Book Review: Why Race Still Matters by Lentin

Why Race Still Matters (2020) by Alana Lentin, published by Polity.

Alana Lentin is an Associate Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University. She is an antiracist race critical scholar who works on the critical theorisation of race, racism and anti-racism. Her latest book is Why Race Still Matters (Polity, 2020). She tweets @alanalentin.

Review by Siobhan O’Neill, 3rd December 2020

My reading of Alana Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters coincided with the wave of BLM resistances following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. I found myself making sense of the protests, and responses to it, through Lentin’s concepts. Responses opposing the protests – like ‘All Lives Matter’ – mirrored Lentin’s ‘not racism’ concept and exemplified how the ‘boundaries around what can be defined as racist are extended’ to suggest that racism works against white people too (p. 60). As BLM protests overlap with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, signs at protests and posts on social media frequently related racism with pathology through statements such as “racism is the real virus”, “racism is a pandemic too” or, as captured in a tweet that has since gone viral, “Two Deadly Viruses are Killing Americans: COVID-19 and Racism” (Voytko 2020). But Lentin states that “racism itself is not a pathology” (p. 11) and argues that the ‘consistent presentation of racism as aberrant and pathological’ constructs racism to be an expression of misguided beliefs ‘of the past’ rather than as a manifestation of racial rule and the reality of a society that is ‘structured by dominance’ (pp. 64-65). This prompted me to consider what the ‘racism-as-pathology’ association is doing and what the effect of its usage might be when it is being employed by those with anti-racist intentions.   

Why Race Still Matters is divided into four chapters. In Chapter 1 Lentin explores race and pushes beyond the idea of race as ‘social construction’ and sustains a more complex understanding of race going forward – for example in chapter three she states that race can be “understood [not as a fixed category but] relationally as a process of racialization” (p. 120). In Chapter 2 Lentin critically examines the origins and limitations of the concept of ‘racism’ and introduces a major contribution to the literature through a concept she calls ‘not racism’, which describes the way that we speak about racism today as the constant redefining of racism to suit white agendas (p. 56). In the book’s third chapter, Lentin captures where and how we see race working in contemporary politics, exploring how debating and attacking ‘identity politics’ functions to distract from doing anti-racist work (p. 118) as well as critically interrogating Afropessimism in relation to current debates. Chapter 4 offers a nuanced look at the ways antisemitism works co-constitutively with anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, coloniality and white supremacy and how it has been, and continues to be operationalised to ‘obscure the workings of race’ (p. 135). Just as Lentin showed that racism is seen to be up for debate in Chapter 2, in Chapter 4 she explores how questions about ‘what antisemitism is, who is antisemitic and why’ have come to dominate political discussions today too. All of these threads are drawn together in the conclusion, where Lentin emphasises why race still matters.

As Lentin says herself, this book ‘raises more questions than it has provided answers’ (p. 171). This is one of the book’s assets as it prompts the reader to ask questions and push beyond the boundaries of taken-for-granted ideas about race – something that is necessary in the pursuit of an anti-racist political practice. Because the book deals with such a range of topics, this review focuses specifically on Lentin’s definition of race. Lentin challenges the reader to go beyond the popular truism that race is a social construct. She does not dispute the argument that race – rather than biologically given – is socially constructed, however she argues that this definition needs to be pushed further. In a time in which we are experiencing a resurgence in racial science, eugenics and popular biological ideas about race (such as through the popularity of DNA testing services like 23 and Me), she argues that it is necessary to go beyond an entirely social constructionist approach as this “runs the risk of reasserting the primacy of race as biological” (p. 32). Lentin takes a more nuanced position by recognising its corporeality and facticity without suggesting that it is inherently ‘real’. For Lentin, race becomes ‘real’ in many ways, “on a range of registers: economic, political, corporeal, and environmental” (p. 48). She brings together the socio-cultural and political idea of race with its corporeality by asserting that racial rule “has a biological effect both on the individual body and on bodies over generations” (p. 42) and that “the body is the primary carrier of race” (p. 46) but that race itself is a “technology, rather than a category”, a “project and process” that acts on bodies (p. 110) and serves as a “mechanism for sifting and classifying the world” (p. 49). An example of race being made ‘real’ through bodies is the disproportionate number of racially minoritised people who die in police custody, or following police contact, compared to white people – an issue at the core of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Lentin sustains this formulation of race throughout the book and, by defining race this way, she pushes sociologists, critical race scholars and those working with race more generally to not take-for-granted the “mantra” that race is a social construct. For Lentin, critical race theory must go beyond this to better understand and work toward dismantling the detrimental and disadvantaging effects race and racial rule have in society (p. 48). In Why Race Still Matters Lentin offers a wide-ranging, powerful and timely account of what race is, what is does, and why it still matters in our supposedly ‘post-racial’ times. She covers a great deal of ground related to race, racism and racialisation in an eloquent and accessible way. It is a necessary and comprehensive book for undergraduates, graduates and scholars wanting to get to grips with critical race themes and thinkers. It is also valuable to a popular audience for whom the book would provide a thorough entry point into thinking more deeply about race and racism and a resource from which to cultivate racial literacy.

In popular discourse, ethnicity is often referred to alongside – and used interchangeably for – race. A discussion of the distinction between race and ethnicity and what they do would have considerably strengthened the book’s analysis. As Lentin states “we are not served by talking in euphemisms” (172) and, in Britain especially, ethnicity is consistently used as a euphemism that conveniently side steps race and, in so doing, constrains our ability to understand and challenge the specific ways that race is used to construct difference and results in specific kinds of discrimination and disadvantage for those who are racially minoritised (Song 2018). Whilst this was perhaps beyond the scope of this book, it would have been interesting to see how the distinction between race and ethnicity would deepen Lentin’s analyses. Nevertheless, Lentin’s book is an accessible and comprehensive resource brimming with productive ideas and concepts. Why Race Still Matters makes a valuable and necessary contribution to sociological thinking and critical race scholarship across and beyond sociology’s cognate disciplines. It covers a great deal of ground and prompts us to practice reflexivity when engaging with race and racism. Lentin achieves what she set out to do by successfully demonstrating why race still matters and why we cannot do away with the concept just yet.

Siobhan O’Neill is a PhD Researcher in the Department of Politics at The University of Manchester. Her current research project explores the dynamics of race, racism and Whiteness in Politics Disciplines in British Higher Education. Specifically, the project explores how racially minoritised students experience and navigate the Whiteness of Politics disciplines. Siobhan’s wider research interests include racial politics, race and racism, knowledge production, (de)coloniality, and mixed-race identity. She tweets @siobhan_ko.

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