'Race', Racism, Anti-Racism: challenging contemporary classifications Alana Lentin, European University Institute Social Identities 6(1), March 2000: 91-106 Abstract This paper argues for the revisiting of classificatory concepts currently in use in the study of
'race', racism and anti-racism. It examines the proposition that racist movements no longer
promote discrimination on the grounds of a belief in biological differences but espouse a
'differentialist' racism based on a conviction in the fixity of culture, paradoxically 'borrowed'
from culturally relativist anti-racist arguments. A critique of the differentialist thesis
developed by Pierre-Andr Taguieff is presented based upon the writings of Etienne Balibar
and Paul Gilroy. The former, by grounding modern racism in the ideological universalism of
the European Enlightenment project, argues that the apportioning of blame to anti-racism for
abetting the advent of culturalist racism is unhelpfully conceived from a perspective which
seeks to deny the legitimacy of Black and ethnic minority led alliances as a basis for anti-
racist struggles. The novel connection is made between these arguments and those of Paul
Gilroy (1998) who proposes the redundancy of the term 'race', even from pragmatist
perspectives, in the revitalisation of anti-racism as a viable opposition to contemporary racist
discourses. The argument is made that in order to dissect normative understandings of 'race' it
is necessary to follow the historical trajectory taken by racism in becoming an inextricable
component of the modern project. Anti-racism, thus, must be seen as a multi-layered conflict
and, therefore, separate from its anti-fascist, anti-colonialist, leftist and institutionalised
forms. Evidence from recent interviews with anti-racist activists points to their rejection of
both 'culturalist' and 'biological' approaches to racism and towards broad alliances of
community-led activists against overt but also covert, institutionalised racist discrimination.
Introduction The last decade in sociology and political science has witnessed a rising
predominance of themes in ethnicity and identity as explanations both for the unprecedented
explosion of ethnic conflict in Europe post-1989 and for what Billig (1995) terms 'banal
nationalism', a paradoxical increase in the importance of a communal belonging based on
cultural heredity in an age seemingly defined by cross-national communication and
knowledge of the Other. A concomitant debate in political philosophy has evolved,
particularly in North America, between liberals and communitarians, an issue largely forced
by the challenges and oppositions embedded in the 'multiculturality' (Anthias, 1997) of
contemporary western societies.
In contrast, the discussion of 'race' has not figured as prominently in this complex of
'hot' sociological, political and philosophical currents. Whilst 'racism' is still rightly regarded
as an important source of institutionally and individually based discrimination in
contemporary western societies, this appears to be due to the very centrality of ethnicity and
the accompanying need to explain the persistence of 'ethnic tensions' in societies that, at least
theoretically, have moved towards a 'politics of recognition' (Taylor, 1994). In a normative
sense then, while 'race' can no longer be used as a categorisation of human groups, it is
understood that racism afflicts members of ethnic minority communities whose difference we
no longer describe in racial or biological terms. It may be argued that a problematisation of
such classificatory categories leads, unhelpfully, to a discussion based merely on semantics.
However, the introduction of the concept of 'racialisation' (Balibar, 1991) to refer to the
discrimination of groups and individuals on the basis of perceived racial attributes is useful in
pinpointing racism's targets. Nevertheless, such a terminological discussion evades the very
serious issue that the demise in importance of discussions of 'race' and racism - in any sense
other than the heuristic - poses to the building of sociological theory grounded in a
commitment to anti-racism at a time when concomitant racist discourses appear to have
advanced significantly and in a sophisticated manner.
Regardless of academia's desire to move beyond 'race' and racism, the last decade has
witnessed both an increase in the observable forms of racism and a reanalysis of the prevalent
discourses characterising its self-understanding (Taguieff, 1990). In contrast, anti-racism as a
viable movement is perceived to be subsumed by crisis (Gilroy, 1992), lacking unity,
workable strategy and public support. Both are shaped by the realities of societies
characterised by a general fragmentation of the symbolic cultural modes guiding the life
structures of their populations, an increase in an immigration no longer categorised as guest
labour and a dismantling of welfare systems. The increasing 'multiculturality' of western
societies is accompanied by a parallel inability to effectively deal with its inevitable
consequences - the racist discrimination of ethnically or 'racially' different minorities, who
highlight the alterity between the dominant and subordinate groups inherent in today's nation
Two seemingly conflicting processes are at work in this context. On the one hand,
contemporary western societies are perceived as being multicultural, a state actively promoted
by the media and advertising industries, through popular music and other cultural forms:
diverse, dynamic and positive. On the other hand, multiculturalism has been a liberal public
policy, emerging from North America, replacing assimilative strategies and emphasising the
preservation of cultural difference. Multiculturalism in this latter form has been criticised1 for
establishing a clear separation between the domain of the public and that of the private by
concentrating on culture as the main determinant of difference and neglecting the structural
nature of racism and ethnocentrism. Seen in this light, the multicultural environment
perceived, by some, as positively diverse or, by others, as a 'solution' to the social problems
brought about by immigration leads to the marginalisation and de-politicisation of the
disproportionate power relations in dominant-subordinate group interactions.
A discussion of the contemporary relevance of racism and anti-racism needs to
address the context in which they are played out. Racism and discrimination should be
brought back to the domain of the political but this cannot be done without attention to
contextual transformations - particularly in the urban environment where racism and anti-
racism are most often played out. Racism, the possibilities for anti-racism and the overall
atmosphere of multiculturalism must each be reanalysed in a context in which visible cultural
differences, in their discourses if not in every day reality, become more important than ever
before in the search for identities.
In this paper I will argue that to understand the crisis faced by anti-racism as a
movement in Europe at the turn of the millennium three steps should be taken:
1. Closer attention should be paid to contemporary discourses that propose the advent of a
'new', 'culturalist' or 'second degree' racism in light of the extent to which these arguments
posit an antagonistic relationship between post-war racism and an anti-racism described
as facilitating the former's increasing acceptability.
1 c.f. Jakubowicz (1984), Anthias (1997), Parekh (1993).
2. In response to this approach that seeks to pin the blame for new racist discourses on the
failures of the anti-racism movement, the centrality of racism to the evolution of the
European nation state and to the development of universalist ideologies about 'general
ideas of man' should be examined.
3. Lastly, I will suggest that the use of 'race' as a critical concept can no longer assist in
fighting racism, antisemitism and xenophobia.
In exploring these three points I will emphasise the work of three key authors: Pierre-
Andr Taguieff, Etienne Balibar and Paul Gilroy. I will pay most attention to Balibars
response to Taguieffs proposal of a neo or second degree racism and propose the
existence of a continuum between the work of Balibar and that of Gilroy. My objective is to
show how these important contributions can be drawn upon in an attempt to theorise anti-
The development of these arguments in greater detail will lead me to the proposal that
a reformulation of anti-racism as a viable form of collective action may take the form of the
inter-ethnic alliances beginning to emerge in Europe that seek to go beyond identity politics,.
In order to highlight the significance of these new developments, I will draw on some
examples from my own research in progress of European anti-racist movements. Recent
interviews with anti-racist activists in the United Kingdom2 revealed that alliances across
different minority ethnic and racialised groups as well as cross-national contacts are
increasingly important for strengthening the anti-racist message. This is of particular
importance at a time of enhanced activity around the introduction of racist asylum and
immigration legislation across the European Union.
Contemporary racisms and the centrality of culture
Contemporary western societies have become increasingly multi-ethnic, leading to
the popular perception based on observations of large cosmopolitan cities (such as London,
Paris or Amsterdam) that cultural diversity is a fully accepted phenomenon. For this reason
the persistence of racism and the success in various countries of far-right wing parties with a
strong anti-immigrant manifesto is of significant concern. It is against this setting that writers
2 These interviews were carried out as part of my research on European anti-racist movements. Interviews in the UK and Ireland have been carried out in the first stage of a project also looking at movements in several other western European countries. The project will eventually group together a number of activists from different organisations and countries in an interactive action-based research in part using the Internet in addition to face-to-face meetings.
such as the French sociologist Pierre-Andr Taguieff have introduced the notion of a 'neo-
racism', based, not on biological, but upon cultural differentiation between peoples3.
Pierre-Andr Taguieff's theorisation of a new racism, founded upon the view of
cultures as fixed, is strongly linked to his attempt to point out the role of anti-racism in
facilitating this phenomenon. Taguieff develops the notion of a differentialist racism based on
the fixity of culture which renders both 'racism' and 'anti-racism' incomplete as terms seeking
to explain the intricacy of this oppositionary complex (Taguieff, 1991). His argument is based
on twentieth century developments in anthropology which weakened the biological
theorisation of superior and inferior 'races' and made 'official' the notion that the existence of
human 'races' has no scientific bearing. What evolved, however, due to the work of
anthropologists such as Claude Lvi-Strauss (1961) and the growing acceptability of culture
rather than 'race' as a primary marker of difference, was the notion of cultural relativism upon
which, Taguieff claims, anti-racism based itself.
The emerging anti-racist tradition constructed itself around the beliefs that cultural
phenomena are of an autonomous nature, that cultural determinism thus dominates both
mentality and lifestyle, and that all cultures should be valued equally. With this, Taguieff
appears to blame anti-racists for declaring the nullity of racial differentiation as a viable
concept and replacing it with the semantically interchangeable term 'culture', the positive
nature of which could be easily subscribed to but whose deterministic properties had not been
properly thought out. In more direct terms, the notion of cultural differentiation as equally
valorised presents no problem to left-leaning, western thinkers in so far as it is contained in
anthropological field research, the idea becomes problematic when contextualised in the form
of European-bound immigration. This approach is echoed by the current debate on the limits
of communitarianism and is visible in Habermas' writings on the effect that a "tremendous
influx of immigration" (Habermas, 1995: 255) may have on the stability of western European
societies. Indeed, the advent of social-democrat governments in all four of Europe's largest
states does not seem to have altered hard-line, racially-biased approaches to immigration
Taguieff shows anti-racist thinking to have developed, regardless of the influence of
culturalist moves in anthropology, along the lines of an opposition to a racism still perceived
literally to be racist in the biological sense. This view of the racist opposition was based on
3 Note that while the neo-racist thesis has been associated with the French literature on the subject and is strongly related to the rise of the Front National in that country, British writers have also written about the emergence of a new racism (c.f. Barker, 1981; Gordon, 1989).
anti-racism's inability to sever the linkages in the 'hostility to difference-
annihilation/genocide' continuum, founded upon the experience of the Nazi Shoah. However,
lack of evidence for connecting contemporary racism against immigrants to the horrors of
recent history, led to the formulation of economic arguments for the explanation of intolerant
attitudes which, however unwillingly, justified working class phobias against foreigners. This
double victimisation was the outcome of the deliberate attempt by the capitalist class to serve
its own interests, diffusing racial prejudice to mask class hegemony.
Taguieff seeks to show that whilst anti-racism was being subsumed by
economic/colonialist arguments, racism itself was learning from the initial trigger for these
very ideas - the notion of cultural rather than biological difference. To be clear, it is proposed
that anti-racist thought was based on three pinnacles: the invalidity of 'race', the centrality of
cultural difference and the equal status of all cultures. These principles are at the core of
arguments for cultural relativism. At the same time, the proliferation of racist attitudes
amongst the working classes was explained in terms of traditional class conflict. This need to
excuse the racism of the white working class still sticks in the side of th...