Opinionista J Brooks Spector 22 October 2013

Race: still the final frontier

The recent ruckus over racism in a major South African newspaper reminds us once again that race has never been far below the surface of things in South Africa. Or pretty much anywhere else, for that matter, for quite a while. This latest set-to encourages one to contemplate the continuing dispute in the meaning of race and what that, in turn, means for the future.

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”

– WEB Du Bois

Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is matter of mental attitude.”

– Bantu Stephen Biko

Way back in 1969, the writer went to work in a steel mill in that slightly down-at-the-heels, rather gritty Northeastern city of Baltimore in order to earn enough money to pay for my university tuition (and possibly to demonstrate a little solidarity with that slightly mythical creature, the working man, along the way as well).

Actually, the real reason for doing this was probably more the fact that the mill paid better than working as a waiter – the most usual student job of choice – and the night shift at the factory paid best of all the choices available, even if it was dirty, tough, even dangerous work.

The night crew on that shift had the full complement of unionised regulars who had been there for years, as well as two other students, also looking for the best possible wage so they could put away the maximum amount of earnings for a year’s university tuition. Both of the other students were about my age, but they were African Americans attending a historically black university in the Baltimore area, rather than the bigger state university about fifty kilometres away, where I was studying.

At the lunch break, we all walked over to the factory canteen and they went to sit by themselves at one of the cafeteria tables. This was at the very height of enthusiasm for the ideology of black separatism and black consciousness to be found on many American college campuses.

Still, deep into my rather proletarian “all men are brothers” phase, I went over to sit with them and tried to engage in the typical kinds of student conversations one had on college campuses all over the country every day over lunch or coffee. Not much joy there with those two fellow students though. This was true even if my music taste meshed with theirs (soul, R ‘n B, Motown), I had read all the right books, and I had seen the same movies. Regardless, for the two of them, I was clearly something of an intruder into a separate world.

Back in that moment, over forty years ago, I was caught in the crosshairs between two deeply discordant views, typified by Du Bois and Biko’s very different observations about the nature of race and the right attitudes towards the fact of it. We all know that race is at least as much a cultural artefact as it has any biological roots. Skin colour is just one of many inherited traits that divide the human species in many other different ways, even as the larger aspects of human biology are remarkably similar globally.

The surface difference in skin colour derives from repeated evolutionary responses to the ability of the tropical sun to goose the body into producing certain vitamins and it has differentiated in humans by virtue of geography only over the past tens of thousands of years. By contrast, the cultural attitudes that came in with European hegemony over the past several hundred years were never a consistent part of the ancient – or even medieval worlds. Instead, they arrived – and then hardened – with the advent of dominant, new technologies, via the conquest and exploitation of the lands of the New World – complete with the imposition of chattel slavery and the slave trade, and then, finally, with the thorough subjugation of the African continent.

In response to such verities, theoreticians of blackness like Franz Fanon (or Marcus Garvey, for that matter) often came into their own from the periphery, from the Caribbean world, a world that admitted to a wide range of shades of blackness. Perhaps such circumstances helped generate an effort to find out what united rather than divided the oppressed.

The North American experience was significantly different and there was always a tension between accommodationists and assimilationists versus separatists. Generally there was no racial middle ground in that world – one was black or white, and, despite what Michael Jackson may have sung, it did matter. A lot.

South Africa has been caught up – and between – both traditions as well. On the one hand, the ideology of black consciousness argued for an embrace of the deeper commonality of experience on the part of all people who were not white, first-class citizens; or, as Steve Biko (and others of his general ideological perspective) had argued, “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is matter of mental attitude.”  And that, of course, stood in contrast to the idea there was something unique that has bound together black Africans, almost entirely by virtue of common pigmentation. It is obviously possible (and certainly reasonable) to argue it is this very question of melanin that has determined people’s histories, and largely determines their unequal circumstances still. But is it then a stretch to also argue it is this similarity that also generates a unique ability to understand and empathise in common? Was Du Bois right to assert that the colour line is the one thing that mattered most of all for the contemporary world?

The counter view, of course, is that what has mattered even more has been the historically unequal relationship between two groups of people – a kind of Marxism energised by colour. That is the relatively inconsequential cultural distinctions between black Africans, Coloureds and Indians exist in the context of the broader set of discriminatory circumstances that have mattered much more than anything else in life. (A more troubling, parallel question, of course, is whether even more granular distinctions – between still smaller ethnicities, religions, or adherence to different versions of traditional social and cultural behaviours have outweighed that Occam’s razor dividing white from black, with everything else following that simple distinction.)

Now, bringing this right down to present circumstances, is it too much to see the recent eruption of some rough, hard feelings at The City Press between its editor and a caucus of some of the paper’s black journalists from the perspective of these two quite different ways of embracing the essential qualities of blackness – and where the dividing lines ultimately need to be drawn? And naturally, too, this argument mirrors the larger struggle in South African society as a whole – a question yet to be resolved to any degree of finality – but that plays out in various ways in almost every institution in the country. DM

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