The most obvious racism is often not what does people most harm.
South Africans have been reminded yet again that the fiction that white people are born to rule is still very much with us. This time it was a Stellenbosch University student who decided to show his superior civilisation by urinating on the belongings of a fellow student who offended him by being Black. The bigotry was so obvious that even the Democratic Alliance was obliged, belatedly, to express mild disapproval.
Racist incidents are fairly regular here – every now and then, a white person on digital media is moved to compare Black people to monkeys or to demean them in some way. Each time, understandably, they provoke an angry reaction. This is as it should be. In a civilised society, racism should revolt everyone; we should say so loudly and demand consequences. But, appalling as they are, these incidents are a symptom, not a cause. The essence of racism, here and elsewhere, is not the few who openly express contempt for Black people. It is the way society operates, the way in which racism operates in the routines of life.
The Jamaican-British theorist Stuart Hall saw racism as “the centrepiece of a hierarchical system that produces differences”. It is worth spelling out what that means.
It is “hierarchical” because it is not what happens when people with equal rights and privileges are prejudiced against each other. It happens because some wield power over others. And, since antiracist scholars remind us that racism directed at Black people began as a justification for the slave trade and colonialism, it is about ensuring that whites exercise power over Blacks.
It is a “system” because it is deeply embedded in the way society works. It survives not because some people express prejudices but because much of life works to ensure that whites decide and Black people live with their decisions. As the average Helen Zille tweet tells you, antiracists are often accused of hostility to white people. But to say that racism is a system is not to declare white people evil – it is to show how the world operates to advantage whites over others. “Whiteness” means not the fact that some people are white but how the system works to favour white people.
It “produces difference” because it is not natural but a way to justify power. There is no justification for denying Black people an equal say in how society and its organisations operate if all people are simply human – so a difference between races must be created. Colonisers and slave masters could not declare that they only were doing it for the money. They needed to claim that they were better than those they exploited or colonised. These invented differences did not disappear because slavery ended and the colonisers (officially) stopped colonising.
This racism operates even if no one calls Black people names or defiles their belongings or uses violence against them. It works even if the vast majority of white people, particularly those whose decisions affect others, genuinely believe that they harbour no prejudices against Black people. Racism can be stubborn and powerful precisely because it appears to be not the product of prejudice but simply the way things are.
What does all this mean in the way in which lives are lived?
Privilege gives advantage
In the economy, racial barriers were scrapped a long time ago. Black people are chief executives, board members and senior managers. But racial equality does not reign. This is, most obviously, because whites have huge inherited advantages: they amassed capital and acquired skills that, for more than a century, Black people were denied. The only way Black people can achieve equality is to do what whites did – use the law. But this is always resisted as interference in the “free market”, ignoring the reality that, if the market is allowed to operate without rules to promote racial equality, it will always be a white-run market.
Another reason is that success in the economy depends on making a living in the way in which whites did under apartheid – by being employed in an office, factory and shop. Black people who don’t do this – because there are no jobs for them – are labelled a problem, not an asset. When they react by finding ways to sustain themselves, they are accused of not being “entrepreneurial” because their economic activities happen on streets and in back yards.
In the professions, again there are no obvious racial barriers. But decades of privilege advantage whites. Research from elsewhere shows how this works. Working-class and Black students at Britain’s top universities tend to miss out on the best jobs, however well they do. The reason is simple – their upper-class, white, fellow students are connected to the people who offer the unpaid holiday jobs that are a springboard to a good position and can afford to take them. There are many ways in which being white in this country offers an advantage in private sector jobs.
Media treatment of news events and public figures routinely expresses racial biases of which most journalists are probably unaware. In ways which are sometimes but not always subtle, white people are often assumed to be competent, Black people have at best to earn that judgement. Anyone who listens carefully to radio and TV interviews can detect the ways in which these biases show themselves.
People who follow sports such as rugby and cricket will know that white players are always assumed to deserve selection, Black players always need to prove merit – even when, as in cricket, in which individual performance is easier to measure, the numbers show that they are more than good enough. Studies in other countries have shown that the phrases sports commentators use are loaded with racial bias: Black footballers are more likely to be praised for their brute power, their “strength” or “speed”, white players for their intelligence or skill.
None of this is the work of evil people spouting racist biases. It is the way the world works because “it has always worked this way”. Of course, it only started working this way when power enabled some to bend others to their will. But it all looks normal and natural and so anyone who challenges it is dismissed as unrealistic, extreme – and deeply prejudiced against white people. And this “normality” ensures that people’s chances in life depend, for most, on their race rather than their ability.
South Africans are very good at calling out obvious racists – the ones who call Black people names or abuse them. But the country is still very poor at naming and changing the core of racism. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that the way things were organised under white rule is so deeply embedded in everyone’s minds that the past three decades have been devoted largely to absorbing Black people into the system rather than changing it. Since the system was designed for the few, most remain on the outside looking in.
When that begins to change, the country will have begun to challenge racism. Until then, shouting at the symptoms is necessary, but leaves the core problem untouched.