Blacks Could Be Racist: A Note on Historical Power

03/04/2017 11:19 SAST | Updated 05/04/2017 07:34 SAST

  1. A Background

The debate about whether blacks can or cannot be racist is one which has persisted in social and political theory for at least half a century and in the public discourse more recently. In South Africa, Steve Biko's definition of racism, which holds that the enjoyment of power over the lives of one's racial-others is a necessary addition to discrimination for an instance or situation to be genuinely racist, was written more than 40 years ago.

Those who argue that blacks can't be racist are typically reliant on a conception of racism similar to Biko's while their critics on the other hand argue either that 1. This definition is wrong and racism must be defined to include all individual transgressions and judgments predicated on race against others or 2. That some blacks at least enjoy the necessary and sufficient economic and political power in order to be racist.

In my recent book Here Is a Table I have argued that the mistake of the liberal critics revolves around their misunderstanding of the meaning of power, I do this through an exposition of what I call historical power. Historical power requires far more than being an exceptional family with political connections, money or property. It is established on the one hand through the enjoyment exercise of social, economic and political power collectively, that is as a group, over a significant period of time. On the other hand, it includes the enjoyment power over the very enterprise and discipline of historical writing and representation itself. It includes, in other words, the power to create institutions of historical production, as well as representative academics, cultural producers and public figures who authorise one's version of the account of the past.

  1. A Theory

Rather than philosophically worthwhile account of racism being independent from the history of racism as some commentators have argued, it is must have its basis on such a history. Because the liberal critics are averse to the history of racism, it is not clear whether they admit that for almost the last four centuries we have been experiencing the progressive development and erection of white supremacy. White supremacy is far more than the mere idea that whites are superior to "non-whites", it is not their not being nice "non-whites" or even physically and verbally abusive towards them. It is the historical establishment and systemisation of political and existential synonymy between whiteness and whites and humanity (and its correspondent rights) itself, if you doubt this just google images of "human being", "man" or "woman". White supremacy has meant that, beyond the Eurocentricism which has imposed European cultural and social standards as the human standard, the very life chances and life expectancies of white people are better and higher in the world.

This state of affairs rather than being natural, is historico-political, and was achieved in South Africa as elsewhere after the conquest of the indigenous peoples in the unjust wars of colonisation, and then their subjugation militarily, juridically, socially and culturally to the status of sub-humanity. They were converted at this time precisely from Africans: from San people, Xhosa people, Venda People etc. into Blacks. Whites of course also attained their own whiteness and superior relationality to these people through this conquest and subjugation.

Whereas the liberal political philosophy and its attendant social ontology of individualism move from the assumption that all human beings are individuals, white Supremacy is precisely a contradiction of that assumption. In a white supremacist society or world it is only whites who have the historical and social capacity for individuality. While this may not be an ontological fact it is certainly both a historical and political one.

Black and White are not incidental placeholders of otherwise individual identities/subjects as a liberal non-racialist might insist. They signify a differentiation between subjectivity and objectivity, between the properly human and some inferior variant thereof. They are precisely the negation, in the case of the black of the capacity for individual identity. In a white supremacist society, every black is all blacks. Individuation is politically futile because of the overdeterminacy of blackness which is at once a place holder for stupidity, barbarity, incompetence, immorality, ugliness, etc. In the case of a supposed social value within white society, for example richness or doctorness. In the case of the black doctor or black millionaire, the blackness negates the value, that is to say the prefix black contradicts any value that follows it. it serves to show that it's not a real doctor, it's likely an incompetent, affirmative action candidate not to be trusted with the lives of real human beings. It's a fact that white patients don't generally use the services of black doctors. The presumption of inferiority or racial prejudice properly called racism has its basis in the history of the political construction of defective ontology. The black millionaire as well is not a real millionaire (who is properly white and presumed to attain wealth by ingenuity, merit and hard work) the black millionaire is a crook, BEE candidate etc.

The corollary is that in the case of supposed negative value the black is now affirmative. Black idiot, black thief, black incompetent etc. It now means real rather than unreal. For the white the converse is true so that the white thief or white idiot negates his whiteness rather than it negating him. He is precisely an individual. His vices are his own particularities. His virtues are whiteness in itself and a reflection upon the greatness of whites.

  1. An Example

It is easy enough I think even for liberals to recognise the statement "blacks are ugly" is a racist statement. The purpose of this section is to show by appeal to example why the apparently similar statement "Whites are ugly" by a black person is not racist however nasty, unkind, or invalid it may be.

From a historical point of view, it can be shown that although the evil effects of white supremacy extend to the very phenomenon of life itself, leading to the unnecessary and preventable death of its victims, Racism's primary procedures militate against the bodies of those it blackens.

White Supremacy has targeted not only their skins (where its metaphors of colour originate) but has historically and even to date included their whole bodies. Everything from their noses, hair, eyes, skin and anatomy has been scrutinised by racist reason in pursuit of negative political aims. In accordance with this reasoning against the body it has often been said that the physiological and physiognomic features of the conquered people were much more comparable to those of animals rather than human beings. To date many popular racist jokes rest on the comparison between Blacks and animals.

The existence of the cosmetics and fashion industries as they do today is a testament to the continuity of white supremacy. Millions of African, Asian and Latin American people invest in skin lightening and bleaching products, hair straighteners, hair extensions and cosmetic surgeries variously known as "nose jobs", "eye jobs" in attempts to pursue the standard of beauty set by their conquerors over the centuries. The worlds of marketing, advertising and entertainment also continue overwhelmingly to promote the Eurocentric standard of beauty.

It is against the context of the foregoing historical account and the structural realities in the industries of cosmetics and fashion and the professions that the assertion by a white person that "blacks are ugly" derives its racist character. Such a statement is a reflection and affirmation of unjust power relations established over centuries of violence. Such a claim rests upon the very structure of the modern world: it has basis in several centuries of history reinforced by thousands of books in libraries throughout the world, and is virtually a reflection of "world culture". Such an assertion has its basis in the already well- established systemic doubt that the world continues to exercise against the humanity and value of life of the indigenous conquered people. It is a political statement, an expression of power which the white subject can make as a white subject regardless of economic or social position. The connectedness of a particular white subject with this claim and the history which sustains it is historico-political. It is a reflection of both the historical and continual subjugation of black people.

Even if the black child of a wealthy politician advanced such a claim as "whites are ugly", regardless of their social, economic and political connections. They would still belong historically to the group about whom ugliness was a historico-political "fact". She would not be able to vote or buy history's revision with any of her resources. As such her historical powerlessness would reduce her utterance to a mere opinion with no corresponding historical record to substantiate it. In fact, what she would find is that the well-established dogmas of history, the media and fashion industry would consider her claim to be false.

The claim may well be subjected to moral examination at the level of interpersonal etiquette. It cannot, however, acquire much above the status of common rudeness.

Before blacks could be racist, it would be necessary for them to conquer white people and subjugate them. They would have to inferiorise them socially, culturally, and juridically, denigrate their culture and impose theirs as the standard for all human beings. They would have to construct a fictitious hierarchy on being's chain in which humanity would be accorded to non-blacks differentially based on their "morphological proximity" to blacks. They would have to structure the economy so that it favoured black flourishing and white exclusion and marginalisation and led to avoidable and premature death of whites. They would have to distort the history of white people and re-write it as a justification for the domination that blacks would at the time enjoy over white people. In a world where all of this had been done and comfortably put in place, there blacks could be racist!