We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Columbia University Press, $24.50 (cloth)
It was not so long ago that the biological meaning of race seemed to be on its way out: the Human Genome Project discredited the genetic basis of racial groupings just as social scientists were declaring that race is a social construction. Apparently, reports of the demise of race as a scientific concept were premature. In June 2005, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first race-specific pharmaceutical, BiDil, to treat heart failure in African-Americans. The drug is just one example of a burgeoning scientific and commercial interest in genetic racial differences. Some scientists have even claimed that clusters of genetic similarity correspond to antiquated racial classifications.
The renewed acceptance of inherent racial differences has gone hand in hand with intensified state surveillance of inner-city communities: racial profiling, mass incarceration, welfare restructuring, and the removal of children from families into foster care. As its lineage foreshadows, the biological definition of race provides a ready rationale for this disenfranchisement of black citizens and complements colorblind policies based on the claim that racism is no longer the cause of social inequality.
Given this alarming convergence, black intellectuals today face a critical question: how can we fight systemic racism without relying on the idea that biology divides human beings into races?
Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia is a deeply engaging exploration of this question. The book, Gilroy’s most recent assault on both racism and the concept of race, examines Britain’s urban centers to extend the cosmopolitan anti-race project he began in his influential books, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and Against Race. Here, Gilroy applies the Freudian concept of melancholia, as it was adapted by German social psychologists to explain Germany’s postwar reactions to its “loss of a fantasy of omnipotence.” He argues that, while Britain attempts to deny the contemporary effects of its imperialist past, it has effectively reaffirmed the colonial order, with its racial divisions, through the post-9/11 “politics of security.” At the same time, this reaffirmation neglects the spontaneous and vibrant multiculturalism that has emerged in British cities and that might, Gilroy argues, provide a “bulwark against the machinations of racial politics.”
Multicultural “conviviality,” as Gilroy calls it, requires a metropolis “in which cultures, histories, and structures of feeling previously separated by enormous distances could be found in the same place, the same time: school, bus, café, cell, waiting room, or traffic jam.” According to Gilroy, Britain offers such a metropolis, and “has embarked on an altogether different path toward the goal of multicultural democracy” than the United States, suggesting that perhaps the former country provides more-receptive soil for the seeds of unplanned metropolitan hybridity. (The civil unrest that recently swept through cities in France, however, seriously tarnishes this image of a distinctively European cross-racial urban conviviality.)
Postcolonial Melancholia is an important but perplexing book; it captures so powerfully the fundamental inhumanity of racism and the mechanisms—principally the attachment to race—that have cemented its grip for centuries, yet it seems profoundly misguided in its disregard of black political culture’s strategic significance and its conviction that multicultural conviviality will break racism’s hold.
A principal aim of Postcolonial Melancholia is to discredit “sanitized” accounts of Britain’s colonial past and expose the thriving legacy of this brutally imposed racist order in domestic politics and post-9/11 neo-imperialism. Here Gilroy succeeds brilliantly. Colonialism, Gilroy argues, relied on biological definitions of race to deny universal entitlement to citizenship and permit the abject suffering of colonized natives. His references to the more recent brutality rooted in colonial racial hierarchies—Auschwitz, Hiroshima, gulags, apartheid—are stark reminders of the menace posed by racial thinking.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Gilroy’s analysis is its illumination of the imperial antecedents of the “war on terror.” Gilroy compares the U.S. government’s use of “obscure paralegal categories” such as “enemy combatants” to the language of colonial administration. He would surely point to the state-sanctioned torture of those captives that has come to light since the book’s publication as a perfect reflection of the “role of race thinking in rendering the bodies of natives, slaves, and other infrahumans worthless or expendable.” Casting U.S. aggression overseas as “an ‘ethical’ force which can promote good and stability amidst the flux and chaos of the postcolonial world” also mirrors 19th-century colonizers’ descriptions of their civilizing mission in Africa and Asia. Joseph Chamberlain’s remarks at a Royal Colonial Institute dinner in 1897, for example, bear an eerie resemblance to Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush’s moralistic defense of incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq as a battle to safeguard Western ideals: You cannot have omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery of superstition, which for centuries have desolated the interior of Africa, without the use of force; but if you will fairly contrast the gain to humanity with the price which we are bound to pay for it, I think you may well rejoice in the result of such expeditions as those which have recently been conducted with such signal success in Nyasaland, Ashanti, Benin, and Nupe—expeditions which may have, and indeed have, cost valuable lives, but as to which we may rest assured that for one life lost a hundred will be gained, and the cause of civilization and the prosperity of the people will in the long run be eminently advanced.
One wonders if White House advisers consulted Chamberlain’s words in composing President Bush’s recent argument for continued deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s admonition that transporting terror suspects to secret prisons in Europe for interrogation produced information that “saved European lives.”
Gilroy’s excavation of contemporary racism’s colonial origins effectively underscores a key premise of race that is critical to understanding its relationship to racism: “For me, ‘race’ refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause.” In other words, the concept of race was invented to legitimize racism; it does not express a natural distinction among human beings that can produce racism if not handled properly. This is why it is insufficient to attempt to contain the racist consequences of the new fixation on race-based genetics and biotechnology. The belief in inherent racial differences that underlies and is reinforced by these scientific enterprises is itself a dangerous misrepresentation.
Similarly, we cannot develop pharmaceuticals for “freshly racialized markets” while simultaneously addressing the social causes of health inequities. Race-specific technologies have tremendous potential to divert government attention from the structural causes of racial health disparities toward biological and technological explanations and solutions. “Once we comprehend racism’s alchemical power, we do have to choose,” Gilroy astutely cautions. “We can opt to reproduce the obligations of racial observance, negotiating them but basically accepting the idea of racial hierarchy and then, inescapably, reifying it.” Gilroy advocates instead that we “detonate the historic lore that brings the virtual realities of ‘race’ to such dismal and destructive life.”
Recognizing racism “as something that structures the life of the postimperial polity,” Gilroy defends policies that address institutional racism and grant reparations for the lingering harms of slavery and colonialism against charges by the likes of Michael Ignatieff that such measures endorse victimology. But Gilroy’s analysis also persuasively establishes that the “racial order or nomos cannot be undone by fiat, by charity, or by goodwill and must enter comprehensively into the terms of political culture.” So how do we “imagine or invent political cultures capable of ending racism”? In addressing this question, Gilroy and I part company.
Postcolonial Melancholia introduces the concept of “conviviality” to denote “the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban centers and in postcolonial cities elsewhere.” This is the setting in civil society where Gilroy sees the previously overlooked potential for transnational solidarities and multicultural democracy to flourish. Through examples of spontaneous urban conviviality, Gilroy counters the demise of multiculturalism in social policy as well as the charge of critics such as Don Robotham that his universalist position of “planetary humanism” tries to “dissolve [national and racial] identities into a generally undifferentiated humanity by an act of intellectual will.” Multicultural metropolitan life provides the concrete representation of Gilroy’s hope for a postcolonial world without racial difference.
Convivial multiculturalism would be promising if Gilroy’s aim were to supplement strategies grounded in black collective struggle rather than supplant them. But despite his defense of claims for reparations, Gilroy discounts black solidarity as a morally viable path to antiracist democracy. In particular, Postcolonial Melancholia caricatures black nationalism as totally derivative of European nationalist thinking and inextricably connected to colonialism. To Gilroy, nationalist ideology is the corner into which Africans were hemmed by the “distinctive geometry of colonial power,” in which Europeans divided the earth along racial lines and gave each racial or ethnic group “its own space where it is at home and can identify itself.” Beginning with the anticolonial theorists, Gilroy argues, black nationalists have been complicit with their rulers by “translat[ing] the terms of their national liberation back into the very same moral economy . . . [of] Europe’s colonial order.” Relying on Frantz Fanon, he suggests that an “inverted but essentially similar adaptation of the settlers’ racialized mentality” among “the resentful and angry natives” continues to do damage even after colonialism’s demise. Having precisely the same roots in the colonial racist order, Gilroy concludes, black nationalism and white supremacy must be ranked equally, along with a “variety of depressing options in the unwholesome cornucopia of absolutist thinking about ‘race’ and ethnicity,” by the superior ethics of planetary humanism that recognizes “the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other.” (It is not clear why the Enlightenment concept of humanism is capable of redemption from its colonial European pedigree whereas nationalism is not.)
The most telling evidence of Gilroy’s dismissal of blacks’ strategic role in antiracist struggle is the complete absence of people of color from the discussion of multicultural conviviality that occupies the book’s second half. Gilroy relies heavily on the universalist leanings of W.E.B. Du Bois and Fanon in building his argument for planetary humanism and calls for a revival of “those elements of black political culture that are, like Du Bois, tolerant, humane, pluralistic, and cosmopolitan in outlook.” Yet his illustrations of convivial metropolitan culture and transnational solidarity upon which he pins his hopes all involve white people. Gilroy’s favorite role model is Ali G, one of several characters portrayed by the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who Gilroy indicates might be construed as “a white Jew pretending to be black, a white Jew pretending to be a white pretending to be black, a white Jew pretending to be an Asian pretending to be black, and so on.” Another illustrative case is Mike Skinner of The Streets, a Birmingham, U.K., hip-hop artist often compared to the white American rapper Eminem, whose lyrics Gilroy likes because they treat race as “essentially insignificant, at least when compared either with the hazards involved in urban survival or to the desperate pleasures of the postcolonial city.”
The most stunning example of privileging (white) cosmopolitanism over nationalist solidarity is Gilroy’s celebration of European and American members of an international movement in the Gaza Strip who “place[d] themselves between the vulnerable victims of the occupation and the military firepower of the Israeli army.” The courage of these young martyrs is inspiring, but its significance can only be evaluated in relation to the Palestinians’ nationalist struggle and not solely the white activists’ “impulses toward experience, suffering, injustice and truth.” But Gilroy quotes extensively from a letter that 23-year-old Rachel Corrie wrote to her parents before she was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. Interestingly, Corrie’s letter—which Gilroy quotes “in order to gain access to her thoughts and feelings about risking her life in defense of the weak and the vulnerable”—focuses on the generosity of her Palestinian hosts: When that explosive detonated yesterday it broke all the windows in the family’s house. I was in the process of being served tea and playing with two small babies. . . . Just feel sick to my stomach a lot from being doted on all the time, very sweetly, by people who are facing doom. . . . Honestly, a lot of the time the sheer kindness of the people here, coupled with the overwhelming evidence of the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me.
How strange that Gilroy highlights the planetary consciousness of the British and American activists but not the more remarkable conviviality of the Palestinians. Was it only the suffering of these sweet people—and not their own political agency—that motivated Corrie to sacrifice her life, or was it her solidarity with their struggle for national liberation?
Perhaps Gilroy emphasizes whites’ oppositional acts because Postcolonial Melancholia is primarily concerned with Britain coming to terms with its colonial past. Ali G, Mike Skinner, and the young martyrs exemplify “a more productive shame that would be conducive to the building of a multicultural [British] nationality.” They also illustrate Gilroy’s argument that blacks’ “history of suffering, rebellion, and dissidence is not our intellectual property, and we are not defenders of cultural and experiential copyright.” But is the particular resistance of black people irrelevant to the postcolonial triumph over racism? By condemning black nationalism, as well as omitting blacks from his ideal of convivial multiculturalism, Gilroy obscures the role black political culture plays in the antiracist project.
This is not to say that Gilroy’s criticism of blacks’ own racial thinking is totally unfounded. I have been dismayed at the dismissive responses from some African-Americans to my worries about race-specific biotechnologies such as BiDil. Many embrace the conviction that there are indeed both profound and petty inherent distinctions among racial groups and rely on them for their sense of racial identity. I was taken aback, for example, when a speaker at a black philosophers’ conference suggested that differences in susceptibility to colds among blacks and whites that he linked to hair texture could be used to support the idea that there may also be a natural divergence in philosophical perspectives. The clinical trial to test the efficacy of BiDil in treating heart failure in African-Americans was cosponsored by the Association of Black Cardiologists and supported by the National Medical Association and members of the Black Congressional Caucus. Blacks are eager clients of a growing online genetic-testing industry that now offers to determine racial as well as family ancestry. By submitting a sample of DNA and paying a fee, customers can trace their roots to particular racial groups.
Gilroy is correct that our political imaginations are blocked by “the mystifications of raciality and its narcissism of minor differences” that turn patently ludicrous physical distinctions into prerequisites of political allegiance. The easy acceptance of race-based genetic testing, medicine, and other technologies reflects a conceptual difficulty in comprehending the nature of humanity without racial classifications. Gilroy’s stance of antiracist agency that refuses to accept the fate that “‘race’ is a fatal, unchanging principle of political cultures” is critical to movements for social justice in this new age of racial biopolitics.
Rather than see genetic essentialism as a misconceived explanation of black identity, however, Gilroy seems to think that black identity comes exclusively from this kind of racial thinking. The only “principles of solidarity and collectivity” that Gilroy identifies in black nationalism and identity are those that “produced ‘races’ as totalities” and are “inseparable from the political rules and mystified ontological foundations of Europe’s national states.” Gilroy’s caricature of black identity—his assumption that black nationalism must rely on racial thinking, not on history, culture, and politics—ignores black people’s distinctive collective experience of creatively resisting racial oppression, which is—unlike racial categories—a historical and morally legitimate source of identity. I cannot reconcile Gilroy’s view of blackness as “nothing but [a] transient symptom of a dominant but dying order” either with the history of black struggle in the United States that has insisted on a vision of humanity uncorrupted by race or with my own special love for and commitment to black people. By casting black nationalism as an ossified product of racism characterized by its “frozen cultural habits,” Gilroy incorrectly suggests that it is impervious to changing conditions, incapable of intellectual progress and internal critique, and resistant to cross-racial collaboration. Isn’t Gilroy’s refusal to envision the creative possibilities for black solidarity freed of an archaic attachment to “race” also a failure of imagination?
Gilroy’s dream of a world unencumbered by the destructive millstone of race is enticing. It is precisely the belief in fundamental human equality that inspires many people to fight collectively against racism and its dehumanizing practices. When I was a little girl growing up in a liberal university community in the 1960s, I used to cherish the fantasy that the intimate hybridity of my own “biracial,” multi-ethnic family constituted a blow against the racial order. But that was before I read Black Power in the seventh grade, before I learned about the crucial struggles of civil-rights workers in the South, Black Panthers in the inner cities, and nationalist freedom fighters abroad, before I formed my own moral allegiance to black people, having nothing to do with a blinding attachment to race. Looking back, I can see that my childhood fantasy was not only unenlightened but privileged by my bourgeois existence, which was largely disconnected from the majority of black residents in other parts of the city, who may have lived out their entire lives without ever experiencing an instant of race-free conviviality.
That these locations remain intensely segregated in most of the United States raises serious doubts about the efficacy of spontaneous intermixture as a bulwark against racial politics. The scenes of thousands of desperate black New Orleanians fleeing the ravages of Hurricane Katrina after centuries of state neglect even gave racialized meaning to the traffic jam.
Postcolonial Melancholia opens with the curious story of a 46-year-old black woman, Mrs. Nicholls, who made national news when the British health service fitted her with a pink prosthetic limb that did not match her brown skin. Gilroy views the public uproar over the woman’s plight as “an informal act of anti-racist pedagogy” that exemplifies the success of the “unkempt, unruly, and unplanned multiculture” he champions. He notes, however, that the public’s ability to recognize the human dimensions of the tragedy depended on Mrs. Nicholls’s lack of responsibility, her status as a native-born Brit rather than a refugee, and her predicament’s distance from policy debates over institutional racism sparked by police shootings, suspicious deaths in custody, and the mounting black prison population. I was reminded of the outpouring of public sympathy for the innocent black victims of Hurricane Katrina that lasted while they waved down helicopters from rooftops but quickly dissipated once the black masses began to crowd into the wrong neighborhoods and line up for public aid. To me, Mrs. Nicholls’ story shows the limitations of conviviality, not its promise. Why embrace an antiracist strategy that can muster up no more than a prosthetic limb, hinged on disengagement from organized demands for some surrender of white privilege?
Black intellectuals should develop a theory of black identity based on blacks’ collective interests and experiences that rejects racial thinking but not black solidarity. A movement grounded in new forms of black solidarity that discard racial (and sexist) thinking, adopt a universal outlook, and solicit transnational coalitions is a more imaginative project with greater chance of defeating racism.
Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a contributor to the 1619 Project and the author of four books, including the bestselling Killing the Black Body. Her path-breaking work in law and public policy focuses on urgent social justice issues in policing, family regulation, science, medicine, and bioethics. She has been featured on urgent social justice issues in policing, family regulation, science, medicine, and bioethics. She has been featured in countless media outlets, including the New York Times, MSNBC, NPR, PBS, Vice News, CNN, ABC, and many others.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Theorist Hil Malatino offers a compelling account of the persistent bad feelings with which trans people often struggle—but it comes with fashionable academic hang-ups that need to be reconsidered.
The systems that harm animals go hand in hand with systems that harm humans. Combating them requires inter-species solidarity.
Its illegitimacy goes far beyond the war on drugs.