Race and class: Divide and conquer?

In a racist world, it’s nice when people who benefit from racism, such as Samantha Vice, not only recognise it, but also, going beyond the undeniable statistical facts on racial inequality, show insight into the subtle ways in which racial privilege is reinforced; and, even better, stick their necks out in the public domain despite the scorn and ridicule that, inevitably, will be hurled at them.

But I don’t think it’s wise to recommend, as Vice does, that whites should humbly stay in South Africa’s political background and refrain from criticising “those now in power”. This advice, I would venture, would not bother South Africa’s white monopoly capitalists — still the richest people in the country — who seem to have few complaints about “those now in power”. As for less well-off whites who are anti-racist, I can’t see how this advice could legitimately be addressed to them. Here I side with Vice’s left-wing critics.

It would be better (and more consistent) if white South Africans opposed to the continuing racial injustice in their country used their privilege precisely to challenge, in a non-racist way, the economic and social policies of “those now in power” — not just their corruption, but their actual policies — and to join blacks and others engaging in collective struggle against this unjust regime. They should use their privilege to aid these struggles. On this point, Vice would agree, but she says whites should stay in the “background” of these struggles. I’m not sure what that means. If you’re going to aid these struggles, you should make your voice heard without preventing other voices from being heard.

Since 1994, despite the creation of a black middle class and a black elite, the poverty and misery of the black majority has deepened, and whites remain by far the most privileged group. The ANC, with its Western-inspired neoliberal turn (privatisations, cutbacks, a freer hand for both foreign and South African corporations, and so on) which has made life increasingly hellish for the majority, has actually done very little to diminish white privilege. Those white South Africans who are concerned about this should not merely criticise other whites who fail to see the injustice; they should, if they are serious about it, openly challenge the government. Refraining from doing so won’t help; we can be sure of that.

Moreover, they should do this because they oppose both racism and class oppression, just as progressive anti-apartheid whites (such as the assassinated political philosopher, Rick Turner) did, when it was more dangerous to do so. Those post-apartheid black elites who seem to want nothing more than to join the rich white men’s club that continues to be the most privileged ‘racial’ group in the world will, of course, cry ‘racism’ when they are criticised for their ongoing betrayals of the people. That should come as no surprise: what else are they going to say? Ideologically, that’s their only option.

They can’t say: “Yes, we are betraying the majority of our population by doing what the rich Western countries and white capitalists want us to do with our economy, and enriching ourselves in the process, but we think that’s okay.” What they have to do, instead, is to use leftist rhetoric (like Robert Mugabe) to make it look like they are actually working for the people, while using repressive measures against angry and frustrated shack-dwellers and working class people when they rise up, as they have (and increasingly will).

Also, the ANC government has not been averse to using racism and xenophobia as a kind of divide-and-conquer strategy. In this respect, it is no different from any other ruling elite in any other capitalist society with racial and ethnic divisions. Writing in 2009, in an article titled ANC Sows the Seeds of Racial Discord, Trevor Ngwane remarks: “It was naive for any of us to imagine that decades of racism would simply disappear because our country has adopted a democratic Constitution that outlaws racial discrimination.” He describes an incident in Durban where ANC officials stirred up anti-Indian racism to deflect attention from the fact that both working class Indians and blacks were being mistreated by multi-national corporations — whose interests the ANC officials were primarily serving. Ngwane also stresses that the ANC would prefer the masses blaming their problems on non-South African blacks than on the ruling class in South Africa.

If this is indeed the case, as I think it is, Vice’s prescription of political quietism for whites, though it is based on a thoughtful kind of self-scrutiny, seems to me mistaken. The thought seems to be: “We whites have, historically and even to the present day, done terrible things to put the country in the mess it’s in now, a mess from which we disproportionately benefit, so it’s hypocritical for us to criticise black politicians and elites until we clean up our own act.”

Again, I think the self-critical nature of Vice’s reasoning is admirable. But I also think her argument depends on two false assumptions (unwitting assumptions which, I’m sure, Vice would disavow):

  1. that the black elite and the poor black majority are equally victimised by racism, and
  2. that all whites (including poor and working class whites) equally benefit from racism.

Vice would not accept these statements, but my sense is that she misleadingly downplays the class divisions within both the black and white populations; and because she treats race as being somehow more fundamental than class, she does not see how racism functions to serve a system of class domination. And because she does not see that (or focus on it), her battle against white race-blindness is marred by a kind of class blindness.

In general, if we are worried about racism, we should understand that racism does serve certain functions in class-divided, capitalist societies, in South Africa and many other countries. This is not the whole story that needs to be told about racism — I’m not ‘reducing’ race to class or capitalism — but I think it does help us to explain racism’s persistence despite the existence of anti-racist laws and constitutions:

  1. it helps to keep wages down, and thus profits up, if some racial and ethnic groups can systematically be paid less than others for their labour;
  2. racist attitudes and double-standards, sometimes crude, sometimes nuanced and dressed up as ‘free market’ doctrine, serve to rationalise the continuing economic imperialism of the rich capitalist countries of the the global North (mostly white-majority countries); and most importantly,
  3. racism effectively keeps the general population divided (as does sexism) and prevents the kind of class solidarity necessary to make this world a decent place for all.

We need to keep building, not only in South Africa but everywhere, an inter-racial, inter-ethnic, even international class solidarity; and Mvuselele Ngcoya is right to stress, against the temptation of political quietism, that what we don’t need is a kind of “politics of withdrawal that white people are accustomed to the world over.” Whether Ngcoya and I have interpreted Vice correctly is beside the point; what matters is that there is such a temptation among whites, and that it should be resisted.

Chandra Kumar teaches political philosophy at York University in Canada, is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and worked in South Africa from 2002-2008 at University of Pretoria, UKZN, and Rhodes University.

Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. view our special report.

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