Racial bias not just among a crazy, violent fringe

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

Denying uncomfortable realities is a South African habit. And the most common and damaging form of denial happens when some of us wish away our most important divide — race.

Last week’s allegation that white students at the University of the Free State rode over and assaulted a black student has prompted outrage — as it should. But there is a problem about this reaction: it tends to portray racial incidents as rare and isolated, the work of a crazy fringe. And that can blind us to the reality that race remains the core problem in this society.

Yes, most of us do not use violence against people who are racially different. Two decades of (some) mingling has increased tolerance across racial barriers. Some in our public life do use race as an excuse to hide their failings. But to claim, as many do, that race is no longer a problem because racial laws were scrapped 20 years ago, is to ignore our biggest challenge. To cite just one piece of evidence — 80% of the claims received by the South African Human Rights Commission are prompted by allegations of racism.

And so, if the reaction to the Free State incident is to serve any useful purpose, it will be to remind us that we continue to pay a high price for a national debate that does not take race nearly seriously enough.

We are, of course, trying to emerge from 300 years in which whites dominated. This reality, and the attitudes that accompany it, do not disappear because the law changes. It is 150 years since the US abolished slavery and 50 since the law there ended formal discrimination. And yet, despite the election of a black president (the first in more than 200 years of independence), recent studies show that race is mainly why Republicans refuse to work with Barack Obama. And so it is no surprise that many here still assume that whites know better.

This bias remains an issue in the sports blacks and whites play (cricket fans might ponder why Thami Tsolekile is never good enough for the Proteas, even when the first-choice wicketkeeper has an injured hand). It colours much of our public debate, which is often conducted in code because it has become unacceptable to say that whites are smarter than blacks, yet many people still feel this. And, most important of all for readers of this newspaper, it is still the greatest barrier to the economy’s growth.

Fears that rule by majority black governments always ends badly help explain why negatives in the investment environment are often exaggerated (and then turned into "scientific findings" by rating agencies, which feed off the fears of South Africans). Racial divides also explain why relations between the private and public sectors here are much more difficult than they need be.

The prejudice that assumes that black people rise to senior positions only through racial favouritism — combined with the reality that, if people are told repeatedly that they are inferior they may come to believe it and might not perform to their potential — means that we do not use much of our available human talent.

One of the many consequences of denying race here is that what people say to each other in spaces where the races meet (businesses, for example) is not what they really mean. When people feel the power balance is stacked against them, they say what they think power holders want them to say, not what they believe. And so there may be a huge gap between what black people who work for formal businesses say and what they feel.

Given our history, none of this should be surprising. Nor might it be damaging if we were prepared to deal with it. What is damaging is that we avoid the issue. And so relations between public and private power holders remain difficult, many investment decisions are still shaped by fear, not reason, and we continue to waste talent. Failure to address race and its effects costs this economy far more than the policy decisions that are usually charged with hampering progress. That our racial past is still with us is disturbing but inevitable. That we refuse to deal with it is damaging and avoidable.

This also tells us what we need to do about the problem. In the early 1990s, when it was obvious that the racial patterns of the past could not continue, it was fairly common for us to discuss race — and for organisations to offer programmes that encouraged people to face, and deal with, racial biases. Much of this ended after 1994, because we fooled ourselves by believing that race was no longer a problem.

We need to return to the spirit of that time. As we celebrate 20 years of democracy, we must take race as seriously now as we did then, encouraging people to talk about it and move beyond it.

If we continue to ignore it, we will see more incidents on campuses. And race will continue to hamper economic growth and social progress.


Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Article Source: Business Day