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The Making of a Discourse of Race

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Abstract

‘I discern two sorts of inequality in the human species’, wrote Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality. The first was ‘natural or physical’ which pertained to biological differences between individuals — ‘differences in age, health, strength of body and qualities of the mind and soul’. The second type of inequality was that between social groups. This, Rousseau argued, was ‘moral or political inequality’ which was ‘established, or at least authorised, by the consent of men.’ ‘Such inequality’, he wrote, ‘consists of the different privileges that some enjoy to the prejudice of others — such as their being richer, more honoured, more powerful than others, and even getting themselves obeyed by others.’1 One way to understand the narrative of race is as the story of how the second type of inequality became reduced to the first — in other words, how social inequalities became regarded as natural ones. It is through the conflation of social and natural inequality that the contradiction between the universalist ideology of capitalist society and the particularist reality of capitalist social relations becomes grasped in the discourse of race.

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Notes and References

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© Kenan Malik 1996

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