The Good Fight
Tomiwa Owolade on What We Get Wrong About Race

Tomiwa Owolade on What We Get Wrong About Race

Yascha Mounk and Tomiwa Owolade discuss what we miss when we think of race as a binary.

Tomiwa Owolade is a writer and author of the forthcoming book This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Tomiwa Owolade discuss how some popular forms of anti-racist thinking can obscure which groups are struggling most; how Labour MP Diane Abbott’s response to an article of Owolade’s in The Guardian led to the Labour MP’s formal censure by her party; and what Americans can learn from Britain on issues of race (and Britons from America).

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Your new book, which is based on an article you originally wrote in Persuasion, is called This Is Not America. What do people get wrong when they see the whole world through the lens of America's very particular racial history in racial discourse?

Tomiwa Owolade: They lose sight of the particular racial dynamics of their own country. If they look at their own country, principally or even partly through an American perspective, in the case of the UK, what they get wrong, or what they lose sight of, is the fact that the black British population is distinctive from the black American population. So the black British population, in contrast to the black American population, is very much an immigrant community, or I should say, communities, which is something that I emphasize in my book. So rather than looking at the black British population as a singular group, or singular identity, what I tried to emphasize in my book and much of my writing is the diversity of that label itself. But I would say that it's principally an immigrant identity, and this is in stark contrast to the black American population. So the overwhelming majority of black Americans can trace their ancestry to enslaved Africans who were transported to the new world between the 17th and the 19th centuries. Whereas in the UK as of today, the overwhelming majority of black British people are either immigrants from Africa or the children of immigrants from Africa. Up until 25 or 30 years ago, the majority of black British people were black Caribbeans, people from countries like Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean islands. But there's been a massive influx of immigration to the UK over the past 25-30 years, which has completely changed the demographic makeup of the black British population. As of today, there are twice as many black African people as there are black Caribbean people. And I don't think many people know this, even people living in the UK.

Mounk: I mean, black Americans are as American as it gets; on average, they have ancestors who've been in the country for longer than white Americans. How does it change the dynamic when a large portion of black people in the UK are relatively recent immigrants or the descendants of relatively recent immigrants? In a way, that displaces the question to a broader debate that we’re having in the West about immigration. In my last book, The Great Experiment, I've been arguing that we're overly pessimistic about the socio-economic progress of immigrants both on the right and on the left. On the right, sometimes people like to imply or say outright that these immigrants are not going to succeed because they somehow come from the wrong kinds of places, that they’re inferior; the left disagrees with that strongly but likes to emphasize racism and injustice and ends up coming to a similarly pessimistic conclusion—that these immigrants can't succeed because of how terribly unjust our societies are. 

My understanding, at least from the growing immigration groups of black people in the United Kingdom (for example, British Nigerians, which I understand is your heritage as well), is that that argument applies—they’re actually very successful, and in some cases, they may even out earn white British people at this point.

Owolade: Yes, in terms of educational outcomes, for example, black African students do outperform white British students as of today, and this is true of other immigrant communities as well—British Chinese and British Indian students also outperform white British students in terms of educational outcomes. And this is true of the US as well. But what I find striking is that whilst black African students do well in education, black Caribbean boys in particular tend to do less well. And what I argue in the book is that if we genuinely care about the inequalities in our society, we need to be sensitive to the fact that not all black people are the same, which sounds like a very banal and obvious point to make. But I think the problem with a lot of anti-racist activism today is that many well-meaning progressive and liberal people tend to homogenize black people. They talk of black people in general terms rather than being specific in their focus. For example, the experiences of black Caribbean boys is very different to the experiences of black West African girls in schools. The experiences of black Caribbean men, likewise, are very different from the experiences of black West African women, especially if they are educated women. The experiences of refugees to the UK from Somalia or Congo is likewise very different to the experiences of economic migrants from Ghana and Nigeria. And I think if we genuinely care about the inequalities in our society, we need to be mindful of these differences because we can therefore have a more targeted approach to tackling any form of discrimination, any form of poverty, any form of anything that hinders the flourishing of any particular community. But we need to be mindful of those differences. And I think we also need to be mindful of those differences as well, because even though anti-racism needs to take into account racial and ethnic differences, I think that to entirely define an individual simply in terms of their race or ethnicity denigrates the humanity of that individual. And I think in order to affirm the irreducible dignity of each individual, we need to resist the temptation of defining that individual entirely through their race or ethnicity.

Another major difference between the UK and the US is that in terms of things like school, and also many other social institutions in many cases, in the US, the main dividing line is race; whereas in the UK, it's class. For example, I have a brother that lives in America, and was recently married to a black American woman. The wedding was last December, and she invited over 70 guests to Nigeria for the wedding. And I was struck by this, but then I remembered that, in the United States, if you're a black person, it's much easier to have an entirely black social circle, especially if you're a black person living in the South, partly due to the legacy of segregation. And also partly because there are so many American cities across the South where the majority of the population is black. Whereas in the UK, the city with the largest share of black people is London. And the percentage of black people in London is something like 13 or 14%. In my own experience of going to a state secondary school, a comprehensive school in London, one thing I found was that the white working class kids in my school were friendly with many ethnic minority kids. And also the white middle class kids in my school were friendly with many ethnic minority kids. But the white middle class kids and the white working class kids never really interacted with each other. Even in my state comprehensive school, the kids segregated themselves on the basis of class rather than race. I think that's indicative of a wider problem in the UK, which is that class is still one of the main social dividing lines. 

I think that the experiences of, say, a privately educated, black African man that works as a banker, a lawyer or a doctor is extremely different to that of a black Caribbean man who went to a state school and now works in a working class job. We need to be more mindful of these differences, rather than just saying that, on the basis of the fact that they're both black, they necessarily share the same experiences.

Mounk: One way of turning this into a slogan is that in America, race beats class, and in Britain, class beats race. Obviously, it’s a little bit more complicated, but it allows for a different form of integration within the UK, as you were implying; often the more working class British person who comes from the Caribbean, for example, might integrate with more working class Londoners. There’s a lot of intermarriage, actually, between working class Londoners and descendents of immigrants from Jamaica and so on. And that’s made a little bit easier by a certain kind of mutual antipathy towards the snooty middle or upper class that is British working class culture.

Owolade: Exactly. In particular, in the decades after the Second World War, many of the Irish working class intermarried and were friendly in many other ways with the black Caribbean working class. And a part of that was definitely the fact that Irish people have been oppressed by the British. The Irish were a colonized people. They do share that affinity with black Caribbean people. And I think it's also worth mentioning that as well, because when you look at the typical Irish person, you say, “Oh, well, that's a white person.” And the fact that Irish people have been oppressed illustrates that when we think about race, it's not just a black and white, or white and “people of color” binary. It's more nuanced and it's more complicated than that. Because when I was growing up as a teenager, there was this fashionable belief that I encountered, which is that you can only be a victim of racism if you are a black or brown person. If you are racialized as white, you can't be a victim of racism. You can be a victim of prejudice., but you can't be a victim of racism because the society that we live in privileges white people. And I soon realized that this was completely nonsensical for a few reasons, because many groups that are racialized as white still encounter racism because racists think of them as inferior. The most obvious example is anti-Semitism, which I've written about recently. 

Mounk: You're basically baiting me to ask a question that I was going to ask in any case, which is that you recently found yourself at the center of a major political controversy in Britain. You wrote, as I understand it, an article in The Guardian about a study showing that there is persistent racism in the United Kingdom against black people and immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere, but also against Jews, the Traveller people and the Irish. 

And then Diane Abbott, a far left Labour politician who was one of our closest allies of Jeremy Corbyn, wrote a letter responding to this that utterly denied the possibility of genuine racism against Jews, Traveller people, and against other groups. And Keir Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn’s successor as leader of the Labour Party, removed the whip from her, which is to say that she can no longer sit as a part of the Labour parliamentary group in the House of Commons. Why do you think that Diane Abbott was wrong about this? 

Owolade: Some people say that anti-Semitism isn't a form of racism; it's a form of religious prejudice. I think the reason why she was wrong about this is that anti-Semites themselves see Jewish people as a race, and an inferior race. And this is also true of racism against other ethnic minority groups that are often racialized as whites.

When Diane Abbott wrote that letter in response to my column, she used Jim Crow America as an example, saying that Jewish people were not told to sit at the back of the bus. Historically, that's also slightly wrong because some Jewish people, I believe, were actually lynched as well in the South. But that's a separate thing. I think what I found striking about what Diane Abbott said is that she basically took to the logical conclusion a kind of assumption that's been internalized by a lot of the progressive, anti-racist left, which is to see race and racism in this purely binary way, as white and non-whites. And I think another problem with seeing racism in that way is that it also presupposes that there is this coherent category called “white people” as well. That white people in the United States of America share the same level of privilege as white people, say in Eastern or Southern Europe, in countries that have a completely different set of historical narratives and circumstances, cultures and demographics. And to look at the world in that way is, I think, illustrative of a lack of curiosity and also of a kind of dogmatism which I think that any inquisitive and curious person should always try to resist.

If there is any positive to be to be taken from this rather sad and slightly tawdry issue it is that it brings light to what I tried to argue in my initial column, which is that we need to be more multidimensional, more nuanced and more sophisticated in our approach to racism and racial discrimination. And I think Diane Abbott’s response illustrates why that's an important thing to be. I know you've got mostly American listeners, but Abbott is seen as an icon of the far left. She's seen as a kind of pioneer as well: she was the very first black female member of Parliament and she's been a member of Parliament for 36 years. So she's very much part of the left wing establishment in the UK. For her to express such a patently absurd and also strange view, to say that Jewish people and other minority groups often racialized as whites can't be victims of racism, illustrates just how pervasive that kind of thinking has got on the left.

Mounk: I want to return to one of the earlier strands of the conversation. You were suggesting that a lot of the more recent immigrants, especially from countries in East and West Africa, are doing much better than immigrants from the Caribbean, for example. Why is that? What is the difference in either origin, or in timing, that helps to explain these different socioeconomic outcomes.

Is it similar to the United States in that the group of people who's coming in from Kenya or Nigeria is more selective in terms of how hard it is to get a visa from those countries? Or is part of it about the timing where perhaps the structural obstacles that make it hard for people to succeed 40 or 50 years ago, when a lot of Caribbean immigrants came to the country, were just actually much, much worse than they are today?

Owolade: I think the timing is definitely a big part of it. Because when Caribbean people came to the UK in the decades after the Second World War, they encountered so much racism from the British educational establishments. Many British Caribbean pupils were unfairly consigned to Special Educational schools, for example. And that particular experience definitely sowed a level of distrust towards the British establishment. Whereas West African communities that came to the UK over the past 20 to 30 years have encountered a very different UK.

Therefore I do think that there is a greater degree of optimism amongst many black British African communities. And I think the reason why there is that difference between these two large groups is the fact that many black African people that came over the past 25 or 30 years were already educated or came specifically to be educated, whereas many black Caribbean people, when they arrived, arrived as working class laborers trying to fill in work shortages in British healthcare, transport and other industries. Even though I'm speaking in generalities, there are many black African students and people that do struggle, and there are also many black Caribbean people that do extremely well. But I do think, irrespective of that, there are still those significant differences. I think another difference worth mentioning is that black Caribbean pupils in schools are three times more likely to be excluded from schools than black African pupils. Many people say, “Oh, the British education system is racist against people of color, or is racist against black people,” to which I would always respond, “Which black people? Which people of color?” Because the experiences of these communities, as I keep insisting upon, are not the same. And to make that generalization is to lose sight of the actual communities that are struggling. And if we lose sight of that, then what can we base our anti-racism upon?

Mounk: I often think that in order to understand the causes of something you have to look at both the variation between different kinds of contexts and often the national context, and then, often, you can draw important lessons from that. 

So let's play the lesson game: what can Americans learn from how race works differently in Britain?

Owolade: That's a very big question. I don't want to sound patronizing to Americans, because even though my book is entitled This is Not America, I wouldn't describe my book as anti-American in any sense, because there was much about American culture, American society, and American history that I admire, and that I am fascinated by and greatly interested in. But what I think that Americans can certainly improve on—and this isn't just what they can take from Britain but something which they can take more generally, I think—is to question (and what I'm going to say is, is in response to a particular kind of American sort of progressive activist, rather than Americans in general) and to be less insular in their understanding of race or ethnicity, basically, and to always look at it as something which is situated in a particular context, rather than as something which is transcendental or universal. And I think, funnily enough, the only way that this can be done is by aggressive curiosity about other cultures in the world, a greater curiosity about the way racial categories manifest in other cultures and other identities in the world—rather than just looking at race entirely through a very particular American context and then universalizing that context.

Mounk: A story always comes to mind of a friend of mine who was pitching a magazine on some important story, I think, in Kenya, and the response from the editor was, “I'm sorry, we're not really that interested in those kinds of pieces these days. We really are trying to focus on racial justice,” as if talking about a very important African country that's going to play an increasingly big role in the world, and has a rapidly growing population and economy, is just not that important when it comes to those kinds of questions.

And what is it that Britain can learn from America?

Owolade: Even though the book is entitled, This is Not America, I am also inspired by many black American writers and thinkers. And a couple immediately come to mind: James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Both of them, I think, were not only great novelists but also fantastic essayists as well. And what they often emphasized in many of their essays is that black Americans are not only black, but they are also fundamentally Americans as well. This was something that Baldwin found to his great surprise when he was living in Paris. He felt that he had more in common with fellow white American people than he did with black, African, or Arab Francophone people. And this illustrated to him the fact that going out of America merely reinforced his underlying American identity. And this attachment between being black and being American, I think, is crucial to any kind of anti-racism, because many racists would say that black American people are black before they are American or that the two things are in some way in tension. But Baldwin and Ellison emphasize the fact that black American people are black and American. And the very reason why they deserve dignity and they deserve human flourishing is that they are American to the core, so American society has a duty to protect and to dignify black people. And I would say that this is also true of black British people. Black British people are not only black, but they are British as well. And because of that, we need to emphasize their Britishness because many racists—and this is even more true because black British people often come from immigrant communities—would say, “Black British people are not British, they are black. They are Caribbean, they are African. But they are not British.” And I think affirming their British identity is crucial to any kind of anti-racist activism, because it is on the basis of that British identity that they have their dignity endowed to them.

Mounk: I wonder whether you followed this strange controversy in the United States in 2018, when Trevor Noah had a clip celebrating Africa's first win in the Football World Cup. I believe France won the World Cup. And his joke was that most of the French players were black and African in origin. And then the French ambassador to the United States at the time, Gérard Araud, complained and said, “This is the kind of discourse that the far right makes in France: these are not Africans, but French.” 

I was wondering how you feel about it, because it was a comedian making a joke, and at the same time, it also feels to me like Araud was making a fundamentally important point, that they are French people. I was wondering how you felt about that.

Owolade: I think what's striking about that is that twenty years before 2018, in 1998, France won the World Cup. And when that French team won the World Cup, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, said that that team wasn't French enough. That team was filled with Africans and Arabs and black French people of West Indian descent. And so it's a strange irony that the very same arguments describing ethnic minority people as fundamentally foreigners is cheered by both the far right and also many people that would define themselves as proud anti-racists.

Mounk: I'm struck by the fact that you criticize both implicitly and explicitly some of the most famous spokespeople of “anti-racism” today. But you also have repeatedly described yourself as an anti-racist and talked about what it would require to truly be anti-racist. And I think that that is exactly right. I certainly disagree with some of the people whose books might come up if you put “anti-racist” into Amazon. But I certainly think of myself, as one of the deep pieces of political identity, as an anti-racist. 

What would a healthy anti-racism look like in Britain or the United States, an anti-racism that takes on board the differences between different places, that's more curious about the world and about complexity, that can help to make real progress towards racial equality, but without falling into those kinds of pitfalls?

Owolade: I think a healthy anti-racism would be something that, whilst on one side acknowledging the fact that race can and is often used to divide and to oppress groups of people, doesn’t fall into the temptation of looking at or thinking about race as something which absolutely and entirely defines the lives and the experiences of racialized people. So a healthy kind of anti-racism would also necessarily need to question any kind of race essentialism and any kind of race generalization. 

And again, I think that this is something that works both ways. A healthy kind of anti-racism would also need to resist the now-fashionable temptation amongst many on the progressive left to stigmatize white people for two reasons: it's wrong, I think, on its own terms, but I also think it's not very effective. If you're trying to persuade a group of people to come on your side, trying to stigmatize them seems like an extremely counterproductive way. And I think it is. A healthy kind of anti-racism would be one that is genuinely committed to viewing black people as a diverse group of people, rather than as a homogenous bloc. A healthy kind of anti-racism would affirm, as I said earlier in this conversation, the irreducible dignity of each individual, irrespective of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, and any other form of cultural affinity that they might belong to.

Mounk: It feels to me that there is more and more friendship and communication and marriage between different demographic groups, that our culture is actually making real progress towards being more diverse, sometimes in sort of very self-conscious and slightly cringeworthy ways, but often in ways that feel much more organic and which I think are really wonderful and laudable. On the other hand, the political discourse can get torn into these sort of very simplistic camps, where you might have the progressive left that that you're talking about on one side, and on the other side a really knee-jerk, reactionary right that interprets any kind of criticism about injustices or concern for improving the world as “woke” or whatever. So—how optimistic are you and what can we do to become more optimistic about the future, whether it be Britain or the United States?

Owolade: I think there is a strange kind of paradox going on, which is that as we make more progress on anti-racism, as we become more racially integrated societies, it seems that we become more sensitive to racism, and we become more automated against racism, and we become more neurotic about racism. And I think this is, to a great extent, understandable. Because if you genuinely see yourself as a black American or black British person, and that's something that's utterly integral to your identity, those two things in combination, then it makes sense why any kind of racist slide or microaggression is especially painful to you, because you're more invested in the community and culture. If you are entirely, say, somebody that was foreign to America or to Britain, then you could perhaps easily brush off any kind of racism, because you're not invested deeply into the particular culture or the particular society, whether that be America or Britain. So as black people, or any other ethnic minority group, becomes more and more integrated into each respective society, then it makes sense why that greater sensitivity towards racism will come about. But what I would say to emphasize the importance of optimism—and I am quite an optimistic person on these issues—is I would say, we need a historical perspective. We need to understand what it was actually like in the past. And we need to compare that to the present. So you mentioned the importance of comparative analysis earlier on in this conversation—well, I would say we need to do that, but not between countries. We need to do that between the past and the present. That would illustrate the level of progress that we've made. And that would also, I think, lay the groundwork for a more optimistic future. Because if we've made that much progress from the past, we can continue to make progress to the future.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.