The Language of Race Cannot Be Discarded

Cape Times (South Africa), May 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Language of Race Cannot Be Discarded


BYLINE: Zimitri Erasmus

IT'S clear that Professor David Benatar imagines himself to hold the meaning of "truth".

It is clear he is primarily concerned with "being right" and with showing others to be "wrong". In light of his unyielding attachment to his position, there is no point in singularly focusing on a direct response to him.

While this contribution responds to some of his statements, its main objective is to provide an alternative perspective on equity policies, their politics and their implementation. I differ from Benatar in that I think the best arguments about political matters are located in lived reality rather than abstract logic.

Benatar is correct when he says that equity policies cannot, and do not, address all social injustices. As a criticism, however, this statement is misplaced since these policies are designed to address particular social injustices based on "race", gender and disability.

He is correct when he says that those who benefit from such policies are mainly already privileged in relation to their economically poorer counterparts.

He forgets, however, first, that beneficiaries of equity are not exclusively black. White women and white people who are disabled benefit, too. Second, he forgets that membership of the middle-class might protect black people from poverty, and from more brutal forms of racism, but it does not protect them from everyday, elusive forms of racial exclusion that are an integral part of racism's functioning. Third, he forgets that poorer black people experience both poverty and racism.

History has shown that democracy, equal opportunity and fairness are not sufficient to address the specificities of class, "race" and gender injustices in their various configurations.

For this reason, each has to be addressed specifically, with consideration for the various ways in which they intersect.

In this vein, Steven Friedman correctly insists on distinguishing between measures explicitly designed to address racial inequality and those so designed to eradicate poverty. This distinction recognises the limits of a politics that is class-determined as well as those of a politics that gives "race" absolute centrality.

Benatar is blind to the nuances of particular injustices, and to the need to address these specifically.

Alongside his first concern about distributing some benefits on the basis of "race", he is concerned, secondly, that these benefits don't reach those who, in his view, need them most. Here he seems to advocate equal access - for the least prepared and the least powerful - to university education and professional positions in higher education.

At first this appears a noble argument, particularly in the context of a growing black middle class, in a South Africa where the dramatic shift, for a select few, from being an anti-apartheid activist to a US-dollar millionaire does not raise public moral and political outrage, where a Basic Income Grant is not as yet a high priority, and primary and secondary education are for the most part in a mess.

The not-so-noble side of this argument is that equal access for the least prepared and the least powerful is bound to re-inscribe existing power relations premised on unearned "race" privilege and disadvantage, power relations that intersect with and are constituted by hierarchies of class and constructions of cultural competency.

It is guaranteed to re-inscribe a white elite's hold over intellectual authority and, consequently, to position black people in a perpetual state of "needing to be more prepared". In this scheme of things, benevolent whites can remain patrons to needy blacks.

Continuing in the vein of Benatar's inaugural lecture, this would amount to a condescending form of affirmative action.

Moreover, those least prepared and least powerful, when subjected to Benatar's style of Socratic debate, are likely consciously to leave universities in order to avoid this humiliation. …

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