Anti-racism is a struggle from below
In the age of the post-racial – of colourblindness and post-apartheid, an Obama presidency and majority rule – racist expression continues to proliferate. How is it that citizens of modern states, sometimes as agents of the state themselves, so readily engage in racist expression and practice?
One response is this, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the Eichmann trial: racisms constitute thoughtlessness in the Arendtian sense of failing to exercise (self-)reflective critical judgment.
Those expressing themselves in racist ways and engaging in racist acts lack critical and indeed self-critical imagination, refusing or failing to take account of the other as having equal standing; they are an ignorant or arrogant refusal to consider conditions beyond one’s own.
Racisms, it could be said, are narcissisms: nihilistic self-regard of especially extreme kinds.
There is, to follow Arendt’s line, a banality to much racism, the shocking ordinariness of its everyday occurrences and the ordinariness with which its culture of shock has come to be received, to the point of oversight, neglect, a shrug. The shocking quality is buried in the ordinary, everyday, unresisting acceptance of the reduction of people to data points in the schedule of instrumental operation.
The logic of this failure to think is of a demoralising piece with the making-thinkable to contemporary political purpose of drone strikes or demeaning racist jokes or hostile and unreasonable treatment of migrants.
The unthinking of racisms (as opposed to their un-thinking, their un-doing or un-making) renders populations and individual people disposable, nuisances to be destroyed or removed (“removal”, of course, having special resonance in apartheid history). Racisms reduce the conditions of thinking in so far as they undermine the critical judgment underpinning the relation between individual and collective belonging.
Anti-racism must be conceived as a set of dispositions and commitments and an ongoing process. It is not reducible to a singular event, not We Are the World, Live Aid or Durban 2001, for that matter; not just the United Nations Statements on Race, the Freedom Charter or the Civil Rights Law, as important as the last three might be.
It is, by contrast and at the very least, the abolition, anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and civil rights movements that produced these progressive plateaus in the processes of anti-racist struggle.
Anti-racisms require renewed, persistent, historically concretised interventions to sustain and extend the benchmarks of critical socialities, not stricken by racist arrangements, structures or outbursts.
The work of anti-racism, as we now know all too well, is not over when we all sing We Shall Overcome or Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, when Nelson Mandela or Barack Obama are elected, or Palestinians achieve statehood, even one with Israel. Anti-racism requires not just being against the existing and past forms of racist expression but doing so in the name of an affirming set of ideals of what a society truly not driven by racial consideration in any way would look like.
Anti-racialism, by contrast, seeks to end racial reference. It tends to be a politics from dominance, seeking to hang on to its social standing or force, or to extend itself. It commits itself to erasing the evidence of racisms, to silencing the ghosts rather than addressing structures, deeds and effects. Racisms are persistent (even as they morph in kind) and are processes of establishment or revival, persistence and renewal, requiring, in contrast to the merely anti-racial, anti-racist commitments equal to the vigour of racisms and attendant to the specificities of their expression.
The nonracial tends, even in its grammar, to signify a condition, a retrospective state of being in contrast to that from which it has taken its contrast. The anti-racist, by contrast, is expressive of an ongoing engagement, presentist in prospective, processual, active, indeed activist, rather than passive in disposition.
By contrast, racial anti-racism concerns the need to enable racial identification to recognise those targeted by racist orderings and to offset their debilitating effects. Without deploying race as identifier of the wronged and the appropriate referent for rectification, individual or collective, the durable conditions of racist arrangement would deepen.
So racial anti-racism might take the form of affirmative action or racially based reparations. Here racial invocation or identification is pragmatic, a somewhat paradoxical or enigmatic means to social life beyond the limiting conditions of the racial.
Historically, nonracial anti-racisms have tended to stress individual rights above group rights or claims, placing the emphasis on the nonracial rather than the anti-racisms. They have tended to elevate concerns about racial definition and characterisation above racist subjugation and oppression, debilitation and exclusion, perhaps on the assumption that racial reference inevitably gives rise to racist implications.
But there is no inherent necessity to the devolution from the racial to the racist – it at least remains an open question whether racial invocation inherently produces racist inevitability.
In any case, the presumption of inevitability is depressingly pessimistic: if effectively addressing racisms requires pragmatically taking up the terms of subjugation to push back at, critically address or redress their impacts the claim that inherent devolution from racial invocation to racist extension keeps us bound by racist inevitability until even descriptive racial reference is socially excised.
It is worth insisting, against this pessimism (of the intellect) a more optimistic wilfulness that different contexts require appropriate critical responses specific to conditions. These responses build analytic insight and engaged interventions from coalitional formations specific to the concern at hand.
Against the pessimism of anti-racialism, there is a long if varied tradition of commitments to resisting the exploitative and oppressive conditions of racial subjugation, for instance, in the struggles of black consciousness, here and elsewhere. These struggles take “black”, as Steve Biko put it, not as a matter of “pigmentation” but of “mental attitude”, of critical disposition. This is the first step, he insisted, towards “emancipation” from subjugation and “subservience”.
Anti-racisms, then, most effectively tend to be a politics from below, a critical coalitional politics of insurgency and unsettlement.
Anti-racism is usually thought of as undoing or reversing the political economy of racial sovereignty, superiority and supremacy. Less often, there is a call to derail the social ontology and architecture of racial classification, and the social ordering and positioning they establish and sustain, which are building blocks of racisms’ constitution.
But if anti-racisms are to be sustainably effective, they must seek to undercut “thoughtlessness” more compellingly, to cultivate thinking cultures of engaged critique of the histories of racist exclusion and humiliation, imposed death and life’s foreshortening, disincentive and lack of opportunity for those racially maligned.
They call for making more heterogeneous not just the imagination but also those who are contributing to social transformation, depurifying its subject matters and modes of being, and proliferating their sites, styles and subjects of engagement and possibility.
Anti-racisms today, then, assertively refuse the reproduction of contemporary racisms. They refuse to take for granted that the spiralling inheritance of inequality, reproduced debilitation and (the threat of) persistent premature death, the deepening oligarchic imbalances of power, and the overlooked inaccessibilities and injustices of the everyday, are somehow naturalised and ahistorical inevitabilities and irreversibilities.
One could say, as a general matter, that anti-racialism is a commitment principally to end racial reference, whereas anti-racism is a commitment to ending the conditions materially and conceptually producing and reproducing racially predicated injustice.
Is it possible, we should ask, to be nonracial in a society historically constituted and continuing to exist today as multiracial, and on what terms? The question remains whether there is a compelling critical conception of the nonracial, of a truly raceless society – of a sociality beyond the skin and all it is tied up with; of the nonracial as a set of commitments that, though critical of, are not so narrowly bounded by the histories of race and racisms; of conditions that enable life after racisms unbounded by their regulations and constraints.
Can we articulate a conception of freedom, of emancipated life for which race is a history lesson? And can we conceive of a robust nonraciality open to, indeed representative of, a wide-ranging set of lived formations that make up our worlds today?
David Theo Goldberg is the author of Sites of Race and the director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute. This is an edited version of a paper given at the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism. For more, go to jwtc.org.za