of naturalness and inevitability that surrounded segregation’ cracked” (p.210).

In thinking about the creation of race and class, it is useful to consider that as much as the categories of Black and Asian had to be created, the category of white had to be as well. Here questions of race and class are again relevant. The construction of a cross-class white identity took different routes in America and Britain. It was only with the racialisation of slavery that a cross-class “white identity” was really constructed in America. After that process took place, there was a desire to keep white blood “pure”, and so things such as discriminatory immigration practices, sterilisation and the like took hold. The issue remained fiercely contested, so Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century were basically seen as Black. Only when the fear-mongering about Irish immigration subsided were they able to be subsumed into the category of white. Malik explains this by arguing that the question of whiteness was “constructed as much out of fear as out of self-regard” (p.65). Having white or Irish workers and indentured slaves identify with Black slaves and workers would have presented a problem of class resistance to their rule. The creation of a white identity created a cross-class identification that, while false, could incorporate white workers ideologically, while separating them from their class comrades.

Compared to the development of a white identity in America, the situation in Victorian-era Britain was quite different. There it was the working class who were seen as a “distinct breed”, and social status was in many ways more fundamental to social position than skin colour (p.79). Malik shows how those who protested against the injustices of the emerging capitalist system were described as “negroes” (p.83). But as capitalism and colonialism developed, a cross-class white identity again had to be forged, and by the second half of the nineteenth century, white skin became an “essential mark of a gentleman” (p.85).

What Malik does well is show that race had to be constructed both in terms of whiteness and Blackness and that who fitted into which category could shift according to the needs and interests of the ruling class. There is nothing fixed about race. Even today, racial categories are made and remade. One only has to think about the way Muslims from all ethnic backgrounds were collectively racialised during the War on Terror, or the changing experience and identity of Greek and Italian migrants in Australia. Malik is also refreshingly insistent that any tendency for white workers to identify with the white ruling class is a false one, and does not serve their best interests.

Malik wants us to rediscover the history of working-class struggles against oppression in order to move past the pessimism of modern racial politics. These politics assume that we can never overcome racism, and the best we can achieve is a recognition of mutually antagonistic identities. Malik persuasively argues that working-class struggle can actually overcome the oppression people face. This argument is the bridge back to his earlier attempt to salvage the universalism of the Enlightenment. Malik thinks that we should fight to overcome racism, and “transcend the concept of race”, and to do this would require a “social revolution” (p.293).

But although Malik argues that we need “not just an intellectual revolution, but a social one too”, it’s never spelled out what this revolution will look like, what social force will lead it, and what type of society would be built after it. Though much of the book is spent talking about the necessity of cross-racial working-class struggle, Malik never really argues that such struggles have the capacity to overcome capitalism. It’s also not clear what Malik thinks will lead to the social revolution he argues for. For that, a reader would best refer to Marxist classics on the topic, which make the case for working-class universalism while also defending the need to address specific grievances for racial minorities and other oppressed groups.

Identity politics

The last section of Malik’s book deals with the question of identity politics, which is the lens through which much of the left, both in academic and activist circles, view the world.

Identity politics adopts a fundamentally pessimistic worldview, one that sees racism, sexism and every other form of oppression as innate and eternal. It follows from this that the struggle against these oppressions, while admirable, is foredoomed to failure. The political horizons are narrowed; no matter how much we’d like, we can never really overcome oppression. Instead, we should highlight the marginalisation of oppressed groups and make people aware of their unconscious biases and micro-aggressions. Identity politics fractures the oppressed into smaller categories, rather than looking for commonalities between oppressed peoples and asking how could we end that oppression. This is a set of politics that says only someone who has a specific experience of identity or oppression can talk on that issue, and that there’s a hierarchy of oppressions and identities. If you are lucky enough not to be on the bottom of that pile, you actively engage in and benefit from the oppression of those below you.

One of the interesting arguments made in Not So Black and White is that the modern identity politics of today have roots in the conservative politics of the past. Against radical universalism, conservatives argued that human beings should be reduced to cultural backgrounds, that one’s identity was linked to one’s race, and that you had to protect racial and cultural groups from dilution (for example via eugenics or segregation).

Today, the political right and left prosecute the argument that cultural groupings should remain distinct from one another. Many will be familiar with the claims of cultural appropriation made by much of the online and liberal left today. Malik posits that what the left and right have in common, by segmenting the population into cultural and identity-based groups, is a “hostility to universalism, a rejection of Enlightenment ideals as simultaneously ethnocentric, the product of European culture, and insufficiently ethnocentric, steamrollering cultural differences to impose a universalist perspective” (p.288). It should come as no surprise then that the political right are happy to employ politics of identity.

Most conservative critics of identity politics are not opposed to identity politics, just to the identity politics of the left. They despise Black Lives Matter for its “racism” and condemn the divisiveness of a concept such as “white privilege”. But they want to keep London (and Paris and Berlin) primarily white and to protect the European homeland from being colonized by marauding immigrants. All of which takes us to the deeper problem with the mainstream right’s embrace of white identity. The reactionary right – Nouvelle Droite, Generation Identity, the alt-right in America – uses the language of diversity and identity as a means of rebranding racism. (p.285)

However, it’s not the case that the conservative right totally rejects Enlightenment ideas. They can and do use them to pursue racist talking points and justify forms of social inequality. Often they will talk about “not seeing race” or being “colourblind” in order to paper over the real oppression racial groups face. As well, countries like Australia have used official policies of “multiculturalism” in order to more subtly assimilate people into “Australian” capitalism and nationalism. Further, the right doesn’t only employ identity politics, they attack and lambast the left for its identity politics, with their current obsession with “woke culture” being the clearest example.

So any real assessment of the situation suggests that both the Enlightenment and a rejection of it can justify racism. This goes against Malik’s claim that those who reject the Enlightenment are conservative (left-wing identitarians included) and those who embrace it are progressive.

In discussing the question of left-wing variants of identity politics, Malik also takes a fresh look at the development of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Using recent studies, Malik demonstrates that “police violence is correlated with poverty – the poorer a neighbourhood, the greater the risk of an individual being killed by the police. African Americans are disproportionately poor and working class; poverty and class location must also play a role in their being victims of police violence” (p.227). This argument is not made in order to downgrade the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, or the centrality of racism to the construction and maintenance of inequality in the US. But without incorporating both race and class, it is harder to understand why police target specific Black communities, and harder to build coalitions with other workers and poor people who have an interest in fighting back together.

Oppressed groups are not homogeneous. Like every community, the oppressed are internally divided on all sorts of lines, the most important being class. Jay Z is not in danger of being stopped and frisked, nor will Beyonce ever need to work as a domestic servant to pay the bills. Malik writes:

There is no single identity or set of interests that bind together all black people, and only black people; still less, all people of colour… To assume that there is only reinforces the power of the black elites and diminishes the voices of black workers, making it more difficult to tackle the problems facing those at the sharp end of racism. (pp.223–4)

Malik’s arguments against identity politics are important ones, and largely valid. However, sometimes they verge on one-sidedness. It is true that it will take a working-class struggle to overcome oppression, but movements against particular forms of oppression can be vital beginnings for these types of moments, and such movements will often start with a focus on issues that affect a minority. As well, many people joining the left take the language of identity for granted, and so socialists need to patiently explain the limitations of these ideas, and try to win those concerned with oppression to a working-class and anti-capitalist perspective.

It is also important to remember that our key enemies are the right and the reactionary racists, not those on the left who sometimes get things wrong. We can have debates and comradely disagreements, but our ire should be directed towards those who want to maintain and strengthen the racist institutions in our society. Debate on the left is necessary though, because our understanding of where racism developed from, who benefits and how we overcome it will be central to a successful anti-racist struggle. Malik’s book is a really useful contribution to that sort of discussion.


Berman, Marshall 1988, All That’s Solid Melts to Air, Penguin Books, New York.

[1] Berman 1988, p.9.

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