We spoke to writer Kenan Malik, whose new book, Not So Black and White, interrogates race and its relationship to class struggle today, tracing the rise of identity politics alongside the decline of the labor movement and universalism.

Picket line outside Grunwick photo-processing laboratory in Willesden, London, June 14, 1977. (Evening Standard / Getty Images)

Readers might know Kenan Malik best from his weekly Observer column discussing everything from migration to religion and technology. But his background lies far from the pages of the liberal media.

Born in India and brought up in Manchester, Malik was intensely involved in the political campaigns of the 1980s. Whether it was fighting deportations, organizing street patrols against racist violence, or taking part in the Newham 7 and Colin Roach campaigns, his introduction to politics came at the coalface. He spent much of the decade active in an array of Marxist and revolutionary organizations.

He is more widely known today, however, as a campaigner for freedom of expression and secularism, and a critic of multiculturalism and contemporary identity politics. His latest book Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics interrogates race and its relationship to class struggle today, tracing the rise of identity politics alongside the decline of the labor movement and universalism.

Taj Ali sat down with Kenan Malik to explore this history — and the seismic political changes it brought about.

Taj Ali

Can you tell us more about your background and how that shaped your political outlook?

Kenan Malik

I grew up in a very different Britain to that of today, in the ’70s and ’80s. Racism was vicious and visceral and woven into the fabric of society in a way that it is difficult to imagine now. Paki-bashing was the national sport. I can’t remember coming back from school without having been in a fight. I went to a mainly white school. Stabbings were common; fire bombings — these were almost routine events. If you went to the police, you were more likely to be arrested than the racist was. It was an extraordinarily difficult time. That experience drew me into political campaigning against police brutality and racist deportations in the 1980s.

At the same time, there’s a point I make quite often that if it was racism that drew me into politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the confines of racism. There’s more to social justice than challenging the injustice done to me. A person’s skin color or ethnicity or culture provides no guide to the veracity or validity of their political beliefs. Through those campaigns, I discovered the writings of Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, James Baldwin, Rosa Luxemburg, C. L. R. James, and Frantz Fanon.

Taj Ali

My dad grew up in Luton at a similar time. Many of the roads I walk today were no-go zones for people like him due to the threat of racist violence. That experience has massively shaped his understanding of the world. When I interview former members of the Asian Youth Movements and Indian Workers’ Association, it’s clear that race was central to their political analysis.

Kenan Malik

Those campaigns were rooted in class as much as they were in race. They saw themselves as part of a broader working-class struggle. The Indian Workers’ Association was founded in the 1930s to give a voice to migrant workers, but it was closely linked to working-class struggles in Britain. The Asian Youth Movements emerged in the late 1970s, at the same time as the Southall Black Sisters, Black Panthers, and Race Today Collective. There were broader organizations as well, like the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism.

Those campaigns were rooted in class as much as they were in race. They saw themselves as part of a broader working-class struggle.

When the Asian Youth Movements called themselves Asian, it wasn’t to distinguish themselves from African-Caribbeans but to signal a conscious break from sectarian forms of subcontinental politics. Most of us thought of ourselves as black, because black was a political label, not an ethnic one. We were trying to forge a more inclusive identity. Many today take a narrower, identitarian viewpoint.

Taj Ali

The concept of political blackness today is highly contested and, with a few notable exceptions such as the trade union movement, it has largely faded as a concept. More recently, the term BAME [black, Asian, and minority ethnic] as a catchall term for people of color has also been challenged. It seems like we’re living in a very different era.

Kenan Malik

In a sense, it all changed very quickly. If you look at the anti-racist struggles of the early 1980s, they were primarily political. Campaigns against deportations, against racist attacks, against police brutality, for equal pay in the workplace. Toward the 1990s, much of the struggle was cultural. The Salman Rushdie affair was hugely important as a watershed moment in both my life and in British politics. It epitomized that shift from political to cultural. There was no such thing as the Muslim community at the beginning of 1980s. By the end of the decade, the Rushdie affair revealed to a degree that a narrower sense of Muslim identity had taken hold.

Taj Ali

In those struggles of the 1970s, a great deal of solidarity existed between different minority communities, regardless of skin color. Some attribute the decline of broad coalitions to the role of the state in dividing communities, who were often pitted against each other when it came to competing for funding.

Kenan Malik

The rise of what you might call municipal socialism in the GLC [Greater London Council] and the co-option of independent anti-racist groups by the local state played an important role. The GLC saw tackling racism as more about celebrating ethnic and cultural differences. That became part of the more fragmented character. The old universal ethos of the Left had started to erode. People started to define themselves by narrower, more parochial identities. Black became an ethnic, as opposed to a political, label. And so on. You have to explain and understand that shift in order to explain the rise of more fragmented, identitarian strands within anti-racist movements and the Left today.

Taj Ali

You were involved in many left-wing groups decades ago. What was it that attracted you to those organizations?

Kenan Malik

I was involved in many far-left organizations back in the 1980s — the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), Big Flame. I think what they gave me was a materialist, progressive framework through which to understand my anger and frustration. That framework has stayed with me long after I left those organizations, as has the acknowledgement of the importance of universalism in working-class struggle.

Taj Ali

In your recent book, you are highly critical of contemporary identity politics and contrast it with class struggle. Can you explain some of those criticisms?

Kenan Malik

Identity politics emerges out of the rise of social pessimism, and from a world in which class has become less important, and class struggle and politics less plausible in most people’s eyes. If you go back to the ’70s and ’80s, the labor movement was deeply imbued with racism. Many strikes that were led by first-generation migrants, such as at Courtaulds Red Scar Mill [1965] and Imperial Typewriters [1974], were not supported. The black and Asian strikers often had to confront trade unions as much as they had to confront the bosses.

Identity politics emerges out of the rise of social pessimism, and from a world in which class has become less important, and class struggle and politics less plausible in most people’s eyes.

There were, of course, other strikes, such as Grunwick in 1976, that showed the possibilities of solidarity. The Grunwick strike was at a photo processing plant in the northwest of London, where workers went on strike because of appalling [work] conditions, the banning of unions, and racist intimidation. They received huge support from other workers, such as miners, electricians, builders, and bus drivers. They had a mass picket where there was a twenty-thousand-strong protest one of the days.

So the racism around the labor movement wasn’t simple. There were aspects of racism running through the unions [as well as] aspects of solid cross-racial solidarity. One of the interesting things to me today is that the old naked racism within the labor movement has largely disappeared, but it’s been replaced by fragmentation and identitarianism.

Minorities are seen as belonging to unified, almost classless communities, whereas class is a category largely reserved for the white population. The labor movement has become less racist, but we also live a society that is less willing to, or less able to, recognize minorities as an integral part of the working class.

Taj Ali

You discuss the decline of cross-racial class solidarity in your book, with particular reference to the United States. But can you see why a black American growing up today — who understands the history of slavery, witnesses police brutality, and perhaps comes from a segregated community — may find it difficult to transcend an understanding of the world centered primarily on race?

Kenan Malik

Historically, there have been many strands within African-American struggles that have sought to transcend race. With more identitarian viewpoints now, we often see ourselves in terms of our ethnic or cultural identity rather than understanding that we may have a commonality as working-class people. When we look at the civil rights movement in the United States, we often only look in terms of the postwar years. What we call the civil rights movement resurrected itself in the 1950s. But there is a much longer history to the civil rights movement, and there’s a period of struggle in America that’s often forgotten, which is the interwar years that laid the foundations for the postwar civil rights movement.

What many now call civil rights unionism linked the struggle of black people for equality with the struggle of workers — black and white — for proper wages, conditions, housing, and so on. Much (though not all) of that was lost in the postwar era when the civil rights movement reemerged in the 1950s, partly because of the Cold War. Radicals in trade unions, in the Communist Party, and, more broadly, on the Left, were ostracized and marginalized. In essence, the economic and the political became unstitched.

What many now call civil rights unionism linked the struggle of black people for equality with the struggle of workers — black and white — for proper wages, conditions, housing, and so on.

That was clearer in the post-1980s world where neoliberalism was much more accepting of political equality than of economic equality. Racism still exists, discrimination against women still exists, but nevertheless there is a kind of moral acceptance of equality at that level in a way there isn’t about economic equality.

Taj Ali

Often when you criticize identity politics, you’re labeled a class reductionist. Identity politics might be seen as divisive, but whether it is racism, sexism, or homophobia, isn’t it easier to discount the importance of identity if you are not negatively impacted by discrimination yourself?

Kenan Malik

The idea that pointing to the importance of class in our struggles makes one a class reductionist is lazy. Minorities are predominantly working class, and not to see their struggles through the lens of class is to deny the experience and needs of probably the majority of black and Asian people in this country.

Black Lives Matter, for example, in its own words, sees itself as part of a global black family. But the global black family is no more useful a category than the global Muslim Ummah or the claim that all Hindus have a common set of interests. It’s a confected unity that serves largely to obscure divisions within communities and makes the creation of solidarity across racial lines more difficult.

One of the stories I tell in the book is about a sanitation workers’ strike in New Orleans. In May 2020 sanitation workers walked out on strike because of poverty, low wages, and lack of safety equipment during the COVID pandemic, as well as the refusal to recognize the union. Nearly all the workers were black, and so were the employers. As part of its anti-racist drive, New Orleans had outsourced its sanitation work to a black-owned company. The sanitation workers came out on strike three weeks before George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. They then remained on strike throughout that summer, and the wave of protests that swept through the United States and the world brought racism and black lives to the forefront of global consciousness.

But Black Lives Matter meant something very different on the two sides of the picket line. There was one black union leader who said at the time that black exploitation does not end because the company is black-owned. And despite that year being the year of Black Lives Matter, the black sanitation workers were forced back to work by September, having won virtually none of the demands. The black employers won; the black workers lost. The idea that there’s a common identity only reinforces the power of black elites and diminishes the voices of black workers. It’s a lazy way of looking at the world, which is very useful for middle-class minorities but does a disservice to the majority of minority people who happen to be working class.

Taj Ali

In my own community, Pakistani landlords often exploit vulnerable Pakistani tenants. In Leicester, Indian factory owners exploited Indian garment workers. You could argue that the rise of the black and Asian middle class in the UK and America has made class more important than ever.

Kenan Malik

During Jim Crow in the United States, class divisions were there among black Americans, but they were pretty weak. Today, they’re stronger. Everything from the way the police treat people to incarceration rates is as divided by class as by race. Black Americans are disproportionately killed by police, somewhere between two to three times the figure for whites. But paradoxically, that’s not just a racial issue. That’s because the best marker for police brutality is not race, but income level. If you look at poor areas, you’re more likely to see people [there] suffer police brutality and killings than [in] richer areas. Racism has ensured that African Americans are disproportionately working class and poor. The disproportionality in police killings comes in large part from that. Over 50 percent of people killed by the police are white, and most of them are working class.

During Jim Crow in the United States, class divisions were there among black Americans, but they were pretty weak. Today, they’re stronger.

If you take incarceration rates and look at each income level, the incarceration rates of blacks and whites aren’t that different. But there are huge differences across income levels; and, as you would expect, because black Americans are disproportionately working class, so again they face disproportionate levels of incarceration. If you’re wealthy and black, you are far less likely to be either killed or to be incarcerated than if you’re poor and white. That’s not class reductionist; that’s recognizing the complexity of the world.

Taj Ali

In your book, you highlight the decline of the labor movement and the consequences this has had. What do you make of the revival of the trade unions in Britain in the past year, with the historic wave of strike action?a

Kenan Malik

The revival of trade union activity is good but, to be honest, [the strike action is] relatively small compared to the 1970s. The willingness of workers to take strike action is major compared to five years ago. But compared to thirty-five years ago it’s not. We shouldn’t overestimate or overplay the shift. I think it’s welcome, and the support for the strikes is also welcome. But what I argue in the book is that we’ve lost something deeper, the radical universalist tradition. The tradition that sees a common set of values and beliefs that are important for people across racial, cultural, ethnic lines. That tradition has eroded. The rise in union activity is itself not a means of transforming our movements. What we require is a conscious political aim to create such a movement around universalist perspectives.

To believe in social transformation is to be an optimist. It has to have an element of utopianism about it. I live in hope that we can create such a movement again.

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