The flip side of the race card

Thabo Mbeki lived in something of a racial hell, his skin constantly rubbed raw by the devils of colonialism and apartheid. It was evident in so much that he wrote and said — perhaps most devastatingly in his approach to HIV/Aids, where his belief that the western discourse on the disease was fundamentally racist led directly to a policy that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

He tried to keep us all there with him, but our failure to find a way out is our own. We could have rejected his paranoia by finding other ways to engage with the race theme, but instead we escaped to the dishonest safety of multiracial coffee shops, bookstores, conference circuits, liberal media and restaurant tables filled with patrons of all skin colours talking about everything but the race question.

If nothing else, the Jacob Zuma presidency gives us the space to have the national conversation we never had. We can now lay the foundation for this overdue, but still very much needed, national debate.

We imagined a non-racial ideal as an alternative to Mbeki’s racial hell. Yet, this love affair with non-racialism is misplaced. And, to be fair to Mbeki, non-racialism precedes him. The Madiba euphoria had already instilled in us a preference for watching reruns of the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory over uncomfortable national conversations that might spoil the rainbow bliss.

First, we need to make distinctions more carefully. Sometimes we use the terms racialism and racism synonymously. This is a mistake. Racism is prejudice based on the racial features, perceived or real, of a group. It is inherently value-laden, involving the judgment that some groups are intrinsically less worthwhile than oneself. They are morally inferior. Racialism, on the other hand, simply means that general differences between groups, most obviously phenotypical features such as skin colour and hair texture, are real. Racialism is not inherently value-laden. This distinction is important.

In fact, the terms non-racialism and post-racialism are themselves in need of meatier definition. Presumably they refer to a colour-blind society in which we beautifully judge each other on the content of our characters, and not, Allah forbid, phenotypic and other differences. Race is assigned to the dustbin of history. Do I then become oblivious to someone’s blond hair and blue eyes in the same way I hardly register that they are wearing a blue top? It is critical that we define the terms of engagement before pretending to be on the same wavelength on substantive issues.

Once these conceptual distinctions are clarified, the first issue we would need to debate is the biology of race. Is race real, biologically speaking? Or, is it a social construction? Does it matter either way? Janet Radcliffe, for example, has argued that, morally, little turns on whether or not Darwinian descriptions of our behaviour are true. As long as we can reflect on what we ought to do, and act consistently with our reflective judgment, we could defy our predispositions.

Similarly, is it necessary that we abandon social constructions of race if race categories are biologically fraudulent? After all, social constructions may be innocuous, and even positive. Interracial relationships are probably partly satisfying because the Naidoo and Dlamini families can revel in and explore their cultural, linguistic and, yes, racial differences. The possibility of race categories being biologically fraudulent has often been used to justify racialism’s undesirability. Clearly, the debate about biology’s significance is way more complex.

The second critical issue to puzzle through is the difference between racism and racialism. Racism seems a moral non-starter. Arbitrary discrimination, based on any trait, including race, is irrational, and morally pernicious. But is racialism obviously flawed in the same way? Does the mere recognition of differences — even where those differences reflect mere social constructions — involve judgments of moral gradation between human beings?

In fact, is it even possible to be blind to differences? Is it not disingenuous to even try to construct a post-racial ideal? It is not even clear that post-racialism really is the logical opposite of racism. Racialism, for example, could persist even where we agree that racial prejudice, which is the real enemy, should be rooted out. These headache-inducing questions are too neatly avoided when we give way to our desire to keep the possibility of a grand, unproblematic national identity alive.

Third, can we construct a new society based on substantive equality between all its citizens by adopting a race-neutral language when crafting policies to get us to such a society? Perhaps not. How, for example, could one transform the boardroom, and the broader economy, by crafting race-neutral policies? It is a lie to imagine that class-sensitive strategies will suffice in rooting out institutional and social racisms. Can we really expect poor black folks, for example, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even when they don’t have boots, let alone the straps that come with the package? And, when we distribute bootstraps for free can we do so pretending we are not targeting poor, black people in particular?

A question about both black and white folks’ agencies also lurks in the background. Can we challenge black folks’ role in sustaining their own victimhood without, at the very least, addressing them — and each other — in nominal racial terms? You can only workshop agency with the black workers at the University of the Free State by explicitly saying to them: “You must be proud to be black, and not think these mlungu boys are better than you!” We need to debate the instrumental usefulness of racialism in the policy arena.

We need to take stock of our misdirected responses to the question of race. We must untangle ourselves from the Mbeki legacy by snatching the race debate from the lengthening shadows around his legacy.

Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a joint initiative of Rhodes University and University of Johannesburg

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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