Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

The Problem of Race in the 21st Century
by Thomas C. Holt, Harvard University Press

Life used to be relatively straightforward when the world was divided into racists and anti-racists. Today, the self-professed racist has been consigned to the margins of public life. Even the "I am not a racist, but. . . " character often uses the language of diversity and multiculturalism. Which is why people are increasingly questioned about their motives. Debates about race often take the form of a mind game designed to establish whether or not a particular word or act is racially motivated.

Because motives are notoriously difficult to define, the British public may never know for sure whether Anne Robinson's recent comments about the Welsh were racially motivated. With a politician such as the Austrian Jorg Haider, we can be more certain. Despite his claim that he is an enlightened patriot, he qualifies for the status of a 21 st-century racist. But what of William Hague? When he criticised the Macpherson report for undermining police morale, some opponents accused him of playing the race card. Tony Blair, adopting a more charitable view, said: "I am not suggesting that the right honourable member is a racist. I am simply suggesting that he is an opportunist." And poor Keith Vaz? Is he the target of a scurrilous, racially motivated crusade, or is he merely a dodgy politician?

The Problem of Race in the 21st Century provides a compelling argument for rethinking our ideas about race. Thomas Holt believes that there is a new "indeterminacy in our measures of racial phenomena and an inscrutability that confounds our understanding of them". In Britain, the concept of institutional racism has been subject to such a shift towards ambiguity. In the 1980s, institutional racism in action conveyed certain assumptions of the state's rights of coercion, domination and exercise of power relations. With the Macpherson report came a shift to a more vague, psychological interpretation of racism. Motive and perception have displaced power relations and acts. That is why Sir William Macpherson could recommend that a racial incident should be redefined as one that is "perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person". In opting for the realm of perception, he codified ambiguity into law.

One reason why we have such difficulty with the subject of racism is that our thinking is often dominated by the 19th-century version of it, even if its meaning and practice have undergone important alterations. During the Victorian era, many prominent individuals proudly boasted about the superiority of the British races. Those certainties, so common to Europe, have gradually been replaced by a profound sense of defensiveness. Even Haider uses euphemisms to transmit his unpleasant diatribes against what he calls the "over-foreignisation" of Austria.

However, it is not simply a matter of racism being driven underground. Many of the structures that supported racist practices have been undermined by fundamental changes in the way we live. Holt argues that deindustrialisation and the shift to the service economy have altered the way that racism works. Reflecting on the United States, he provocatively claims that "blacks as a race have no economic role". His argument implies that the motif of the economic subordination of African Americans is no longer the sole factor in illuminating the racialism of conflicts in the US. Holt believes that contemporary racism is influenced above all by the dynamic of consumption: black bodies that once provided the labour for white-dominated economies have become a "means of consumption". He asks: "Could it be that Michael Jordan, the model for Suchard chocolates, Grace Jones modelling as an automobile - or, for that matter, Colin Powell - notwithstanding their general attractiveness otherwise, can now become meaningful as signs, not despite their blackness but because of it?"

A blow for freedom, then? Not quite. The process of consumerism and commodification has transformed, but not altered, the status of black people in America. So what is the connection between the commodification of blackness and the continued marginalisation of African Americans? Holt does not tell us, and perhaps there isn't any. In the end, he does a Macpherson and moves from the realm of facts to that of the imagination: "Though invisible, race does its work."

Elsewhere, Holt states that the "enduring power of race may lie in its ambiguity" and "its mutability". However, something that is so invisible and mutable as to elude conceptual thought leaves far too much to the imagination. The invisibility of racial discourse should alert us to the reality that something important has changed. The vocabulary of the 19th century is far too inadequate to make sense of the tensions and conflicts that shape contemporary society. Today, ideas of superiority are seldom expressed in a racial form. Racism is far from exhausted, but is just one influence on the way power relations are played out. The racial moment has passed, but its legacy lives on. One of its legacies is that we invest too much in interpreting motives through the prism of race. Instead of trying to psychoanalyse individual motives, it would make sense to pay more attention to people's actions and their consequences. Otherwise, there is a risk that we may overlook other forces that foster a climate of inequality and injustice in society.

First published in the New Statesman 23 April 2001