The Interplay of Race, Culture, and Reason

Strange_FruitReview of Kenan Malik’s book ‘Strange Fruit’

Kenan Malik’s book, Strange Fruit: Why both sides are wrong in the race debate, is an important one. And it is for this reason that the title might be a bit unfortunate, since one’s preconceived notions about race may cause them to prejudge what the book is about. The potential reader may likewise presuppose the scope of issues that it covers – which are actually quite broad. Malik seems to make three key arguments. The first is that the traditional concept of racial categorization is both irrational and unscientific. The second and more interesting argument is Malik’s assertion that anti-racism has also become illogical. The third key argument, and one that Malik weaves through the entire book, is that ideas about race, and debates about it, tend to be evoked for the purpose of superficially dealing with the gap, between our views about human nature and our frustrated potentials, effectively causing what I would call the downgrading or de-emphasis, of human agency and our capacity to reason. This last part resonated very strongly with me, so in my exploration if Malik’s thesis I will give a lot more attention to it.

Race is not a Rational, Scientific Category

Malik argues that the concept of race has changed over time. For most of human history, group differences had less to do with superficial physical features (e.g. skin color or facial structure) than sociocultural factors. Malik notes that the Ancient Greeks were indeed resistant to the idea of race, preferring ‘not to see people in terms of where they came from and what they looked like, but in terms of their membership within a public arena.’ In a similar vein, pre-modern feudalist Europeans tended to discriminate and classify one another less by physical appearance than by social class. The eighteenth century eventually gave birth to the European Enlightenment, which involved the spread of explicitly stated democratic and egalitarian social values. People were increasingly viewed as equal, regardless of their social class. But despite these progressive changes in attitude, social mobility was lacking and it had to be explained why so few people seemed capable of moving from one social class to another, despite claims of equal opportunity. Without appreciating how such change would necessitate reforming actual societal structures, Malik argues that class differences were at increased risk of being interpreted as somehow fixed – perhaps suggesting a hereditary cause. These factors may have paved the way for racism as it is most often conceived. At any rate, I think Malik does a good job of showing that the meaning of ‘race’ has been anything but stable across time.

GenesMalik does not doubt that there are genetic differences between populations. However, he cautions against viewing such differences as racial. We know, for example, that blacks disproportionately suffer from sickle cell anaemia. But this is a correlational relationship, not a causal one. It is not a black disease, but one related to populations originating from areas that would have had a high likelihood of contracting malaria; plenty of non-blacks carry the same genetic mutation. In other words, genetic variations (e.g. the sickle cell gene), do not readily map onto our socially constructed definitions of race.

“Race provides a means, not just of categorizing humanity, but also of imputing meaning to those categories and selecting certain ones, based on skin colour, appearance, or descent, as being of particular importance. Racial thinking divides human beings into a small set of discrete groups, sees each group as possessing a fixed set of traits and abilities and regards the differences between these groups as the defining feature of humanity (p. 3).”

Malik carefully states the reasons that should cause us to view race as a social versus a biological construct. These include four common arguments: 1) less than 10 percent of genetic variation distinguishes between what we refer to as races, 2) there are no ‘pure’ races (all humans are mongrels), 3) since all populations are mixed, distinctions between races are arbitrary, and 4) Homo sapiens, as a whole, are too recent a species for racial differentiation to be deeply embedded in evolutionary biology. Each of these questions is followed by some interesting counter-challenges that in the end paint a very complicated picture indeed. Ultimately, Malik concludes that while the concept of race is a social construct, it may nonetheless be a useful one, operating as a kind of shorthand for approximating, however imperfectly, the true genetic differences that exist within biological populations. This might be especially valuable in the case of doing scientific research or medical screening, though we should be careful not to forget what it means.

“Population differences are clearly important in medicine but we should not confuse these with racial differences. The boundaries of a population, and the differences that matter, vary depending on the question we are asking (p. 43).”

In short, Malik suggests that we could better recognize these artificial distinctions for what they are, while being mindful of the specific circumstances where they could be useful and others where they might be meaningless.

“What really needs challenging is not research into population differences but the meaning that researchers and others often impute to such differences (p. 55).”

Race, Culture, and Reason

In Malik’s view, the concept of race has throughout human history served sociocultural necessity, with its meaning changing over time to meet those needs. To understand this process, it can be helpful to observe the historical fluctuation of confidence in the human capacity for reasoning and self-determination. Pre-enlightenment thinking was tacitly pessimistic about human reasoning. People were largely superstitious, philosophy was utilized only in the service of the church, and values were not determined by rational citizens but instead dictated by God’s or Kings. The Enlightenment challenged all of that, and never before had there been such optimism that we could think for ourselves, determine right from wrong, and truly take responsibility for our actions (versus succumbing to some form of fatalism). In short, we were beginning to trust in our power to reason and believe we were capable of self-determination and social progress.


But our dreamt of utopian societies failed to materialize. Injustices prevailed, the ‘free’ and self-determining human being continued to disappoint, and so our confidence in equality, reason, and progress were arguably shaken. The challenges that came with actualizing the various dreamt of post-Enlightenment utopian societies, naturally led to frustrations. Malik contends that the concept of race was evoked as a scapegoat, allowing us to shift blame and responsibility to a specific target that could be controlled or managed, providing temporary security in our hope for progress, though undercutting notions of equality. Human differences were seen as natural differences, and those regarded as less than human were treated as such. In short, racial differences were suggested to explain why societies seemed to stagnate and why progress was slow. Hence, in the early and mid-20th Century, Nazi Germany was able to blame their problems on Jews, and Blacks were functioning as the social scapegoat in the United States.

Anti-Racism has become Irrational and Anti-Scientific

Following the Second World War and discovering the horrific atrocities of the Holocaust, racial ideas based on predestined biology were increasingly challenged. Civil rights movements rallied to contest mainstream ideas of racial inequality and to promote tolerance and acceptance of social diversity. Ideas about race were no doubt changing in a positive direction. However, it is important to recall that these advances were also occurring within a historical backdrop or collective memory involving failed utopian ideologies (National Socialism & Communism) and an apparent lack of social progress (e.g. intergroup conflict, lack of social mobility, etc.), items that were underwritten by grandiose theories and ideas intended to unify peoples, not lead to the kind of death and destruction that actually occurred. So while notions of inequality and difference were more outwardly challenged, there was also a tacit pessimism in trying to shape society through unifying ideologies or rational politics. Malik suggests that it was within this context, that the notion of race was to be reconceptualised.

So by the last decades of the twentieth century, the industrialized world was less willing to attribute human limitations to racial categories as traditionally conceived, no doubt a partial reaction to the racism that was still so obviously prevalent. But Malik argues that this progressive shift to accept human diversity eventually gave way to an attitude of unreason that exists to this day – where biological and cultural differences are celebrated for their own sake – where unity and equality are found, not through pluralistic debate about shared human values defined and defended by reasoning, but by arbitrary sociocultural differences based on group affiliation and cultural tradition. This is what Malik describes as the irrationality of the new anti-racism – an extreme position such that cultural diversity is romantically celebrated as an end in and of itself: we are not equal despite our differences, but rather because of them.

“For cultural pluralists, all people are equal – but only because every group is different (p. 62.)”

Korean CultureThe attitude increasingly embraced by mainstream society, was one where individuals defined themselves less by reasoned choices, articulated values, or politics, than by their identification with what they perceive as an ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ cultural heritage. Indeed, Malik observes ‘everyone now wants to know where they come from, in order that they might find out where they really belong.’ It is hard not to see what Malik is referring to; how much effort people expend in order to find and defend whatever identity has been afforded to them by their cultural heritage. During the course of reading this book, I stumbled upon a television show dedicated to this very process of self-discovery – showcasing individuals desperately sifting through their ancestral records, not just for curious enjoyment or historical knowledge, but one got the sense that they were truly hoping it would help them ‘find out who they really are.’

More than ever, Malik argues, people see themselves as little more than a vehicle for culture, as if humans were made by culture – forgetting that it is of course humans who create culture. So it would seem that the self is defined less by a freely choosing rational agent, actively engaged in creating a future full of possibility, than by a passive object romantically determined by inherited convention.

“An identity is supposed to be an expression of an individual’s authentic self but it can too often seem like the denial of individual agency in the name of cultural authenticity (p. 176).”

To repeat, the modern antiracist attitude tacitly claims that members of a society are not equal because they have an innate capacity that allows them to be an integral part of the intellectual decision-making process in society, but because they are simply different. Human agency is downplayed, as we forfeit ourselves to a ‘destiny imposed by culture and history.’ Unity is not achieved through a potential dialogue where values are debated in a rational sociopolitical sphere, but in arbitrary cultural difference. Personal identity is found in the romanticizing of cultural tradition.

These attitudes have also made their way into social policies. Malik gives an example involving the Canadian province of Quebec, whose government seeks to ensure the survival of the French language ‘through indefinite future generations.’ It has attempted to do so by passing laws that forbid native French speaking citizens and immigrants from sending their children to English speaking schools, by requiring businesses with more than fifty employees to be run in French, and requiring commercial signs to also be displayed in French.

“If your ancestors were French you too must, by government fiat, speak French, whatever your personal wishes may be (p. 175).”

Modern multiculturalism, argues Malik, wants to ‘chain people to their cultural identity for their own good.’ This view seeks to actively preserve cultural heritages, while fearing their degradation; it assumes that cultural heritage is authentic and natural, and implicitly suggests that individuals ought to act in accordance to their inherited traditions. All of this is of course built on some questionable logic:

“The demand that because a cultural practice has existed for a long time, so it should be preserved, is a modern version of the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that ought derives from is (p. 174).”

Malik is no stranger to these contentious issues. For over a decade he has argued that cultural diversity should be accepted and perhaps even encouraged, though without being actively policed. While he is a staunch advocate for pluralism and diversity, he is fiercely critical of multiculturalism at it relates to policy.

“As a political process … multiculturalism means something very different.  It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.”

Malik suggests that the values of the radical Enlightenment have been lost within this process, as we effectively downgrade the value of reason and the role of the freethinking rational agent in the sociopolitical process. Culture governs us now in much the same way that ‘race’ has in the past. There is less room for rational debate because all cultures are equally deserving of respect and can thus assert its authoritative claim in social matters; it need not be logically coherent or rational.

“Today, many claim that to believe that reason is universal is itself reactionary and demand the right, in the name of antiracism, for every culture to think differently (p. 201).”

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A society is good not because it is rational, but because it is different, and these differences are found not by looking forward to man-made hopes and aspirations, but backward, to one’s ancestors, tradition, and inherited culture. For Malik, modern-day antiracists have more in common with their antagonists than they would like to admit:

“The idea of ‘race’ clearly means something very different now than it did fifty, one hundred or two hundred years ago. It has become a means of talking not about inferiority and superiority but about identity and ancestry. The distinction between racism and antiracism no longer appears clear-cut and neither does the distinction between racial ancestry and cultural heritage (p. 65).”

For the Enlightenment thinkers, every man was equal in their nature, but they were unified not by celebrated differences, but in their capacity to reason; their unity was in thought and the sociopolitical process, not superficial cultural differences. Consequently, “Enlightenment thinkers were less interested in the biological differences between human groups than in the distinction between civilization and savagery (p. 87).” Moreover, it was to history, rather than to race, that Enlightenment thinkers generally turned to understand this distinction – that is, the extent to which the individual had been properly socialized into rational language and thought. Contrast this to the new antiracism, which in defending the notion of ‘equality,’ must instead demote the capacity for dynamic human reasoning so that it may exalt a static and romantic tradition or cultural heritage.

“The Enlightenment mission of collecting objects to further empirical knowledge of the world has given way to the belief that there are many ways of understanding the world, each of which is as valid as any other (p. 211).”

Again, this newer social attitude of trying to secure equality, not despite arbitrary cultural diversity, but more-or-less because of it, necessarily entails a silencing of reason that could challenge it. 

“Antiracism has come to mean hostility to Enlightenment universalism and disquiet about scientific rationality (p. 254).”

The concept of equality is thus anchored to the wrong thing. But Malik has no illusions about science always holding the higher ground; what appears to be ‘science’ can serve a deceptive function. He mentions the sociobiologists, for example, who seem especially interested in our human universality (i.e. our equality). But what they have to offer us is a highly impoverished view of human nature, which ultimately has the same effect as the above – namely, the downgrading of rational agency. I have made a similar argument myself (see here).

“What is lost in this dichotomy between biological universals and cultural differences is the sense of human agency; that is, the existence of humans as rational, social beings with the power to transform themselves and their societies through reasoned dialogue and activity (p. 255).”

Malik concludes by saying that “the concept of race is irrational. The practice of antiracism has become more so. We need to challenge both, in the name of humanism and of reason.”

The Limits of Reason: Additional Thoughts

ThinkingI enjoy reading almost anything by Malik – few contemporary thinkers equal his knowledge breadth, clarity, and rational precision. Malik’s main thesis, involving the irrationality of both racial conceptualizations and the practice of multiculturalism, and the tacit abandonment of reason as a way of integrating society, resonates with me. However, I am less clear about Malik’s position regarding the apparent intractability of human irrationality. I would like to ask him why he thinks it is so difficult for most of us to be rational. And while I agree with his implicit suggestion that we ought to somehow stop supporting arbitrary cultural values for their own sake, and that we should emphasize human agency and reason as a way to unify diverse peoples, I think he and I would disagree about the factors preventing us from creating such a reality. For Malik, the post-Enlightenment utopian ideologies failed because they became at some point irrational. For him, the problem is holding onto reason, though he does not give us any cause to doubt the average person’s rational capacity.

Contrast this position with Camus, who famously said that “It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.” Camus also said that he would not consider himself a philosopher, on grounds that he ‘had not sufficient faith in reason.’ If philosophers can so easily part ways with reason, what does that say for the rest of us? Thus, for Camus, there was something about human nature that compelled him to be irrational – for him, it was the terror of being lucidly aware of the absurdity of human existence. In his mind, humans dealt with this problem by abandoning reason to adopt some utopian absolute; we unconsciously strive for total resolution to our tension; but Camus was aware that we cannot attain this resolution through reason – it can only be acquired through unreason (note: these ideas have been discussed in previous essays).

In a similar vein, Becker argued that humans cannot live without symbols and myths, which are almost by definition irrational; for him, we humans resolve our existential tensions through the irrational symbols carried by our cultures. So while it is true, as Malik suggests, that humans ultimately create cultures, we are equally created by them – and unconsciously so. This is how defense mechanisms work. After all, if we were aware that we created the illusions that allow us to cope with the task of living, it would lose its power to resolve our unconscious terrors; we rely on them for our psychological survival, which is why they are so resistant to logic and reason.

Malik does not discuss this view in any of his works; perhaps he does not know it. A couple years ago I had an opportunity to ask him, in person, whether he was familiar with Ernest Becker or the book The Denial of Death; he replied that he was not. I cannot help but wonder how Malik would regard these works; whether he would agree with the underlying problem conceptualized by Camus, Becker, and others, or whether he would disregard them as a significant obstacle.

But let me return for a moment to Camus, who was generally critical of any attempt to escape the absurd, or resolve our existential tensions, by subscribing to some utopian philosophy or ideology. He instead suggested that that if there was a philosophy consistent with the absurd, it would be a philosophy of limits. I would venture a guess that Malik has somehow developed a mode of thinking that embodies this position – which perhaps explains his strength and fidelity of intellect. Look at any of his essays, for example, and you will almost surely find a repeated theme, where he effectively says that ‘both sides are wrong… and here’s why.’ Malik is so interesting to read because he has somehow managed to exemplify that model of refusing to fully develop any single thought to such a degree that it is beyond critique. This refusal to take an absolute stance entails a kind of intellectual tension that few people are capable of holding. I wholeheartedly recommend this book, and again almost anything by Malik, if the goal is indeed to see through illusion, and to view ourselves for what we are.


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