Race transcends class in this country: a response to Seekings and Nattrass

| Xolela Mangcu
The Rhodes statue on UCT has been boarded up. Photo by Christine Ayela.

In their article Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass decry that “the racialization of pain serves to reduce injustices and indiginities to race, foreclosing serious consideration of other forms of injustice and indignity”. I don’t know about Seekings and Nattrass but to me as a black person racism is a primary form of injustice and indignity.

See article by Seekings and Nattrass.

It is what links me to other black people no matter how much I may try to distance myself from them. While Seekings, Nattrass and I all share to different degrees the privileges of being professors at UCT, to many white people on the streets I am a breed apart. I would have to announce that I am a professor before I am treated with respect. At such moments racism is not “relatively autonomous” or secondary to class. It is the existential pain of black people that Seekings and Nattrass will never have to experience.

The fact that black middle class and working class students have joined hands around racism should be enough empirical proof that race transcends class in this country, and that it must be studied on its own terms. But then again as Malcom X said during his famous address at Harvard in 1968: “where white people are concerned it has been my experience that they are extremely intelligent on most subjects until it comes to race. When you come to the racial issue in this country the whites lose all their intelligence. They become very subjective, and they want to tell us how it should be solved. But if you’re thinking we sitting in the same chair or standing on the same platform then you won’t understand what I am talking about. You’d expect me to stand up here and say what you would say. And I’d be out of my mind.”

And what about the argument that the students hijacked a process of rational deliberation. This depoliticized notion of rational deliberation is of course blind to the fact that the university had set up the so-called deliberation in a way that would most likely prejudice the students. They did this by putting out Barney Pityana out front as the respected black who would put the students in their place. They could not have made a worse mistake. But what intrigues me is why such a seasoned political figure should have fallen for it.

What the students did was to see the set-up for what it was, and now that the shoe is on the other foot, Seekings and Nattrass are complaining. That is certainly one privilege and prerogative that the students turned on its head – that a racial majority would have the prerogative to tell them about their experiences.

Seekings and Nattrass call on UCT to reject imperialism but at the same time defend the right of those who wish to propagate such ideas. They write about the racist emails that the students received as one part of a broader debate that incorporate other views as well. So black students are supposed to stomach the racist abuse while other members of the university community go on deliberating on other issues.

My colleagues make references to how the German museum has Nazi memorabilia but they carefully skirt the question of how acceptable a Hitler statue would be in any German or Israeli university.

In any self-respecting democratic society racists must be given “a sectarian existence”, argues the distinguished social theorist Michael Walzer. Under no circumstances should they be tolerated in the name of rational deliberation. When racist emails on such a wide-scale are expressed by a such a large component of the university community then everything must stop. I would expect Jewish people or women or any identity group to make similar demands when evil lurks in their midst.

I cannot say anything about the goings- on in the Senate because I am not a member of that body. I agree with Seekings and Nattrass that the statue could have been put in a university museum – although I am not sure they would support my idea that such a gallery should be dedicated to the study of race, colonialist and apartheid. They also disregard the role that the racist responses played in making even such a reasonable proposition possible. The racism displayed by a large component of the university community – on this matter and questions of admission and staff transformation in general – should be taken as a micro-level display of what is happening at the macro-level. This country is moving closer and closer to the brink of racial war, simply because white people refuse to take seriously the pain of black people.

Mangcu is an Associate Professor in UCT’s Department of Sociology. No inference should be made on whether the views expressed in this article reflect the editorial position of GroundUp.

NOTE BY GROUNDUP EDITOR

Because GroundUp does not have full control over the display and order of comments via the Disqus comments system, we have copied below a response written as a comment by Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass, followed by a reply to that by Xolela Mangcu.

REPLY BY JEREMY SEEKINGS AND NICOLI NATTRASS

Dear Xolela

Thank you for engaging with our piece. You seem to have read into our column a series of assertions that we did not make. Let us remove some of these misunderstandings. First, we ourselves acknowledged the pain that many ‘black’ professors and students feel, and endorsed your own argument about recognising the importance of pain – which is why we agree that the statue should be moved. Nor do we doubt the enduring importance of race and racism in South African society. Indeed, as you know, we have written about this elsewhere. Nor do we suggest that Nazi symbolism is acceptable in public. Nazi artifacts – including death camps – are confined to museums. We also fail to see how we are defending racism in the name of deliberation.

We are pleased to hear that you share our preference for relocating the statue to a gallery, and that it should be dedicated to the critical study of racialized imperialism.

You seem to avoid our first major point: that Manichean politics reduces debate to its polarised extremes, and erodes the space for deliberation in the middle. You refer to the ouster of Barney Pityana, implying that he would not have allowed some voices to be heard. Really? An alternative interpretation is that the student group seized control of the meeting in order to control who could and who could not speak. Whilst forcing open space for some voices to be heard, the group silenced other voices – whether ‘black’, ‘white’ or other – through controlling who spoke, jeering and heckling dissident voices, and imposing a Manichean frame on the debate.

Our second major point is that inequality and injustice in South Africa today cannot be reduced to race alone. You write that you experience racism as ‘a primary form of injustice and inequality’. Do you mean that it is the primary form of injustice and inequality, or one of the important forms? We ourselves do not doubt that it is a form of injustice and indignity, but we argue that there are other forms of injustice and indignity, including (in many aspects of life) those of class and gender. Injustice is most extreme when these intersect. Sometimes you seem to flirt with class-denialism, insofar as you imply that someone who grew up in a thoroughly middle class home and went to an elite school is as disadvantaged and subject to as much indignity and injustice as someone in the same ‘racial’ position who grew up in an impoverished home and went to a typical rural school. When you condemn – as you have done repeatedly – UCT’s new admissions policies for recognising that both race and class can disadvantage applicants, you are denying that an elite background and education advantage some people over others in the same racial group. We cannot comprehend how you can hold this position, privileging the more privileged over the most disadvantaged. We are defending the rights of applicants from truly disadvantaged backgrounds – almost all of whom are black – to study at UCT. The old admissions policy – supported by the RhodesMustFall protesters – would shut them out. So much for middle class students reaching out their less privileged peers!

You write that we are one step away from a ‘racial war’. Do we need to point out to you that we are also one step away from a class war, as excluded, unemployed and impoverished South Africans challenge the privileges not only of people like us, but people like you also.

best wishes

Jeremy and Nicoli

REPLY BY XOLELA MANGCU

Dear Jeremy and Nicoli, you either misunderstand or misrepresent my point about the statue being put in a gallery. I am saying that had the black students not been met with the kind of racism they received from their fellow white students -and some staff- then maybe that might have been a subject of “rational deliberation”. Your suggestion is therefore merely academic- pun intended. The statue had become too toxic with racism for the black students to even entertain its location on the campus. Their anger is proof of the limits of rational deliberation.

It is rather revealing of your sensitivities that you do not reserve a word of condemnation for the racism of the white students in this whole saga. The black students are the hanging fruit. Your bias in this regard is proof again of the fallacy of the disembodied rationality that you profess.

I certainly hope you will not be drawing a moral equivalence between racism and the heckling you are describing.

Your attempt to recruit me to your side of class privilege is rather desperate. Racism protected your privilege and dignity all your lives, and it assaulted me all my life. When the apartheid police shot black people in our townships they did not first say, “the middle class on one side, and the working class on the other.” They abused and killed black people indiscriminately and with impunity. That is the cultural and social world from which I come, and that is what sets us apart. Getting the elite education I received was not without struggle. I am sure neither of you had to go through the indignities of having to apply- and of being repeatedly refused- a ministerial permit to attend a white university,simply on account of the colour of your skin. Yes, I may have caught up with many white professors but we came here on different boats. I’d be damned to forget those historical experiences as formative of my life.

But those are the cultural, social and political experiences of black people that UCT’s admissions policy is attempting to erase. In age-old liberal fashion it says: “Bring us your poor and we will do good by them”, while deflecting from the real elephant of racism in the room. By their actions black middle class and working class students are calling the patronizing ploy by its name - the age-old game of divide and rule.

By the way, if this country was really in a class war as you suggest, then why are the people involved in the street protests all black. I don’t remember seeing thousands of poor and working class whites on those segregated streets in the townships. Where is the class solidarity. You mistake people’s protest against betrayal by their government as class war because that is the only lens through which you look at the world. But as Antonio Gramsci once said, reducing everything to class is the worst form of “primitive infantilism”.

It is deeply ironic that those who profess scientific rationality lose all manner of rationality when it comes to race- even against the empirical evidence. Of course there are many inequalities in the black world and they were there under apartheid and before. But they never protected all of them from the violence of racism that I described above. Perhaps you should take a look at Sol Plaatje’s Native Life or Colin Bundy’s Rise and Fall of the Peasantry for some of the early evidence of racist subjugation of the black middle class. Perhaps you should read some of Rhodes’s statements about the educated blacks.

And so, yes, for black people - middle class or working class- racism is the primary form of injustice at the hands of white people. That’s been happening for five hundred years now, in case you haven’t been noticing. Your attempt to minimize racist injustice by conflating it with class and gender will convince only those who deny that racism in this country was the oppression of black by whites. It would not convince Kimberle Crenshaw whose concept of intersectionality has been twisted to become unrecognizable in the hands of race denialists.

Let me conclude by asking you to point me to a university in Germany or Israel where a symbol of Nazism was being discussed “rationally” while anti-Semitic epithets were being thrown at Jewish students. Something tells me you would not tell them to stop privileging pain over rational debate. So why not treat the pain of black students the same?

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