Not So Black and White Kenan Malik, Not So Black and White. A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics, (Hurst and Company 2023), ix, 349pp.

Kenan Malik’s Not So Black and White is a powerful argument for an anti-racist politics informed by class and solidarity, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

When it comes to racism, we have, Malik argues, arrived at a paradoxical position. On the one hand, in most societies there is ‘a moral abhorrence of racism’, or at least public lip-service to it. On the other hand, we are still ‘saturated with racial ideology … The more we despise racial thinking, the more we cling to it’ (p.10). This is the result of the way in which thinking about and campaigning against racism has been captured by identity politics. That this capture represents a defeat for working-class people is clear. As Malik points out, much of the activism not only lacks the confidence to create a movement transcending the divisions of race and identity, it does not even have the awareness ‘that one should pursue such a project’ (p.288).

This is in essence a debate about the nature of racism. The tendency from those on the identity politics side is to conceptualise racism as something unavoidable and eternal. Thus, Malik points out for example Ta’Nehisi Coates’ portrayal of racism is as if it was no more malleable by human action than a typhoon or an earthquake (climate change notwithstanding). In the face of a racism inherent to the human condition, anti-racist action then becomes either nothing more than an attempt to make the inevitable unfairness a little fairer, or an exercise in making white people feel guilty for the racism from which they inevitably benefit. Indeed, the effect of the prominence of privilege theory in anti-racist discourse can be to turn racism into simply the possession of white privilege. Racism in this view is no longer the result of oppressive structures, nor even individual actions, as much as it is simply the existence of white people.

Race and class

This conception of racism relies of course on a particular view of race. As Malik points out, the ‘common sense’ view of race is that different races have an objective existence, onto which racism then imposes a hierarchy and oppression of non-white races by whites. In previous generations of racist science, this objective existence of race was of course held to be biological, but it doesn’t have to be. All that is needed for this view of race is the belief that ‘white’ and ‘black’ are meaningful categories. That, as Malik puts it, ‘white’ is a useful category in which to put everyone from Elon Musk to a cleaner in a Tesla factory, and that they all derive privileges from membership within it. In the same way, ‘black’ as a category assumes that there is ‘a single identity or set of interests that bind together all black people and only black people’ (p.232). The extent to which identity can be seen as overriding any other interests is shown by the way in which someone’s politics can be taken as showing that they are not really black:

‘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’ (p.236).

This view of identity is of course not a twenty-first century creation. Malik is clear about its antecedents in, for example, black nationalist thought the US in the 1960s, which held effectively that the answer to working-class black people being exploited by white capitalists was to replace the white capitalists with black ones. As Malik puts it, the aim was not ‘tear down the ghettoes, or provide decent housing and conditions, but ensure that those who controlled and profited from them were black capitalists’ (p.224). This was opposed by figures like Martin Luther King Jr and Amit Baraka, the latter of whom was clear about the danger of becoming ‘“the enemy in blackface”’ (p.223).

As this history shows, this view of identity is based on ignoring the reality of class. Malik, on the other hand, presents a clear argument for the importance of class, even in arenas where the racism of the system is demonstrated particularly clearly, such as in policing and imprisonment. Black people are disproportionately likely to be victims of police violence, to be arrested and to be imprisoned. This is illustrative of the racism inherent in the criminal justice system at all levels in both the US and the UK, but this racism doesn’t operate separately from class. As Malik explains, while black people of all classes are more likely to be arrested, harassed or murdered by the police than white people of the same class, bourgeois black people are much less at risk of this than are working-class black people. Tellingly, they are also much less at risk than are working-class white people. It is not minimising the system’s racism to recognise that the single most important variable in an individual’s risk of violence from the police, therefore, is class.

The importance of class demonstrates a significant issue with privilege theory, in that while wealthy white people do indeed have a considerable level of privilege in our society, as to a lesser extent so do wealthy black people, working-class white people do not. While it has sometimes been argued that working-class white people benefit from a ‘public and psychological wage’ as a result of racial hierarchies, it is nevertheless apparent that all working-class people lose rather than gain from racism. Malik points out, for example, how Jim Crow laws in the southern US often disenfranchised poor white people as well as black people, and resulted in poorer working conditions and lower wages for all workers, not just black workers. As a Congress commission found in 1898, ‘“Colored labour in the South is held over the head of white labor to the extent of holding down wages”’ (p.196).

Racism created race

At the same time, Malik also highlights how black people have no more interests in common across class than do white people. An example of meaningful class divisions within black communities can be found in the way in which the wealthier black members of the NAACP looked down on the parents of the Scottsboro Boys, young black men who were accused in 1931 of raping two white women. One NAACP member referred to the parents as ‘“the densest and dumbest animals” he had ever met’, and another called them ‘“pathetically ignorant and poor”’. One of the mothers retorted that ‘“we are not too ignorant … to know that if we let the NAACP look after our boys, they will die”’ (p.205). It was the communist-led International Labor Defence, organising on the basis of class solidarity across racial lines, which saved the Scottsboro Boys from execution.

All this highlights the importance of understanding how ‘racial divisions had, from the days of colonialism, been created and exploited as a means of fracturing the solidarity of people at the bottom of society, and of derailing political and economic opposition’ (p.195). That is, racial divisions don’t arise from the objective circumstance of a species divided into different races, but in a society in which the idea of race has been fostered to enable those racial divisions. As Malik sums it up, ‘race did not give birth to racism. Racism gave birth to race’ (p.13).

Malik notes the pre-history of modern racism in the medieval persecuting society but starts his history of racism with the Enlightenment battle of values between those of the mainstream, whose view of equality extended only to those of their own class, and the radical Enlightenment values of universalism. The racialisation of slavery was needed to ‘justify the acceptance of servitude in a society that proclaimed its fidelity to freedom and liberty’ (p.70).

The state-encouraged development of racism from the later sixteenth century on as an accompaniment to the development of the slave trade, which rendered dark skin and servile status synonymous, is important and is perhaps minimised here. Malik, however, does make clear how the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was an economic process, not a result of pre-existing racism, showing the exploitation of white bonded workers in the American and Caribbean colonies, before African slaves became a more cost-effective form of labour. As Malik points out, the brutality meted out to these workers was often comparable to that used on black slaves. ‘The fact that servants were white was of little significance to the authorities. What mattered was that they were poor and exploitable’ (p.68).

Malik’s account emphasises the extent to which racial differences were trumped by class until late on in this process. Well into the nineteenth century, high-status black people could expect to be treated significantly better than working-class people, black or white, sometimes almost as if their status made them effectively white. Even in the US South, the ‘one drop’ rule did not become institutionalised until the later nineteenth century.

Malik’s example of the treatment some high-status black people could receive comes from 1881, when race was beginning to trump class, and so something that would once have been assumed now had to be discussed. King Kalakaua of Hawaii visited England and was a guest at a party with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and the German Crown Prince Frederick. The Prince of Wales insisted that the King should be seated higher than the Crown Prince (although still managing to exhibit considerable racism in the process): ‘“Either the brute is a king”, he told his brother-in-law, dismissing his objections, “or he’s a common or garden n****r, and if the latter what’s he doing here?”’ (p.84).


The obverse of the elite recognition of the importance of class is the considerable history of interracial solidarity among working-class people, stretching from the co-operation between black slaves and white indentured workers in the seventeenth-century American colonies to instances like the 1892 New Orleans general strike, where majority white unions called a general strike in response to the employers’ attempts to break a strike along racial lines. While such solidarity is constantly under often successful pressure, the fact that it continues to emerge suggests that there is nothing inherent or inevitable about racism. It is not the case that elites had only to create it in the early-modern period and then let it run. Racism has to be consistently recreated in the face of working-class people’s class solidarity.

This book is a powerful and important argument for that solidarity. Malik recounts the importance of struggles in British Asian communities in the 1970s, such as the strikes at Red Scar Mill and Grunwick, to the development of his politics, and of organisations like the Indian Workers’ Association and the Asian Youth Movements. Importantly, this history provided a basis for cross-racial solidarity, rather than ‘the shackles of identity’. Back then, ‘we recognized, almost without thinking about it, the commonality of values, hopes and aspirations that bound together Asians, blacks and whites’ (p.2). A view of race and racism which casts commands for white people to ‘stay in your lane’ and arguments about cultural appropriation as anti-racist activism is no substitute.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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