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Book Review: Does race exist

The Racialization of America by Yehudi Webster. St Martins Press. ISBN 0-312-07557-X.

In the pub after a meeting a socialist was arguing with a man with dreadlocks. "You're not black," he said. "Yes, I am," the man replied. "No," the socialist went on, "you are no more black than I'm white. We're both human beings." Yehudi Webster, the author of this book, would have appreciated this exchange; indeed, he became acquainted with the Socialist Party and our ideas when he was in Britain before moving on to America.

Webster's basic argument is that the all-pervading classification of the population in America into "whites" and "blacks" is logically absurd, scientifically unsound, self-fulfilling, counter-productive and in fact racist. There are of course anatomical differences between human beings—millions of them in fact—but it is not nature which decides which of these are to be regarded as significant for purposes of classifying people into so-called "races". That is done by humans and, in this case, on a completely arbitrary basis. Races don't exist in nature but are an artificial politically-motivated creation.

A question on race was first included in the US Census of 1890, at a time when segregation was being consolidated and given a legal basis. But, nowadays, racial classification is championed more by people who consider themselves anti-racists than by open racists. Sociologists, educationalists and others routinely carry out studies based on comparing the education, health, level of employment, unemployment, wages, housing, etc of those they classify as "whites" and "blacks". In fact, many universities now have special departments devoted to studying "race relations". But, argues Webster, as this classification is scientifically absurd, it creates or at least perpetuates artificial "racial" divisions amongst the population by encouraging people to think of themselves as "whites" and "blacks" who are homogeneous groups competing with each other for access to limited resources. In other words, it encourages "racial consciousness" and so racism.

Some partisans of racial classification for social studies purposes, realising that the definition of races on the basis of anatomical characteristics is scientifically unjustifiable, seek to define race more in terms of culture than of anatomy; hence their talk of "ethnic groups" rather than races. But this, says Webster, is even more racist as it posits a link between a person's psychology and behaviour and their supposed race. And of course, as all humans are capable of acquiring any culture, no particular culture can be, or is, exclusive to one supposed race.

Others, some imagining themselves to be Marxist, try to combine race and class and see those they call blacks as a super-exploited fraction of the working class. Webster has no trouble demonstrating the contradictions of this view. All he does is to point to the existence of "black" capitalists and better-paid "black" workers, thus showing that those "blacks" who are below the poverty line cannot be said to be poor just because they are black. In fact, in absolute numbers, there are more "white" people in America below the poverty line than there are "black" people. Clearly, then, poverty is not due to racism but to some other cause.

Although Webster shows himself to be well aware of the Marxian theory of class and class consciousness—at one point he denies the existence of a so-called middle class—apparently he no longer agrees with a class analysis of society (he sees capitalism as an irrational human social arrangement which prevents humans from living in a human way). Nevertheless, he still realises that a class analysis and a race (even a race/class) analysis of society are quite incompatible. Either you analyse society and history in terms of class or you analyse them in terms of race, but it is not possible to analyse them in terms of both.

This is why we as Socialists are so opposed not just to racism but to racial classification (we refused to answer this question when it was introduced, for the first time, into the British Census in 1991). Both encourage racial consciousness while our task is to encourage class consciousness and, once classes have disappeared, a universalist human consciousness. We want people to think of themselves as members of a world working class and as members of a single human race, citizens of the world, Earthpeople, rather than as British, America, French or black or white.

Is Webster, then, denying that there is such a thing as racism and discrimination against people with black skin? Not at all, but he sees this as but one example of the many ways in which some humans treat or have treated other humans in an inhuman way. Those who oppose such discrimination should, he says, oppose all other inhuman treatments too and strive for a world in which all humans would treat each other in a human way. The answer to "racial" discrimination is not a multi-racial society in which each "race" would get exactly the same treatment (an equal percentage of unemployment, of people living below the poverty line, in bad housing, in bad health, etc) but a completely non-racial society from which the very concept of race would have disappeared. In his view, the first step towards such a society should be the ending of all racial classification, for whatever purpose, both by governments and by social scientists.