Race, Culture, and Leftists

What follows is a paper for presentation at the Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, to be held in June 2006. It is fairly schematic. I have fleshed out the ideas with examples in other online work (see this essay and this interview). The aim here was to present the main ideas to a leftist, activist audience, advance the ideas somewhat, and seek feedback. I’m hoping for feedback from those who attend the sesions. But I hope to get more feedback in the ZNet wiki, in the discussion pages…

My presentation is motivated by what I believe is a weakness across the political spectrum: handling the interaction of different cultures and identities in accordance with principles of equality, solidarity, and liberty. My optimistic belief is that if we – leftists – can get this right, in our own communities and organizations such as they are, then we can solve some of the debilitating problems within our organizations and communities. If we can do that, we will be more attractive, bigger, stronger, and better able to face the battles we will need to fight in future.


I am obliged to start with some definitions. I am going to define a few very commonly used terms. In my definitions I am going to stick fairly closely to what I think people mean when they use these terms, but I am going to select meanings in order to make it easier for me to make my points.

I define a community as a group of people who share something in common. Who is in or out of the community is determined by the community and by those outside it. The Black community, for example, is not one based solely on self-identification. Who is Black has been defined, historically, by whites, not blacks. The journalistic or scientific ‘community’, a very different kind of community, is not defined from the outside – or is defined from the outside to a much lesser extent.

Identity is most simply membership in a community or group. Like the boundaries of community, identification happens in two ways. One’s own consciousness is important. But so too is that of the group – in many cases, membership in a group is contingent upon the group’s acceptance. And also, identity can be imposed from the outside – by states who confer ‘status’ or ‘non-status’ identity on their subjects.

I am going to define culture differently from anthropologists. To anthropologists culture is everything that is not defined by biology. But I will define culture as the shared language – not only language, but nonverbal cues, assumptions, norms, customs – that enable members of a group to communicate internally and to strengthen the identification of individuals with the community. But the capacity to communicate is moderated through cultural institutions – media, educational, religious… indeed every institution has a cultural element, which is the reason for phrases like ‘working class culture’.

Race is just a particular kind of group identity, correlated with continent of origin and physical features like skin colour. In North America ‘racial’ identifications are basically: Asian (sometimes divided into East, West, South), Indigenous, Latin@, Black, and white. Ethnicity is a more nuanced understanding of the concept, relying on country or language of origin.

Next is racism. Leftists used to have some control over the definition of this word, but I believe we have lost it, and this has led to some of our problems. Common usage of the word racism is that racism is bigotry, prejudice, resort to stereotypes. In this common usage, Blacks can be just as ‘racist’ as whites. Another idea is that racism is simply the irrational hatred of Black people. In this usage, ‘racism’ is reserved for anti-Black prejudice, and differentiated from anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and hatred against other groups. This usage leads to the idea of ‘reverse racism’, which in common usage is discrimination against whites and is usually suggested as an argument against affirmative action programs.

Leftist usage of the word racism is different from common usage. In leftist usage, racism is either a system of power that one group (whites) holds over others, or any individual or institutional behaviour or pattern that reinforces this system of power. I believe this is a useful definition – indeed the most useful – but because of its limitations, it has been mostly rejected in favor of the common usage. I will discuss these limitations in a minute – first I will dispense with the definitions.

Multiculturalism is a proposed solution to racism. In a multicultural framework, all cultures are respected and indeed, all cultures are equal. Groups are free to express their cultural preferences and dominant groups are to have special respect for minority groups. Tolerance and diversity are the order of the day. Cross-cultural understandings are sought. Multiculturalism posed as the counter to the common-usage form of racism.

Multiculturalism is not, however, a solution to racism as leftists refer to it. Indeed, if a system of power is still in place, multicultural ideals of respect, tolerance, and diversity can then be used as arguments against mobilization aimed at identifying or redressing power imbalances (as divisive or intolerant). Ideas of fairness and equality developed as an antidote to bigotry become arguments against affirmative action. It is official policy in Canada, and it plays out in perverse ways: it is a table built on dispossession at which the gatekeepers of the different communities compete for resources based on their ability to convince the others that they ‘represent’ their communities. The result is that the dominant group, presumed to have no ‘culture’ (having to settle for wealth and power instead) gets to wield strict fairness and equality arguments against these ‘cultures’, who sound like they want ‘special rights’.

At the same time, leftists helped develop multicultural analysis and the multicultural ideal. That it has become mainstream speaks to its basis in good values (fairness, equality, diversity). That it is used as a weapon against oppressed constituencies speaks to its limitations.

Limitations of Multiculturalism by Leftists

The limitations of the leftist definition of racism are related to the limitations of multiculturalism. Both are highlighted by the proposed solutions to the problem. If we are against power differentials between groups, do we eliminate the differentials but preserve the groups? Or do we eliminate the groups?

If we want to preserve the groups neatly and separately, we have a separatist solution.

If we want to eliminate the groups, we are after assimilation.

But both such solutions – and in its crudest form multiculturalism is a separatist solution, albeit with an injunction to ‘tolerance’ between the separate groups – are solutions based on cultural homogeneity. They are based on a flawed idea that people live their lives as members of a single group or a single identity.

The flaw and its application in multiculturalism is described by Vijay Prashad in his book ‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting’:

“Are cultures discrete and bounded? Do cultures have a history or are they static? Who defines the boundaries of culture or allows for change? Do cultures leak into each other? … To respect the fetish of culture assumes that one wants to enshrine it in the museum of humankind rather than find within it the potential for liberation or for change. We’d have to accept homophobia and sexism, class cruelty and racism, all in the service of being respectful to someone’s perverse definition of culture.”

Adding to Vijay’s list of rhetorical questions are two posed by Michael Rabinder James’s book ‘Deliberative Democracy and the Plural Polity’: Do individuals choose their cultural identities, do they inherit them, or are they imposed from without? A group’s claim on resources or restitution may depend on this question. When we are talking about resources, we are talking about the economy, and class, and perhaps of conflict between classes. Why should a group based on self-definition have any special claim on resources? The truth is, Rabinder James argues, that in fact, choice and inheritance, internal group acceptance and external imposition, all play a role in identity formation, in virtually all cases.

Most of our views about culture and multiculturalism underestimate diversity within groups. They overlook how group boundaries can shift over time.

Amartya Sen’s recent book, Identity and Violence, also makes this argument. He makes two main points. First, that individuals have multiple identities that overlap and can change. Second, that there is always some role for choice in how identity plays out in any given situation.

This is not a matter that requires great imagination. It merely requires recognition of daily reality. It is in front of all of us. But it has some important consequences.


Robin Kelley, 1999 ColorLines, describes this recognition as ‘polyculturalism’, which he counterposes with ‘multiculturalism’.

“…we were and are `polycultural.’ By `we,’ I’m not simply talking about my own family or even my `hood, but all peoples in the Western world. It is not our skin or hair or walk or talk that renders black people so incredibly diverse. Rather, it is the fact that most black people in the Americas are products of a variety of different `cultures’ — living cultures, not dead ones. These cultures live in and through us everyday, with almost no self-consciousness about hierarchy or meaning. In this respect, I think the term `polycultural’ works a lot better than `multicultural,’ since the latter often implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side — a kind of zoological approach to culture. Such a view of multiculturalism not only obscures power relations, but often reifies race and gender differences..

“…While this may seem obvious, for some people it’s a dangerous concept. Too many Europeans don’t want to acknowledge that Africans helped create so-called Western Civilization, that they are both indebted to and descendants of the very folk they enslaved. They don’t want to see the world as One — a tiny little globe where people and cultures are always on the move, where nothing stays still no matter how many times we name it. To acknowledge our polycultural heritage and cultural dynamism is not to give up our black identity or our love and concern for black people. It does mean expanding our definition of blackness, taking our history more seriously, and looking at the rich diversity within us with new eyes.” (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=30&ItemID=3865)

Consequences for the Future

First of all, I still do want to eliminate power and class differentials between groups. So restitution – programs that pay attention to history with a view to eliminating equality and fairness in the present – is important, for example in North America for Blacks and Indigenous peoples in particular. I cannot see justifying inequalities on the basis of tolerating diversity, nor do I see any reason to view a reparations programme that decreases inequality as ‘special treatment’. But there is a flip side. First, the programs have to be carefully designed so that they actually do decrease inequality. And second, wanting to eliminate inequalities between groups does not mean tolerating inequalities within groups.

This is where a possible tension emerges between cultural autonomy and solidarity. This is not a plea for cross-cultural tolerance, because we do not live in a single identity. We can have solidarity with others on the basis of shared identity, even if we have only our shared humanity as a basis for solidarity. But if we don’t want to use cultural relativism as an excuse to tolerate injustice within groups, we also don’t want to allow powerful groups to violate the autonomy of weaker or smaller groups based on their own values or norms.

But what does it mean in the real world of institutions and groups and populations to say we cannot ‘allow powerful groups’ to do something? What kind of protection is there for a minority within a country, or for a small independent national community in the family of nations? There are legal, political, and media protections that could help a society deal with this problem.

Formal, legal protections in constitutions and international law, protections that require consensus or huge majorities to change. But these can be violated by powerful groups.

Voting systems can be arranged to provide incentives to politicians and campaigners to reach out across obvious community divisions. But these, too, could be ridden with conflict.

Major media institutions could be encouraged to operate based on fairness criteria. These criteria include:

  1. Representing all subgroups in the wider community
  2. Presenting all different positions in the wider community
  3. Being accessible to anyone
  4. Facilitating communication or translation between groups
  5. Developing the ‘common culture’ of the wider community

Smaller, community media institutions might have a more specialist role. These might not be held up to the same standards of fairness. Nor would they have the same levels of public support or access to public space. They would just be independent media, available to anyone and protected by free speech laws.

What I’m sketching out here, for media institutions, is an important principle for a polycultural framework. The wider society has a responsibility to make its institutions representative of the diversity of the communities within it. But it should also encourage and help the creation of autonomous institutions for those communities: institutions that are not held to the same strict criteria of fairness, because, unlike society-at-large, people are free to exit them.

Michael Rabinder James, in his “Deliberative Democracy and the Plural Polity”, suggests fairness criteria for judging democratic processes: aggregative equality (each person has roughly the same voting power), deliberative equality (each different position is represented regardless of its popularity), aggregative autonomy (choice between different candidates and positions), deliberative autonomy (a chance to develop positions free of coercion and with full information), aggregative reciprocity (equal coalition-building opportunities), and deliberative reciprocity (a tendency to view others as partners and understand their positions). He also suggests voting systems that would encourage people to seek votes across identity groups.

Legal, political, and media protections can all facilitate a polycultural framework. But in spite of them, powerful groups could wield control over resources to shut out or misrepresent alternative views or consign them to the margins.

I believe, however, that beyond institutionalized protections, the ultimate protection is the development of a ‘common culture’ in which people do not ‘vote’, or even think, reliably or consistently as a member of their ‘community’ only as opposed to the larger society. This is the best protection against communalism and, in India, it has been the main brake on communalism. People do not vote, or live, in a single identity. A sound society would not ask them to.

What about across societies? What about if cases of oppression or violence are occurring within a community or a nation? When does the wider society – or the family of nations, or an external agent of any kind – have the right to intervene?

In the most extreme cases, this can be resolved with a simple rule proposed by Arthur Waskow in the 1960s in a small book called ‘Keeping the World Disarmed’. The basic rule is simply this: intervention is allowed, but more force requires more consensus. So any country could send a single unarmed observer or investigator to investigate claims that a country was arming or committing rights violations against its people. To send more would require more consensus, and full armed intervention would require some super majority.

Consequences Today

I said earlier that people do not vote, or live, in a single identity. A sound society would not ask them to. I should also add that a sound political movement would not ask them to. I should also add that I believe that leftists do ask people to, and that is a mistake.

There is no such thing as a homogeneous group or movement. The idea of representativeness in common spaces and the creation of autonomous spaces can almost always be applied. Criteria of deliberative and aggregative autonomy, reciprocity, and equality can always be applied. I believe that we can, and should, evaluate our own institutions and processes according to these criteria. I believe that we can improve our work as antiracists by recognizing the multiple, overlapping identities and the element of choice in them. We can also avoid the error of asking people to live or think in a single identity.

This framework has led me to a skepticism about the label ‘people of colour’ used by leftists. ‘People of colour’ is a flimsy identity, externally imposed. It lacks the elements of shared history, language, experience, or territory that make for coherent communities. It obscures power differentals and oppression within its too-wide boundaries. Antiracists do better to rely on stronger bonds of solidarity, whether based in coherent communities or in shared principles and practice. I do not believe that the benefits of excluding whites are so great that they make up for what is lost. For racial identity, I am in favor of more precise labels: Black, Indigenous, East, West, or South Asian, Latin@, and white – these, too, however, are subject to fluid and shifting boundaries and internal (class, power, gender) diversity.

I also believe that leftists analysis of ‘privilege’ is either too often used or too selectively used. Especially in the absence of positive aims and political strategy, it is common leftist practice to attack individuals on grounds of identity and consequent privilege. Without positive aims or objective criteria, critiques on the basis of identity have the potential to destroy any group and any organizing effort that is not completely homogeneous or atomized. While this is not an argument for denial, silence, or complicity in the face of inequalities or hypocrisy, I will say that such attacks need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, on the basis of their strategic value and on the basis of the likelihood that they will advance positive antiracist aims of decreasing power differentials, strengthening solidarity, or expanding freedom. Many are made instead for the sake of self-expression or because they are easy to make. The attackers are too often unreflective of their own privilege. I suspect that this is the experience of many leftists trying to function in activist circles. Indeed, Michael Rabinder James suggests criteria for when a minority group would be justified in political struggle against the majority. As you may have guessed, the idea is that the majority has to have failed the tests of deliberative and aggregative equality, reciprocity, and autonomy. It is worth keeping this in mind, too, when we are deciding whether or not to struggle against one another.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.