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The pitfalls of Fisher’s concept of racism

Circumstances prevented an earlier response to Ryland Fisher’s recent piece on racism — drawn from his book, Race. I am happy that he urges us to join in a conversation about race, a topic whose relevance has not diminished in post-apartheid South Africa, judging from media reports and articles.

The major problem with his work is that it is not a scientific or sociological account of racism but a thoroughly subjectivist foray into this complex and complicated topic which has permeated every facet of our existence.

Unfortunately, Fisher’s definition of racism and his conclusion that we are all racists are both erroneous and preposterous. Just think about this. Black people who have for centuries been at the receiving end of some of the most virulent, deliberate and systematic racism — at the hands of varying white regimes — are told that they too are racists and by implication have been so for a long time, though perhaps unconsciously or in denial about its existence.

It is an insult to historical injury — especially within the serious limits of social transformation after 1994 — to conclude that black people who today still suffer much overt and covert racism in our society, particularly on white farms, and great socioeconomic inequalities, poverty and hardship, are also racists. If that is the way Fisher wants to approach the matter then that is his right, but it is not his right to conclude that black people in general are also racists.

Perpetrators and victims alike are racists according to his approach. Racism is for him an individualised phenomenon, not a systemic one in which in this country’s history has largely served the interests of colonialism, apartheid and capitalism. He seems to conflate racism with an abstract morality about desirable inter-personal relationships. If we can shed it then we will all be much happier and indeed embody the much-vaunted “rainbow nation” and “miracle transition” ideals mass black poverty and unemployment has so far torn asunder.

Even the way Fisher writes and talks about racism is highly personalised and subjective. “I” dominates his discourse on racism. He is more preoccupied with his own mistaken thoughts than with the actual experiences of racism black people have had for very long time in this country. To him we are all guilty of racism and require some cathartic remedy which will exorcise this demon in us.

“Whenever I admitted to my racism, they have also been prepared to admit to theirs. And then we were able to have a conversation about why we were all racists”, Fisher says on his blog. Here is the essence of his thoroughly subjectivist approach to the topic. With all due respect, it is difficult not to conclude that his approach is soppy and sentimental.

Fisher is also more concerned with creating a discursive space to make white people feel at ease with talking about racism than with interrogating the real meaning of racism in black people’s lives. He wants to appease the historical conscience of white people and thereby absolve them specifically of responsibility for racism by generalising and extending it to include everyone.

I have argued in many articles over the years that though the relationship between racism and capitalism is a historically contingent one, in this country it has been largely symbiotically functional, meaning that it has preponderantly served the interests of capitalism. There is a great deal of empirical information in every facet of life under apartheid to attest to this.

This is not to deny that racism can and has in fact assumed forms which are independent of economics but that largely this has not been the case in this country. Not even the terrible racism of the AWB can repudiate this thesis because in the final analysis it too was very much about power relations between white and black people and the determination to continue the domination and virtual enslavement of black people.

With Fisher there is no excavation of the historical development of racism in this country within a capitalist framework, from colonialism through to apartheid and in fact, beyond. And it was precisely because of the very close connection between apartheid and capitalism that some writers referred to “racial capitalism”.

In other words, he de-historicises racism in South Africa and reduces it to predominantly personal subjective elements. Here Fisher appears to present racism as some pathological quirk of the mind and therefore a psychological and emotional abnormality we must combat and collectively purge ourselves of. Racism — he seems unaware — has been and still is a powerful material force.

What is more unfortunate is that this fundamentally mistaken approach to racism comes at a time when the effects of the historically-rooted racism-capitalism intersection can be seen all around us. The direct and indirect effects of past racism is evident everywhere. The poor are overwhelmingly black and the rich still overwhelmingly white, a reality not offset by the significant growth of a black middle class.

The other problem with this approach is to divert our attention from the real racists and racism. Besides, because he has an individualised understanding of racism, and not a systemic one which inseparably ties it to relations of economic and social power, he fails to see that the very notion of “reverse racism” is a myth. What power has the vast majority of black people today?

Under current circumstances even their political power is questionable, let alone the fact that the main levers of capitalist economic power still resides in white hands, while black poverty and black-white inequalities have grown.

Worse still, this personalised approach to racism can have the effect of diverting our attention from its socioeconomic roots and consequences and further delay the necessary social emancipation most black people still long for, while a tiny black elite have vastly enriched themselves, I argue, at their expense.

Finally, I found it both interesting and perhaps revealing that Fisher in his book did not interview leftist voices on racism. He sought out various liberal and other voices but not the left. Based in Cape Town he did not, for example, interview Dr Neville Alexander, who too resides there. He is an internationally recognised scholar on race, racism, identity and ethnicity, and just this week delivered another lecture at Wits on race and affirmative action.