One day blacks will lay claim to race discourse

2014-06-24 10:00

In September 1921, my granduncle Henry Tyamzashe wrote an article titled Why Have You Educated Me? in the journal South African Outlook.

Lamenting the exclusion of educated black people from the professions, he wrote: “Of the many promising men, thus trained, who have gone out into the world to make a living, some can be traced who are more or less usefully occupied – but sad to relate, the majority are not now engaged in the trades they learnt.

“Many of the latter are to be found on the Rand and in other places, where they live riotous and degraded lives, associating with the lowest class, and even with criminals.”

The irony of speaking so disparagingly about workers escaped this leading member of Clements Kadalie’s Independent Industrial Commercial Union and editor of The Workers Herald. But that was the general attitude of the Victorian black elite who led the struggle in those days.

Tyamzashe was not the first or the last to experience the anomie that comes with the glass ceiling of racism, or what the US author Ellis Cose calls “middle class rage”.

Despite his status as the most prominent black man in the 19th century, Tiyo Soga’s experiences of racism in the Cape turned him into a black consciousness radical.

The black middle class delusion that they were separate from the rest of the community came to an end when they were removed from the voters’ roll in the Cape.

Then they realised their “race” bound them to their people.

Class could not exhaust the experience of race, as the ANC Youth League of Anton Lembede, AP Mda and Robert Sobukwe argued in the 1940s and Steve Biko argued in the 1970s.

In 1994, the black middle class committed the same historical error as their Victorian predecessors. They moved into the suburbs and began enjoying the high life.

In the meantime, their gains were being pulled from under their feet as whites regained the intellectual initiative to redefine the meaning of race. It was as if Biko and black consciousness never happened.

Malcolm?X described this process during a speech at Harvard in 1964 as follows: “And where white people are concerned, it has been my experience that they are extremely intelligent on most subjects until it comes to race.

“When you come to the racial issue in this country, the whites lose all their intelligence. They become very subjective, and they want to tell us how it should be solved.”

In South Africa, white people are leading the debate on race, abolishing affirmative action where they can.

But as Malcolm?X said, black and white understandings of race are just that – black and white: “But if you’re thinking we are sitting in the same chair or standing on the same platform, you won’t understand what I am talking about. You’d expect me to stand up here and say what you would say. And I’d be out of my mind!”

The continued salience of race was demonstrated in 2009 when the most celebrated black academic in the world, Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr, was arrested by Boston police for breaking into his own house – even as he showed them the pictures on the walls.

Steven Friedman is right when he writes, like many of us have been doing, that “two decades into democracy, black professionals and businesspeople may live vastly better than previous generations but they face the same racial attitudes and sense of exclusion, even if the process is now subtler”.

Except for courageous voices like Friedman’s, many of those on the liberal left at the universities are attempting to banish “race” instead of finding ways to talk about it.

The whole thing is short-sighted and bound to backfire when the black middle classes find solidarity with their people again.

History has interesting ways of repeating itself.

Mangcu is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and an Oppenheimer fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University

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