So pervasive is this ambiguity that even anti-racists have fallen prey to it. Under the guise of promoting "multiculturalism", "pluralism" and "diversity", anti-racists have become increasingly equivocal about the idea of equality. Far from objecting to the pigeon-holing of people according to their race, many anti-racists now prefer to celebrate the differences between peoples. Where in the past the struggle for equal rights may have meant campaigns against immigration laws or against segregation, today it means campaigns for separate schools, demands to use different languages, the insistence on maintaining particular cultural practices.
For some the very idea of equality is discredited. The black American critic Bell Hooks observes that in the past progress was measured "by the degree to which black people gained equal access to material opportunities and privileges available to whites - jobs, housing, schooling etc". It was a mistaken strategy, Hooks claims, because such "ideas of 'freedom' were informed by efforts to imitate the behaviour, lifestyles and most importantly the values and consciousness of white colonisers". In this Alice-in-Wonderland world, equality is seen as enslaving while segregation becomes a mark of freedom.
Not everyone goes as far as Hooks. But even mainstream anti-racists have effectively abandoned the goal of equality for the pursuit of "difference". Take, for instance, the annual report of the Commission for Racial Equality which was published last week. In the introduction to the report, the chairmanHerman Ouseley writes: "Diversity brings value and benefit to the nation." He continues: "We recognise that we are all different, but we tend not to value difference, and are even fearful of it. We fail to understand that acknowledging the differences between people - differences of race, nationality or ethnic background - is not to justify discriminating unfairly between them because of those differences."
But it is not as simple as that. In an equal society, the celebration of diversity would allow us to value different cultural forms or outlooks. But in a society that is profoundly unequal, and which discriminates among its citizens according to their racial or ethnic category, the embrace of differences can only exacerbate already existing in- equalities and provide a justification for such inequalities.
Consider the treatment of Asian youth in places such as Bradford or Tower Hamlets. Mr Ouseley rightly notes that the alienation of such groups is a pressing problem for our society. The answer, he writes, is "to emphasise the positive aspects of Britain's ethnic and cultural diversity". The alienation of Asian youth, however, is not the product of British society failing to value Asian difference; it is, on the contrary, the result of young Asians being treated as "different".
Young Asians have mores and attitudes barely different from their white peers. Few attend mosque or temple; most eat meat, drink alcohol, have sex. They wear Joe Bloggs, listen to Ice-T, watch Speed, stick posters of Ian Wright or Michael Jackson on their bedroom walls. From Apache Indian to Hanif Kureishi, they have helped to shape contemporary youth culture.
Yet Asians are not accepted as truly belonging here. To a generation that feels itself British, the pain of exclusion is felt that much more acutely. What young Asians resent is not the failure of British society to treat them differently but the fact that British society does treat them differently.
In stressing the "difference" of Britain's Asian communities, the likes of Mr Ouseley and the CRE deepen the fissures and fractures that separate Britain's minority communities from the rest of society and entrench their sense of alienation. Indeed many young Asians have turned their backs on "Western" values and embraced Islam largely because they are disenchanted with the refusal of British society to acknowledge them as equal citizens. The celebration of differences will not create a more equal society. But the failure to ensure equality will surely lead to a more fragmented, differentiated and alienated nation.
The irony in anti-racists' concern with difference and diversity is that they mirror the arguments of racial thinkers. At the heart of all racial theories is a hostility to the idea that we can overcome the differences that separate us to create a more equal society.
Racial theories arise from the need to explain one of the central contradictions of modern society. Most modern Western societies have a profound belief in, and respect for, equality. Yet it is readily apparent that Western societies are profoundly unequal and that the inequalities stubbornly resist the blandishments of state intervention.
Thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards have tried to square their philosophical attachment to equality with the reality of an unequal society. One answer that has become increasingly commonplace is that inequality is in the nature of things. Society is unequal because the destiny of every social group is linked to intrinsic qualities that each possesses. This attribution of social inequality to the intrinsic qualities of different social groups lies at the heart of all racial thinking. Race provides a means of rationalising inequality in a society that professes a belief in equal rights.
In the 19th century, group differences were generally seen as biological in nature. Today, they are more often than not seen as cultural. As Enoch Powell once put it, "Every society, every nation, is unique. It has its own past, its own story, its own memories, its own ways, its own languages or ways of speaking, its own - dare I use the word - culture."
But whether the differences are seen in biological or cultural ways, the consequences are the same: a justification for inequality. Looking at the world in terms of group differences allows us to treat people not according to their particular qualities as individuals, but according to the imputed qualities of the racial or cultural groups to which they supposedly belong. The American conservative Dinesh D'Souza argues in his controversial new book, The End of Racism, that racism is rational because racists are simply acting on their knowledge of group traits. Cab drivers refuse to pick up blacks because they know that blacks are more likely to be muggers. Police are right to harass young African-Americans because they know that blacks are more likely to commit street crimes than whites. "A bigot," D'Souza writes, is simply "a sociologist without credentials".
It is easy to see why conservatives would wish to pursue arguments about group differences as justification for discriminatory practices. But why have anti-racists so readily embraced the idea of such differences? The answer is a failure of will. The inability of struggles such as the civil rights movement in the United States to transform the lives of the majority of black people has sapped the morale of anti-racists. As the veteran American civil rights activist Derrick Bell has mournfully observed, "We have made progress in everything, yet nothing has changed."
Campaigning for equality means challenging accepted practices, and being willing to march against the grain, as well as believing that social change is possible. Conversely, celebrating differences between peoples requires us to accept society as it is, to accept as given the divisions and inequalities that characterise the world today. The disintegration of the civil rights movement, and elsewhere of liberation movements, has gnawed away at anti-racists' self-belief, and their willingness to take a stand.
The social changes that swept the world over the past decade intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the crumbling of the postwar order and the fragmentation of social movements shattered many of the certainties of the past. In particular they threw into doubt our capacity to change the world for the better. Many anti-racists have responded by abandoning the quest for equality in favour of the claim to a diverse society.
Diversity, however, is no solution. The world is already a diverse place, not because we have consciously made it that way, but because we have failed to overcome the inequalities that currently exist. Like racists, anti-racists have come to believe that inequality is in the nature of things and cannot be changed. Like racists, anti-racists too have come to view the world through racial eyes. The only consequence can be the continued marginalisation, even ghettoisation, of black communities, but this time in the name not of discrimination but of diversity.
Anti-racists' stress on pluralism and diversity is disastrous. We cannot fight racism so long as we continue to view the world through racial eyes. The challenge facing us today is not to embrace "difference" but to transcend the whole language of race and to put the case clearly for equality.
Kenan Malik's book 'The Meaning of Race' will be published next week by MacmillanReuse content