A massacre of straw men

Kehinde Andrews is not a serious reviewer

Artillery Row Books

Everyone seems to be reading and praising Tomiwa Owolade’s This Is Not America. Well, not everyone. Kehinde Andrews, the professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, wrote his own critical review, titled “This is … not a serious book”, which was published last month.

It is no surprise that Andrews and Owolade disagree. Andrews argues, for instance, that it is the “biggest mistake” for black Britons to “try to integrate into British society”. He believes black people would be better off in an “African promised land”. This contrasts with Owolade’s view that black British people are “irreducibly British” — that integration into British society is not merely possible but part of our lived reality. If mutual respect accompanied this stark difference in viewpoint, there would be no problem. Viewpoint diversity is to be welcomed. Black people do not all think the same.

However, from its dismissive title onwards, Andrews’ review shades beyond criticism into hatchet job. It deserves to be ignored, but Andrews, the first Black Studies professor in the country, is considered a leading authority on matters of race. Due to his professorship, his numerous television appearances, his columns in The Guardian, his books, and his appearance on Harry and Meghan’s Netflix series, his work has been judged to be serious scholarship. We must pay attention to how a man of such profile and influence treats Owolade, the young newcomer. We must also pay attention to how an intellectual of such profile and influence tackles arguments with which he takes issue. Andrews’ review tells us much more about the reviewer than it does about the book reviewed.

The first sentence of the review sets its tone. Andrews begins by claiming, “Perhaps the biggest irony of the ever-growing chorus of Black conservative voices is that they claim that race does not matter when their Blackness is the only reason they have prominence … all we can hope is that This is Not America doesn’t mark a trend in conservative voices — who are only prominent because they are Black and peddle racist ideas — getting book contracts.” Owolade has never said race or racism does not matter at all. The whole premise of the book is that race and racism do matter, which is why one ought to view British race relations through a British lens. Moreover, Owolade has never identified as a conservative. A conservative may agree with an argument advanced, but that does not necessarily make the person advancing it a “conservative”. Such guilt-by-remotest-association attacks are ever more common.

Then there is the charge of “racism”. What exactly did Owolade say that was “racist”? Attacking institutional racism in the police, criticising the treatment of Child Q, his belief that black Britons are as British as any other Briton, his belief that black people should be judged as people not by their race, his attack on Enoch Powell or his criticism of Margaret Thatcher? Andrews does not explain. The greatest irony here is that Andrews attacks Owolade for being a “racist” whilst making the unsubstantiated insult that Owolade’s race is the sole reason for his prominence. Owolade has written on many subjects in his journalistic career, far beyond the confines of the race debate, but this goes unmentioned.

Anti-racist activism has adopted American jargon and concepts in Britain

Andrews goes on: “I am not sure when we started rewarding stating the obvious. No Britain is not America … but no one said it is”. He has completely missed the point of the book. Owolade himself acknowledges that this is an “obvious point to make” in the introduction. The issue here is that a lot of anti-racist activism has adopted American jargon and concepts in Britain, irrespective of whether they apply to our context. How else does one explain the use of “BIPOC” in Britain? Or “hands up don’t shoot” in a BLM march in London? Andrews simply does not address this.

He then claims that by ignoring the contribution of black Caribbeans, Owolade undermines his argument. This is because those of Caribbean heritage exist in America and Britain. Owolade doesn’t ignore Caribbeans in America or Britain, though — he mentions CLR James, Paul Gilroy, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Kwame Ture (thinkers that Andrews incorrectly states that Owolade fails to cite). The fact that there are African Americans with Caribbean heritage does not refute the idea that African Americans are an American people. Neither does it refute the point that the vast majority of African Americans are descended from American slaves transported from Africa. Andrews goes on to say that radical black thought has existed without necessarily having American influence, but Owolade never claims otherwise. His mention of Nkrumah, James and Fanon in the book should have prevented Andrews from making such an obvious error.

Andrews then claims that it is “obviously false” that “black Britain is a nation of immigration and not African America” because African Americans were brought to the United States from Africa. It is quite absurd to draw an equivalence between a population whose ancestors came to the United States as slaves centuries ago (in very many cases, well before the Founding) and a population where most of their number (or their parents and grandparents) voluntarily came to Britain within the last few decades. It is perhaps more absurd to say, as Andrews does, that “the only difference between my dad’s journey from Jamaica to Birmingham in 1960 and the great migration of African Americans from the South to the north earlier in the century; is that there was an ocean separating my father from the mother country”. The only difference? Really? The Great Depression? Lynching? It is dumbfounding that the words “Jim Crow” do not appear.

Owolade’s views on Critical Race Theory come under scrutiny next, with Andrews saying it is “a surprise half the book is about so-called American ideas and theories” despite its central point that Britain is not America. This statement is untrue, given that there is only one chapter addressing Critical Race Theory and associated ideas. It also does not dawn on Andrews that the book ought to address those ideas and theories precisely because of their growing ubiquity in Britain. Andrews then claims that in the chapter referring to Critical Race Theory, Owolade “laughably undermines himself by arguing that the problem with intersectionality is that it reduces everything to race”. Nowhere in the whole chapter — or indeed the entire book — does Owolade say such a thing.

This is followed by a claim that Owolade “spends considerable time dismissing the work of Robin di Angelo, Layla Saad and Ibram X Kendi even though none of them are critical race theorists”. Owolade never describes them as Critical Race Theorists. He even highlights differences between the three, especially Kendi and di Angelo. It is odd to claim that di Angelo and Kendi do not intellectually draw upon Critical Race Theory, though. Di Angelo’s work emerges from Critical Whiteness Studies, which according to a sympathetic journal is “a complementary response to Critical Race Theory”. It is also disingenuous to suggest that Kendi has no link to Critical Race Theory, particularly given his own support for it. According to the philosopher Liam Kofi Bright, Critical Race Theory sees racism as a persistent force which ought to be viewed “in terms of social or institutional structures systematically favouring the dominant group — white people — over non-dominant groups” and that “small initial disparities, when combined with salient but arbitrary means of dividing persons (on grounds of race) tend to generate persistent inequality in social mores and norms.” This is not hugely different from Kendi’s claim that “when I see disparities, I see racism”, or his view that disparities are themselves ipso facto evidence of systemic racism. There are differences in the work of Critical Race Theorists, but that does not invalidate the claim that Kendi and di Angelo are heavily informed by Critical Race Theory.

Perhaps he knows what Ellison and Baldwin thought better than Ellison and Baldwin did

Andrews proceeds to lambast Owolade for referring to Ellison and Baldwin, claiming that he “misreads” them to support an “integrationist worldview” (presumably the apparently racist idea that black British people are British). Perhaps Andrews has forgotten that it was Baldwin who said of his fellow African Americans, “I believe we are Americans … I know it.” Presumably his biographer was also engaging in an act of “misreading” when he said of Baldwin’s own identity that it “was not European, nor was it African, nor was it even principally Negro — it was American”. Ought we not take Baldwin at his word when he says: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.” Maybe Ellison simply did not know his own mind when he himself said of America, “The nation could not survive being deprived of their [African Americans] presence because by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom.” Either Andrews is wrong to complain Owolade has “misread” them, or we are to believe that Andrews knows what Ellison and Baldwin thought better than Ellison and Baldwin did. Andrews then claims that this “misreading” forms Owolade’s “American framework”, as if to arraign him on the charge of hypocrisy. This charge would stand if there were no distinction between being informed by insights of black American thinkers (and drawing similarities where they exist) and the wholesale importation of jargon and concepts irrespective of whether they pertain to our context.

In the second part of his review, Andrews ups the ante. Owolade’s book is not just wrong, it is “dangerous”. According to him, Owolade says that “racism cannot be the most important factor in society if Africans are outperforming Caribbeans”. It is almost as if Andrews does not understand — or is refusing to understand — that if you have two different groups of people from the same race but with very different outcomes, race cannot be the exclusive factor in determining outcomes between groups. This is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. Owolade conveyed this point through his allegory of “Taiwo” and “Tyler” — both black British young men, but one of African heritage and the other Caribbean. Both men, despite being from the same race, have different outcomes in life. Rather than grasping the point, Andrews accuses Owolade of “conflating Nigerians with Africans”. Presumably if someone used Emmanuel Macron as an example of a European leader, this would be to conflate French people with Europeans.

Even more pernicious is Andrews’ claim that Owolade believes “racism is not to blame but rather it is family formation and culture” that explains differences between groups, describing it as a “racist lie”. To say this is a straw man would be too generous. What Owolade actually says is that in certain instances, such as employment and parts of the criminal justice system, “racism explains some of the disparities”. This is literally the opposite of what Andrews alleges. Whilst Owolade cautions against assuming all racial and ethnic disparities are because of racism, he says, “this is not because racism doesn’t matter or does not exist” — merely that it is “not the only thing that defines inequalities in our society”. Gender, geography, cultural attitudes to education, and class are all cited by Owolade as other factors at play. Referring to the education system, Owolade says, “The point is not to deny that many black British people are doing poorly in education. Nor is it to say that racism plays no role in why some black students are doing badly.” This is followed by Owolade’s view that “one could argue that the reason black Caribbeans are doing poorly is partly a legacy of racism” as “many black Caribbean kids were treated with such hostility and negligence by the educational system that they had a negative attitude to education, and this attitude was passed down to later generations”. It is false to suggest that Owolade says racism is irrelevant. Either Andrews has not understood or read these parts of Owolade’s book, or he is misrepresenting what Owolade has said.

Andrews then criticises Owolade for referencing the disparity fallacy, which he dismisses as an “American theory”. Leaving aside another limp attempt at alleged hypocrisy, to say the “disparity fallacy” is an American theory is as ridiculous as saying “correlation is not causation” is a Scottish theory because of David Hume. It is a logical fallacy, not a “theory”. One should not analyse British race relations through an American lens, but that does not mean one should not accept the existence of a logical fallacy because American intellectuals highlight it. Even worse is Andrews’ failure to understand the disparity fallacy, as demonstrated by his claim that those who mention it say that “because racial inequalities exist, they are not explained by racism”. In reality, those who raise it are explaining that the presence of inequalities between groups are not in and of themselves evidence of discrimination.

If it is inherently racist to raise issues of culture, what of W.E.B. Du Bois?

Amusingly, he continues later with: “contrary to Owolade’s constant whining, no one has ever thought about these issues seriously — has ever said it is all about race”. If Andrews believed that, he ought to have no issue with mentioning the disparity fallacy. Many people and organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have committed the disparity fallacy, including Vox, The New York Times, the Runnymede Trust, Ta Nehisi Coates, Kamala Harris, The Guardian, David Lammy, Diane Abbott, Kimberle Crenshaw, the TUC, Ibram Kendi, former US Attorney General Eric Holder, the Committee on Human Rights, Inquest, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Ben and Jerry’s and, yes, Kehinde Andrews. For his claim to be accurate, none of those people — including Andrews himself — have thought about “these issues seriously”. If that’s not the case, and those mentioned have “thought about these issues seriously”, then what Andrews said was false. Either way, Andrews condemns himself.

This is then followed by the claim that “racist commentators love to roll out the cultural argument”. To be clear, a “cultural argument” simply means that culture — mores, norms, traditions, socialisation, social capital, cultural capital, the acquisition of skills and behaviour — plays a role in average differences between group outcomes and life chances. What exactly does Andrews mean when he says, “racist commentators love to roll out cultural arguments”? If he is saying that it is inherently racist to raise issues of culture, what does he make of W.E.B. Du Bois? The great African American sociologist, Pan-Africanist and civil rights activist, author of Souls of Black Folk, “rolled out cultural arguments”. What about Martin Luther King who also “rolled out cultural arguments”? Or even Jesse Jackson? Or the left-wing black sociologists Orlando Patterson and William Julius Wilson? Presumably Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, who both “rolled out cultural arguments”, had internalised white supremacy. Andrews then astoundingly compares “cultural arguments” to “the old racial science”, ending “there is no evidence to support the claim”. It is quite incredible for a university professor to draw a false equivalence between “nature” and “nurture” arguments. It is equally incredible that Andrews appears to suggest that culture plays no role whatsoever in determining life chances and outcomes. I find it hard to believe that he genuinely thinks that.

Andrews attempts to justify this by claiming that “if culture was the reason for the disparity, then how do we explain that the literacy rate in Nigeria is 77 per cent, whereas in the Caribbean it is over 90 per cent”? To compare a country in West Africa to the Caribbean, in order to refute a point about the performance of two diasporas in Britain, is extraordinary. He goes on to point to “the fact that there are almost seven times the number of Nigerian children out of school — 20 million — than there are people in Jamaica?” Making a like for like comparison between a country with a population of nearly 220 million and one with a population of less than 3 million — seriously? He asserts that the logic of Owolade’s argument is that “Nigerians are anti-school, lazy and corrupt”. This would be a non sequitur even if Owolade did argue that culture is the only factor at play when explaining disparities. What makes the claim even worse is that Owolade does not even advance that argument. As he says, “class is key to understanding inequality in Britain when it comes to work” and “social class is the biggest barrier to career progression in the UK”. This is yet another travesty of Owolade’s written position.

The reviewer then embarks on a tangent that does not even rebut the argument he appears to wish Owolade made. Racism and colonialism on a global level, which “impoverish Nigeria to the point that the state cannot support its citizens”, is given as an explanation for literacy rates being lower in Nigeria than the Caribbean. If racism and colonialism were the only factors at play, then we would see similar literacy rates in the Caribbean, as they too have been impacted by racism and colonialism. Neither does he address the fact that there are countries with similar levels of GDP per capita, that have also been subject to racism and colonialism but have quite different literacy rates. He then continues with some claims about Nigerian immigrants bringing with them “educational and economic resources” in comparison to Jamaican immigrants. Nigeria’s GDP per capita has consistently been much lower than Jamaica’s for more than six decades, though. Even if Andrews were right, it would not refute Owolade’s point that British Africans are less likely to own capital than British Caribbeans, but British Africans are more likely to do better in education. This gap in performance holds even when one looks at children from both diasporas who are on free school meals.

The review concludes in this vein. Owolade is dubbed as “Uncle Tomiwa”, a character who “genuinely believes his delusions” and is someone who Andrews feels “sorry for”. He is a man “tap dancing for white people” who is as “ridiculous as Lenny Henry performing on the Black and White Minstrel Show”. This is a bit strange coming from this soi-disant revolutionary who, despite decrying the monarchy as ineradicably racist, was content to become a go-to guru for Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

It is hard to know exactly why Andrews has gone down this path. Maybe it is because he cannot cope with his worldview being gainsaid. Perhaps it was because Owolade had the temerity to quote Andrews’ own description of his younger self as having a “deep self-loathing” as he “desperately wanted to be white”. Whatever the reason, it is unbecoming for a public intellectual. Far from refuting Owolade’s arguments, the review reinforces them. Here is a man, considered to be an expert on matters of race, yet unable to deal with complexity and nuance on this issue. A grown man, he resorts to the puerility of playground antics in place of sound argument — thus furthering evidence of Owolade’s claim that he has been subject to vicious abuse for his heterodoxy. With his attempt to demonstrate that This Is Not America is an unserious book, Andrews exposes himself as an unserious man.

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