Sara Gon replies to Phillip Dexter's argument that only whites can be racist
No monopoly on racism or victimhood
Phillip Dexter is the latest commentator to state that black people cannot be racist (Politicsweb, Wednesday 20 January 2015). Others have said the same recently, but this piece provides a good opportunity to examine this proposition.
The proposition is that the idea that black and white people can be racist, is “simply, factually wrong”. When black people express their prejudices, such as “the case of the idiot who works at the department of arts and culture in Gauteng”, this is not racism. This is a reference to Velaphi Khumalo who, in response to Penny Sparrow, proposed that what was done by Hitler to the Jews should be done to whites.
Basically everyone can have prejudices, but racism is something different. Racism is the “systematic denigration, oppression and exploitation of black people, originally in the colonial encounter that resulted in their permanent relegation to second-class status”. Radical economist Margaret Legum formulated this definition. In terms of this definition, blacks can only ever be victims and never perpetrators.
For decades the majority Hutus of Rwanda were disempowered by the Belgians and the minority Tutsis. On independence in 1961, the Hutus took power but the schisms worsened. This ultimately led to the Hutu-led genocide of over one million Tutsis, Hutus deemed to be sympathisers and Hutus married to Tutsis.
The prejudice against the Hutus is a matter of historical record, but it can never justify deliberately inflaming anger through state-sponsored and state-sanctioned hate speech. In truth it doesn’t matter whether the hatred is racial, tribal, ethnic or religious. The causes may not be the same and the contributing factors are complex and many, but the results are usually similar.
In this regard consider the 300 000 South Sudanese Africans in Darfur killed by North Sudanese Arabs; the 1 million Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks; the 500 000 plus Tibetans by the Chinese: the 1.7 to 3 million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge. It seldom matters what hatred or resentment leads to genocide; the important thing is to ensure nothing is done to encourage it, whatever the cause.
Throughout human history, economic crises have provided fertile ground for promoting hatred and scapegoating. It is not difficult for scapegoating to mutate into expulsion or murder. In Rwanda state media and politicians used and sanctioned the use of insults such as “cockroaches” to refer to Tutsis. The Nazis used “cockroach”, untermensch (sub-human), “filth” repeatedly and in all media against the Jews over some years. The leadership led, the people followed.
If whites are only ever racists and blacks only victims, then if black leaders chose to demonise whites to the point of genocide, they can reason that as blacks cannot be racist, they are impervious to being cajoled into harming whites.
The more accurate and widely accepted definition of racism is the belief that all members of a race possess characteristics, abilities or qualities specific to that race. No accepted definition attributes hateful characteristics to a group as perpetrator.
The definition attributes the racist belief to individuals only. While racism can be expressed by a group of people, it is not a character trait attributed to a group by virtue of the colour of their skin. The confident condemnation of any and every white as an automatic hater of blacks is triumphalist and dangerous.
Dexter’s definition reflects a leftist obsession with ‘the group’ as dominant. The accepted definition reflects a liberal view. The latter emphasises the individual. A group of individuals may share racist thoughts and thus be a group of racists, but there is no initial assumption that a group’s skin colour (white) automatically determines a capacity by the group to be racist.
Legum’s definition assumes that white attitudes are hewn from “the colonial encounter”. This definition is unreasoned and bizarre. In terms of her definition, Jews fleeing oppression in Russia, convicts forcibly transported from Britain to Australia, or the Irish fleeing famine and discrimination, have by virtue of the colour of their skin, absorbed the “colonial encounter” and therefore are racists, even though they may have been victims of the very colonialism with which they are now imbued.
Presumably the child of one white parent and one black parent can be racist and non-racist at the same time! Doubtless Dexter would make the assumption that the child is a victim by virtue of the colour of the black parent only: the attributes of the white parent would be irrelevant.
In fact one of the dichotomies that those who seek to demonise whites have failed to deal with are the children of mixed marriages. It raises questions regarding the application of affirmative action and black economic empowerment. Racism by any colour will inevitably rebound on mixed-race citizens.
Dexter’s most colourful contribution is “it is the hegemonic discourse of whiteism being articulated through the politically backward prism of fear. Fear of being made worse off than the current reality. So insidious, so pervasive, so successful is racism that it even gets black people to police each other on behalf of the white master. This was experienced in all colonies-in Africa, India, Asia, the Americas and in the Antipodes.”
Dexter clearly lacks the historical knowledge of empires that fit his convoluted description but were not white. Fear is usually a significant component of prejudice, but it is not in and of itself politically backward: it may be justifiable and real. It is most commonly expressed when the economic situation is becoming dire and livelihoods are under threat.
Presuming to know what all whites think and feel, Dexter holds that what white people fear is the loss of privilege and advantage the “current neo-colonial paradigm” grants them.
What currently saddens and frustrates whites is that they will eternally be accused of benefiting from a “neo-colonial paradigm”. Nothing they say or do positively will allow them to escape their “racism” until blacks (or whoever is given the authority to speak for them) grant them absolution.
The choice for white South Africans is a simple one, according to Dexter. Recognise the historical injustices perpetrated through racism, agree to support the redress against these, or leave this country.
What is meant by “recognise the historical injustices”? Who are those few whites who don’t “recognise the historical injustices” and thus have the power to stifle progress? Do those whites include whites who have always recognised injustices and worked actively against them? How is this recognition to be expressed? Who has the authority to express them on behalf of all whites? What do whites do that prevents blacks from progressing?
Contrary to what Dexter believes, almost no one but a tiny minority, denies that racism exists.
He makes the unverified statement that whites loathe the powerless. Arguably, it is the ruling black elite that loathes the powerless because it has served them so badly. They have implemented pseudo-Marxist policies which will impoverish them further. Misspending or stealing public money meant for the benefit of the citizenry probably reflects a loathing of the powerless.
Dexter lumps Penny Sparrow and Gareth Cliff together, and in so doing fails to distinguish racism from criticism. Thus issues of race cease to be debated and become edicts from the racially self-righteous.
Dexter patronisingly says that “It is true that not all white people are aggressive or militant racists. But all White people, with very few exceptions, have a racist inner being or ego that has been interpolated, or created, by the 400 years of colonialism, slavery, apartheid, capitalism and prejudice that is an inescapable feature of our country and its history.”
Dexter cannot possibly know whether all whites have a racist inner being or ego. He appoints himself as the arbiter of which whites are racist and which not. It is a crass generalisation and descends into racism itself.
“1990 and 1994 did not end racism. These moments created the opportunity to build non-racialism. The question is – did we grasp this opportunity? It is clear that we did not all do so. The fact that the vast majority of our population, who are black, live in poverty, face high unemployment, live shorter lives, experience manifest inequality, shows that we did not.”
Here Dexter indulges in causation avoidance: there is no link between his submission and his conclusion, but he imputes causation by stating as a fact that the parlous position of blacks is caused by the mainly white privileged minority. No evidence of causation is provided so that we may debate the assertion.
White racism isn’t the only deeply offensive racism in South Africa. Some people, including a significant number of blacks, have engendered deep offence with expressions of crude and often genocidal anti-Semitism on Facebook and Twitter.
Dexter says that those who deny racism or attempt to equate corrective discrimination with racism, are either malicious or use it to try to protect the “ill-gotten gains of racism, colonialism, apartheid and slavery, or it is the expression of the callous nature of such human beings who, in the face of all the overwhelming evidence of it, refuse to acknowledge the hurt, the indignity, the suffering of their fellow human beings.”
No one can gainsay a personal reaction to a racist act or statement, but no examples are given of the racism Dexter so easily attributes to whites. It becomes very difficult to ascertain whether it is a scourge or not, and if it is, how best to overcome it.
Racism, as evinced in 2016, is not the crafted white supremacy of Apartheid. Political power, which is in the hands of the black majority, is hugely powerful because the white minority can never again on its own determine its own or others’ political fate.
Society cannot change people’s attitudes. It can only modify their behaviour. Society expresses opprobrium and applies law to put pressure on people not to behave as racists. This may or may not change attitudes, but it is not in our capacity to do so. What it does do is put pressure on us not to be racist to each other in our daily interactions. Over time attitudes are likely to modify.
The false dichotomy of the left’s economic approach is that the economy is a zero sum game – if the whites don’t give it up then there isn’t enough to go around. Redistribute or die!
The ANC can persist in presenting the National Democratic Revolution and redistribution as the answer, but history proves the opposite. The failure of socialism/marxism in post-independence African countries, the fall of the Berlin Wall and revision in China and most of the East, have most recently been followed by Venezuela and Cuba. Russia didn’t reform as a liberal free market state, and as a result together with the over-reliance on oil, it is in recession. And as for North Korea…
Our economy must grow to accommodate all South Africans. That it hasn’t is largely due to an increasingly poor leadership, not white “monopoly capitalists” or otherwise. Political governance and decision-making has become so poor, that we are are facing virtually 0% growth this year, while the rest of sub-Saharan Africa is set to grow at 6%. South Africa, the powerhouse, is dragging the rest of the region down.
The appalling levels of red tape placed in the way of business creation affects us all. The plummeting exchange rate and, particularly as exacerbated by the drought, will be particularly severe for the poor.
The slide of the rand, or at least the extent to which we can positively influence it, has been so bad that we have seen virtually no change in the cost of oil. Our president has in no insignificant way contributed to the fact that South Africa cannot take advantage of this windfall. This, after we missed the mining windfall in the mid-2000s.
Society must do what it can to reverse the disadvantages wrought by apartheid. But where Apartheid’s victims are given an opportunity to improve their lives, they must seize that opportunity as best they can. Affirmative action, education and black economic empowerment can help, but they alone cannot change lives. Historically, victims have never been and can never be sufficiently compensated for their oppression and degradation.
Privilege under Apartheid didn’t automatically confer success on whites. Whites still had to make something of those opportunities and work hard to be successful.
As this acrimonious debate levels out into something more meaningful, one party continues crudely to play the race card: the ANC.
The ANC has just held an NEC Lekgotla and released a statement from it on 27 January 2016. The statement showed an abdication of responsibility and played the blame game. The ANC chose as the first item the “recent emergence of racism and racist individuals becoming more emboldened”. The statement said:
The ANC and society to need to confront and defeat racism in society wherever it occurs;
South Africa must urgently respond to the frustration of the black majority, many of whom believe that their attempts at reconciliation and nation building are rejected;
Economic marginalisation and inequality perpetuate the notion of a superior race and an ingrained system of domination;
It reaffirmed wealth redistribution as both a moral and economic imperative;
Racial exploitation and superiority must be eradicated. The ANC invites a united coalition of South Africans against a scourge of attempts to uphold white privilege at the expense of the black majority.
These comments are alternatively quixotic, unproven, designed to further impoverish the country, and race baiting.
The ANC is trying to divide South Africans. It seeks to perpetuate a failed and disastrous, distributive, economic model instead of promoting growth. It scurrilously sets up a straw man in the form of a “white privilege scourge”.
As ugly as racism is, it doesn’t reflect voters’ main concerns. None of our research reflects race or “white privilege” as remotely significant concerns of black South Africans. The overwhelmingly pressing concerns by far are unemployment and education. And the ANC is failing at both.
To misquote Samuel Johnson: an accusation of racism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.