Racism: Who is to be master?

Howard Barrell says that the entire debate on this issue turns on how the word is defined (9 March 2000)

The following is an extract from the Mail & Guardian’s then Political Editor Howard Barrell’s submission to the South African Human Rights Commission’s hearing into racism in the media, Johannesburg, 9 March 2000 (note: Margaret Legum was a member of the Commission’s panel)

If we are not careful, this inquiry into racism in the media will turn out to be nothing of the kind; it will merely turn on who is to define what racism means; and, once that is decided, all else will follow,

Let me explain.

There is a passage in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll in which Alice challenges Humpty Dumpty about the meaning of the word 'glory.'

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock down argument for you'!"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean a 'nice knock down argument'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."

The outcome of the debate about "racism" in the South African media may well depend on who becomes "master" of that word.

I will illustrate this by discussing two ways of viewing racism.

One is the understanding of racism developed by a member of this panel, Margaret Legum, as evinced in her writings on the subject in the South African media. The other is the view of racism taken by the English philosopher, Roger Scruton.

Legum's understanding of racism is group based. For her, there are two races -- the black race and the white race. Each of these groups has its own (racially determined) language, art, religion, view of history, and so on. Anti-racism is the belief that these two groups are equal. Racism, for her, involves the belief that the white group is intrinsically superior to the black group.

For her, "racism" is a taint that has been acquired over centuries. It can be manifested both in overt bigotry and in unconscious attitudes that have seeped into white consciousness over centuries of white domination. She writes to her white compatriots that racism is "hard to recognize, and shaming when we do".

She distinguishes between "racism" and "racial discrimination". In her view, forming an exclusively black organisation is racially discriminatory. But it is not "racist". The reason that it is not racist is that what discrimination has occurred has not been based on the supposed superiority of the white race.

She applies this thinking to "white liberals" in the following way. White liberals are infected by a belief in the innate superiority of white culture. Moreover, they tend to be unaware of this infection. They are, consequently, unconscious, or subliminal, racists.

She dismisses the argument from white liberals that their previous record of opposition to racial discrimination proves they are not racist. For, Legum argues, in making such a claim, white liberals are mistakenly treating racism and race discrimination as the same thing -- which they are not. Whatever a white liberal's record in fighting racial discrimination, according to Legum, he or she will still be a racist because he or she is infected with a belief, probably unconscious, in the superiority of things white.

What follows from this thinking is that, for Legum, there are three kinds of white people. There are overt racists, racists who have acknowledged their guilt and can therefore act against it, and unconscious racists who continue to deny it and thus continue, unconsciously, to perpetrate it.

This view of racism, or any variant of it, if adopted by your panel, will have far-reaching consequences for this inquiry. 

Before doing so, let me place on record an opposing view of racism. The English philosopher, Roger Scruton, also differentiates between racial discrimination and racism through the terms "racialism" and "racism". He defines "racialism" as the "belief that there are significant distinctions (whether moral, intellectual, or cultural) between races". And he uses the word "racism" to denote the belief, not that there are such differences between the races, but that these differences "provide adequate grounds for different treatment, in particular for granting rights and privileges to members of one race, and withholding them from members of another."

The approaches of Legum and Scruton are completely contradictory. Legum defines racism as the belief in innate white superiority. Scruton defines "racism" as the act of racial discrimination. Legum defines racism in such a way that it can refer only to the white population. Scruton defines it in a way that would allow for any person from any race to be guilty of racism.

By Legum's definition, a white liberal's opposition to racial discrimination would not qualify him or her to claim that he or she is not racist. But, by Scruton's definition, it would. Under Legum's definition, the exclusion by a black person of a white individual from an organisation on the basis of the latter's race would not qualify as racism. But, under Scruton's definition, it would be racism.

The contradiction between Scruton and Legum is so great that, according to the Scruton definition, Legum and the ANC, because of the latter's support for affirmative action, are racist; while, according to the Legum definition, Scruton is a racist.

I should hasten to add here that this theoretical discussion should not be construed as a statement by the Mail & Guardian that it opposes affirmative action. We support it and the suspension of non-discriminatory practices it might involve - provided this suspension is limited to a time period and a set of clearly stated objectives.

Underlying Legum's view is an assumption that race determines culture and intellect. But although the cultural and intellectual products of race groups are different, they are equal. There is however a racially determined moral distinction. Because of their racist past, and the fact that this past has seeped into the cultural bloodstream of the white population, whites lack a moral claim to equal treatment. They can acknowledge their racism, or they can deny it, but they can never escape it.

In Legum's world view, the accusation of 'racism' is a claim that there is a significant moral distinction between black and white: Whites are innately racist; blacks never are (in the sense of being anti-white). This moral distinction (and the belief in equality of outcome intellectually) justifies racial discrimination against white individuals under the principle of "representivity".

According to Scruton this qualifies as "racism", as individuals are granted certain rights and privileges (such as protection from 'unfair discrimination') on the basis of their race. If Scruton became the master of the word "racism", it would throw a large spanner in the ANC's programme of racial transformation. If racial discrimination (against individuals) constitutes "racism", then the moral basis for the ANC implementing demographic quotas is fatally undermined.

This would mean that the ANC would be unable to use racial discrimination to make institutions black dominated. Or at least the 'moral' case for such policies would be non-existent. This would (according to the ANC definition) leave the structural and entrenched patterns of racism intact. Scruton's definition would leave whites in charge of many important institutions in society, until the ANC government turned schooling around in the townships. It would restore the moral claim of white individuals to those positions -- if they were appointed on individual merit.

Thus, if Scruton's definition became the master, "white domination" (in the sense of the "overrepresentation" of whites in the upper echelons of institutions) would be perpetuated. It therefore constitutes, in the words of Jeremy Cronin, "a kind of colour-blind racism". Liberals constitute a threat because their opposition to racial discrimination against individuals means that they stand in the way of the extension of black domination through racial discrimination. According to Scruton this racial discrimination constitutes "racism." According to Legum, in the South African case, opposition to such racial discrimination constitutes "racism."

The question then is which definition is going to triumph? 

9 March 2000