A racism lesson for Mayor Plato

Site of struggle: Cape Town mayor Dan Plato fell for racist scare-mongering in posing his questions about the confrontation at Clifton's fourth beach. (Brenton Beach/Gallo)

Site of struggle: Cape Town mayor Dan Plato fell for racist scare-mongering in posing his questions about the confrontation at Clifton's fourth beach. (Brenton Beach/Gallo)

The mayor of Cape Town, as is typical of many Democratic Alliance politicians, seems to be clueless about the nature of racism. After a private security company had chased people away from Clifton’s fourth beach, Dan Plato reportedly asked a rhetorical question in response to racism accusations levelled against the security company: “I am told whites, coloureds and Africans were asked to leave the beach. I’m not sure how true that is but if it is really true then I want to ask the question: Where is racism in that?”

Apparently, racism has to announce itself loudly before it can be said to be real racism.

It is unsurprisingly hard to root out institutional racism, and structural racism more generally, given these kinds of remarks from someone like the mayor.
Let’s be kind, however, and assume that Plato isn’t desperately trying to make the reality of racism disappear in a puff of white Cape Town smoke. Assume, for the sake of productive dialogue, that Plato’s question is well intentioned.

READ MORE: Drawing a line in the sand on racism

The question he poses is both important and not difficult to engage with. Firstly, most racism isn’t overt. No one is going to erect a sign at fourth beach in 2019 that says “Slegs Blankes/Whites Only”. Only the most brazen racist of the Penny Sparrow, Adam Catzavelos and Vicki Momberg kind would be that honest. If we have started to achieve something good in the fight for an anti-racist society, it is the disincentive for racists to be that blunt about their ill will towards people with different skin colours.

Companies and institutions, both public and private, have a similar disincentive to be explicit about institutional and structural forms of racism. These days you will struggle to find a job advertisement that explicitly tells job seekers that only white people may apply for a particular job. To be that blunt about your organisation’s racist culture could swiftly cost you a lot of money and potentially irreparable reputational harm.

This is not to say that explicit racism has been driven into the sea. Words such as “kaffir” continue to be part of too many people’s arsenal.

The point, rather, is that, if the mayor of Cape Town thinks that only explicit racism counts as real racism, then he will conclude very quickly that racism is by and large a minor problem. Which, of course, would be utter balderdash.

Most racism is, in fact, covert. You cannot spot it as easily as you can spot a black eye left on a victim’s face after a racism-fuelled assault.

This means that we need to get a better grip on what is meant by familiar but still poorly understood concepts such as institutional racism and structural racism. What are these? And what are the covert machinations that racists often use to attempt to hide their racism? And, crucially, how do these concepts relate to Plato’s confusion about racism at Clifton?

Racist educational policies the world over provide excellent case studies. You find, for example, that, long after segregated schooling has been declared unlawful, schools often remain segregated. In parts of the United States, for example, segregation can persist for decades after landmark court rulings on educational policy by smuggling racism back into the system lawfully. You can achieve this, for example, by restricting enrolment at local schools to people who live in the area in which the school is located.

A nominal reason for this kind of enrolment policy might be that, for purposes of state planning, the administration of public schools is made easier if parents and guardians are restricted in their choices in this way. But if your neighbourhoods are historically segregated racially then the effect, by design, of your enrolment policy is that you manage to keep black and white kids largely unintegrated, despite progressive case law that has established the educational case for diversity.

In my view, this kind of racism isn’t actually covert but let’s make the racists feel cleverer than they are by pretending that this is sophisticated. For victims of racism, this stuff is actually always overt and not covert.

But, because the language around racism insists on these distinctions, this kind of example is what is meant by phrases such as “implicit racism”, “structural racism” or “covert racism”. It really is just racism.

And, of course, in the example above, the educational inequality between black kids and white kids can be further maintained by also introducing a policy that divvies up public money between schools based on the property value of the area that the schools are in. This can lead to a regressive way of deciding how much to spend in each area and thereby bypassing, again, any liberal jurisprudence to the contrary.

Now let’s get back to the mayor of Cape Town’s well-intentioned but misguided rhetorical question. Just because some wealthy black families may live in historically whites-only areas and some whites might be too poor to live there does not mean that the structure of your geography is no longer racist. It also does not mean that racist policies couched entirely in nonracial language aren’t racist. That is where the balderdash comes in.

Obviously, a white supremacist who hires black security guards to ask black and white people to leave a public beach is well aware that they should not be seen to be covertly racist. They achieve this aim by asking the hired goons to ask everyone on the beach to leave the area.

That, Mr Mayor, isn’t nonracism in action. That is covert racism. The aim is to get black residents of Cape Town away from Clifton. For the white supremacist who hired the security, if that means that a negligible number of their fellow white South Africans must go, then so be it. But the fear factor here has a colour. That colour is black.

Wealthy business and property owners in the area aren’t targeting white South Africans. It is people who look like me that they fear because of the racism that runs in their blood. Plato falls for this. His question is exactly what racists want to hear from a black politician. This is why the question is disappointing in its naivety.

Racism operates on many different levels. Sometimes when we are prejudiced towards a particular group, we sacrifice some of our own so that we can injure the entire group we are targeting. This is also why, even if some of the property owners or business owners in the Clifton area are black, the argument holds. The actions of the private security company are racist even if one of the houses in the area belongs to a Mr Khumalo.

This is no different, say, to the American educational example I sketched. Just because some black American families might benefit from enrolment policies that are racist does not mean that those policies are suddenly race blind. Yes, it is a numbers game, I’m afraid, as much as racists love to trivialise the importance of numbers and trends.

If most of those targeted by a policy are black, and especially when that is by design, then the policy is racist, quite apart from being elitist. We do not have to choose here between the trope of racism and class prejudice. The two kinds of bigotry in the Clifton example obviously work in tandem.

So, Mr Plato, you may want to ask yourself a different question: “Once every white, coloured and African beachgoer has been asked to leave Clifton, who is left in the neighbourhood?” You’ll find your answer anchored in the structural racism of colonial and apartheid-era laws.

But, of course, you won’t see this if you choose to be blind to history’s reach into the present.

This article has been amended to reflect edits from the author

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