Worry about the racist Donald Trump, but do not call black people racists, writes Metji Makgoba.
CALLING black people racists remains one of the most convenient but intellectually lazy ways of suppressing and resisting the ideology of anti-racism.
This rhetorical technique functions to depoliticise and decontextualise the historical legacies of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa, as well as racial inequality and structural unemployment that condemn black people to the life of crime and poverty, including alcohol and substance abuse.
More critically, it seeks to confide racism to occasional, negative behaviour which may involve white people calling blacks monkeys and kaffirs as well as other degrading racial slurs – such as “shithole countries” in the case of US racist president, Donald Trump.
The use of this racist name calling that aimed to construct black people as the underclass, the abject poor, the subordinated, and what Frantz Fanon, a Martinican psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer described as the wretched of the earth can be traced back to over 300 years.
In his 2007 book, “Race and the Construction of the Dispensable Other”, a leading South African professor Ben Magubane, quotes Edward Long, who wrote “The History of Jamaica”, published in 1774. In this book, Long describes Africans as “proud, lazy, treacherous, thievish, hot, and addicted to all kinds of lust, and most ready to promote them in others, as pimps, panders, incestuous, brutish, and savage, cruel and revengeful, devourers of human flesh, and quaffers of human blood, inconstant, base, treacherous, and cowardly.”
Long, who drew inspiration from the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, and his followers, set the tone for the colonisation of the cultural identities of African people who, even to this day, still have to prove to the world that they are not savages, pimps and devourers of human flesh. Long’s worldviews formed part of the hegemonic narratives that occupied history books, newspapers and radio stations to legitimise white supremacy as the apotheosis of power hierarchies in the context of race.
This functioned to install self-hatred in these people to control and shape how they think about themselves. As one of the Pan- Africanist historians, Henrik Clarke, once noted, “And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.”
Although this eventually created the problem of the twentieth century —”the problem of the colour-line”— in W. E. B. Du Bois’ famous words, approaching racism this way stops us from confronting racism as a structural problem that continues to influence the distribution of social goods relating to access to employment, banking, education, health and housing, among others.
Toni Morrison, an American novelist and teacher, calls this type of an approach to racism a distraction.
As she notes “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.
“Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary.”
Although Trump, who kicked off his presidential bid more than a year ago by calling Mexican immigrants rapists, deserves public opprobrium for his “shithole countries” comment, he should not distract us from focusing on more meaningful things such as dealing with structural exclusion, the redistribution of wealth and institutional racism
But he did.
The whole world took to social media, and newspaper people killed more trees to vent their anger at this bullshiter. But what have we achieved? Nothing. Zero. We have wasted our time and resources. Other people even spent a huge amount of time debating the meaning of Trump’s catchy phrase.
This leaves us in a vicious cycle of unproductiveness, wastefulness and impoverishment.
US daily newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, summed up our ordeal: ‘The president speaks, critics respond with outrage, and Trump’s defenders accuse his critics of hysterically overreacting.’ One thing that the Times did not mention is that American citizens voted for Trump and he still remains their president.
Therefore, reducing racism to this apolitical occasional behaviour, characterised by the careless use of language and outrageous reactions, does not help our cause in finding better ways of building a non-racial society. Instead, it takes our focus away from other important issues as well as threatening how we share our living spaces in different contexts by pushing racism into the game of Us and Them merely on the basis of the colour of the skin, and region.
We should not remain silent when proponents of movements, such as white supremacists, neo-nazis, neo-fascists, and other fringe hate groups, try to contaminate our national psyche and discourses, but we should quickly regroup our minds and resources to concentrate on what is important.
This means we need to find more political ways of addressing and understanding racism to move away from our behaviourist approach.
As Joel Modiri, a critical race theorist who specialises in jurisprudence, notes, “There is a serious need for a critical race literacy of the type that defined the black radical Africanist politics of Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko.”
Such an approach conceptualises racism as a question of power rather than of behaviours. It maintains its historical context by restricting “racism as both prejudice and structural power to white people as a group.”
Modiri continues: “To be racist on this definition is a matter of the power to subjugate.”
In Jay Lemke, an American physicist’s words, such power, and so the ideological use of discourses which support power, is partly about the distribution of social ‘goods’, “but it is always also about positive harm, about physical pain and social dehumanization.”
“Viewing harm only as the absence of a ‘good’, even of a ‘necessity’, would fail to direct our attention to the most painful realities of power, the most shameful aspects of human relationships.”
Understanding racism this way, and considering that race is socially constructed, effectively means that black people cannot be racist.
It is shocking that Ghaleb Cachalia, a Democratic Alliance MP, who grew up in the ghettos of Vrededorp, Fordsburg, and Nugget Street, described the Economic Freedom Fighters and their leader as racists. In his Facebook post, Cachalia hastily noted, “Julius Malema. This man and his EFF are populist, racist and fascist thugs. I have serious concerns about playing ball with them. Their aim is to foment discord, create mayhem and ride the populist wave. They will use and abuse and deliver unto Caesar when it suits them.”
Cachalia may be right about the other labels he attached to the EFF but calling them racists is both absurd and ahistorical. A man of his calibre should know better.
But he represents a movement of black liberals who have been co-opted into accepting ethnocentric ideologies and worldviews as the conduits for interpreting the politics of resistance.
These ethnocentric ideologies serve as the power structure, alongside capitalism, that provides the anchor for racism to flourish. They provide both material and discursive support to amplify the voices of all racists, who act as agents that work to sustain the structure at all cost.
They employ different discursive strategies and physical violence to exercise their superiority, which has now become conventionalised and naturalised, albeit resisted and challenged every day.
Therefore, black people can only develop different mechanisms of coping with racism, or this structural violence as other people call it. Their coping mechanisms, or methods of resistance, are also shaped by the same Ethnocentric ideology: the power of power lies in its ability to dictate modes of resistance.
These mechanisms can be brutally violent and unlawful – occasionally causing political instability and unrests.
But they cannot be considered as racists.
They would only be considered racist if they become the norm and design their own hegemonic power structures as a race group that also influence the distribution of social and economic goods in the capitalist sense at the expense of white people as a race group.
Because of this power structure that sustains racism, empowering white people in the process, you cannot call black people racist. Go look for another term.
In the case of white supremacy and racism, especially in the US and South Africa, we are still far from realising Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault’s progressive ideas on power and hegemony.
It is Foucault, in his poststructuralist ambitions, who said “power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.”
This may be true in other spheres of life, especially in apolitical areas of life, which does not involve competition over social goods and resources.
In our time, in our era, and in our South Africa, Gramsci and Foucault, so seminal as their work may be, remain pipe dreamers for now.
Metji Makgoba is a Commonwealth Scholar and writes in his ideological capacity.