Can black people be racist?
Lwazi Lushaba’s controversial political science lecture revived the question for me: can black people, centuries-long victims of racial discrimination, themselves be racist? There is an influential school of thought that holds that black people are incapable of being racist. Essentially, its proposition reduces racism to a question of power.
According to the theory, racism occurs with the exercise of repressive white power over black people, as has been happening from the days of colonialism to today. Therefore, black people, historically lacking the power to impose their own will on whites, do not have the capacity to be racist.
This, of course, stands in contrast to another definition, which sees racism as a belief in the superiority of one’s race — which is then used as a justification for the violation of the rights of those deemed inferior. Such violations can range from slavery to socioeconomic exclusion to dispossession and genocide. I am inclined to use the latter definition for today’s purposes.
For how is it that in a country like SA, where black people are a numerical and political majority, dominating the public institutions that make and enforce the laws, they still complain about racism? Presumably, if it was all about power, then black people should have no reason to grumble?
We might blame the fact that, in the main, economic power still lies in white hands as apartheid’s historical legacy. The question then would be why those who wield political power have not used it to bring about a more rapid change in economic relations in the country since the end of statutory apartheid?
The nexus between white power and racism might be more demonstrable in countries where white people are a majority (such as the US and UK), but less so in a country like SA, with a black majority.
The theory that black people, by virtue of their skin colour, are incapable of harbouring racial or other prejudices may make all black people feel good, like they are a special class of humans. But it is, in my book, far from reality. For black people have proved themselves to be capable of many of humanity’s common vices, perhaps outside of slavery and colonialism.
For instance, as black people, we have looked down on those of us with darker skin and have demonstrated xenophobia towards African migrants who happen to be among us in search of a better life.
We have displayed tribal chauvinism too, where we have elevated our own group’s interests above everyone else’s, which has fuelled much conflict on the continent, including the Rwanda genocide.
In short, then, as black people we are indeed capable of harbouring antipathy to those we “other” based on race, tribe, religion or other attributes.
But my point, also made in Lushaba’s controversial contentious lecture, is that, as society and as humanity, we need to value all human life, irrespective of race. That there should be no hierarchy of human suffering, where the calamity and pain of one racial group is deemed more deserving of acknowledgment than that of another. Such catastrophes include the Atlantic slave trade, the colonial extermination of indigenous peoples and the Holocaust.
Of course, in the midst of pain, the risk for the oppressed is that they might lose their own humanity and become a mirror image of the oppressor, forgetting that the struggle against racism was not to perpetuate or reverse it but to create in its place a more inclusive and humane society for all, irrespective of race.
Which is why, in our case, the leading lights of the anti-apartheid struggle — from Nelson Mandela to Robert Sobukwe to Steve Biko — stressed the importance of recognising our common humanity. They clearly did not believe in the inevitability of racial conflict.
Thus Biko, speaking at the height of apartheid about the envisaged future society, described “a completely nonracial society … [where] there shall be no minority, no majority”. “There shall just be people,” he said.
On race, Sobukwe declared: “… there is only one race, to which we all belong. That is the human race.”
Mandela, for his part, warned of racism being “a blight on the human conscience”. “The idea,” he said, “that any people can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as subhuman, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods.”
Meaning that black people’s aggrievement about the wrongs done to them should not divert them from what was always the objective of the anti-apartheid struggle — to end racism and replace it with a more humane, antiracist, egalitarian society.
It should be axiomatic that, for the sake of young South Africans today, and of future generations, we must work to break the cycle of racial distrust that continues to characterise group relationships.
We might want to start by acting more, and talking less, about growing the economy in order to create jobs for the millions of unemployed; opening access to quality, equal education for all and providing good, affordable health care to everyone — incidentally, things routinely promised by our politicians at election time.
The truly nonracial society will not be built on a foundation of blacks nursing an endless sense of grievance and whites living with the guilt and resentment of being the permanent villains of the South African story.
Next week our country will celebrate Freedom Day, the day when official apartheid is supposed to have ended. Needless to say, the struggle against racism did not end on voting day 27 years ago. It continues still — against racial discrimination, economic inequality and exclusion and failing public service delivery. Indeed, against discrimination based on gender, as well.
The struggle against racism was not to perpetuate or reverse it but to create a more inclusive society for all