White vs black privilege. An intellectual response to Zille’s charge

Helen Zille during a rally in Port Elizabeth earlier this month. Picture: Theo Jeptha
Helen Zille during a rally in Port Elizabeth earlier this month. Picture: Theo Jeptha

This past week, social media was abuzz with Helen Zille’s comment on black privilege.

In her usual style, Zille was defiant that her argument has merits and should be heard.

It is difficult for any reasonable person to ignore Zille’s comment.

On May 17, Zille was replying to a tweet that mentioned white privilege. She wrote:

“Well you clearly don’t understand black privilege. It is being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected. If people want permanent poverty for the masses they are going about it the right way. #BlackPrivilege.”

I would like to offer an intellectual response to her charge.

On the outset, I’d like to point out that Zille’s comment is not a thesis, it is an antithesis.

In other words, she emotionally responded to accusations of the vagaries of white privilege.

This emotional foundation casts some shadows on the intentions of the argument.

Zille’s argument suggest that the faults levelled against white supremacy, expressed in form of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, are at most exaggerated, at least unfounded.

She then defends such an argument by posting a moral equivalence of white privilege with what she refers to as “black privilege”.

If we take privilege to mean “a special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste”, then we could hold a reasonable debate about white privilege versus Zille’s idea of black privilege.

On a basic level, we claim that all men (and women) are created equal, without special privileges or rights.

But we know this exists only in theory. The society at large does not function as the written law determines.

There are informal laws which govern social and economic relationships more powerfully than judicial systems.

Because of the social constructs projected to different racial groups, we act in affirmation of such biases every time we interact with a person of a particular race.

In our world of social constructs, if an employer is faced with two unemployed individuals with similar qualifications, one black and one white, the white candidate will be preferred – even by black employers.

Whether they will be employed or not could be a matter of legislation, but this does not replace the race based preference and consequently, the self-esteem of the individual whose preference is not earned, it is simply imputed.

My point is this: there is a psychological merit, a social wage as it were, paid out to a white citizen the world over, and at the same time, a social wage deducted from a black citizen the world over every time there is a transactional exchange.

These social constructs dictate that we trust white citizens more, we respect them more, we believe in their judgment more. In other words, we pay them wages (we allocate a certain value to them) for being white.

Ostensibly, we tend to distrust black people more, we tend to disrespect them more, we tend to verify what a black person says more.

In our world of social constructs, we do not make judgement on the basis of what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to as Ding an sich (the thing in itself).

That is, the essence of a person. We instead consider objects (and people) merely by our socially biased perception of their appearances.

Thus, if human beings were goods in the market, and if we employed a barter trade system to purchase these goods, whites would still hold a higher value in the mind of the buyer (black or white).

We might not buy these goods at all, but the mere fact that we have an inherent bias in favour of one and against another, without any rational analysis, the privileges and disadvantages are respectively imputed and not earned, as already pointed out above.

What about corruption as black privilege?

The word corruption is an immoral term. It has the following as its synonyms: dishonesty, dishonest dealings, unscrupulousness, deceit, deception.

All these refer to action. You need to “do something” to qualify as a corrupt person.

What Zille seems to suggest is that the society allows black people to conduct acts of corruption, as a social right. By any stretch of imagination, this is an irrational argument.

The same society that deposits social wages to a white citizen and withdraws social wages from a black person, will also withdraw some social wages from any corrupt person, black or white.

There are no privileges accorded to a corrupt person in any civilised society. If we argue as such, we grossly miscarry the meaning of privilege.

Notwithstanding, a black corrupt citizen is seen as consistent with the expected behaviour, while a corrupt white citizen is seen as a betrayer to a moral (white) social system.

There are legislative privileges offered to black South Africans in the form of affirmative action.

Even then, this legislative affirmation cannot be referred to as a privilege in the actual meaning of the term.

The object of such legislation is to equalise, not to provide extra-equal merit, which is the real meaning of privilege.

Zille’s argument is drifting into dangerous waters. It is not only irrational, it is also politically poisonous.

It is intellectually inconsistent and serves to harden far right and far positions already emerging in the South African society. The rational choice is to row away from such direction.

Musyoka is an associate researcher (Development Economist) based at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

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