The Diversity of Anti-Racist Thought: The problems of Race Essentialism

The Diversity of Anti-Racist Thought

In late 2017 two well-known figures in anti-racist politics in the USA, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, were involved in a public dispute of sorts. West suggested that Coates is “the neoliberal face of black freedom struggle” and does not do enough to challenge the black economic and political elite in America. Moreover, his politics commits him to a fatalistic “narrow racial tribalism” that is not equipped to lead struggles for emancipation.

West’s views on Coates’s politics are shared by other radical intellectuals and have even been advanced more vigorously by a group surrounding Adolph Reed and Kenneth Warren. Their disagreement is based on substance: analytical and normative. Yet which position, Coates’s or theirs, is representative of the so-called black radical tradition?

Langston Hughes was Richard Rive’s inspiration when the latter was a young writer. Yet as Rive sharpened his own sense of a moral and political identity, he began to question his mentor’s views on the role of literature written by black people in anti-racist politics. Is Rive’s cosmopolitanism or Hughes’s quest to uphold racial authenticity representative of black radical thought in the literary world?


Recently, I read a paper by Kwesi Tsri, research associate in the Equality Studies Centre at University College Dublin, in which he argues that Africans should abandon the category “black” from our discourse altogether. He doesn’t do so because he is blind to the experience of racism-how can he be? On the contrary, he maintains that racism can only be fought effectively by egalitarians if we imagine a new language of identity. Although I don’t subscribe to such a hard version of racial eliminativism, I find his an interesting argument. But does making it exclude Tsri from the “black epistemology”?

Paul Gilroy, contrary to the trend in academia at the time, once called for a “strategic universalism” instead of a “strategic essentialism” and for the reimagining of Fanon as a humanist thinker. Kwame Appiah has written passionate defenses of cosmopolitanism and non-racialism.  In South Africa, Zmitri Erasmus has called for us to follow a path towards “forging a new humanism” even while others amongst us seem to be comfortable in advancing colour-coded racial nationalisms.

Which perspectives form part of the black radical tradition? And what would be the metric to decide what is included and what is excluded?

“Black” thought itself is not monolithic. It is not reducible to one line of thinking, analytic or normative. This point informs my discomfort with essentialised language. What does it mean to say that non-racialists and nationalists share the same “way of being” if their respective worldviews are so radically different?

One might say, and I would happily concede, that the shared experience of racism binds victims together. This shared experience could also provide the potential grounds for solidarity against white supremacy. But history shows that that shared experience is not enough to guarantee philosophical, moral or political solidarity.

Nowhere is this clearer for me than in the history of South Africa’s own struggle against apartheid and colonialism.

The ANC and Congress Tradition, The Unity Movement, Black Consciousness, the SACP, Workerists and PAC traditions did not see eye to eye with one another on certain fundamental points. Some fought for non-racialism, others for multi-racialism, and others for racial nationalism. Some fought for an end to capitalism, others for a racially-inclusive capitalism. (The reader might be interested in reading a short summary of these traditions in a post on this website.)


I think we should be alert to these differences. But I think speaking in essentialist terms undermines our ability to do so.

There is another related problem, I feel, with essentialised language and that is its tendency to set in motion pursuits for authenticity. Which one of our anti-apartheid and anti-colonial traditions is the real black tradition? Who is, in fact, really black? Are Indians and so-called “coloured” people sharing of the same “subjectivity” as black Africans? What of ethnic divides?

The fact that essentialised language sets in motion a quest for authenticity makes it particularly combustible in a post-colonial environment in which indigeneity was, by colonial design, wrapped up with access to political and material rights. We are experiencing in South Africa, with the tension surrounding racial and ethnic identities in a context of extreme material deprivation, a common post-colonial dilemma. The difference, however, is that while we navigate this complex and difficult terrain, as we must, we have the ability to learn from past experiences and in particular, where the politics, and discourse, of indigeneity may take us.

Meeting racism head-on requires understanding the material, economic and discursive practices that continue to uphold it. This is not a call for a retreat to a naïve biological reductionism. We need to capture the raw experience of being “racialised” and the injustice that involves, while also creating openings in the racial prison. My position is that speaking in essentialist terms inhibits the latter.

We need to think creatively and imaginatively about how to escape the horrors of racism and racial inequality but also race-thinking.

By Michael Nassen Smith