‘The rhetoric of hatred must be replaced with a call to action with common purpose.’
Branko Brkic, All we need is Hope, Daily Maverick (4 October 2020)
If we are to be a nation of hope and reconciliation, we need a common goal regarding social justice. I thought that the goal was an obvious one – a post-racial future to be arrived at through a policy of non-racialism. After reading through some anti-discrimination policies, it seems I was wrong.
An increasing number of activists reject the idea of non-racialism and seek to replace it with a narrative that requires us to be obsessed with racial categories. A socially just society, they say, is one in which imbalances of power are overturned. This is an idea that spreads hateful rhetoric, and it needs to be scrutinised and understood.
I was brought up in post-apartheid South Africa. My moral education cited Apartheid as an example of what can go wrong if we assign value to people based on the colour of their skin.
I was taught that the path to a post-racial future lay in understanding that a person’s value could be found not in some visible characteristic but in what type of person they were. My parents taught me that. My primary school teachers taught me that, and so did my high school teachers. It made sense to me. Skin colour should not matter.
I learned later that what I was being taught, along with millions of other South Africans, was a political worldview that comes from the Enlightenment and is called individualism, or sometimes humanism.
In my naiveté, I assumed that everybody thought the way I, and millions of others, did about what kind of society we wanted to live in, especially given the atrocities of our past. I thought that the goal was a post-racial society – a no-brainer.
A post-racial society would be one in which the question of a person’s race is uninteresting. An analogy might be useful here. Sam Harris, the philosopher and neuroscientist, has suggested that race in a post-racial society would be like hair-colour today. Nobody is concerned about how many blondes or brunettes are sitting on the board of a company. Nobody sincerely believes that the colour of a person’s hair is an indicator of their moral worth. The same should be true for race in a post-racial society.
On arriving at university, I was somewhat shocked to find that many in the humanities departments not only disagreed with non-racialism as a world view but did not share my dedication to the goal of a post-racial society. Instead, non-racialism was tantamount to denial of our racist past. As a white man, I should constantly be aware of the imbalance of power between me and my conversation partner if he/she was not white. Racism existed in the ether. It was everywhere. If you denied this, you were misinformed and did not understand what racism was. Racism could exist in the absence of racist people. It was ‘systemic racism’. Previously oppressed groups could not be racist; they could be prejudiced, but never racist. Racism was a characteristic of the powerful.
This is certainly not to suggest that there is no truth in any of these claims. I learned to be more aware of biases I might carry, among other things.
A troubling lesson, however, was that my belief in a post-racial society betrayed my ignorance of how power imbalance worked, apparently. Of course you would want a post-racial society, the course material would say. That way you can ignore your own racism and avoid coming to terms with your racist past. But I’m not a racist, I would reply. If the term ‘white fragility’ was in use back then, it would have stuck to me like glue.
My general feeling, back then, was that these quasi-religious beliefs – taken from a line of continental thinkers dating back to the Frankfurt School and culminating in disciplines like Critical Race Theory and Critical Social Justice – would largely be confined to humanities departments in academia. I was wrong.
Critical Race Theory is now widespread throughout the Western world. I think it is safe to say that a large majority of people aren’t aware of the true nature of CRT. Perhaps the same people would underestimate the reach of CRT. I do not mean to be alarmist, but I must point out to them that the anti-liberal commitments of CRT are pervasive throughout much of the left-leaning media in the West, as well as corporations and institutions such as schools.
The outrage by many in the media over the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) recent commitment to non-racialism confirms that the goal of a post-racial future is not one shared by everybody.
The outrage also suggests that we should be mindful of vagueness in anti-discrimination policies and party constitutions. Critical Race Theory and other post-modern belief systems have wormed their way into policy.
One tactic that activists who endorse CRT use to further their worldview is to hijack terms and alter their original meaning. I do not mean to say that shifting definitions are inherently bad. In this case, however, if South Africans are to agree on a common goal, vagueness of the sort I will point out needs to be dispelled.
An example is the claim that the DA’s commitment to non-racialism is racist and a way for the party to deny the atrocities of apartheid. No attention has been given to the non-racialism endorsed by our democracy’s founding document or indeed the commitment to non-racialism that appears four times in the first two pages of the African National Congress constitution. The difference is that the DA has been logically consistent in carrying its non-racialism through to the issue of social justice. The party seeks to assess inequality by empirical assessment rather than using race as a proxy for disadvantage.
This has not gone down well with many, and signifies that non-racialism as it appears elsewhere does not mean treating people equally, but instead begins to look a lot like cultural Marxism, where the currency is power, and it is divided unequally along racial lines. Social justice is about fixing the power imbalance in society by ensuring equality of outcome. This is radically different from the liberal notion of social justice, which is about equality of opportunity.
Vagueness is dangerous in this sense. It is difficult to find a common goal if two radically separate political worldviews are represented by the same term.
At the expense of liberal values
The term non-racialism appears in a majority of anti-discrimination policies in South Africa. Certainly, the majority of schools explicitly endorse non-racialism. This may sound terrific to a classically liberal-minded person, but bear in mind that many of these anti-discrimination policies have been written by a new generation of teachers and informed by university education departments that explicitly endorse CRT at the expense of liberal values such as colour-blindness.
Consider the bizarre Kuhnian paradigm shift from the anti-discrimination policy adopted by one South African public high school.
On one hand, the policy commits to ‘celebrating the individuality of every [school] boy’, says that any difference is ‘not a dividing factor’, and recognises that ‘each individual is unique’. But on the other hand, in the very same document, the policy gives concrete examples of what constitutes ‘unfair discrimination’. One such example is ‘saying that you don’t see colour’. To many people, this may seem intellectually unsound. But when viewed from the standpoint of CRT theory, it is understandable.
If I were a teacher or parent, I would read the anti-discrimination policy at my child’s school carefully and ask questions about the exact meaning of terms. Because, as with non-racialism, other terms to do with social justice probably don’t mean what you think they mean. These include concepts such as ‘racism’, ‘systemic racism’, ‘equity’, ‘inclusion’, and ‘harm’.
If these concepts remain vague, their interpretation will depend on whatever body is responsible for enforcing the policy. Given this, parents should not be surprised when their child begins to believe that he or she is an oppressor or victim based on the colour of his/her skin – an explicit belief of CRT.
If ever there was rhetoric of hatred that needs replacing, this is it. Nobody should ever be defined as a victim or oppressor based on a characteristic as immutable skin-colour. Of course, we need to acknowledge and learn from our sordid past. But just because we have a past that cast some as victims and some as oppressors does not mean that all children born in this world need to be defined by the actions of their ancestors. This will only perpetuate division across racial lines.
South Africans need to work together towards a common goal. One such goal could be a post-racial future where skin-colour does not matter. Judging by the reaction to the DA policy of non-racialism, a future defined by race-obsession is also on the cards. The latter goal seems to be gaining traction, given the content of many of the anti-discrimination policies I have read lately, and working towards this goal will involve spreading hateful rhetoric of the kind informed by Critical Race Theory.
Liberals should be concerned about how Critical Race Theory is hijacking liberal terminology. When deciding on a collective goal, vagueness should be replaced by clarity. Otherwise, how are we meant to agree on a way forward?
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR