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Eugene King
 
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The conundrum of the intersection of race and class

23 June 2014, 15:00

For the past couple of days I have been thinking a lot about the issue of racism and how it relates to class divisions. I have come to realise that the class conflict is almost easy to resolve in a racially homogenous society than it does for a racially diverse and racist society like South Africa.

In South Africa, the issue of class divisions and class conflict is not as easy and straight forward to deal with, because race and class directly intersect each other. What makes it even more complex is the fact that the class division here are not organic results of ‘nature’, but the results of prolonged human urgency and human intervention.

It is no secrete in South Africa that lower classes are predominantly African, and the upper classes are predominantly white.

It is very hard, or even impossible, in our current context to make a separation between social hierarchy, and economic hierarchy. It is a given that those who are at the top of the economic hierarchy, will also inevitably be at the top of the social hierarchy.   

The questions that have been occupying my mind lately are these:

1.      Is Capitalism the cause of class divisions?

2.      Is Capitalism the cause of racism?

3.      Does my race precede my class location in my fight for liberation?

These are only a few of many questions that have been burdening my mind lately, and I wrote this piece as an attempt to answer some of them.

Let me try put context to what triggered my reflections here.

I was following a debate/discussion between a close friend of mine and his acquaintance. The central tenet of their debate was, “what comes first in the course of liberation, is it one’s race or one’s class location?”

A Marxist, in his critique of Capitalism would suggest that class precedes race. The argument, according to the Marxist, is that exploitation, the central tenet of Capitalism, is the root cause of racism. In other words, the need to exploit labour for the benefit of capitalistic ends was the cause of racism.

Therefore, according to a Marxist, the biggest enemy on the way is Capitalism. The argument is that race as a social reality exists ONLY in a society where there is contestation for access to resources. Exploitation and oppression arises from a desire of anyone to appropriate the surplus value produced by another, irrespective of race.

Get rid of exploitative Capitalism and you deal a death blow to racism. Class therefore precedes race.

Although I agree with some parts of these analyses, I cannot help but note that for a Black person living in a racist South Africa, the equation is not as straightforward as a Marxist makes it out to be.

The basic assumption of a Marxist is that racism exists only in actions taken and that is where it all begins. In other words, racism only begins the moment there is an opportunity for exploitation.

I would like to argue that racism precedes exploitation. In other words, racism would still exist even if there was no opportunity for exploitation because racism is not merely actions but primarily an attitude. An attitude precedes an action, and an attitude cannot be caused by a tool one uses in that action.

Let me make an example, say I hated the guy who live next door to my house so much so that one day I saw him walking down the street, and then I quickly ran into the house, I pulled out a gun and shot him dead in the street.

What would we say is the root problem in the whole scenario? According to a Marxist, the gun (the tool used) is the main problem here.

I would like to argue that the problem here is not the gun, and it is not even the fact that the guy was walking down the street, but the problem is with the person in whom hate exist. In other words, an attitude precedes both the action taken, and the tools used.

In the same manner, a racist attitude precedes both racist actions and the tool/s by which that is carried out (i.e. Capitalism and all other exploitative systems) to achieve its ends, namely socio-economic domination.

The problem of racism is not Capitalism (the tool), and it is not even the objects of racism, but it rests squarely with the individual who carries it. Racialised Capitalism is therefore simply a physical manifestation of an already existing condition.

I have learned over the years that people who feel that they lack something, who have a low sense of self, always see the need to overcompensate for that. A bully at the school’s play ground is not an evidence of inner strength, but evidence of inner weakness that requires overcompensation. In the same manner, a racist is a racist because of inner inferiority complex, not because of Capitalism.

It is therefore very impossible for me to completely agree with Marxists that my class location (a social construct of exploitation) precedes the question of my skin colour in the course of liberation.

 However, I agree with the tool Marxism gives me to collapse the tool racism used/uses to build the superstructure of white supremacy, namely the collapse of Capitalism.

Going back to the example I gave earlier, simply taking the gun away from me (the tool I used to manifest my already existing attitude) will not deal with my hatred, but what it will do is take away the tool from me, and my neighbour would just walk past and all I can do is simply look at him and wallow in my hatred.

In the same manner, collapsing capitalism will not end racial hatred, because it is not the cause thereof, but it will take away the tool racism has used, it will collapse the power structures and end the arrogance of racism.

In conclusion let me just put it this way; African people have over the years been abused and exploited not because exploitation exists, but because of an already existing attitude which simply uses exploitation as a tool.

Therefore for Africans, our skin colour precedes our class location in the course of our liberation. We have to first and of primary importance liberate ourselves as Africans by removing a tool used for our oppression.

Follow Eugene on Twitter @geno_brown 

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