Max du Preez

The race debate

2009-09-02 08:59

So we're having a full-on race debate - again. May it be extremely fruitful.

Our nation is riddled with bigotry. It stands in the way of us being more successful and of being a happier society.

But before we roll in the muck of self-pity and victimhood, let me assure you we are not necessarily more racist than other societies.

The countries of the former Eastern Europe, for instance, are hotbeds of racism. I spent four weeks in the Balkan states late last year and the hatred among communities towards each other, and all of them towards the Romani people (Gypsies) and others with dark skins is palpable.

Yesterday I watched a BBC World news item on the physical attacks on black people in Russia that have become a daily occurrence.

But that is small consolation. Our history and demography demand that we deal with racism as a priority.

I agree with Marianne Thamm when she wrote in this space yesterday, "What amazes me most about contemporary white racism is how casual it is."

Marianne was also spot on when she wrote that if you wanted proof of what she meant, "you scroll down to the comments section after this column". Too many people see the internet as a license to publicise their basest opinions.

I am further amazed that the only contribution so many intelligent white people can make to the debate on racism is to say, "But look, blacks are racists too".

I am saddened that too many senior black politicians, business people, sports leaders and even judges blatantly use race and racism to cover up their own inadequacies and failures.

I believe it is healthy for us to debate the racism question again now, but not if it is simple a slanging match between angry and/or insecure white and black people.

Sadly, the political leadership we have right now is spectacularly incapable of giving direction to any national discourse.

My thoughts therefore went back about 18 months to a speech US president Barack Obama made on race and racism in the US. I have never heard a politician make more sense on this issue.

Obama was reacting to what he called "incendiary language" by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who had expressed views "that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike".

Obama said Wright's mistake - and doesn't this sound familiar? - was "to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality".

Obama said to understand the present tensions and inequalities, one needed a reminder of past practices.

Here are some excerpts from his speech applicable to our situation:

"Segregated schools were and are still inferior and help explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

"Legalised discrimination meant blacks couldn't own property or get bank loans, which meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists.

"A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families.

"For all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.

"That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch.

"They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labour. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighbourhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

"But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

"For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans - the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives.

"In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realise that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

"In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us."

That was Barack Obama.

Imagine South Africa with a president who talks to his people like that.

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