Akala interweaves personal experience with incisive social observation and political insight to narrate a highly readable overview of empire, race and class. A dry academic tome it is not.
As a biracial Londoner, the author is a walking embodiment of modern global history, colonialism and class conflict. He moves effortlessly between a huge range of racialised areas of public life – popular culture, the sports and entertainment industries, the mass media, policing and the criminal justice system, education – using his background as a microcosm of the global historical forces across the last couple of centuries that have brought us to where we are now. He often starts with incidents from his own life, as a typical black kid growing up in London in a single-parent family, and works from there, to look at the hows and whys of the experiences that he had in their socio-economic and historical context. It really works.
He argues, cogently, that ‘race’ is a social construct rather than a biological one, that it’s relative rather than essential, and takes apart prejudices and lazy thinking on race with gusto. From legal and religious justifications for slavery, and pseudo-scientific theories of racial classification, to the toxic stereotypes that consequently remain embedded in western thinking, his analysis is clear, well-evidenced and absolutely compelling.
The book is about class as much as race however, and the distribution of power and opportunity that entails. He writes from a specifically working-class viewpoint, inseparable from his racial heritage, taking on capitalism, gentrification and social status. In an age where identity politics are everything and social class is seen as old hat, this was truly refreshing.
His great strength is delving into contradictions: in his own life, in western thinking and public policy on race, liberal and less liberal attitudes, action and inaction, pride and shame. His personal openness coupled with huge range of research material give this real weight and nuance. If the book has a weakness it’s the partial view of empire: it’s far from a comprehensive overview. He writes from a British-Jamaican viewpoint, and the focus is on the African and Caribbean element of the empire, which is fine – but the subtitle is misleading (over which the author may not have had a say, I appreciate – the double meaning in title is very well-chosen though).
Akala has done a truly admirable job of assembling a gigantic amount of research, data, memoir, analysis and polemic into such a coherent tome. It takes real skill to control and balance such diverse material and bring it together meaningfully and readably. His personal reference points give the book internal logic and emotional resonance – memories of (and still) being stopped and searched, well-intentioned but appalling remarks from teachers, childhood friends and relatives starting to carry knives, the overt and subliminal messages about what a boy in his position could expect from life – contextualised in empire, endemic racism and the class system.
Really good stuff, and for anyone wanting a readable introduction to the contradictory and dubious attitudes that pervade popular discourse on race in the UK, highly recommended.