It was at Rhodes University that I first heard that blacks can't be racist. An older dreadlocked student, with a torturous habit of speaking painstakingly slowly (a habit I suspected was designed to win an argument by inducing a coma in an opponent), tried to convince me that blacks can't be racist. He failed.
Unfortunately, arguments can be popular even when they are not very good. Over the past two years I have again encountered people, this time around in Joburg, who insist, "Blacks can't be racist, dude!" It is necessary to expose all that is wrong with this absurd idea.
The argument goes something like this: you can only be racist if you have enough social, economic and political power to successfully mistreat other race groups. Blacks have for centuries been disempowered. They have not really improved their lot in life despite democracy's dawn. This means that blacks do not possess any real power. Therefore blacks can't be racist.
Crucially, people who push this argument often anticipate the retort that explains that we are now politically liberated as a society, but they say we should not be fooled by the appearance of political freedom: blacks remain disempowered in 2012 despite democracy's birth and Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
Being able to vote in regular elections does not mean you have political power. And even if you have political power, you may not have sufficient economic and social power to be racist.
This argument is obviously based on the idea that racism must be understood - defined even - in relation to its history.
Racism arose in South Africa in a particular socio-political, historical context. Racism did not, and does not, occur in an ahistorical vacuum. Our history is the history of how blacks, as a group, were psychologically and materially bruised and battered at every turn.
Although a black majority government now runs the country, millions of black South Africans continue to be socially, economically and, some would say even politically, marginalised. The new South Africa is certainly not an egalitarian society; it is anything but. It remains a deeply unjust place. This injustice means that the black majority are still disempowered.
Consequently, they cannot be racist.
This argument, however, has a number of problems. The main claim in the argument, if you think about it carefully enough, is not actually that blacks can never be racist. It is also not that blacks are psychologically incapable of racism. Hopefully no one would be silly enough to make these claims.
The real claim is this: unless and until blacks have sufficient economic, social and political power, they cannot, as yet, act in a racist manner. This position is actually not as radical as the people who advance it think it is.
Basically the argument amounts to a conditional claim, "Eusebius, I'm not saying you can't be racist ever dude! I'm just saying get yourself enough money, that stuff they call 'social capital', and yeah you're ready to be racist then!"
But many black South Africans meet this standard. It is certainly not true, at the very least, that no black South African has this kind of power.
Tokyo Sexwale's kids, for example, could not plausibly claim to be economically, socially and politically disempowered. The same applies for thousands of black middle class children and their professional, well-educated, creditworthy parents. And these numbers are not small. Most of the former whites-only schools are now largely black in terms of the demographics of the student bodies, and many of us who went through these schools are now middle class South Africans.
It would be a huge stretch to claim that all of these black South Africans are so psychologically bruised that their apparent middle class status, confidence, upward mobility and social and political capital mean nothing, for the purposes of deciding whether they meet the condition of "being empowered".
So at most what the argument should have concluded is this, "Some blacks can be racist; the majority cannot be racist... for now." But the proponents of this position do not seem to take seriously their own criteria for who can and cannot be racist in society. They seem hell-bent on pushing the slogan, "Blacks can't be racist!" with no serious interest in examining what lurks beneath the claim.
The flip side of what I am saying is also difficult for proponents of this position to accept. Some whites are now so poor and disempowered that presumably they cannot be racist.
I remember in the mid-1990s visiting my dad in Port Elizabeth - I lived in Grahamstown with my grandparents. My dad lived in a suburb called Kensington.
It is not as posh as suburbs by that name in big cities! Far from it; it used to be the dumping ground for poor whites.
And for the first time, as a schoolkid, I saw dirt-poor white people who looked like some of the Afrikaners from my history textbook in chapters about concentration camps, courtesy of the Anglo-Boer War (before post-apartheid textbooks renamed it the South African War in recognition of the fact that blacks, too, were involved.)
It was a shock to my system to see white beggars whenever I went to the local shop. I could not believe a white person could look so dejected. The sight was unnatural to me. Only blacks, I thought as a kid, should be beggars. And in a weird way I found myself feeling sorrier for these white beggars than the black ones - the sight was just too new, too unnatural for my young eyes.
There is no way - no way -many of the white kids and their parents in my dad's neighbourhood could be said to be empowered. They are socially, economically and politically down and out. For sure, some still think they are superior to blacks. I am under no illusion that poverty necessarily humbles one. Many poor whites still harbour attitudes of superiority.
But I also got to see enough white men and women who treated my dad as their superior - he had a great job, his wife was a professional, and he was middle class compared with them. They dropped their heads in his presence in the way my grandfather would have done in the presence of their parents.
And so the question is, if one can be racist only if you have the right amount of power, do we concede that these whites are incapable of racism, just like their black counterparts? I suspect many who think blacks can't be racist would resist me here, but only because they are not interested in being consistent and principled in their moral reasoning.
I often wonder if those who think blacks can't be racist ever stop and think about the implications of this viewpoint for black people. I would guess their chief concern is enjoying a rebellious delight in the reactions of especially whites to the claim that blacks can't be racist. Yet, if one thinks about it, quite apart from robbing a white person of the entitlement to be a victim of anti-white racism, the idea that blacks can't be racist is an insult to black people. It is dehumanising.' The reason is simple. Being able to do wrong is part of what it means to be human. If someone cannot do wrong, they are less human than the rest of us.
Just imagine, for example, that you were born without the ability to ever think badly about any other person. That would not be an achievement, surely? It would be like being born with blue or brown eyes - luck of the draw, rather than an achievement. So you're not doing blacks a favour by saying they cannot act in a racist manner towards other race groups.
The real achievement in life is choosing not to harm others. So this idea that blacks can't be racist in effect diminishes the full set of human experiences blacks might have, including doing wrong. This seems to me to be a pretty good reason to reject this argument. The only advantage of a definition of racism that is tied to the history of anti-black racism is that it forces us never to forget the material conditions in which people live that result in imbalanced power relations. Imbalances in power relations create a climate in which prejudicial actions on the basis of race linger (even if such power imbalances do not justify racism).
But it does not seem to me that we should therefore say that the historical trajectory of racism is the core of the definition of racism. The history of racism and the definition of racism are not the same thing. And I think people who want to define racism only in historic terms are simply not thinking clearly.
- Eusebius McKaiser is the host for Talk at Nine on Radio 702 during the week, a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He holds law and philosophy degrees from Rhodes and Oxford universities. This article was published on Sunday Independent.