Book Review: Class, identity, and the struggle against racism

Kenan Malik’s book, Not So Black and White, discusses the ideas and battles in the history of race and racism since the 1600s. While the common sense view is that it is difference that leads to racial inequality, he makes clear that “race didn’t give birth to racism. Racism gave birth to race”.

Modern white-supremacist racism developed as a consequence of the transatlantic slave trade; it was not the other way round. In the initial decades, American plantations were mainly worked by European indentured servants.

To begin with the plantation owners preferred indentured servants over chattel slaves because renting a person was cheaper than buying one, and because if they failed to work well or ran away a court could extend their servitude term, whereas slaves couldn’t be threatened that way. There were also European slaves from the Balkans, and Circassian slaves, but their supply was being reduced by the Ottoman Empire. This, alongside other mostly business reasons, meant that African slaves were used more frequently.

For much of the 17th century bond servants and slaves shared similar lives and struggles in the Americas, and so they rebelled together. Uprisings of indentured servants, slaves and free Black people, like in Bacon’s Rebellion, scared the colonial ruling class. So they introduced laws to divide the different sets of workers and enforce a racial caste system to fulfil the economic needs of the exploiters.

In 1707 Virginia law authorised courts to punish runaway slaves “either by dismembering, or any other way, not touching his life, as they in their discretion shall think fit, for the reclaiming any such incorrigible slave, and terrifying others from the like practices”.

Changing needs

Kenan describes how racism and definitions of race changed throughout history to serve the purposes of the ruling class. Many indentured servants came from Ireland, where the British ruling class had used racism to support their colonial rule. Because of this, and the lower-class position of Irish bondservants in the US, the Irish were referred to as “niggers turned inside out”, while Black people were referred to as “smoked Irish”, even up to the early 19th century as Irish people migrated to the US in mass numbers.

But the targets of racism in the US changed as fears of non-European imperialist competition developed. In a popularised book, National Life and Character, capitalist politician Charles Henry Pearsons warned that whites “struggling among ourselves for supremacy” would be “elbowed and hustled, and perhaps ever thrust aside” by “black and yellow races, no longer too weak for aggression or under tutelage, but independent”. This book became required reading for capitalist leaders and commentators from Liberal leader William Gladstone in Britain to US President Theodore Roosevelt.

As inter-imperialist competition amongst Europeans intensified, the definition of White was changed to promote the “superiority of Anglo-Saxon and the decadence of the Latin race”. A study was run in the US to test a method of identifying “feeble-minded” people which ‘successfully’ labelled 87% of Russian, 83% of Jewish and 79% of Italian participants.

Eugenicists, who theorised that ‘bad blood’ caused alcoholism, pauperism, and feeblemindedness, used this study to create a racist immigration panic and argued for “segregation on a large scale, by which inferior stocks can be prevented from both sullying and supplanting good stocks”. This led in the US to the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 which banned all immigration from Asia and set quotas for European migrants. While previously two-thirds of migrants had come from southern or Eastern Europe, that reduced to 10% after the Act, while three in four of new incoming migrants were British, German or Irish.

Even in a southern slavery state like South Carolina ‘Whiteness’ and ‘Blackness’ were not simply determined by someone’s skin but also by their class. In 1836, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a person’s race “is not to be determined solely by the distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by his reputation, by his reception into society, and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man”. It concluded that “a man of worth, honesty, industry and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste”.

While racism existed, class remained the fundamental determinant of a Black person’s condition in Britain until the mid-19th century. Samuel Ringgold Ward in his book Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro wrote of his surprise at how “Englishmen do not expect servants to ride in first-class carriages; but a person of wealth or position, of whatever colour, has, in this respect, just what he pays for”.

Malik also shares the words of the wife of an English governor in Fiji who praised the “undoubted aristocracy” of the Fijian ruling class, and complained that her English nurse “looks down on them as an inferior race”, saying: “I don’t like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!”.

There can be no doubt that racism was spread to support the British Empire’s rule, which explains why people like her nurse had racist ideas, but it also shows that the ruling class can accept ‘representation’ at the top for a few while supporting systems of racism, exploitation and slavery for the majority of the same race. However, over time racial hierarchy became more entrenched, and in the latter half of the 19th century “a white skin became an essential mark of a gentleman”.

Resisting racism

In this book Malik not only discusses the history of white supremacist racism but also the struggles against it and the range of ideas that have competed to guide movements of resistance.

Pan-Africanism grew from the consciousness of Black Americans who had been violently disconnected from their roots by slavery and had a shared experience of racism and exploitation under segregation. Malik explains how Pan-Africanist ideas in the 1930s had two differing wings: “For the ‘essentialists’, there was an unbreakable thread running through the history and needs of the peoples of Africa. For the anti-capitalists, Pan-Africanism only had meaning in the struggles against imperialism and oppression, struggles defined by class as much as race, and which could pit African against African, as much as Black against White”.

While people could find themselves believing ideas from either wing, reality ended up testing both. The replacement of colonial rule with the rule of African capitalist politicians showed that for the African working class it wasn’t enough to just have someone with the same identity leading your country, because without the right class politics they won’t even attempt to solve your issues.

In his book on the Haitian revolution, author of The Black Jacobins, CLR James, made this point, stating: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous”. He also warned “to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental [is] an error only less grave than to make it fundamental”.

Malik explains how history has also taught that lesson. When the slaves in Haiti revolted and kicked out the slavers they got “a new elite, that could be almost as oppressive as the racialised ruling class it replaced”.

The ‘essentialists’ pan-Africanist ideas developed from Edward Blyden who believed that each race was “distinct but equal” but “has developed for itself such a system code of life as its environments have suggested”. But this actually accepted the racist ideas of an essential difference and inevitably reached racist conclusions. He was against racial mixing, stating “no mongrel state can succeed”. Marcus Garvey, who built on Blyden’s ideas, developed ‘Race First’ separatism. He only wanted the “pure bred” emigrating to Africa, believing “mulattoes” should be left to “die out” in the US.

The author warns that “to view cultures as organic, to regard differences as unyielding, to understand colonialism as the product of white culture, to celebrate an all-encompassing black culture, to do so is to open the way to reactionary views about what is authentic and who ‘belongs’.”

WEB Du Bois was the main alternative ‘anti-capitalist’ voice in the pan-Africanist movement. He recognised that humans “are infinite in variety, and when they are agglutinated as groups, great or small, the groups differ as if they, too, had integrated souls. But they do not”.

Common cause

The ‘essentialists’ views were born from the experience of segregation. Initially the US ruling class didn’t see the need for segregation, it was only mandated from the mid-1800s, largely in response to cross-racial working-class movements. And these apartheid laws didn’t just segregate but also worked to alienate and disenfranchise Black people.

In 1935 Du Bois observed that the “carefully planned and slowly evolved method” of segregation meant that “there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest”.

In 1837, before segregation, a Black newspaper described how “The cause of the poor labouring man, white or coloured, and the cause of the slave is ONE and the SAME. The same aristocratic feeling – the same greediness of gain – the same disregard of their interest, and the same want of sympathy for them, are ALIKE, trampling the white labourer and the slave, INTO THE VERY DUST”.

Malik gives examples showing how despite imperialism and racism in society, international solidarity develops during struggles. The Indian independence revolt of 1857, mislabelled the Indian ‘mutiny’, was attacked by the liberal British press, but the Chartist newspaper had an editorial stating “we have avowedly shown ourselves on the Indian side”.

In 1866, when the Reform League mobilised 200,000 people to protest in Hyde Park for extending the right to vote to working class men, they faced police repression. An activist compared their struggle to that seen in the repression of the Morant Bay Rebellion, saying that it “illustrated Jamaica on a small scale. In both instances wealth and respectability employs the executive apparatus to put down the lower orders”.

These people were likely exposed to the very same racist ideas as Blyden and the Governor’s nurse’ but through experience came to see that their struggles were connected. They understood that the struggles against slavery, colonialism, and for genuine democracy, were all ultimately struggles against capitalism.

A social theorist and supporter of slavery, George Fitzugh, stated: “We treat the Abolitionists and Socialists as identical, because they are notoriously the same people, employing the same arguments and bent on the same schemes. Abolition is the first step in Socialism”. And organised socialists continued to play a key role in the struggle against racism after abolition even when middle-class liberals did not.


The Scottsboro boys were nine teenage boys falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death in the US in 1931. Members of the American Communist Party launched a campaign to save them. They got lawyers to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court and organised mass protests, with thousands protesting in solidarity in places as far apart as New York, Shanghai, and Sydney.

Meanwhile, the leaders of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) initially refused to support the Scottsboro boys out of fear of risking their reputation. The NAACP eventually tried to strong-arm themselves into the case and scare those involved away from the communists. But as the mother of one of the boys said, “the Russians” saved her son.

Kenan directly confronts ‘identitarian’ ideas in the final chapters, highlighting their effect of “delinking race and class and obscuring the social and political roots of both working-class inequalities and racial injustices. Just as in the nineteenth century racial identity was used to break up class alliances, and to persuade white workers that their interests lay in their whiteness, not in their class location, so today the language of identity leads to the same place, though without necessarily the conscious intention of doing so”.

While Kenan is clear that identity politics have been unable to stop racism, he doesn’t conclude the need to end capitalism to ultimately defeat racism. Yet it was the political roots of oppression and the power of cross-racial class alliances that led leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to move towards drawing anti-capitalist and socialist conclusions just before their assassinations in the 1960s.

These aspects of their beliefs have been systematically excluded from teachings of their legacy. Yet the Malcolm X quote – “You can’t have capitalism without racism” – is totally relevant for the fight against racism today, which necessitates a united working-class struggle against capitalism and a socialist alternative to the racist oppression and exploitation inherent in it.

Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics

By Kenan Malik

Published by C Hurst & Co, 2023, £20


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November 2023