Race, pluralism and the meaning of difference

Malik, Kenan

Publisher:  New Formations
Year Published:  1998  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX16215

Far from establishing a critique of racial thinking, the politics of difference appropriates many of its themes and reproduces the very assumptions upon which racism has historically been based. Most critically, the embrace of difference has undermined the capacity to defend equality.

Abstract:  -


There are three basic points I want to argue in this paper. First, I want to show that 'difference' has always been at the heart, not of the antiracist, but of the racist agenda. Second, I want to argue that cultural pluralism, far from being a means to liberate the voice of the oppressed, is rooted in the same philosophy that gave rise to the discourse of race. Finally, I want to show that in a world that is profoundly unequal, the pursuit of difference inevitably leads to the accommodation to, and exacerbation of, such inequalities.

The irony in the contemporary embrace of difference is that antiracist hostility to universalism mirrors that of traditional racial theorists. Nineteenth century racial thinkers despised what they regarded as the abstract universalism of Enlightenment thinkers which they believed denied, and even undermined, the concrete reality of human differences. In its stead racial theorists embraced the relative and the particular. Dismissing claims of a universal humanity, they advocated instead the notion that human groups are in profound ways distinct and should be treated accordingly.


Pluralism effectively turned on its side the evolutionary ladder of Victorian racial theory: pluralists conceived of humanity as horizontally, rather than vertically, segmented. Humanity was not arranged at different points along an ever-rising vertical axis, as the social evolutionists had believed, but at different points along a stationary horizontal axis. Humanity was composed of a multitude of peoples each inhabiting their own symbolic and cultural worlds. But whether differences were seen as biological or cultural, whether they were seen in terms of inferiority and superiority or not, racial theory and cultural pluralism were characterised by a common hostility to universalism, a disdain for humanism and a philosophical, and occasionally epistemological, relativism.

The consequence of all this can be seen in the debate about race and difference in the postwar world. Following the experience of Nazism, the Holocaust and the Final Solution, biological theories of human differences became discredited. But if racial science was buried in the postwar world, racial thinking was not. While the biological arguments for racial superiority were thrown into disrepute and overt expressions of racism were discredited, many of the assumptions of racial thinking were maintained intact - in particular the belief that humanity can be divided into discrete groups, that each groups should be considered in its own terms, and that differences, not commonalities, shaped human interaction. These assumption, however, were cast not in biological terms but in the language of cultural pluralism. Pluralism provided a vocabulary with which to articulate social differences without having to refer to the discredited discourse of race. It provided both a sense of continuity with prewar racial discourse and a means of asserting the aversion to racism that exemplified the postwar years.

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