Paradoxically, many studies of racism are focusing on the absence of race in the language of contemporary western society rather than its presence (e.g. Frankenberg 2003, van Dijk
It is these questions which David Goldberg is tackling through his new book 'The Death of Race' due for release in 2004 through Basil Blackwell. The title of his draft first chapter ‘Buried Alive’ which was the basis of his lecture on 31 July 2003 – tells us what he thinks: it is premature to celebrate the death of racism.
A key innovation in Goldberg’s approach is to avoid starting with the usual line that racism has cleverly ‘evolved’ and adapted ‘chameleon like’ to be acceptable in the new environment of political correctness. Instead, he expresses disappointment in movements against racism themselves for abandoning their programme half way through the transition. Goldberg’s entry point, then, is not to plot a genealogy of racism, but rather to sketch a periodisation of movements against racism. He argues that antiracist initiatives can be periodised around three movements: (1) abolitionism in the nineteenth century, (2) the civil rights movement and anticolonialism of the twentieth century until around 1960, followed by (3) multiculturalism and anti-apartheid movements in the latter part of the twentieth century. (On Goldberg’s periodisation, I would add the world’s response to Nazism – itself a factor in civil rights and decolonization – as a major component of the second movement).
Goldberg’s core argument is that, whereas each of these began as movements against broad social structures that produced the conditions for genocide, exploitation, and segregation, they all petered out, becoming movements concerned with mere semantics. Following Appiah, Goldberg distinguishes between antiracism and antiracialism. While antiracism is concerned with the substantive impact of racial ideologies and programmes on the lived conditions of its victims, antiracialism is only concerned with concepts, categories and labels that invoke race. (For me, these overlap with Frankenberg’s 1993 concepts of race cognizance and colour evasiveness respectively). With antiracialism, it is these categorizations, in and of themselves, that are found to be offensive. To put it crudely, the difference between antiracialism and antiracism is the difference between style and substance. For antiracialists, there is little difference between a white person disliking a black person on the basis of their black identity, than a black person disliking a white person on the basis of their white identity. Affirmative action is thus described as racist. By contrast, although Goldberg does not say as much, we could imagine that antiracists are more likely to see Eurocentric/white supremacist racism as being of a qualitatively different kind. It recognizes the power relations that produce the identities of settler/colonized; slave owner/slave; government/subject; boss/worker. Affirmative action, therefore, may be seen as a legitimate avenue to redress the effects of these power relations.
Goldberg argues, then, that these movements set out to transform the iniquitous conditions of society but only ended up removing overt racial subjugation, exclusion and exploitation without following through on a thorough attempt to redress these. It is as though the moral momentum is maintained to end that what is broadly acknowledged to be wrong, but commitment to transform economic and political conditions does not survive the renunciation of the racist programme. The revolution is incomplete. How did this happen? One reason is that these antiracist movements snooker themselves by outlawing the language through which they could acknowledge and confront the legacy of the racist past. As if to confirm their transition away from racist programmes (slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, apartheid), ‘post-racial’ societies ban the very category of ‘race’ from their language. References to ‘black’ and ‘white’ are in and of themselves seen to constitute racism. References to race become taboo and movements therefore disarm themselves of the tools with which to confront the racially differentiated effects of discriminatory social political and economic structures.
Another reason why anti-racist movements appear – from a radical perspective – to run out of steam at the point of transition is that they are not, in fact, radical movements at all, and believe that they have achieved their objectives. Maybe they were antiracial movements all along. The initiatives that Goldberg/Appiah classify as antiracial probably see themselves as opposing racism, defined in quite different terms. What we are seeing, in fact, is liberalism; a set of ideologies which its holders consider progressive – and it has been in its vocal opposition to slavery, the holocaust, and apartheid – but considers its end point to be the achievement of democracy alone. The key debate then is whether democracy is the sufficient condition for a post-racist society or whether democracy can accommodate enduring forms of (often racialised) exclusion. The problem is that liberalism would not recognize such exclusion as racist but rather as the legitimate outcome of the market society in which everyone – supposedly – has equal opportunities for upward mobility. Flowing from liberal conceptions, the evil to be eradicated for antiracialists is the illogical prejudice and hatred of a person on the basis of their ‘skin colour’. This is the evil that leads to ‘hate crimes’ of various kinds and to irrational exclusion of certain kinds of people from various aspects of society. Racial laws such job colour bars are seen as illogical as they exclude people from vertical social mobility on the basis of their ‘race’ despite of the fact that they may have capabilities beyond this glass ceiling. Colour blindness is, thus, a significant moral achievement for this grouping.
The problem, of course, that this fixation on labels is a red herring which distracts from the ‘real’ issue. At the very least it cannot accommodate a broader historical contextualization of the political and economic conditions that produced racial deprivation. Even more worryingly, for all its moral righteousness, antiracialism is not an unambiously progressive shift and can, in fact, be a ticket back to racism. Racism is therefore not dead, but ‘born again’ in Goldberg’s words. Racism is not gone, but has simply transformed in the new social environment. In societies of imperial Europe, apartheid South Africa, the US pre-civil rights, racism was a relatively unproblematic social norm which needed little explanation, qualification or apology. It was broadly acceptable to order society into races, to order races hierarchically and to implement a variety of programmes that flowed from this logic such as extermination, labour exploitation, missionary and education initiatives, political subjugation, and spatial segregation. However, the effect of anti-colonialism, anti-apartheid and the civil rights movements was to introduce a level of shame to this use of racial categories. In effect, racism was made aware of its nakedness and was no longer able to parade in openly without being, at some level, self conscious. Overt racism is no longer an unproblematic social norm as it once was and has had to adapt accordingly.
The response by those who wished to continue ordering society hierarchically and to use this ordering to justify exploitation, attempts to educate the uneducated, attempts to live separately from those who were considered to be lower on social hierarchies, was to strip their justification of all references to racial categories. Racism thus responded to the need for it to become more discreet. This is precisely where antiracialism, a movement against the use of racial terms, and racism defined as the construction of a hierarchy between the ‘superior’ West and its inferior others, are entirely compatible. It is quite possible for the west to create an inferior Other using the same criteria it did in the past, such as backwardness, barbarism, cruelty, traditionalism, unproductivity – in short, uncivilized – without referring to black and white at all. Distinctions between first and third worlds, developed and undeveloped, educated and uneducated will do, as they all denote an evolutionary separation (Fabian 1983: 17-8).
Something which I have been wrestling with is the extent to which racism remains an appropriate category for describing a logic which divides and hierachically organises society according to non racial categories? Is it sufficient to say that because these social divisions and hierarchies overlap with race, without ever acknowledging as much, that they are racist? Racism – in some ways – is too small a term to describe what is going on. Racism is just one way in which a powerful group can denigrate, and therefore exclude and subjugate, another group. Such processes of ‘Othering’ produce those who are dividing society as a civilized centre (worthy of equal moral responsibility), and an uncivilized other. A centre produces its others by describing it as chaotic, dirty, backwards, uneducated, irrational (see Mennell 1992 on Elias). Europe has applied such descriptions to its own citizens to produce social inferiority along class lines – defined in an identity sense as well as a narrow economic sense. Through various dimensions of othering, e.g. race and class, middle classes all over the world have attempted to define themselves as modern and civilized.
Should we even be concerned about the extent to which these identify formation processes are ‘racist’ – a definitional exercise which sends us down the intellectual cul-de-sac which has characterized the ‘race-class debate’. What is important about them is that they diminish – in the eyes of those who hold such construct – the importance of ‘others’ as objects of moral responsibility. For me, it is this mechanism that is the crucial continuity between the past and present – not whether or not behavior is still racist.
To illustrate this point: the post apartheid South African government appears to go against Goldberg’s predictions that antiracist movements will outlaw the use of racial terminology. This discourse is indeed prevalent amongst the liberal opposition party – the DA – which warns against a ‘reracialisation’ of society. To the contrary, the ANC government places strong emphasis on employment equity (affirmative action) and on black economic empowerment (i.e. black ownership of business and access to business opportunities). In South Africa, the antiracialist line is held by the opposition while the government ostensibly retains an antiracist ideology. However, while affirmative action and empowerment do help remove barriers confronted by those already benefiting from the formal economy, this ideology is not used to confront the continued exclusion of large percentages of the population from the job market all together. How far – then – can antiracism help address this exclusion – which was clearly linked to the racialised political economy of apartheid but which is in fact growing in post apartheid (post racist) South Africa?
Finally – on a different point – Goldberg argues that the weight of race is born differently by different people in society. This is useful, but I would probably use a different analogy. I would argue that the pressure points of race are different depending on an individual’s particular and multiple relationship to gender, race, sexuality and many dimensions of difference. Black women, under apartheid, bore a different burden to black men. Indian and coloured communities bore different burdens to African communities. Hundreds of white gay men conscripted to the army were sent for psychiatric treatment and even gender reassignment. And there is room for maneuver: some black people became the informants of apartheid’s intelligence services while some white people were committed activists who were persecuted and even imprisoned for their anti-apartheid activities. Even white men who supported the National Party – the apparent beneficiaries of apartheid – continue live with the effects of post trauma stress as a result of their experiences in the South African army.
Nelson Mandela himself stated that “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of prejudice and narrow-mindedness … the oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. The oppressor must be liberated as sure as the oppressed” (Quoted by Carter, Gina “Society Where Everyone Has a Place” Independent on Saturday. 25 July 1998, p 8. Also see Magubane 1996: 17). That racism is to be morally condemned is not in doubt. However, doing so in race studies can simply replicate romanticized notions of victims and oppressors (Bonnett 2000: 123; Back and Solomos 1993: 183, Grossberg 1996: 88). It is crucial – therefore – to locate racism as one element of the social production of difference according to a variety of planes (ethnicity, development, gender, sexuality, etc) and with which individuals engage in a variety of ways. We should take care to ensure that it is this social production of difference which is the target of our concerns.
Back, Les and Solomos, John (1993) “Doing Research, Writing Politics: the Dilemmas of Political Intervention in Research on Racism” Economy and Society. vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 178-199
Bonnett, Alastair (2000) White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives. UK: Prentice Hall
Fabian, Johannes (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press
Frankenberg, Ruth (1993) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press and Routledge
Grossberg, Lawrence (1996) “Identity and Cultural Studies – Is That All There Is?” in Hall,
Stuart and Du Gay, Paul (eds) Questions of Cultural Identity. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage, ch. 6, pp. 87-107
Magubane, Bernard M. (1996) The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875-1910. Trenton NJ, Asmara Eritrea: Africa World Press
Mennell, Stephen (1992) Norbert Elias: An Introduction. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell (Originally published in 1989 as Norbert Elias: Civilization and the Human Self Image)
van Dijk, Teun (1993) “Analyzing Racism Through Discourse Analysis: Some Methodological Reflections” in Stanfield, John and Dennis, Rutledge (eds) Race and Ethnicity in Research Methods. California, US: Sage
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