Race debate needs to enter more productive terrain


I read with great enthusiasm Eusebius McKaiser’s ‘Race debate elicits fatal fallacies‘. Finally, I thought, someone has expressed the deep frustration that often overwhelms me when I engage in the topic of race on public forums.

McKaiser is right to chastise both race denialists and race essentialists and I hope his firmly worded points have reached both sides of the divide. Nonetheless, his injunction to navigate the murky waters of complexity can only be seen, in my view, as a momentary step along the path of a more difficult process.

Clarity is needed

We urgently need to pierce through the clouds and arrive at clarity. I say this not to support the knee-jerk responses to societal problems that McKaiser rightly rebukes, but rather to stress that the severity of our problems demands an immediate response. And a precise response is better than a muddy one.

It is not necessary to go into too much detail but a few reminders might suffice: we live in the most unequal society in the world, millions among us are unemployed, our state institutions are plagued by corruption, and gender-based violence and discrimination, along with seemingly never-ending racial tensions, typify our social life.

Things are complex and they are at breaking point.

In matters of race, it is true that the terrain is not as simple as either the reductionists or the denialists make it out to be. But to resolve racial and other injustices in our society, we must understand both their sources and their appropriate remedies. This takes our thinking, with the help of McKaiser’s throat-clearing exercise, into productive terrain.

How, indeed, are we to deal with racial inequalities? Well, it depends on what generates them.

Part of the problem is plain discrimination. In our social lives, racism sticks with us. Its presence is a consequence of inherited attitudes and prejudices that have not been dispatched, more than two decades into democracy.

Individual instances of discrimination need to be called out and dealt with. Moreover, the more slippery to grasp — yet just as insidious — underhanded racism that stalks the corridors of our lives needs to be exorcised. We can do both by applying relentless pressure to change our psychocultural landscape.

Yet discrimination, systemic or individual, is only one — and a limited one at that — way of understanding racialised inequality in post-apartheid South Africa.

Nuanced race, class analysis

McKaiser rightly chastises a class analysis that attempts to explain away racism by pointing to someone’s position on the income scale as the overriding factor informing their social experience. This is a woeful disavowal of the obvious racism felt by black people, regardless of the size of their wallets. I can think of countless examples in my own personal life. Class analysis in this vein is denialism feigning at being analysis.

Yet a productive class analysis will demonstrate exactly how our current economic system produces inequality. This inequality will, naturally, be racialised because of the predominance of black people in the population and the discriminatory laws of the past.

It is now common cause, even within the walls of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, that neoliberal capitalism is a grossly unequal system. Neoliberalism has increased inequality between and within nations, and has hollowed out moral and productive human relationships in a stubborn pursuit of the commodification of every detail of social life.

In addition, the aftermath of the latest global economic crisis has led to a surge in right-wing ethnic and racial nationalism across the Global North — from the United States to Italy and in certain countries, including South Africa and India, in the Global South.

Radical economists have always been ready to point out the destructive nature of capitalism, yet the point recently reached the mainstream after the post-Keynesian economist Thomas Piketty published his Capital in the 21st Century.

Piketty opens the book by presenting the Marikana massacre as an apostate depiction of the distributional conflicts and startling inequality of the neoliberal era. Marikana can, indeed, be taken as a microcosm of South African society as a whole.

If we want to deal with the manifestations of racial inequality in this country, we cannot be limited to tackling lingering prejudice and discrimination. We must address the class inequalities that emerge under our current economic conditions. These inequalities will, moreover, reproduce themselves regardless of the number of black people who fill boardrooms and corporate offices.

Demographic changes will not deal with the source of racialised class inequalities because, simply put, prejudice is not the only cause of the vast disparities that typify our social landscape — exploitation makes up a fairly sizeable chunk of that, too. This point, I hope, hints at a more nuanced race-plus-class analysis that is generally missing from our social discourse.

We should, of course, be aware of the different lived experiences of the black middle and working class. This is an important observation, but we can also press a sociological point here. We should be alert to the fact that the institutional rules and structural limitations of our economic system makes it such that the economic activity of the elite may be detrimental to the interests of the black working class if those very institutions are not reshaped in more equitable directions. And, indeed, there are powerful incumbent interests that will resist that reshaping.

Disagreements persist

Yet even after all of this, even if we are clear about the causes of inequalities and their remedies in our society, there are still profound normative and political disagreements between us. Some black people are racial nationalists. Their version of racial justice therefore doesn’t sit well with me or other nonracialists, even if we share a common experience of racism. I believe we need to be clear about that.

Having experienced, as McKaiser has done, the often jaw-dropping race essentialism that typifies engagements on racial injustice today, I am of the view that many who state that race is socially constructed actively choose to behave and think as if it has biological or metaphysical grounding. Many do so not for mere strategic reasons, as some will tell you, but because they envisage a future “utopia” in which racial categories remain alive. I cannot reconcile myself with that societal vision nor with the politics that it entails.

Alas, I believe that it is dominating the airwaves. Unfortunately, I also believe, as Karen and Barbara Fields point out in their brilliant book Racecraft, that this thinking is somewhat sustained, even if inadvertently, by those of us who on the one hand accept the arbitrariness of race, yet on the other hand propagate reified and essentialist concepts — black or white “epistemologies”, racial “subjectivities”, racial “ways of being” — into our common discourse.

Towards humanist politics

So, yes, we should abandon the race essentialist-race denialist dichotomy. But we urgently need to move towards refining our understanding of the multilayered causes behind structural and racialised inequality.

In addition, those of us who subscribe to nonracial politics should find our voice. We have had two decades of “rainbowism” masquerading as reconciliation. That era is over, and rightfully so. But it is time we give new energy and militancy to a substantive humanist politics that would take on the mantle of realising racial and social justice without slipping into racial nationalism or the politics of indigeneity.

If this task is not undertaken, I fear that our social discourse, and our politics, will slide progressively into an abyss from which we may not return.

Michael Nassen Smith, the deputy director of the Institute for African Alternatives, is pursuing a doctorate in economics at the University of Johannesburg. These are his own views

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