Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 7 December 2010

The silence of the racists

As an underlying theme in Thomas Harris’ story of FBI agent Clarice Starling’s relationship with Dr Hannibal Lecter, her childhood experiences on a sheep farm and the profound psychological significance of the “silence” that descends when the lambs are slaughtered fails to spur deep introspection in all but an open-hearted and honest few. So too the frenzied calls to silence “racists” in the slipstream of author Annelie Botes’ comments about her likes and dislikes deprives us all of deep and honest introspection.

There are various undeniable facts that should inform any thinking or talking about racism, and South African racist attitudes and behaviour in particular. Key among these is the fact that white privilege persists, and that any number of high-profile tenderpreneurs who are black cannot elide the reality of race-based class inequality in South Africa.

As a result of this historical and current inequality, as well as population demographics, black South Africans are statistically more likely to be poor than white people. This also means that black South Africans are less likely to have equal access to educational facilities, and also that they might receive lower levels of service and have access to goods of inferior quality.

Unfortunately, it also means that black South Africans have a stronger incentive towards criminality, because they simply have fewer options for bettering their lives than those who benefited from inequality. This observation says absolutely nothing about the moral character, intentions and aspirations of any person or group of people, except that we are products of our circumstances. Those in power like to stay there, which gives them the incentive to exploit, and those without power would like to have some – and if desperate enough, you take power where you can find it.

Forget about any particular individual for a moment, whether yourself or another. The point is that if you were to randomly select an individual from our population, the arbitrary characteristic of that person’s skin colour will allow you to draw some well-justified inferences regarding their income, education-level, expected lifespan and possible criminality, among other correlates of race in South Africa. For that randomly selected individual, your inferences could be completely wrong – but that person’s race would nevertheless increase or decrease the probability of those inferences being correct.

As I’ve tried to make explicit, this has nothing to do with race itself. Race is as arbitrary and irrelevant as hair colour is, but it can serve as a proxy for identifying other characteristics, including disadvantage and inequality. What we do with these proxies is a matter of significance in various policy debates, such as an ongoing one around admissions policies at universities. Ideally, I suspect that we’ll all prefer to not have to use an arbitrary characteristic to track non-arbitrary features of someone’s life, but it may be that this is currently our best option.

It is not redress or redistribution of opportunities that I wish to discuss here, however. It is instead racism, and racist attitudes, as recently exemplified by Annelie Botes. More specifically, I want to address the issue of what our responses to expressions of racist views should be, and in doing so to disagree with my fellow Opinionista, Sipho Hlongwane.

Racism operates from the premise that it is race that determines some of our characteristics, just as (traditional) sexist views insist that being female determines some inadequacy or inferiority. These are generalisations based on arbitrary characteristics, and that are used to motivate differential treatment. And this is what makes these attitudes morally wrong. Discrimination on non-arbitrary grounds, by contrast, is desirable – for example when installing more toilets for females than males, on the grounds that females take longer to perform their ablutions, and that it is desirable for us all to have shorter queues at public restrooms.

Annelie Botes identified “black people” as a group she doesn’t like. This is obviously absurd, seeing as “black people” are not a homogenous group, and share no necessary characteristic besides the colour of their skin. To find sense in Botes’ statement requires knowledge of what she understands to be a common feature of black South Africans, and she is very forthcoming on that topic also. She is afraid, because she sees black men as the “face of crime”.

If she had instead said that she doesn’t like criminals, then her statements would have attracted no attention. After all, most of us don’t like criminals, especially the housebreaking and murdering sort identified by Botes. But because of relative population sizes and the socio-economic realities outlined above, the group “blacks” is going to be over-represented in the group “criminals”. She could have identified the same threat in a way which focused on a relevant characteristic, or an irrelevant one, and her choice to do the latter is what identifies her as a racist.

I agree with Hlongwane’s observation that some people will always be prejudiced, regardless of our recent past and how our future might unfold. And while the festering sore of bigotry and prejudice is highlighted by allowing people like Botes a platform to express their views, it’s not at all clear that the wound is “pried open” by doing so. Instead, allowing – and perhaps even encouraging – the expression of racist views might be necessary if we are to ever escape the legacy of racial discrimination.

Turning the expression of racist views into “de facto suicide”, or making it the case that it is “impossible for a person to be a public racist and still have a career afterwards”, will simply drive such views underground. There is no shortage of small towns in which conservative white Afrikaners can tell their children that they aren’t welcome in this “new” South Africa, and point to the evidence of their views not being welcome in our media. Likewise, there is no shortage of white liberals who believe that they are not racist, yet who nevertheless suffer from the delusions caused by their privilege, and make others suffer their condescension.

In both these cases, as well in the case of the sort of racism espoused by the likes of Andile Mngxitama, we need these views expressed and widely disseminated. We must not silence the racists or the sexists. In fact, we should not silence anyone at all, because it is not only the opportunity to correct them that we will lose. We also lose the opportunity to make a case for the opposing view – one that treats prejudice as a constant in human history, and of which we might never be free, unless we find some way to afford all humans the same opportunities in life.

We might have little or no chance of persuading someone like Botes that her views are wrong. But perhaps persuading Botes is the wrong goal, and Hlongwane’s desire to “silence the racists” stems from forgetting that this should never have been our goal in the first place. Instead, we should remember that we’re not trying to change the minds of those who already hold racist views, but rather trying to ensure that fewer people hold those views in future.

For every Botes, there are countless curious onlookers, digesting her utterances alongside columns such as Hlongwane’s. Many of these onlookers might currently be lacking any fixed position on issues such as gender or racial discrimination, yet be subjected to pressure from family or broader cultural forces to adopt one view or another. Allowing these debates, and putting the argument against Botes, provides a pressure of that sort – and in this case, exactly the right sort. We can perhaps do nothing about Botes, but silencing the racists might simply make it easier for others to take her place, without us ever knowing it. DM



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"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old' when I would never call him 'short and fat?' Oh well I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!" ~ Donald J Trump