Monday, April 04, 2011

The Structure and Value System of Racism

The race debate in South Africa is not deep, profound or well intentioned. It is rather a superficial and convoluted media-driven interaction that obscures the history of race, its suppositions, and most of all, its pervasive structure.

This outcome is purposeful and not an unfortunate deterioration of the grand symbolism that accompanied the supposed ‘end of apartheid’ in 1994.

In effect, racism has been normalized (made a permanent part of the structure) and made commonsense (made a shared part of the value system) in the post-race era.

It is, therefore, not surprising that so much that goes for the race debate hardly touches on the structure and values that drive racism (this is true in most settler societies like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

The post-race era presses an ahistorical interpretation of race and racism. For this reason, the present moment is described by double standards and entrenched contradictions.

To understand why we are so stuck (and doomed) by race and racism it is important to recognize the world we built around race and racism and to appreciate just how much of that world is still in place.

The following quotes, all three by women in different epochal eras, speak to such an understanding.

Harriet Jacobs
“Slaveholders have a method, peculiar to their institution, of getting rid of old slaves, whose lives have been worn out in their service. I knew an old woman, who for seventy years faithfully serviced her master. She had become almost helpless, from hard labor and disease. Her owners moved to Alabama, and the old black woman was left to be sold to any body who would give twenty dollars for her."
Harriet Jacobs: "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" (1861). Picture Credit

Bessie Head
“It is possible that no other legislation has so deeply affected the lives of black people in South Africa as the Natives’ Land Act of 1913. It created overnight a floating landless proletariat whose labour could be used and manipulated at will, and ensured that ownership of the land finally and securely passed into the hands of the ruling white race. On it rest the pass laws, the migratory labour system, influx control and a thousand other evils which affect the lives of black people in South Africa today."
Bessie Head: Foreword to Sol Plaatje’s “Native Life in South Africa” (1982). Picture Credit

Naomi Klein
“During the transition negotiations, F.W. de Klerk’s team demanded that all civil servants be guaranteed their jobs even after the handover; those who wanted to leave, they argued, should receive hefty lifelong pensions. This was an extraordinary demand in a country with no social safety net to speak of, yet it was one of several “technical” issues on which the ANC ceded ground. The concession meant that the new ANC government carried the cost of two governments – its own, and a shadow white government that was out of power. Forty percent of the government’s annual debt payments go to the country’s massive pension fund. The vast majority of the beneficiaries are former apartheid employees.
In the end, South Africa has wound up with a twisted case of reparations in reverse, with the white businesses that reaped enormous profits from black labor during the apartheid years paying not a cent in reparations, but the victims of apartheid continuing to send large paychecks to their former victimizers.”
Naomi Klein: "The Shock Doctrine" (2008). Picture Credit

: Connect the structure through these eras and it becomes clear that racism cannot just be undone by goodwill and symbols of change (like non-racialism).  We remain stuck in racism because its structure and values are intact (even promoted and guarded).

And we are not free.



pserean said...

Salams Ridwan...

Thanks for pointing me to that e-novel...
Harriet Jacob's 'Incidents' makes for troubled bedside reading, hey?

It often felt like - too much to even read.

Didn't you think it remarkable that she apparently did not feel like an outcast/slave in Britain...said during her time there, she saw no example of racism?
It didn't sound like the Britain the 'heathen' colonies knew and feared...?

As for Mr. Sands....utterly disturbing pseudo relationship.
Demeaning in every aspect. She never even used his first name.

The white man was frowned upon if he freed his Own children. It set a bad example, she wrote.
What is it about white blood that makes it so weak and easily contaminated?
Just a drop of black, and all whiteness disintegrates.
You'd think if it was all it was cracked up to be, those poor folks would have been whitened instead.
Sorry, just a silly ramble.

This doesn't quite fit in with your article, but I thought of you when I read it:

Ridwan said...

WSLM pserean:

Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

I have attempted to write a response three times now and over an hour my Vodadead 3G card has reminded me that even dial-up internet connections work better.

Sorry for the rant :)

I too was struck by her expemtion of whiteness/racism in Britain.

She was mistaken just like James Baldwin was when he exempted (to a large part) racism in France.

The forms of racism may be different but the substance has remained the same.

Booyah's post is familiar to me. Identity struggle in those terms are a big part of struggle in the US and the colonial west, in particular.

Thank you for making me think this Saturday morning.

I regret that I have not provided much depth here ... I blame Vodacom of course ;0)

Be well and pressing on.