In Review: Kenan Malik’s ‘Strange Fruit: why both sides are wrong in the race debate’

Posted: May 31, 2014 by Admin in 'Race' and 'difference', Capitalist ideology, Cultural studies, Democracy movements, Genes, nature, nurture etc, Imperialism and anti-imperialism, Limits of capitalism, Multiculturalism, Racism and anti-racism

m08-stra-cove-200by Grant Cronin

With the release of A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade I thought it would be a good time to review one of the best book on race that I have read Strange Fruit: Why both sides are wrong in the race debate by Kenan Malik. I would never tell people not to read Wade’s book but I would urge them to read Malik’s as a corrective and penetrating insight into the politics of race and culture.

The greatest thing about Strange Fruit is the connection Malik makes between racism and culture. Instead of destroying racism all the efforts of the left have led to what Malik describes as a “resurrection of racial ideas and the imprisonment of people within their cultural identities” (p288).  Malik traces the development of the racial type and racial thinking in the early chapters with a juridical mixing of history and science finally showing how enlightenment equality got twisted into a defence of difference in the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder.

Herder is the romantic reactionary whose ideas come to full blossom in the dictates of modern multiculturalists. As Malik points out, Enlightenment thinkers were interested in diversity and sought to explain it, however “Herder, and many of those who followed him, thought it important to accept, and indeed to celebrate it” (p. 123). And because Herder focussed on cultural differences arguing for the incommensurability of cultures – culture became as reified as the racial differences. Culture became a thing innate and fixed allowing modern multiculturalists to assign people to their places and even dictate behaviour and belief. As Malik explains in one of the most compelling chapters “The Burden of Culture”, after the discrediting of racial science following the horrors of WW2, overt expressions of racism were out but “many of the assumptions of racial thinking were maintained intact – in particular the belief that humanity can be divided into discrete groups, that each group should be considered on its own terms and that differences, not commonalities, shaped human interaction. These assumptions were cast, however, not in biological terms but in the language of cultural pluralism” (pp168-69).

Culture now stands as the new racial science and is applauded by the very ones who opposed racism. Malik illustrates his argument with many examples of multicultural policies that yoke people to prescriptive identities and certain “life-scripts” in order to be authentic to their cultural heritage. Following certain rituals, pointless superstitions and even speaking in an accent is seen as necessary for cultural authenticity but, as Malik points out, what about the Muslim woman who rejects sharia law or the Jew who doesn’t accept the legitimacy of Israel or the French Quebecois who speaks only English. “An identity”, he argues, “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).

What Malik carefully teases out is the drift of racial assumptions to the realm of culture, urging readers to remember that authority that presents itself under the guise of multiculturalism is still authority. As he concludes, “The concept of race is irrational. The practice of antiracism has become so. We need to challenge both, in the name of humanism and of reason” (p.288).

  1. Karim says:

    Thank you Grant. You have done a very great work for a brief article. This book is in my reading list. Your review is indeed very helpful in terms of providing a general idea on what is the book about, and where should I find the information that I’m looking for.

    • Grant says:

      Glad to be of help. I think Wade’s book is wrong about race and culture – in fact I think the very opposite. Culture is a thing dynamic and adaptable and I would recommend reading Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation by Mark Pagel.

  2. Karim says:

    Thank you for your further explanation and suggesting Mark Pagel’s book. Unfortunately, we don’t have it here in the library!

  3. Kenan Malik says:

    Sorry for the late response, but many thanks for this. Much appreciated.