The problem with racial identity politics
The #mustfall and “decolonisation” movements that have spread across South African campuses are producing a chilling effect on public discourse.
The vanguard of these movements claim to be fighting “institutional”, “systemic” and “structural” racism. In fact, they are promoting a self-serving and essentialist form of identity politics that fuels racial polarisation.
The new identity politics is infused with notions of social justice long since untethered from their ideological moorings. It endorses a kind of quasi-leftist “identitarianism” – a tyranny of identity – that fails, remarkably, to address the structural nature of our social problems.
Drawing on the vocabulary of critical race theory and a meretricious pseudo-discipline like “whiteness studies”, this brand of identity politics is almost wholly ahistorical.
For the entrepreneurs of racial identity politics, identity is a fixed, ascriptive, collectivist way of being that determines what it means to be a “good” black or a “bad” white, and vice versa.
As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has noted, in this worldview, being black requires one to follow certain “life-scripts”. There are “proper modes” of being black.
For this reason, Appiah suggests in The Ethics of Identity, someone who takes autonomy seriously may be concerned that “we have replaced one kind of tyranny with another”.[i]
Identity is meant to be an expression of an individual's authentic self. But in the hands of the racial thought police, under the guise of social justice, identity becomes the denial of individual agency “in the name of cultural authenticity”.
A bad black is not “woke” to racial injustice and “microaggressions”.
If he dares to question the groupthink of the vituperative lynch mob that has appropriated unto itself the label “black Twitter”, he is vilified as an Uncle Ruckus, a coconut and a sellout.
A good white, on the other hand, is one who engages the world through a haze of guilt, regret and shame for the sins of her forefathers.
According to Samantha Vice – a critical race theorist who, astonishingly, claims to be a philosopher – whites in South Africa “ought to see themselves as a problem”.[ii]
Never mind that the whole sorry history of apartheid is rooted in whites viewing “natives” as a problem to be solved.
For Vice, few white people, “however morally conscientious”, will ever be able to escape “the habits of white privilege”. Their “characters and modes of interaction” – their very identity – will forever be constituted in ways that are “morally damaging”. Therefore, the appropriate response is to feel shame.
In fact, the best option available to whites is a withdrawal from public life into self-flagellating silence. They must work on their damaged psyche (it is, unsurprisingly, a collective psyche) and, like Lady Macbeth, attempt with neurotic fervour to efface the moral stain of whiteness that symbolises their evil.
Of course, this is just ridiculous.
At least the pioneers of “whiteness studies” like David Roediger, who wrote about the role of race in the making of the American working class, brought historical tools of analysis to bear on their subject. Today’s cultural theorists, sociologists and philosophers rely on sweeping and timeless generalisations about identity that traverse centuries and continents.
Samantha Vice’s bad advice is a profound assault on the liberal-democratic notion of citizenship. But, worse than that, it represents the laziest, sloppiest, most ahistorical kind of thinking. It trades in tired tropes rather than ideas in context.
No wonder so many of the students who demanded that #RhodesMustFall, or who want to “decolonise” Stellenbosch University by replacing Afrikaans with English – the language of colonisation – have such a limited critical vocabulary.
Like their lecturers, they have become platitude-spouting automatons. They are in thrall to the kind of politically correct language that George Orwell said was designed to make “murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
These Social Justice Warriors can barely complete a sentence without crowbarring “whiteness” and “white privilege” into it. Rampant, too, are the “microagressions”, “cultural appropriations” and “trigger warnings” that their counterparts on US campuses have popularised with such discourse-deadening success.
All of these terms are what the historian Robert Conquest would have called “brain blindfolds”, “mind blockers” and “thought extinguishers”. They obstruct understanding and stifle debate.
That is the worst feature of the new identity politics. It creates its own heuristic bubble. It sets up straw men – about nonracialism and colourblindness, for example – only to mow them down. It deligitimises critics on the basis of assigned racial traits. It defines the terms on which whites and blacks, as collectives, should engage about racism, only to demonise one or the other, on the basis of a compulsory identity, before the conversation has even started.
In fact, the new identity politics kills debate.
A powerful strain of crypto-fascism is shot through the identitarian movement. This manifests in its assault on individual autonomy; its enforcement of conformity; its intolerance of dissent; its belief that certain demands are non-negotiable; its view that certain concepts, like black pain, are beyond comprehension through ordinary language; and its recourse to violence and intimidation.
Secondly, identity politics promotes a self‐regarding political culture. Hence all the first-person narratives; the way in which pain and suffering are fetishised by middle-class students who themselves are privileged by their socioeconomic status; and the diversionary sideshow politics that focuses on destroying symbols and statues.
So, instead of being a contest of ideas about what constitutes the public good, political ‘debate’ turns into a spectacle of self‐righteous narcissism. Its reward is to be captured on camera throwing shit at a statue.
Thirdly, because identity politics is so heavily invested in grievance and blame, it fuels its own victimhood syndrome. Yet in matters of public policy, there is seldom an incentive for a majority group to forsake victimhood.
The turn to a pseudo-progressive strand of racial identity politics on our campuses, and among the populist intelligentsia, is a setback for South African political culture.
Worse still, the identitarians have, as their articles of faith, a disregard for the Constitution, a contempt for non-racialism, and a vaguely articulated socialism that identifies “neoliberalism” (whatever that may be) as the root of all evil.
Absorbed into the bloodstream of national politics, this can only but spell disaster.
Michael Cardo is a Democratic Alliance MP and Shadow Minister of Economic Development. His PhD in History examined ideas about culture, citizenship and white identity in twentieth century South African politics.