Check your confirmation bias, dear Race Warrior

A response to Eusebius McKaiser's article on the Clifton controversy

Marie-Louise Antoni does a fine job of salvaging the facts of the Clifton Beach controversy (Politicsweb of 7 January 2019). She provides context, quotes eye-witnesses, and tests the evidence against the received wisdom of the Sunday Times and others that racism was behind the bizarre beach evacuation shortly before Christmas. In short, Antoni does the work that journalists failed to do at the outset. (1) 

The probabilities according to Antoni, are these: Clifton and Camps Bay, like the rest of the Western Cape, suffer from a dire shortage of police officers. Of late there has been a spike in crime, especially on the beachfront. Left to their own devices, and having the means to do so, a group of residents have appointed a security company to fill the gap. On 16 December mayhem erupted on the beach, with lifeguards being attacked, and an alleged sexual assault. The beach was evacuated by law enforcement, and without being asked, the security company gave their help. A few days later these security guards overreached, and unlawfully enforced a curfew on the beach. 

This unhappy experience befell beachgoers of all races, and not just black and coloured folk, as also pointed out by the Mayor of Cape Town, Dan Plato. Supporting this contention, and contradicting the narrative of the Western Cape ANC, are the eye-witness accounts of beachgoers who happen not to be white. In the absence of evidence of racism, and the likelihood of sensationalism, equating Clifton with the “the spectre of Penny Sparrow” is irrational. 

In an equally remarkable piece on the Mail & Guardian’s website, Eusebius McKaiser suggests that the particular facts of what happened in Clifton don’t really matter, because they are less important than what we already know about the evil and ubiquitousness of white supremacy. He writes to chastise Mayor Plato for claiming that the Clifton incident was not racist, and to give him a “racism lesson”. (2)

The probabilities according to McKaiser, are these: The majority of Clifton’s residents and business owners are white. They fear black people, because racism “runs in their blood”. And so they appointed security guards to keep Cape Town’s black residents out of Clifton. But their racism is covert, so it’s difficult to pin down to specific behaviour. The fact that whites were cleared from the beach along with other Clifton beachgoers was only to give cover to white supremacy. 

The most obvious problem with the “in the blood” argument is that it doesn’t allow for refutation. While in Antoni’s reliance on objective facts she might plausibly have uncovered evidence of racism, such as black or coloured beachgoers being singled out and victimised, McKaiser’s worldview permits only one possibility. He can but confirm what he already knows, a condition also known as confirmation bias. Sharam Hesmat describes its workings as follows: "Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.” (3)

If every umlungu in Clifton, and everywhere else for that matter, has racism in the blood, and if the stuff is often undetectable by normal observation, then in a great many instances there is no way of knowing whether someone acts out of racism or some other motive. In this way any attempt to establish the truth, or to distinguish it from ideology, is made redundant.   

To reject McKaiser's “in the blood" argument is not to deny that racism exists, or that society has built-in privileges for some people. Take, for instance, the extraordinary advantage enjoyed by native English speakers over the majority of their fellow South Africans in a society that has chosen English as the only de facto official language. 

But there are more honest, precise, and humane ways of countering bigotry, and mitigating the effects of privilege, than treating every person as a racial belligerent fighting for the other side. It’s not only that racial demonisation is repugnant to an open society that is meant to treat its people as free individuals of equal worth. It’s also that there is a shared South African interest that is harmed by such shameless bullshit artistry. 

We face serious problems not begotten by racism, and have consequences worse than racism. They are common to South Africans of different backgrounds, and often vary in their consequence according to class more than race. To misdiagnose these problems as racism is like subjecting a diabetes patient to chemo therapy. 

Public attention is misdirected, and an unscrupulous political class escape accountability for their misdeeds and failures. No party, except maybe the EFF, benefits more from the reduction of all society’s problems to a clash of racial interests than the ANC. After all, its electoral fortitude, or at least its main opponent’s fragility, depends on keeping racial divisions foremost in the public mind. 

One obvious example in this election year is the dire shortage of police officers in the Western Cape, and a credible indication that the ANC national government is deliberately depriving the country’s only opposition run province of much needed police resources. If the problem is bad in Clifton and Camps Bay, it is devastating in Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain. The Equity Court has said as much. 

But instead of facing tough questions about his party’s neglect of its national duties in the Western Cape, the ANC’s provincial secretary and his fellow-travellers are left to create fake news of racism in the DA-controlled City of Cape Town. His account is lapped up by the media. And the city’s residents are left to believe that their fight is mainly among themselves. 

(1) Marie Louise Antoni, On the Clifton controversy”, Politicsweb, 6 January 2019

(2) Mail & Guardian, “A racism lesson for Mayor Plato”, 4 Jan 2019

(3) Psychology Today, What is confirmation bias? Wishful thinking”, 23 April 2015