To fight racism, let’s agree on what it is

2015-03-17 14:00

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Over the past decade, there have been clear links between racism, xenophobia and our socioeconomic crisis, the result of a fiercely competitive struggle for limited and diminishing resources, within and between racial groups and classes.

Since this has been the trend, we must not be surprised by more racism and xenophobia in future, especially in our turbulent global economy and amid the futile denials by government that attacks on foreigners are xenophobic.

Countrywide, in all areas of society, racism and xenophobia have worryingly, but not surprisingly, increased.

Such trends have made people’s personal, cultural, religious and social identities, and subjectivities stronger. When the external world grows cold and harsh, we tend to turn inwards defensively. These are the inevitable personal, psychological and social consequences that affect class, unemployment and the economy.

What we are learning about the persistence of racism worldwide – but especially here – is that the deeply and highly inequitable capitalist economic structure, with which racism has had a largely symbiotic relationship, continues after the removal of racist laws and is the root cause of social injustices.

Firstly, we need to have a debate about what we mean by racism. This has long been contested terrain among scholars.

A commonly acceptable definition that can withstand scientific scrutiny is what we need to strive for in public debates, without which progress in identifying and combating racism will remain limited, flawed and diffused.

How many times have we encountered whites denying that a particular view, act or attitude was racist and blacks insisting it was – or vice versa?

But to achieve a commonly accepted definition will not be easy, given the historical chasm that separates the lived experiences of whites and blacks, and a lack of scientific understanding of race and racism – not only among whites, but blacks too.

We must be careful to avoid a schematic racial stance that grants blacks – the victims of multiple forms of racism – infallible correctness in their understanding and contentions about racism, and whites – perceived as the perpetrators of racism – no right to differ with the views of blacks, lest that be construed as racist.

Race and racism are complex matters, and not even the brutal racism under apartheid can make blacks the sole and unquestionable arbiters of racism.

The danger of such an approach is it will lead inevitably to a racial hierarchical custodianship of racism. Africans, the most oppressed by racism, will become the ultimate authority on racism. Coloureds will be next in line.

Then Indians and, thereafter, English-speaking whites. Last will be white Afrikaners. But such an approach would be ridiculous and unscientific. For example, I know both black and white race theorists who are both poor and good on the topic.

This and many other examples will show that any kind of binary race-based approach to both understanding and combating racism will not only fail miserably, but would be retrogressive.

What this means is that when the Freedom Charter states that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, it must also mean that all the people of this country should participate, with equal rights, in all the debates about our past, present and future.

The topic of racism must be no exception to this elementary democratic, nonracial and antiracist precept. As hard as it is, the highly emotive topics of racism and xenophobia should be discussed dispassionately.

That is the challenge, especially when you see that the very people who suffered most from racism kill and maim Africans from other parts of Africa, even though they have every right to come to live in this country in the hope of a better life. Is that not xenophobic racism?

Secondly, closely linked to this matter is the question of whether blacks can be racist.

This is an important question in the struggle to understand and combat racism. That blacks cannot by nature be racist is a mistaken, misguided, deluded and unscientific view peddled by the likes of Andile Mngxitama.

He has been unable to adduce any coherent theory or verifiable data to back up this nonsensical claim.

Such a view is premised on the wrong belief that because racism and capitalism were largely mutually beneficial and racism was historically a material force of dispossession, oppression and exploitation, it necessarily follows that blacks cannot be racist.

But if a black person today says he hates whites, that would undoubtedly be racist, no matter what happened under apartheid.

And if African people in Cape Town dislike or hate coloured people because many or most of them did not vote for the ANC, that would be racist too.

A more informed and nuanced view recognises that though the structural links between racism and capitalism are compelling, the relationship remains contingent, conjunctural and even contradictory, at times, in the final analysis.

Besides, not all racist views are necessarily anchored in power relations.

There are many examples to show this truth. Poor people, who lack power, both politically and economically, can and have had racist views.

Some of the poorest coloured people in Cape Town – many, in fact, materially poorer than some African people in Langa and Gugulethu – are terribly racist towards African people.

A more intelligent approach in instances where complexities do not easily or readily allow a racist description is to acknowledge the difficulty and tread cautiously, rather than jump to conclusions.

This is especially the case where instances of racism are subliminal and subtle, rather than obvious and overt. To detect and identify such instances is difficult.

But a study of racism certainly makes it clear that it is not the preserve of only white people and it must be examined at the various levels of ideology, attitudes, actions and practices.

In fact, it is ironically arguable that the very view that blacks cannot be racist is itself racist, depending again on definition. But to hold such a view is as mistaken as its corollary that all whites are racist. There are exceptions to both views.

Finally, racism can and has had, in many instances, an explanation and life of its own, independent of capitalist or other overt power relations.

Harvey is a political writer, commentator and author 

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