Alana Lentin’s book Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse.
Reviewed by F. Zehra Colak
“How to be both free and situated; how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” Toni Morrison asks this question in her essay called “Home,” published in 1997. More than two decades after Morrison, Alana Lentin, a race critical scholar, partly answers this question as she calls on her readers to be race-cognizant while defying its terms of reference: “How do we explain race and oppose the dehumanization and discrimination committed in its name if we do not speak about it?” This is the key question that Lentin thoroughly engages with in Why Race Still Matters.* Her main argument draws on the view that dismantling racism and unpacking its impact can only be possible by speaking about it as leaving racism out of the conversation harms those exposed to it. Most importantly, she does this at a time when there is increasing backlash against academic studies of race, gender, post-colonialism, and scholars working in these fields are being targeted by right-wing governments across and beyond western Europe (Colak & Toguslu, 2021).
Drawing on the work of influential scholars like Stuart Hall, Lentin defines racism as “a technology for the management of human difference” which produces, reproduces, and sustains white supremacy at various levels (p. 5). Her work underlines how approaching racism as a pathology fails to acknowledge the role of institutions, structures, processes, and practices in upholding a racially categorized view of the world. More and better racial literacy pedagogy among public, Lentin rightly argues, can challenge such individualized notions of racism and normalize conversations about (institutional) whiteness. Racial literacy “emphasizes the relationship between race and power … [and] constantly interrogates the dynamic relationship among race, class, geography, gender, and other explanatory variables” (Guinier, 2004: 114–15, as cited in Lentin, 2020: 11). Nevertheless, western educational systems fail to acknowledge the importance of racial literacy as they attempt at practicing neutrality and color-blindness that reproduces Eurocentric notions of race. This, Lentin underlines, deprives us from acquiring the tools that we need to counter pseudoscience racial ideas and myths (e.g., White genocide) that are taking a strong hold on social media and in the public sphere.
How can then an anti-racist discourse challenges the recent resurgence of ‘race realists’ and their false premises of racial science beyond proposing that race is a social construct? This is an especially relevant question that offers valuable insights to move beyond the limited explanatory frameworks that are currently adopted by anti-racist scholars and activists.
As noted by Lentin, “antiracists are very good at denying the biological facticity of race, but not very good at explaining what is social about race” (p. 31). Entering an insightful dialogue with scholars of race, Lentin discusses various critiques of social constructionist approach, which emphasizes that race needs to be discussed within the political context that reproduces it along with ideas about how it can be dismantled. Still, Lentin shows how race is present in medical practice, biomedical research, and genetics as can be seen in associations of certain diseases such as sickle cell anemia with the Black people despite obvious evidence to the contrary. At the same time, Lentin recognizes the ways racialization processes unequally impact on groups, requiring specific forms of treatment. In other words, race is not biology, but racial rule has biological effect due to persistence of white supremacy, colonization, and structural inequities. Increasing control of migration along racial lines and discriminatory policies that reproduce race by western governments exemplify nativist racialized body politics that construct ‘Others’ as out of place, which is also noted by scholars of far right and nationalism (Wodak, 2021).
Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse. As such, “the question of who can control the definition of racism has grown in importance almost as a function of the lack of control that many racialized people have over the determination of their life course” (p. 58). Lentin critically engages with the historical roots of racism in Europe, showing that the commitment to racial equality was mainly associated with critiquing antisemitism and did not imply rejection of racism against colonized peoples. The current understanding of racism in Europe still relies strongly on the associations made between Holocaust and racism, leading therefore to the rejection of racism as a system of power and domination that explains ongoing anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and the criminalization of immigrants. Such common views of racism in public, Lentin suggests, are informed, and shaped by a group of academics who psychologize race and equate racism to individual attitudes while presenting critical race studies as unempirical and unscientific.
“Why do you always make it about race?” This, Lentin explains, is a question asked not only by the right but also by ‘the white left,’ to criticize the centralization of race, gender, and sexuality in making sense of complex political questions. However, refusing “to see race is to choose simplicity and ignore the layers of power in and resultant complicity required in dealing with what race continues to do” (p. 96). Exposing the ignorance among the ‘white left’ about the challenges of antiracists, Lentin underlies the little-understood diversity of the antiracism movement. By construction of racism as a concern of ‘aloof cosmopolitan urban elites’ and racialization of working classes as white, the question of how racialized power structures function at the intersection of class, gender, and nationality is overlooked. Lentin’s thoughtful engagement with issues around anti-racism movement and identity politics drawing on discussions around contemporary Islamophobia and ongoing settler domination of Indigenous lands provides unique insights into ongoing academic and media debates. Particularly noteworthy in this discussion is her emphasis on how demands by racialized groups of people are treated as “victimhood performances” by those in power who then call themselves “victims” struggling with such demands.
One of the interesting contributions in Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters relates to the question of how antisemitism and Islamophobia feed off one another as two forms of racism. While antisemitism is politically instrumentalized in the name of defending Jews from Muslims and anti-Zionists, Islamophobia is often seen invalid. Lentin underlies, for instance, the adoption of “Judeo-Christianity” by the right to construct Muslims and Islam in opposition to European values while concealing Christianity’s own antisemitism. At the same time, rising antisemitism in Hungary, for instance, and the attacks against the well-known Jewish philanthropist George Soros are often accompanied by anti-refugee and anti-Muslim racism. Still, “antisemitism is excused if opposition to Muslims and support for Israel are present” (p. 145), as shown by various vignettes discussed in the book. She furthermore engages deeply with questions around ‘Cultural Marxism,’ internal struggles within Jewish communities, and the persistence of antisemitism in different forms such as reduction of “the Jews” to a homogenous identity. Lentin’s insights on how European states declared their commitment to fight Judeophobia after Holocaust while continuing racial colonization abroad and exploitation of migrants at home are particularly insightful.
The conclusion offers a powerful summary of contemporary debates on racism by outlining differences among race realists (i.e., racists), race-critical anti-racists who are fighting racism, and those who remain silent about race as a way of challenging it. Lentin addresses this silent group when she argues that “talking in euphemisms or pretending that race belongs to the past” will not make race matter less (p. 172). Engaging with the root causes of why race is a difficult subject to study and talk about, she particularly underlies the role of white fragility, methodological whiteness, epistemic Eurocentrism and institutional racism, all of which contribute to the lack of racial literacy among public. For instance, an epistemically racist positivist stance argues that race cannot be understood objectively by those who experience it while imposing certain boundaries around what counts as (superior) knowledge. While calling on its readers to be attentive to race as a tool of analysis, the book ends with a hopeful message noting critical conversations that are taking place and being attended by white people engaged in challenging racial hierarchy.
Overall, this is a valuable contribution and resource for scholars and students of race studies interested in a critical, engaging, and deeply informative analysis of historical and contemporary academic and public debates on race and racism.
(*) Why Race Still Matters, by Alana Lentin, Polity Press, 2020. 184 pp., €17.00 (paperback), ISBN: 9781509535712
Colak, F. Z. & Toguslu, E. (2021). “France’s attack on academics is an attempt to silence debate on race.” ECPS. https://www.populismstudies.org/frances-attack-on-academics-is-an-attempt-to-silence-debate-on-race/
Guinier, L. (2004). “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma.” Journal of American History. 91(1): 92–118.
Morrison, T. (1997). “Home.” In: The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain. Edited by Wahneema Lubiano. 3–12. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wodak, R. (2021). The politics of fear: The shameless normalization of far-right discourse. London: SAGE.