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Racism is all too real, but 'race' is only skin-deep

08 July 2018 - 00:00 By Salim Vally and Enver Motala

The scourge of racism bequeathed by history is part of our present. Acts of racial prejudice (Vicki Momberg), the exchanges between Floyd Shivambu and Ismail Momoniat - compounded by Julius Malema - and the debacle around the name of Cape Town's airport show that the past will remain with us unless we reckon firmly with history and how it perpetuates racial capitalism today.
Social strife and the explosion of conflict predicted by Neville Alexander's critique of the flawed approach to the "national question" are imminent. Even for those parties that profess aversion to racist practice, their ideas are about a "multiracial" perspective in which the idea that "races" exist remains firmly entrenched. They fail to recognise how they reproduce the discredited and abhorrent ideas of apartheid and inequality - the mainsprings of social division.
Alexander's perspective was prescient because he warned against the persistent assertion of the idea that South Africa was made up of four "nations" - coloureds, Indians, Africans and whites - sometimes called "races" and even "minorities" or "majorities".
These apartheid nomenclatures and stereotypes thrive in the day-to-day discourses of political parties, among bureaucrats, captains of industry and media presenters who frame their interviews and questions within the ideas of "race".
In institutions of scientific knowledge such as universities and research councils, academics and administrators wield the categories unconscionably, without caveat about their use in application forms, research surveys and other documentation. They are insouciant about the implications, despite the existence of alternatives that provide for genuine social and class-based equity.Using the manufactured apartheid categories implies that "race" has an objective meaning, ignoring how the notion is deeply implicated in the production of racism. Ideas of "race" persist despite a whole body of academic and other writings having exploded the myth of racial categorisation.
The idea of "race", which has no basis in science, has sunk deep into people's psyches and social consciousness based on the phenotypic and other characteristics of the human population. It is one of apartheid's successes.
A voluminous body of writing has shown how the idea of "race" has been used by racists in the process of global plunder and looting to serve the nefarious ends of political subjugation, economic control and exploitation, and simultaneously to implant ideas about superiority and inferiority and a ladder of hierarchy among human beings.
The claims of those who insist on their "blackness", who argue that "Black Lives Matter" and that "whiteness" too has useful explanatory value for revealing racist attitudes, must be understood. The claim of "blackness" can never be disregarded because it is based on the reality that the hammer blows and pervasive effects of racism have always fallen on darker-skinned people.
The claim to "blackness" and "race matters" must be differentiated from the uses of the apartheid categories of "race" that were markers of the ideas of racist superiority. These are not claims to privilege and would be wrong if used for that purpose. They are intended to restore the humanity and dignity of those who have been violated by racism.
Racism springs from both prejudice - which characterised human societies for centuries - and colonialism, slavery and capital accumulation - entrenching the idea that there are separate "races" in the world and there is a hierarchy of the ability to think, reason and invent.We were taught that Europeans are capable of socioeconomic, political and cultural forms of life that are superior to those of the "non-European races" and which entitled the former to "civilise" the latter.
Divisions within communities were fostered by our colonisers through the skilful use of pre-existing prejudice and the false hierarchies of "race", gender, religion, "culture", sexuality or other attributes.
Racism and prejudice will not be resolved, and attempts at building a future free of racism will fail, if we do not deal with the fundamental material reality of inequality and the exploitation on which racism thrives. We must critically examine the failure of the present party-political and other discourses, and the state's neoliberal policies that reproduce the idea of "race" at every turn, providing fertile ground for those who mobilise on a racist and ethnic basis.
Only then can we develop forms of education and social consciousness to deal decisively with the historical and contemporary phenomenon of racism and build bridges asserting our collective humanity.
• Vally is professor of education at the University of Johannesburg and Motala is adjunct professor at Nelson Mandela University..

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