At a time when distant events are brought to us with such immediacy that we feel they are happening to us and that we must do something about them or risk failing a basic moral test, there is a natural enthusiasm for joining in collective gestures in the hope of exhibiting our better selves.
The sentiments and the solidarity may be genuine enough, but if that’s as far as it goes, it’s not nearly enough.
In the case of Black Lives Matter, it is not enough for two reasons.
The first is that there is more to #BLM than many of its well-meaning but almost certainly naïve devotees appear to appreciate. In the coming week, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) will be publishing a detailed report on the genesis of the movement, its ideological goals and its strategies for achieving them.
What emerges is a movement that ultimately undermines the very instruments that best serve society and social change: openness, debate, argument.
These are the best tools for getting to the bottom of problems and finding solutions to them. But they are not tolerated by #BLM activism that punishes by shame and vilification and demands unquestioning adherence to its own view. These are the tactics of demagoguery which history has shown to undermine liberty and progress, and which defeat the moral ideals that serve society best.
Taking the knee, then, is less an endorsement of moral virtue than submission to what was recently described by the some of the world’s leading writers and thinkers as a ‘stifling atmosphere [that] will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time’, and founded on a ‘false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other’.
They warned: ‘The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power, and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.’
This is dangerous in any society.
But the second reason why simply taking the knee is profoundly insufficient is most acutely applicable in South Africa’s case.
It is an inescapable deception to imagine that ‘whiteness’ or ‘privilege’ or ‘systemic racism’ (‘systemic violence’, in some formulations) are the cause in South Africa of conditions in which it could legitimately be argued that black lives don’t matter.
From this flows the second deception of imagining that erasing ‘whiteness’, ‘privilege’ or ‘systemic racism’ would make the slightest difference, in the absence of effective policies capable of liberating rather than impeding the majority of people, most of them black, and most of them poor.
It is easier – there is no question – to take the knee than to stand up and make a case for the practical bread-and-butter alternatives to the damaging policies which, today, stand between desperate poverty and a middle class life of opportunity and success for most black South Africans.
The IRR has arguably done more than any other organisation to expose the anatomy of racial injustice in South Africa, before and after 1994. Its research offers telling insights into the scale of justifiable optimism about the extent of society’s attachment to the ideal of non-racialism. But it also offers some of the most discomforting truths about the limited reach of post-democratic ambitions.
Where the overwhelming majority of South Africans hold respectful and moderate opinions, and believe in a shared future based on equal rights and opportunities for all, a quarter of a century of democratic governance has failed to match these hopes.
Consider the bald contrast revealed in the custom-made Quality of Life (QOLI) Index crafted by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the IRR in 2017 to benchmark progress in improving South Africans’ quality of life.
The index is based on the following ten weighted indicators (scored from 0 to 10) reflecting the quality of life of a person or household: the matric pass rate; unemployment (based on the expanded definition); monthly expenditure of R10 000 or more; household tenure status (houses owned but not yet paid off to a bank); household access to piped water, electricity for cooking, and a basic sanitation facility; irregular or no waste removal, medical aid coverage and the murder rate.
The first index captured 2015/16 data. The second, published in November last year, captures 2018 data.
In both, the picture is stark: white South Africans emerge with the highest quality-of-life score of 8.1 (when murder data, not measurable by race but by province, is excluded) and 7.9 (when a nationally averaged murder rate is used). Outcomes were worst for black South Africans, with index scores in 2017 of 5.2 and 5.4 respectively, and 5.3 and 5.4 last year.
Worst for black people
Indicators in which white South Africans had the best outcomes in both indexes include the matric pass rate, unemployment, expenditure exceeding R10 000 per month, mortgaged houses, waste removal, medical aid coverage and access to a basic sanitation facility. The outcomes were worst for black people on all indicators.
Measured against data of this kind, gestures of supposed racial solidarity are as puny as they look. So, too, the claims that racism is at the bottom of it.
Racism is a scourge that deserves every bit of the public repudiation it earns, and nothing can detract from the importance of challenging and exposing it wherever it is detected.
The irony is not only that it will be that much harder to detect and challenge racism and its flawed, medieval assumptions where free speech – indispensable to verifying, exposing and defeating it – is undermined, but that racism itself will flourish.
So, too, will the delusion that racism is to blame for the chronic deficiencies that weigh most heavily on black people, and come at great cost to all South Africans.
The question is not whether black lives matter, but what must be done to demonstrate, for once, that they do – not with easy gestures and silly, self-congratulatory platitudes that are guaranteed to accumulate Facebook ‘likes’, but in what we are prepared to do, in public, to compel the long-overdue change millions depend on.
[Picture: Alex Motoc on Unsplash]