Post-race, post politics: the paradoxical rise of culture after multiculturalism - Alana Lentin

Post-race, post politics: the paradoxical rise of culture after multiculturalism
Post-race, post politics: the paradoxical rise of culture after multiculturalism - Alana Lentin

Declarations of the end of race ignore the continuing impact of racism upon socio-economic inequality in ‘racial states’. Nevertheless, the idea of post-racialism has gained ground in a post-9/11 era, defined by a growing suspicion of diversity.

Submitted by Anonymous on August 23, 2013

Clearly racialized, this suspicion is couched in cultural-civilizational terms that attempt to avoid the charge of racism. Hence, attempts to counteract the purported failure of multiculturalism in Europe today pose culturalist solutions to problems deemed to originate from an excess of cultural diversity. This is part of a deepening culturalization of politics in which the post-race argument belongs to a post-political logic that shuns political explanations of unrest and widening disintegration in favour of reductive culturalist ones. The culturalization of politics is elaborated by relating it to the displacement of the political that originated with the nineteenth-century ascendance of race, thus setting ‘post-racialism’ firmly within the history of modern racism.


Arguments on both sides of the political spectrum have been heard over recent times in support of the idea that society is ‘post-race’ (Gallagher 2008). The election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency in 2008, for example, has been taken by those on both the left and the right to mean that race has ceased to pose a barrier to opportunity. For the centre left, this is a good thing that convinces us of its intrinsic non-racialism and sustains the general belief that racism is mainly an irrationality now overcome. For those on the right, Obama’s election and other examples of minority successes, prove not only that racism was overblown but that, due to the unjustified support given to minorities in the wake of civil rights in the USA, those who are really discriminated today are members of the displaced white majority.

Theoretically, these debates are inscribed in the discourse of racelessness (Goldberg 2002) that seeks to relativize racism and downplay the salience of its experience for non-whites. The post-race argument is not equivalent to one that would advocate for a post-racist society. The proponents of the post-race stance do not claim that race is no longer an issue because racial equality has been attained. For many among them, racial equality is well off their list of priorities; for others, including anti-affirmative action lobbyists such as the Republican African-American Ward Connerly, it is actually hindered by ‘harping on’ about race. Both dismiss the claims of the racialized as ‘political correctness’. Furthermore, they see these claims as hegemonic, superseding those of the (for some more legitimate) white majority and leading to ‘reverse racism’, of which Barack Obama’s election is the ultimate proof.

Left-liberal opponents of this right-wing stance nonetheless sustain the post-race argument by using Obama’s election or the fact of the existence of a black middle class to downplay racism. Their belief in the equality afforded by the ideal of meritocracy and the proof that (some) non-whites have now benefited from it blinds them to the racial discrimination that continues for most racialized people unaffected by the social mobility of a few of their numbers. As argued on This Week in Race (2009):

If the disproportionate levels of success in the White community are not rooted in hard work and merit, then what could possibly account for the discrepancy? The answer, of course, is systemic imbalance and a fundamental lack of justice, which, naturally, is difficult for Whites to embrace, since it calls into question their privilege.

While these debates are most prominent in the USA (Hollinger 2011), they have their variants across the west. The idea of postracialism is most closely allied to the orthodoxy that multiculturalism has failed, and that overly tolerant approaches to cultural difference has fuelled separation and encouraged extremism among racialized groups.

The success of the post-racial idea, from both its right- and left-wing perspectives, in entering common sense has nonetheless been accompanied by the spread of overtly racist political declarations and policies from Arizona to Amsterdam, leading us to question the extent to which these societies are truly beyond race. The expulsion of theRoma from France in the summer of 2010 and their ongoing trouncing in the encampments of Naples (Aradau 2009); the imposition of headscarf and burka bans in France and the Netherlands; the proposition to reverse the EU Schengen agreement in the face of the flight of North African migrants during the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011; the introduction of racial profiling to curb ‘illegal’ migration in the state of Arizona; and the deaths of ‘failed’ asylum seekers in detention and deportation that continue to punctuate the race-related news are but some recent examples. These increasingly normalized events are juxtaposed with the by now de rigeur distancing from multiculturalism expressed by political leaders across Europe, Australia and Canada that serve, unwittingly perhaps but conveniently, to buttress such overtly racist policy. When British Prime Minister David Cameron (BBC News Online 2011) claims that multiculturalism has failed because it has led to the toleration of ‘these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values’, specifying Muslim organizations who fail to tackle extremism, he legitimates the heightened suspicion, disciplining and exclusion of racialized minorities, in particular Muslims, who are deemed to pose an internal threat to the security and moral integrity of western nations.

While it may appear paradoxical that these incidences of racism coexist with examples of racism overcome the election of a black president in the US most notably I argue that the notion that we are post-racial is in fact the dominant mode in which racism finds discursive expression today across a variety of contexts. Whereas post-racialism has been interpreted from a variety of perspectives, including the anti-racist vision of a non-racial future (cf. Gilroy 1998), the post-racial as I am using the concept, refers to the ways in which, by bypassing or denying race as an adequate means of making sense of discrimination, we risk ignoring how allied concepts such as culture and diversity have been incorporated into the denial of the significance of racism. Above all, the declaration of the death of multiculturalism, repeatedly reiterated by European political leaders, the liberal intelligentsia and the mainstream press in recent years, should be understood as inscribed in a post-racial logic that both disaggregates the problem of ‘too much diversity’ (Goodhart 2004) from racism and purportedly heralds in a new era in which the excessively tolerated subjects of multicultural generosity have, to paraphrase Enoch Powell, come to hold the ‘whip hand’ over the white majority.

In order to makes sense of these shifts, narrow interpretations of race need to be enlarged to encompass the ways in which race and racism, culture and culturalism have become intertwined or, in some cases, made interchangeable. Culture, which as Robert Young (1995) reminds us has always been racial and vice versa, is naturalized to work like race from the anti-multiculturalist perspective, a phenomenon already observed by Martin Barker (1981) in his work on the new culturalist racism that emerged in tandem with Thatcherism in the UK in the early 1980s. Currently, the proposed replacement of multiculturalism with ‘integration’ should be understood therefore not as a critique of highly criticizable multiculturalist policies, but of lived multiculture per se; that is of the racial/ethnic/cultural diversity, or what some have described as the multiculturality (Parekh 1999), of post-immigration societies. The debate on multiculturalism can be understood as being inscribed in a post-racial logic because those who oppose multiculturalism see it as having been imposed by racial and ethnic minorities whose demands for recognition were prioritized over all other concerns. Proponents of this point of view oppose any action taken to point out or alleviate discrimination against the racialized as discriminating against the majority of whites, portrayed as excluded by hegemonic elites intent on pushing a guilt-assuaging multiculturalist agenda (Bruckner 2010). Taking this approach is said to be vindicated by the evidence of ‘homegrown’ terrorists and other ungrateful dissenters who have benefited from such generosity only to use it against their benevolent, if naıve, hosts.

Despite the attack on multiculturalism, solutions to societal problems said to emanate from an excess of culture of the ‘wrong kind’, are themselves proposed in culturalized terms. Rather than interpret the problems that have been attributed to permissive multiculturalism and excessive ethno-racial diversity as political, economic or social in origin for example as a response to the effects of de-industrialization, foreign policy or institutionalized discrimination they have been overwhelmingly regarded as cultural and therefore resolvable only through culture. This may be understood as being due to a culturalization of politics in which cultural, rather than socio-economic or political frames such as inequality, exploitation or injustice (Žižek 2008), are ‘invoked to describe, analyze, argue, justify, and theorize’ (Domínguez 1992, cited in Yúdice 2003, p. 25). Both the variety of policies that can be loosely aggregated under the heading of prescriptive state multiculturalism, unevenly enacted as they have been, and crucially, the discursive backlash against something called ‘multiculturalism’ can be seen as products of this cultural turn. The reinterpretation of the demands of excluded minorities for equality and inclusion, most prominently in the USA and extending across the west from the 1970s on, as a request for cultural recognition (Taylor 1994), ignored the political and politicized roots of these demands. Similarly, the problematization of difference today and the reorientation of multiculturalism around the more palatable ‘politics of diversity’ (Cooper 2004) and ‘integrationism’ (Kundnani 2007) is a refusal of a ‘diversity politics’ that seeks to instil difference at the heart of the state and citizenship and not at its excluded margins.

I connect the post-racialism of anti-multiculturalism and the mire of the culturalized solutions proposed to the purported excesses of diversity to a historicized reading that cements the continuities between the racial and the cultural that are key for understanding the present racial moment. The culturalization of politics today bears similarities to the idea that ‘race is all’ that came to dominate European politics in the nineteenth century. In this sense, it is postpolitical, both reducing the socio-economic to the cultural, and constraining the terms of the debate within a culturalist register that takes reified ‘culture’ both ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’ for granted. Understanding the anti-multiculturalism backlash and the move towards ‘integrationism’ (Kundnani 2007) from this historicised perspective, one that refuses the analytic separation between race and culture, assists us in making sense of the apparently paradoxical culturalism of contemporary opposition to multiculturalism.

‘Too diverse’: the real problem with multiculturalism

Nas @43 where have I mentioned the word ‘‘genetics’’ or the word ‘‘race’’? My problem is with Somali culture not Somali genes.
- Cauldron, 21 August 2009, 11:41 am1

Both the conservative and the liberal readings of post-racialism are inextricable from the current debate over the future of multiculturalism. The notion that multiculturalism is in profound crisis has been peddled extensively since 9/11. It has been sustained by events such as the Madrid and London bombings, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the Mohammed cartoons protests and the 2005 riots in the French banlieues.

However, the unease around multiculturalism, leading governments across Europe to ban hijabs and burkas, install citizenship testing and promote ‘national values’, is not so much with multicultural policies, but with the very fact of multiculture, or with what to do when there is ‘too much diversity’ (Goodhart 2004). Given this, the focus of the article is not on the many important and convincing attempts made to normatively undergird what is positive in multiculturalism (cf. Modood 2007) or analyse its various manifestations in policy, education or in relation to religion or gender (Phillips 2007, Vertovec and Wessendorf 2010). Rather, I am concerned with a particular discourse, emerging most prominently since 9/11, about what something called multiculturalism has ‘done’ to post-immigration societies in a variety of western states. What has multiculturalism a ‘conceptual grab bag’ of issues relating to race, culture, and identity (Mills 2007, p. 89) been made to mean in an era apparently defined by the need to pathologize differences construed as threatening to the safety and moral integrity of the re-homogenized western nation state?

Contra the dominant view that multiculturalism, described by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October 2010 as having ‘utterly failed’ (BBC News Online 2010), has a stranglehold on such states, multiculturalism:

was never adopted as official policy in any part of Europe. . . in France, however, multiculturalism was rejected pretty much out of hand as at odds with republican principles; in Germany, as at odds with a predominantly ethnicized conception of citizenship; while in Italy or Spain, multiculturalism barely figured in either popular or political discourse until the last few years. In those countries most commonly cited as exemplars of multicultural policy the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden practices varied and were rarely codified in any explicit way. (Phillips and Saharso 2008, pp. 291 2)

Nevertheless, the force with which multiculturalism has been held responsible for a whole sway of sociopolitical problems affecting European countries in particular, from crime, to terrorism, to urban segregation,2 would have it that multiculturalism, interpreted as excessive tolerance and benevolence towards disloyal, unassimilable, culturally different others, guides and defines the politics of these countries as a whole. In this sense the furore over multiculturalism as leading to segregated societies, promoting the growth of Islamic extremism, or enabling the success of the extreme right is not separate from the story of racism; rather, it is its contemporary manifestation.

Despite this, opposition to multiculturalism relies discursively on the idea that to point out its negative consequences the potential threat from the unintegrated subjects of multiculturalist tolerance is by no means racist. The success with which the non-racism of this stance has been argued can in part be attributed to the by now established separation between ‘new’ cultural racism and ‘old’ biological racism (Barker 1981; Small 1994; Stolcke 1995). Barker and others made the point that the ‘new racism’ of the European far right justified intolerance of immigrants on the basis of cultural incompatibility rather than biological, racial hierarchy. Over the last twenty years, this separation has entered the mainstream underpinning the purported non-racialism of the anti-multiculturalist stance and permitting a growth in discriminatory practices in the name of promoting cohesion and preventing extremism.

In reality, however, against the newness of the ‘new racism’ thesis, racism has always adapted to the circumstances, adopting biological as well as culturalist arguments to make its case: that there are immutable differences between groups of human beings (Balibar 1991a). While European anti-Semitism constituted the Jews as a race apart, the tropes of their difference were cultural as often as they were ‘biological’, just as in the case of Muslims today. Because it has become taboo to refer to race in biological terms, culture has become the means through which difference is now most commonly marked. Whereas this is often merely descriptive, the reference to cultural difference also implies a hierarchy in societies that are stratified along ethno-national and often colour-coded lines.

Nevertheless, the force with which the biological and the cultural have been kept discursively separate in anchoring the non-racism of the opposition to multiculturalism is everywhere evident. For example, in his clarion call for the end of immigration and multicultural tolerance, Christopher Caldwell uses the language of ethnicity and culture rather than race, explicitly claiming that he cannot be accused of racism. Discussing Spain’s policy of ‘ethnic filtering’, whereby immigrants are largely recruited from Latin America for the sake of compatibility, Caldwell (2009, p. 52) writes:

[I]t is not racist. Spain is less concerned that its immigrants be white than that they have similarities of worldview with the people already established there, starting with knowing what the inside of a church looks like.

Caldwell proposes that race and racism are linked exclusively to ‘phenotype’. The seriousness of the charge of racism coupled with the common-sense understanding that it refers exclusively to skin colour mean that all other bases for discrimination can be seen as being relative to it. According to such a reading then, for an act to be considered racist it would appear that it must be provable that the victim did nothing nor possessed any attribute other than a dark(er) skin colour. As soon as the victim can be found to follow practices or have other characteristics that set him/her apart from the society in which he/she lives, any negative reaction he or she is met with may be considered something other than racist. This ‘something other’ is, in the language of Caldwell and his fellow travellers, mere common sense. Cultures are incompatible; races, at least officially, do not exist. Hence neither does racism.

However, the source of the multiculturalism Caldwell and others oppose is not illiberal minorities with the power to impose a moratorium on debate of their way of life upon the rest of society. In fact, the language of cultural relativism to which the anti-multiculturalists object is rooted in the elite project to excise race, and consequentially racism, from the lexicon. This is clear in the work of another, albeit more nuanced, critic of multiculturalism, the German sociologist Christian Joppke, whose work on theMuslim veil as a problem for liberalism purposefully decouples it from racism. Joppke (2009, p. 2) considers the ‘Islamic headscarf’ to be the principal ‘affront to liberal self-definition’ in Europe and evaluates how best the veil can be accommodated within European public spheres. This excision of veiling practices and the women who engage in them from Europe, as though they were a foreign imposition upon, rather than a product of the experience of living in the countries he examines, is unconnected to race. In fact, Joppke goes out of his way to take Joan W. Scott up on her 2007 critique of The Politics of the Veil for what he sees as its wrong-headed invocation of racism. Engaging only with analyses of the Muslim scriptures that promote his opinion that Islam does not view the individual as autonomous, a perspective that ‘cannot but clash with the liberal view’, Joppke claims that ‘it is unhelpful to deny this clash of principles under the label of ‘‘racism’’’ (Joppke 2009, p. 110). Joppke’s establishment of the problem posed by the veil as uniquely a classical liberal problem concerning ‘the toleration of the intolerant’ (Joppke 2009, p. 117) not only fails to question the essentialization of Muslims in their reduction to ‘the intolerant’, but also purposefully decouples Muslim experience in Europe from its history of racism and exclusion.

The roots of this elite elision of race are to be found in the early post-war period when the revelation of the horrors committed in its name the Nazi Holocaust were revealed (Lentin 2008). It was felt that the only way to treat race was to relegate it to history, as a faulty experiment resulting from bad science. Anyone who continued to harbour racist ideas was thus pathologized or infantilized. The problem with this view of race as Goldberg (2006) makes clear, is that it associates it exclusively with the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in the US. Once these eras have passed and the mea culpas recited, it is possible to return to being ‘race-free’ (Goldberg 2002). However, there is no such race-free age to which to return because racism is not bound exclusively to regimes such as Nazism or Apartheid. Race is a product of modernity, rising in tandem with the nation state (Bauman 1989; Balibar 1991b), the expansion of capitalism and colonialism.

The refusal to acknowledge the centrality of race to modern political formation did not conflict with the belief, following the Holocaust, that it was necessary to combat racism. However, by not naming race because, in essence, it would be racist to do so, influential thinkers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1961), who was involved in the UNESCO project on race and racism, were in fact denying both the significance of racism in the lived experience of millions of people and the persistence of the racism embedded in institutions that did not change simply because the word ‘race’ could no longer be uttered. The difference here is between what Goldberg (2008, p. 10) calls antiracialism ‘to take a stand. . . against a concept, a name, a category, categorizing [which] does not itself involve standing (up) against (a set of) conditions of being or living’ and anti-racism. Anti-racism in contrast does mean standing up to those conditions. In extreme circumstances, it is ‘the risk of death’ (Goldberg 2008, p. 10) in the name of refusing the ‘imposition and constraint,. . . the devaluation and attendant humiliation’ (Goldberg 2008, p. 10) caused by being raced. For Goldberg (2008, p. 10) ‘there is clearly no evidence of antiracialism ever commanding that sort of risk.’

Official anti-racialism, therefore, coexists unproblematically with the current resistence to multiculture that is radically opposed to anti-racism (Hage 1998). What anti-multiculturalists oppose is the demand for equality by those still considered to be outsiders and the right, as equals, to point out and stand up against racist oppression. Opposition to multiculturalism grows with the few inroads made by anti-racism into politics through the introduction, for example, of anti-discrimination legislation. However, because the language of race and racism has been abandoned for that of ‘different but equal’ culture, the terms of the debate fail to incorporate both the experience of racism and the struggle for equality and justice that anti-racism involves. It is this that enables the right and liberals alike to claim that we are post-race. Due to the force with which the experience of racism is dismissed from the right and the idealism that inspires liberal post-racialism, both those who oppose multiculturalism and crucially those who are seen to promote and benefit from it the racialized are bereft of a vocabulary to adequately describe what they are either opposing or upholding. The struggle for equality and justice therefore becomes indeed a fight for the recognition of cultural identity. And, the opposition to ‘too much diversity’ can be dressed up as a common-sense questioning of ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Culturalized politics

The communication lecturer, who was there, blurted out that infamous remark: ‘‘When I go to Morocco and I go into a Mosque, I take off my shoes, so you can take off your veil!.’’ I am so used to hearing this remark that I quickly respond, ‘‘Good for you, but excuse me, I am French, I have my rights and you cannot deny them.’’ (Chouder, Latrèche and Tévanian 2008, p 119)

In what way can it be argued that culture has become the dominant framework for analysing what would once have been considered problems of social inequality, exploitation, power in short of politics? According to Slavoj Žižek (2008), politics become culturalized when:

differences conditioned by political inequality or economic exploitation are naturalised and neutralised into ‘‘cultural’’ differences, that is into different ‘‘ways of life’’ which are something given, something that cannot be overcome.

Žižek (2008, p. 129) proposes overcoming this by uncovering a new universalist project that would overcome the problem of what he calls the ‘symbolic fiction’ of ‘égaliberté’. He calls for a new global revolutionary solidarity based, not on liberal mutual tolerance, but on the possibility for joining intolerances in emancipatory struggle. In such a struggle:

it is not the cultures in their identity which join hands, it is the repressed, the exploited, the suffering, that ‘‘parts of no-part’’ of every culture which come together in a shared struggle. (Žižek 2008, pp. 133 4)

The problem with this is that, in the current climate, both the dominant liberal ideology and particularist identities appear to reject this ideal. This is because the hegemonic culturalist frame not only essentializes individuals as belonging to ‘cultural groups’, a common critique of multiculturalism, but also reifies culture itself to the exclusion of all other modes of explanation. Even liberal opponents to multiculturalism do not try particularly hard to assert the universality of their own position. Vague invocations of the universal do little to mask the force with which anti-multiculturalists claim the superiority of the west. Caldwell (2009, p. 17) is emblematic when he claims that ‘immigration is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it.’

The power of culturalism today therefore exceeds the potential for universality to become the type of force Žižek suggests it can be. This is because the backlash against multiculturalism does not express a problem with culture, but rather with its excess. That excess is to be found always in an-Other’s culture. Accompanying the current attack on multiculture is the call for more of ‘our’ culture; more ‘citizenship’ events, nationalist commemorations and integration tests. In this sense the anti-multiculturalist stance mirrors the racism of whiteness that sets itself up as race-neutral while racing others. To understand how it has become possible for lip service paid to multiculturalism to be supplanted by its active rejection today, it is necessary to look to the origins of prescriptive multiculturalism itself.

Prescriptive multiculturalism refers to multicultural policies and the discourse they create rather than to descriptive multiculture: the coexistence of peoples of diverse origins in a single society. What is actually under attack by those who decry the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ is the fact of this diversity. Moreover, the multicultural policies they see as pernicious are believed to be the result of a bottom-up call for recognition by ‘minority groups’ (Taylor 1994). The complaint of the anti-multiculturalists is that minorities have imposed a multicultural ethos that encourages inter-communal division and an undermining of the value of the ‘dominant national culture’. Insidious minorities and their left-wing allies have straitjacketed us into a political correctness that shuts down debate by naming all criticism as racist. Were this to be true, ‘minority groups’ would have a disproportionate degree of power in society, where in fact they are consistently under-represented in politics, the media and business, and over-represented among the poor, the imprisoned and the mentally ill. Furthermore, the anti-multiculturalists ignore work such as that of Finney and Simpson (2009) that reveals that most scaremongering about the proliferation of ‘parallel lives’ in multicultural societies is not borne out by the statistical evidence, which is interpreted selectively ‘by those pursuing the pessimistic perspective’ (Finney and Simpson 2009, p. 3).

Rather than being imposed by minorities on a guilt-ridden majority, prescriptive multiculturalism, originated as a mechanism for curbing the autonomy of descriptive multiculture. The current concern with the damage to social cohesion caused by cultural splintering is rooted in western discomfort, not only with the growing diversification of its populations, but with the idea that those ‘in but not of Europe’ should demand recognition and equality; the problem of multiculturalism begins with the movement against racism.

As Paul Gilroy (1987) demonstrated in a by now classic text on the rise of multiculturalism in Britain, multiculturalist policies were a means of appeasing the autonomous anti-racist movement. While anti-racists called for racial justice, multiculturalists an alliance of bureaucrats and often unrepresentative community leaders interpreted the problems experienced by the racialized as cultural. They believed that a greater valorisation of cultural specificities would dampen the flames of anti-racist protest. This would have the effect of reigning in the type of protest witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s in post-immigration societies such as Britain and France where an angry second generation began to assert itself as citizens rather than ‘guests’. Across the west, policies aiming to take ‘ethnic minorities’ under the state’s wing, a step forward from seeing ‘immigrants’ as temporary guest workers soon to return home, extinguished the fires of dissent lit by a generation coming to political consciousness in the 1980s.

Rarely recalled, these origins do not nevertheless deny the fact that prescriptive and descriptive multiculturalism have become enmeshed due to the culturalization of politics. This is true both for the opponents of multiculturalism and for anti-racists who now rush to defend it precisely because multiculturalism has often become indistinguishable from radical anti-racist politics. The attack on anti-racism and the reinterpretation of the response to racism in multicultural terms was so powerful in its ability to appropriate and co-opt the ‘movement’ that it left activists bereft of a vocabulary.

As George Yúdice (2003, p. 48) notes, in the USA since the civil rights struggle ‘identities’ have been ‘incorporated into a range of governmental (in the Foucauldian sense) mechanisms.’ These identities are performative and serve a particular function, not only for their performers, but more importantly for the ‘state institutions and media and market projections that shape, respectively, clients and consumers’ (Yúdice 2003, p. 48) that require these identities to be performed. Yúdice questions the utility of culture and identity as frames for struggle. We should not blame those who perform these identities because, as my brief tracing of the trajectory of prescriptive multiculturalism reveals, their choice was limited. Rather, Yúdice (2003, p. 49) argues, the problem with performing identity as a political strategy is that it is impossible to disentangle using ‘the identitarian ticket’ from the management of populations because this too operates according to a logic of culture/identity.

Using a Foucauldian framework, Yúdice proposes that ‘cultural power’ (Yúdice 2003, p. 49, emphasis in the original) is added today to the bio-power implicit in governmentalization because anthropological understandings of groups as cultural have become so widespread. ‘Liberal pluralists’ have created a fantastical space in which all marginalized groups are equivalent to each other and can be ‘visibly represented as parallel forms of identity’ (Warner 1993, cited in Yúdice 2003, p. 50). The problem with this is that it clearly rejects any discussion of the uneven power relations that may exist among and between such groups; between white homosexuals and black women, for example (Erel et al. 2008). It is precisely the visibility of these identities, purposefully conceived of as attached to groups, that makes it easy to governmentalize (manage and police) them as such.

More significantly, in terms of the current backlash against multiculturalism, a situation is created in which those left out of this fantastical space the heretofore unproblematized majority wish now to be included in it by asserting their own culture or identity. However, this culture is not equivalent to that of the marginalized because it comes with a greater sense of entitlement. As Arjun Appadurai (2006) argues, in an era of hegemonic economic globalization, the ‘fiction of the ethnos’ in nation states has become a cultural resource for the performance of full sovereignty. This is often expressed against minorities within the state, those ‘other cultures’ who have usurped our exclusivity. Therefore, where the culturalization of politics can most acutely be observed is on the culturalized solutions being proposed to the very problems purported to be posed by the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’.

The 2004 French law banning the wearing of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ in schools and public offices, but in practice targeting only the Muslim hijab, is an example of this. The debate that preceded the passing of the law was dominated by a discourse that contrasted the particularist religious fundamentalism of religious Muslim women with the universalist secular neutrality of the French state. However, as Pierre Tévanian (2011) argues, the law marked the transition from an egalitarian conception of secularism to an ‘identitarian’ one. In principle, egalitarian secularism, while ensuring the separation between Church and state, recognizes the right of everyone to practise their own religion/culture/tradition. ‘Identitarian secularism’, in contrast, makes it a matter of national(ist) culture thus excluding those who demand the right to be considered full citizens regardless of their origins or religious affiliations. This interpretation of secularism was summed up in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s (Gas 2006) proposal to those who ‘do not like France’ to ‘get up and leave the country that they don’t like’. The banning of the veil and the exclusion of girls from school if they refuse to comply is repackaged as being consistent with French culture, and those who do not agree with it as insufficiently French. In essence, the assertion of Appadurai’s ‘fiction of the (national) ethnos’ in France as a reaction to Muslim demands for equality has taken precedence over hard-fought principles such as the right to public education.

The apparent separation between compliant Muslims those who do not wear the veil or who agree to remove it at school and noncompliant ones facilitates the governmentalization that Yúdice rightly shows is an unavoidable implication of identity politics. But what the French example reveals is that identity politics are a two-way street, practised both by those ‘construed as minorities’ (Yúdice 2003, p. 48) and by the state. The difference from the perspective of those who oppose multiculturalism is that the ethno-national variant of culture promoted by the state is both legitimate and neutral, while the assertion of minoritarian cultural difference, on the contrary, has no place in the public sphere. This presents ‘minorities’ with a double bind, however, because even being compliant and integrating into a prescribed national ‘way of doing things’ is rarely sufficient to ensure their equality. As the final section of the article demonstrates, the strongly racialized notion of culture with which anti-multiculturalism operates means that a seamless passage to a post-racial era in which multicultural provisions would be deemed unnecessary is as fictitious a proposition as the neutrality of national culture.

Conclusion: the displacement of politics

Why is a book that makes you ashamed for its author, even occasionally ashamed to be reading it, still worth reading? Because for all its bigotry and paranoia, all of its ill-informed dismissal of Islamic history and culture, ‘‘The Rage and the Pride’’ is a bracing response to the moral equivocation, the multi-culti political correctness, the minimization and denial of the danger of Islamofascism that dogs the response to Sept. 11 and to the ongoing war on terrorism. (Taylor 2002)

I have ascertained, first, that the notion that western societies are post-race, whether this comes from a right-wing or a liberal perspective, is in fact a denial of the experience of the lived experience of racism. Second, the attack on multiculturalism is presented as disconnected from racism that is associated solely with the crimes of Nazism or Apartheid and with race as biological, and hence outdated. Moreover, multiculturalism is blamed on minorities who are seen to have promoted their identitarian agenda to the detriment of social cohesion and/or the values and traditions of the ‘indigenous’ group. The post-racial argument and the one advocating that multiculturalism is in crisis mirror each other: they both mobilize the notion that racist discrimination is a thing of the past and that racial/cultural minorities have in fact gained the upper hand. Not only does this position imply that there is no longer a need for anti-racism, it also advocates for reinstating the hegemonic status (as if it were ever displaced) of the cultural/white majority. Third, despite the fact that the elevation of identity politics did indeed benefit both culturally conceived minorities and the state in their management, they did not originate as a bottom-up call for recognition. In fact, they replaced potentially more radical movements against racism for a variety of politically expedient reasons. Finally, the proliferation of discourses of culture/identity as the only viable frame both for political mobilization, but also for governmental and market control has infected society in general. The culturalization of politics effectively means that the solution proposed for dealing with the cultural excess of the crisis of multiculturalism is in itself cultural. What we are left with is a pitting of ‘minority cultures’ against ‘universal values’ that deny their own cultural particularism.

The final part of this argument brings us back to race. If we accept that post-racialism and anti-multiculturalism both deny the salience of racism, we must reassess what precisely we mean by race. If, as has been argued extensively (Voegelin 1933; Bauman 1989; Goldberg 2002; Lentin 2008), an understanding of race is fundamental for our understanding of the state in modernity and that a failure to appreciate this significance has contributed to the persistence of racism after the Holocaust and colonialism, what are the implications of the post-racial for politics?

Just as culturalism should not be seen as a radical break with racism, neither should culture itself be seen as separable from race in political terms. Balibar’s (1991a) point in questioning the newness of the ‘neo-racism’ was that insisting on the biological character of racism ignores its ability to attach meaning to any signifier of difference, and crucially, to naturalize it as immutable. The difference between racism as racial science or under Nazism and today’s cultural racism is that, whereas the former imputed an unseen genetic ‘racial code’ (Hall 1997) from cultural signifiers, the latter does not need the genetic argument to essentialize cultural differences. However, culturalization is merely a continuation of racialization because the latter is not characterised by any specific relation to some biological category called race. Rather, both culturalization and racialization are imbricated in the ‘management of life’ (Puar 2007), in the disciplining of non-normative bodies by the state and the market.

Foucault’s understanding of race and modern racism helps compound this point. The rise of modern racism is identified by Foucault (1997) as the state’s co-optation of the discourse of race struggle the struggle between competing groups within territories and the equation of race with nation, with the state’s role being to expunge the nation’s internal and external racial enemies. Foucault’s reading of racism, with which he is only concerned because of what he felt it taught us about the state and politics, is inextricable from his theory of bio-power. Bio-power refers to the state’s role in fostering life or letting die. This stands in contrast to the old sovereign power that administered death, but did nothing to promote life. The bio-political state, thus, is concerned with the life of its population, seeing it as a single organism that must be kept alive. It therefore disciplines individual bodies within it and regularizes the population in general.

Racism enters the picture in order to explain how a state whose function it is to promote life can nonetheless be responsible for killing. Racism has the function of dividing between those who have the right to live and those whom must be let die for the survival of the organism as a whole. Letting those considered inferior die is justified because it allows ‘me’ as both the individual and the species to live. It is construed as a sacrifice for the greater good. This is the core idea of the crucial shift that Foucault identifies from a political understanding of conflict to a biological (racial) one. Before bio-power replaced sovereign power, the death of enemies ensured the survival of the population. Now their death permits the population to flourish. As Shein (2004, p. 6) notes, ‘viewing enemies as biological dangers is crucial to Foucault’s argument regarding racism and biopower because it explains the identification of external and internal threats to the population.’ Killing one’s enemies is therefore no longer only a right, as it was under sovereign power. Rather, it is an obligation to eliminate those within or without the state who impede the survival of the organism.

Foucault’s explanation of modern racism in the Collège de France lectures may not go far enough (Shein 2004) and certainly does not attempt to analyse race beyond the European context.3 However, for my purposes here, it is useful because it shows that what was brought about by the move to bio-power in the nineteenth century is a new relationship to enemies or outsiders that is no longer political but biological. For Ivan Hannaford (1996), this new understanding is not only externally oriented, it comes to infect and shape the running of European societies in the nineteenth century. At this time:

all aspects of legal right, feeling, justice, treaty, compromise, settlement, conciliation, arbitration the essential components of political society were eclipsed, and then obliterated, by a doctrine of force that saw each matter primarily in terms of its natural evolutionary course. (Hannaford 1996, p. 276)

This constituted a new understanding of politics in which the interests of the state became subsumed to that of the race, a model for conceptualizing society that enhanced the state’s power both in internally rationalizing its population and in justifying the rampant fight for imperialist (capitalist) domination (Hannaford 1996).

Now, despite the official renunciation of the racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I want to propose that because there has never been a serious attempt made to address not only the perniciousness of race, but its centrality to modern political formation, this displacement of politics continues to be a problem. This becomes clear if we accept that today’s culturalization of politics, as expressed in the solutions proposed to the crisis of multiculturalism, is a continuation of the shift from a political to a bio-political/racial understanding of conflict. Bio-power too has expanded, as Yúdice has claimed, from being associated with the purely biological to including the cultural. Therefore today, interchangeable racial and cultural frames inform interpretations of belonging, rights, equality, citizenship, and yes, life and death.

Curtailing the right of hijab-wearing French citizens to attend school because it is incompatible with state culture follows the same logic of excising that which purportedly impedes the population from flourishing. When Christopher Caldwell falsely claims that ‘Muslims now either dominate or vie for domination of certain important European cities’ (Caldwell 2009, p. 96) and that ‘Europe finds itself in a contest with Islam for the allegiance of its newcomers’ (Caldwell 2009, p. 286), he is mobilizing the language of race war identified by Foucault. Whether or not Muslims are conceived as genetically or culturally incompatible is irrelevant to the choices made about how to deal with them. Similarly, when governments propose a ‘return’ to national values as a response to the fissuring of the nation into apparently uncohesive cultural enclaves, is what they are advocating not a regularization of society according to the logic of ‘cultural power’ (Yúdice 2003)? Is the concern with the lack of social cohesion not inscribed in the same logic as fear for the fitness of the race nation?

If we accept that the two discourses bear similarities at least, we have to ask what purpose would cultural uniformity have and at what cost should it be achieved? The effect of these considerations on politics is as important as it was in the nineteenth century. The surety with which the need for cultural compatibility is being expressed today denies the negotiation, challenge and conflict that is essential to politics. It is in this sense that the post-racial, post-multicultural moment is also a post-political one. It remains to be seen whether the force of difference can adequately resist the power of regulation.


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  • 1Comment on the Pickled Politics blog: Available from:
    archives/5603 [Accessed 24 February 2012]
  • 2In his speech on multiculturalism made in Munich in February 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that under ‘state multiculturalism’, ‘We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values’ (BBC News Online 2011).
  • 3For that we have to rely on Stoler’s (1995) use of Foucault’s work in relation to colonialism.