A Black and White World

“‘Pale, male and stale”: this constant refrain is used to justify ever greater emphasis on “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” or its American alternative, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”. “Equity” is conceived very differently from “Equality”, though the two terms have increasingly merged into a single discriminatory concept. “Equity” means aggressive affirmative action, positive discrimination that favours people of certain backgrounds in applications for jobs, university places and the like. It means deliberately favouring those regarded as disadvantaged, partly on the grounds that “pale, male and stale” people have dominated positions of power for uncountable centuries.

“Equality”, by contrast, should mean that every effort is made to ensure that all applicants are treated equally, that nothing is held against them because they are members of an ethnic minority or are not heterosexual, and so on – equally (note the word) nothing should be held against those who apply to Cambridge from a public school or are male and pale. This sense of “Equality” has become muted, partly because the Equality Act does permit some exceptions, notably the not unreasonable possibility of favouring a member of a minority group when two candidates for a post are seen as having equal merits. All too easily this has slipped into an opportunity to attach black marks (maybe I should not use that phrase) to “privileged” candidates genuinely of greater merit.

Nowadays, few would instinctively call the Bible to mind in discussing these issues, but the words of Leviticus 19:15 are potent: “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favour the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly”. The point is that the “rich” also have a right to be protected against decisions that are made on the basis of misplaced appeals to morality. Justice must be equal for all. The fact that it has not been equal for all in the past, for example in the case of criminal trials in the American South, does not justify a different sort of inequality, favouring “the poor”, in later generations. Justice must indeed wear a blindfold. Moreover, the result of offering positions to less well qualified people on the basis of certain characteristics, such as membership of an ethnic minority, may be that they flounder simply because they are less capable. That is nothing to do with their race or sexual orientation or whatever. The recent attempt of a young Cambridge scholar, Dr Nathaniel Cofnas, to argue that black people are inherently less likely to become professors at Harvard because of their heredity is, to be frank, nonsense with no basis in genetics.

At the root of the problem we face with EDI is the failure to recognise that what may have been conceived as a laudable way of “Levelling Up”, to use the current fashionable term, has been contaminated by ideas derived from so-called Critical Theory. These ideas are infused with blatant prejudice. Prejudice is exactly what the inventors of EDI were, one hopes (perhaps naively) trying to eradicate, and Critical Theory is neither critical nor a theory. Instead it is a highly politicised outgrowth of Left bank philosophising from Paris (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Fanon and the like), twisted together with vaguely Marxist concepts of oppression that actually challenge one of the fundamental Marxist concepts: the crucial importance of class in the evolution of society from a slave-based economy to feudalism, capitalism, socialism and the ultimate Communist Utopia.

Critical Theory has something of the character of a heresy within, or rather some way beyond, Marxism. A Marxist narrative of inevitable betterment, admittedly often achieved through violence, has been displaced by a narrative of permanent oppression from which the oppressed have no escape apart from their ability to protest which, in any case, will not get them anywhere. That is because the oppression is not rooted in class but in race.  The return to a racialised view of the world less than a century after the Nazis seized power in Germany is alarming and, like Nazi racial theory, unscientific, though in different ways.

At the core of Critical Race Theory (setting aside issues to do with gender, sexuality, ecology and so on) is an understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of human history. Marx’s interpretation of human history was the product of years of intellectual labour in the British Museum and other libraries; it was scholarly and thorough, even though in my view wrong-headed. Nothing similar can be said of the view of the past espoused by adherents of Critical Race Theory, which is based on the sort of gross oversimplification that one used to observe in tendentious propaganda from the Soviet Union, loaded with ill-defined buzzwords such as “colonialism” and “imperialism”.

It is a simple narrative of oppression in which the guilty party most vividly in the Atlantic slave trade of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and then in the colonial conquests of the nineteenth century, such as King Leopold II of Belgium’s undoubtedly savage rule over Congo, or the career of Cecil Rhodes in southern Africa, about which there is rather more controversy, or, most recently the “white settler-colonialism” attributed to the Zionist movement. A newly fashionable and politically-correct way to describe the non-white population of the world is the term “Global Majority”. As Michael Deacon has wittily pointed out in the Daily Telegraph, this leaves white people as an ethnic minority who should grasp the opportunity to be treated as such.

An example of this Weltanschauung is provided by the writings of Kehindé Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. Professor Andrews has examined what he calls The Psychosis of Whiteness, the title of his most recent book – its subtitle is Surviving the Insanity of a Racist World. Andrews sets himself against the “verbal diarrhoea” and “collective hallucinations” of whiteness, though if anyone is guilty of verbal diarrhoea it is Andrews. He has already made his position clear in condemning Churchill as a monstrous racist as evil as the Nazis – in Andrews’s opinion, Churchill’s sympathy for Eugenics (found on Left and Right in the inter-war years) means that he adhered to a way of thinking that sent six million Jews to their death. But – wait a moment! – Churchill was strongly philo-semitic. Linking him to Nazi crimes is a gross distortion.

Andrews argues from his own experience. Of course one deplores the way staff at his university have apparently assumed he is an interloper, because that is how some of them have reacted to the sight of a black man on campus. But when he argues from history it becomes abundantly clear that he puts ideology before evidence. We have Columbus being described as “the great-grandfather of White supremacy”, when his immediate reaction to the Taíno inhabitants of the Bahamas whom he encountered in 1492 was how beautiful and skillful they were. He actually liked their skin colour, which reminded him of the native people of the Canary Islands.

For Andrews, though, the era of Columbus is the time when racism began to bite. He insists that “there is no such thing as American, British or any other nation-state racism. Racism is a global system that developed from European nations devastating the Americas, plundering Africa and conquering the globe.” Underneath this assertion is a dogmatic belief that the defining feature of racism is the oppression of black Africans and their exploitation to secure control of territories across the world. Racism and slavery are therefore bound together inextricably.

A deeper historical investigation of the history of racism and slavery quickly contradicts this lazy assumption. In the early Islamic world we see Arab discrimination against Berbers (particularly noticeable in Córdoba, the capital of Islamic Spain), and later against Turks and other non-Arab groups, even though they embraced Islam. One of the most illustrious caliphs of Córdoba darkened his beard because the red hair he had inherited from his Christian maternal ancestors meant that he did not look Arab enough; colour prejudice could work both ways. The famous slave revolt of the Zanj, black slaves from East Africa, created turmoil in Iraq. Categories of colour were markedly different from modern ones, so we have people being described as “green” or “blue” (not meaning the famous blue Tuaregs).

But physical appearance was noted both in Christendom and under Islam. A German bishop offered a crude description of the facial appearance of the Magyars in the twelfth century, at a time when many of them retained their Finno-Ugrian features. That was nothing compared to the descriptions offered a century later when Europeans first encountered the Mongols. Unflattering descriptions of the physical features of Jews also cropped up in western Europe, though the main emphasis was on their difference in religious belief.

Andrews would no doubt argue that this was not “racism” within the parameters he would draw; in some cases, such as the Mongols, writers were expressing fear of a power greater than their own kingdoms possessed. But there is also the question of enslavement. If he re-read his Marx he would be more familiar with the concept of a slave-owning stage in the evolution of humanity, the most prominent examples being ancient Greece and Rome. It is all too easy to lay such a heavy emphasis on the undoubtedly cruel trade in African slaves sent to the Americas along the so-called “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic that the active trade in captured human beings within Africa is ignored. A trans-Sahara slave trade towards north Africa long preceded the opening of the slave trade in West Africa by Portuguese merchants at the end of the fifteenth century.

These slaves were generally captives taken during conflicts between warring kings. If they were lucky enough to be assigned agricultural tasks in Africa, their life was in some parts of Africa similar to that of European serfs (who were in any case subject to several of the same limitations on personal freedom that applied to slaves elsewhere). Others (particularly when there was a glut of slaves and they were deemed disposable) were reserved for gruesome ceremonies as part of religious cults that included human sacrifice, a case in point being the court of the Oba of Benin, until its sacking by British troops at the end of the nineteenth century – many of the controversial Benin Bronzes were used in these ceremonies. A glut was more likely to occur after the suppression of the slave trade by Great Britain, as rulers had nowhere to sell on their slaves.

Slavery has been a universal phenomenon in human history, at least since the Neolithic Revolution several millennia ago. The idea that one human has the right to possess another is to our minds simply incomprehensible. But this notion was discarded in western Europe during the last few centuries.

Rejction of slavery took hold in Great Britain earlier than elsewhere, with the abolition of first the slave trade and then of slavery; and after Domesday Book in 1086 there is no significant evidence of people actually living as slaves in England. Although Englishmen certainly traded in large numbers of slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fact that slavery had not been an established institution here since Anglo-Saxon times may help explain the eventual emergence of British hostility to it.

Even so, it was necessary to break free from the idea that some human beings were of a lesser status than others, an idea that was articulated in the great age of discoveries when Europeans began to wonder about the status of native Americans. First there was the religious question. Had God created these people separately from the descendants of Adam and Eve who lived in the Old World? It seemed odd that they had not been offered salvation following the Crucifixion, but had been left in ignorance of Christ for 1500 years.

Then one could manipulate Aristotle’s notion that slaves were only suited for “banausic” tasks, consisting of simple, often repetitive, labour, and argue that the American peoples were simply “talking animals”, in the face of all the evidence for high civilisation in Mexico and Peru. The encomienda system, by which grants of land were made to colonists along with a working population of indigenous inhabitants, was supposed to honour the free status of the native peoples of the Americas, but it developed into a system of forced labour that is hard to distinguish from slavery. Using Aristotle’s terminology, they were described as “natural slaves”, unable to rise above their slave mentality even if they were legally free. Having worked the inhabitants of the Caribbean to near-extinction, the Spaniards began to import African labour as a hardier replacement, thereby creating the black population of the West Indies.

One of the problems adherents of Critical Race Theory face when considering blackness is working out who qualifies as black. The population of the West Indies is to a considerable extent of mixed ancestry, because, generally through coercion, some female slaves bore the children of plantation owners. This means that many black inhabitants of the Caribbean have ancestors who bought and exploited slaves, and this is sometimes, though not necessarily, reflected in skin colour. The consensus appears to be that any evidence of black ancestry is sufficient to qualify someone as black. We therefore find that Meghan Markle is described as black, though she was born to a white father, ditto Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas. Belle da Costa Greene (d. 1950), regarded as one of the greatest librarians in the United States, had two black parents but preferred to pass herself off (successfully) as a white person, in view of the prejudice then rampant in the USA.

People are of course entitled to select particular ancestors with whom they prefer to identify, but there are other aspects of blackness that are more disconcerting. One is the assumption that “Africa” indicates blackness. The Metropolitan Museum in New York recently held an exhibition devoted to Byzantium and Africa. There were indeed links between medieval Constantinople and African kingdoms, particularly in Nubia and Ethiopia. The exhibition included church frescoes from Nubia, now the property of the National Museum in Warsaw, that combine inscriptions in Greek with images of both black and white saints and bishops. The artists do not seem to have attached much importance to the fact that many of the saints had whiter skin than their fellow-Nubians. That was not how they classified humanity. But the exhibition in New York followed the increasingly fashionable line that anything originating anywhere in Africa possessed the quality of blackness, and therefore included material from as far north as Tunisia.

But even a quick glance at a relief map of Africa shows how the continent is divided between its Mediterranean-facing north and the much larger sub-Saharan regions by the world’s largest desert, often described as a “sea of sand”, in many ways harder to cross than the wet sea of the Mediterranean. Although over the centuries large numbers of migrants and slaves have arrived in north Africa from further south, generally after gruelling journeys across the arid desert, and have left their DNA in the Maghrib, there is no doubting that the inhabitants of north Africa are predominantly olive-skinned. Many, indeed, would straightforwardly be seen as white.

The various ethnic groups that make up the Berber population of that area include people with red hair and blue eyes. That has not prevented enthusiasts from black-facing such eminent north Africans as the Carthaginian general Hannibal, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus and St Augustine of Hippo. Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna, the great Roman city in what is now Libya, and he is a particularly interesting case because he was loosely described by a classical author, Cassius Dio, as “Libyan by race”; in fact he had Italian and Punic (Phoenician/Carthaginian) forebears. All “Libyan” meant was “African” in a broad geographical sense, and not simply modern Libya formed out of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Judging from his portrayal in sculpture he had what could broadly be described as Mediterranean or even European features. Equally, the attempts to classify Cleopatra VII of Egypt as black fall at the first hurdle. Although her ancestry is not 100% clear there is no reason to doubt that she was primarily of Greek ancestry and was certainly not black, as film-makers nowadays would like to show her.

These obsessions with an external feature are redolent of the crude racism preached in Europe a hundred years ago: images of “primitive” Africans on the cover of the Italian Fascist magazine Difesa della Razza, “Defence of the Race”, which later went on to portray Jews as some sort of non-European racial hybrid. Nazi propaganda showed swarthy Jews with tightly curled hair more typical of sub-Saharan Africa, with fleshy lips, once again a stereotype of the portrayal of Africans, leaving their grossly distorted noses to stand out (literally) as a specifically Jewish aspect of their monstrosity. It was not that all Jews looked like this; the images in Der Stürmer expressed a view of what every Jew was like underneath: to this way of thinking, their intelligence was crafty, their obsession was money, their lust was for power and for the pure-blooded Aryan woman. They were seen as the advance guard of a movement to infuse inferior races into the Aryan world, in order to corrupt and control it.

In new ways, these images have returned to haunt us today. Kehindé Andrews tries to have it both ways. He writes: “Jewish people are a good example of a group that can switch in and out of Whiteness, to deadly effect. Defined as less than humans by the Nazis who exterminated six million Jews, they are now the settler colonialists-in-chief of Israel and have been given the full support of the West’s (and Whiteness’s) power.”

That is a relatively moderate view compared with some positions. Jews, it has rightly been said, often emerge in writings about Critical Race Theory as “super-white”; so, if one sees white people as the age-old oppressors of black ones, the Jew becomes the most powerful, the most committed, the most dangerous element within white hegemony. David Baddiel’s observation that “Jews don’t count” when racism is condemned has been proved again and again. British politicians such as Diane Abbott, admittedly long past her sell-by date, or media stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, exclude Jews when they talk about race. For them race is blackness set against whiteness.

As it happens, there are also plenty of black Jews of Ethiopian origin, mainly living in Israel, as well as dark brown Jews from India and lands round about. Admittedly the skin is the largest organ in the human body, but the denial that the persecution of the Jews during the twentieth century was based on race betrays a level of ignorance that is astonishing in Abbott, a history graduate of Cambridge University. Race theory was used to justify first the expulsion and then the industrial-style slaughter of millions of Jews. And now Critical Race Theory is being used to divide humanity into warring factions coloured black and white, with the Israelis being cast, horrifically, in the role of their erstwhile Nazi persecutors, and the Palestinians apparently being treated as honorary blacks.

All this, like Dr Cofnas’s speculation about academic achievement among black people, is detached from scientific evidence provided by DNA. As a historian based in the Cambridge college attended by Francis Crick when he and his colleagues worked out the structure of  DNA, I am woefully ignorant about the niceties of DNA. Genetics should probably be part of the history syllabus in all our universities, but any spare ground has been occupied by ideological musings largely based on Critical Theory.

What we do learn is that the concept of race is deeply flawed. Even ethnic groups that have tried to preserve marriage within their group have not succeeded in doing so. That particularly applies to the Jews: ancestry in what is now Israel many centuries ago predominates in their DNA, but over the centuries conversion, among other factors, has introduced Slavic, Berber, Turkic, Indian and many other strands.

If one does want to use crude evidence from physical experience, it is enough to walk down the street in Tel Aviv, where you will encounter Ashkenazim of eastern European ancestry with very fair complexions, Iraqi Jews with distinctively Iraqi faces, Yemenite Jews who look much like other Yemenites. How much the more does this apply to countries like Great Britain, Italy and Spain that have seen waves of conquerors and migrants mixing with the existing population.

The difficulties were already obvious when states friendly to Nazi Germany set out their claims to ethnic purity, generating weird, unsupported myths that they might be unfortunate enough to speak a Slavic language but were really descended from the Aryan Goths. Italian and German archaeologists scrambled to prove that the ancient Etruscans were indigenous to Italy, not – heaven forbid – oriental migrants, as had been argued by Herodotus and largely believed ever since. (In this case the archaeologist were probably right, but that is another matter).

Critical Race Theorists would no doubt respond that their argument about white oppression of black people since time immemorial is not about whether the racial differences postulated by Cofnas exist but about how black people are perceived by white ones. The strength of that point is undermined by the constant emphasis on whether heroes in the past were really black-skinned. The idea seems to be that there has been a cover-up: that Cleopatra’s imagined blackness has been suppressed in the historical record, just as black people themselves have been oppressed by their persecutors.

In its most extreme and ridiculous form there is the current insistence that Britain has a black history going back to Stonehenge; there is even a children’s book that markets this nonsense. In one interpretation the early inhabitants of the British Isles were all black. More common is the emphasis on the presence of black people all through the history of this island since Roman times. The presence of soldiers from across the Roman Empire is not in doubt, except that we then revert to the Africa problem – legionaries from the Roman province of Africa, encompassing what is now Tunisia, are unlikely to have had black skins.

Ever since Miranda Kaufmann published her influential book Black Tudors there has been plenty of interest in occasional black visitors and residents. Much of this has been sensible, but this trend no doubt prompted the producer of a new Netflix series about murder in an invented Tudor monastery to cast a black actor as Abbot (the series is entitled Shardlake, and based on a book by C.J. Sansom). Since the production lacked verisimilitude in all sorts of ways and since the monastery never existed I am happy to accept that it had a black Abbot. But the idea that Britain has always been a multicultural, multiethnic society needs to be toned down.

That is not to say that ethnic variety has been lacking. But who were the migrants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for instance? There were Portuguese Jews arriving from Amsterdam or escaping the Inquisition in Iberia. There were Huguenots fleeing from French persecution. There had always been plenty of Flemings – they had brought their weaving skills to England in the Middle Ages. Some black slaves arrived either side of 1700, though most ended up in the Americas; as servants in wealthy households they appear in paintings of the time. And there were high-class Germans who arrived from Hanover with the new royal dynasty.

The ethnic variety of Great Britain has been created by black, brown and, significantly, white people. That is particularly true of the last 150 years: a stream of Irish migrants, sometimes made unwelcome; Jews from eastern Europe and then from Germany; Belgians during the First World War; Italians bringing better ice-cream to Scotland; Poles fleeing from German invasion, and so on. Examples of xenophobia are not hard to find. Poles and Lithuanians settling in the east of England over the last thirty years have sometimes been the victims of what can only be called racist violence. White-on-white racism is a reality.

Critical Race Theory engages in all sorts of contortions to avoid issues of this sort. Andrews classifies the Irish in America as black before they became more fully integrated into society. He insists that xenophobia directed against the Irish and other white migrants has a very different character to “the racism of White supremacy”; “after one generation White migrant communities fold into the mainstream, essentially disappearing.” This also extends to those he calls the Latinx in the United States, by which he means Hispanics (many of them might disagree).

It is not clear where he would place British Hindus and Sikhs, for instance, whose acculturation has often not led to the abandonment of distinct cultural markers in religious observance and in food. Andrews does highlight what he calls “a long history of anti-Black racism in South Asian communities”, though this opinion seems to turn on the strong statements made by two Conservative politicians of Indian descent, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman; he is, naturally, unimpressed by the ethnic variety of a Cabinet presided over by a Hindu Prime Minister.

The other side of the coin is the concept of the “Coconut”, a black individual who identifies too strongly with the White oppressor, figures such as Lord Sewell whose report on racial disparities arouses his disgust; Andrews dismissively and grossly unfairly writes: “Sewell has been making racist arguments about racial inequality for decades.”

“Whiteness” and its evil manifestations are a myth of our time. It is all too easy to dismiss myths of this sort as so much hot air. But Whiteness is a dangerous fantasy that utilises a crude unhistorical and unscientific assumption about race to demonise the majority population. As the reaction to the Hamas atrocities in Israel has shown, this outlook embraces anti-Semitism, seeing in widespread Jewish sympathy for Israel an expression of violent “settler colonialism”, and aspiring to dismantle a state created largely by refugees – the very people one might expect the Far Left to embrace warmly.

It often shows contempt for the Asian population of this country. And, since it is predicated on the assumption that white people will never lessen their evil grip, it describes a future that is bleakly confrontational, offering no hope that all ethnic groups can live in harmony in the United Kingdom and beyond.

David Abulafia is Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History in the University of Cambridge

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