How we normalize racialism

In the first part of a two-part post, the author challenges conventional progressive approaches to “race,” finding them to be untenable with non-racialism.

Black Lives Matter Austria, woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign. Image credit Ivan Radic via Flickr CC.

It goes without saying that 2020 has been an eventful year, and not in a particularly good way. What began as the hopeful start to a new decade has devolved into an unprecedented health and economic disaster. Amid this calamity, the seemingly ever pervasive force that is racism has continued to animate discourse, not only in the usual hotbeds, such as the US and South Africa, but also across the globe. The clarion call of “Black Lives Matter” has become commonplace in every part of the world. Those who once considered the phrase divisive, due to a false belief that all lives matter under existing capitalism, can be found spouting views that seem indistinguishable from those espoused by the most prominent critical race theorists. Corporations that have historically profited, and continue to profit from systemic racism were quick to join the hashtag brigade pledging commitment to racial diversity and to tackle other “racial” problems.

This about-turn appears to be the logical conclusion of a recent, yet unfortunately common occurrence. In late May, George Floyd was murdered on camera by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while a number of his fellow officers looked on. Floyd’s murder sparked a sustained wave of anger across the globe. Yet, what animated the discourse around this murder and other instances of state-sanctioned violence, was the seemingly racial dimension that drives the soul of American society. The unifying slogan became one of affirming and emphasizing that “black” lives matter.

This large and understandable focus on racism from all corners has had the unfortunate consequence of reproducing a distinct and even morally righteous, yet ultimately harmful racialism. This racialism can best be caricatured in the discourses of upwardly mobile, liberal, college educated professionals whose only social and professional currency is their racial identity and the victimhood that is associated with it. And not only race-hustlers unwittingly reproduce what is an ultimately harmful racialism. Even those with sober understandings of the legacy of racism and racialism and their relationship with capitalism can be found to treat races as “real.” An example of this is Kiasha Naidoo’s excellent “The mechanism of contagion in racism,” published recently at Africa Is a Country.

Naidoo’s piece highlights the pseudo-scientific nature of racism, its treatment of the other as a contagion and how this interacts with South African capitalism by producing a seemingly quixotic contradiction, of a system that both needs so-called black people while identifying their mere presence with the destruction of that social system. This is a necessary intervention in popular discourse, because far too often this rich materialist reading of history is discarded in favor of a convenient, but ultimately limited, idealist interpretation that treats racism as a mere extension of coloniality or whiteness, or in its more crude forms analogizing “whiteness” as a virus. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this idealism in conjunction with the capitalist imperative to accumulate can lead to the reproduction of the inequities that anti-racist idealists claim to be concerned with.

Unfortunately, Naidoo, like many other anti-capitalists who are rightfully concerned and outraged about our society’s collective attachment to racism, ends up failing to question the seeming facticity of race, and thus its legitimacy as a tool for both understanding and changing the world. This unfortunately reproduces very noxious and pervasive racialism. Due to its toxic normalcy, we have more reasons to reject not only racialism, but also race as a concept.

We live in a world in which race appears to be a normal feature of our society. Referring to oneself, others and even ideas and values in terms of race is ubiquitous. This results in a normalization of race, so while we end up rejecting the problematic of race, the thematic remains in place. While the idea of races as fixed biological groups distinct from each other due to a series of innate, inheritable traits is rejected, views of races as socially constructed groupings abound.

The value of these views, according to their proponents, is that we are able to reject the notion that racial groups are determined by biological traits and thus avoid harmful biological determinism. We can instead view races as groups who are socialized through formal and informal processes to view themselves as members of a particular racial group. What matters here is not that the races are biologically real, rather how we collectively and individually behave as if races refer to relatively fixed and identifiable groupings. Thus, if we consider and treat a certain group of people as belonging to race R, then R is a race that exists and must be treated both analytically and politically as real in order to confront whatever ails the collective belief may produce.

The social constructivist position is motivated by a set of what appear to be legitimate concern—chiefly, that a belief in race embedded in myriad social practices makes race manifest itself concretely in people’s lives. People have not only experienced great suffering because of racial coding, but also forged meaningful and long-lasting relationships as a result of it. The argument claims that in doing away with the language of race we risk a) downplaying the long lasting effects of racism, thus failing to deal with them as a society and b) we risk destroying the rich, and fragile communities and meaning that racialization has created.

The social constructivist view on race, however, fails on its own terms. While rejecting the biological basis of race, it ends up re-affirming these pseudo-scientific categories. This happens because the social aspect of race formation has historically relied on biological notions, and using them as a framework for our “socialized races” becomes a mere reproduction of biological racism. This can have clear implications for our response to social problems, such as COVID-19, for example. As it swept through Asia and Europe initially, it became commonplace to wonder whether “black” people had an inbuilt defense against the virus. Yet, within months, as it spread through countries with greater degrees of inequality—South Africa, the US, Brazil and the UK stand out in particular—the thinking shifted to outrage, because people erroneously referred to as “black” were not only more likely to get the coronavirus, but also more likely to die from it. If we were to adopt the social constructivist approach to understanding this alleged phenomenon, we would find ourselves in a paradox. We would at once have to claim that races are not biologically real, while simultaneously stressing the significance of race in understanding biological phenomena. And so, to claim that races are socially constructed but have no biological basis would be contradictory.

Social constructivism effectively wants to hold the privilege of rejecting biological racism, while remaining eternally attached to its conclusions, thus reproducing its effects in the real world. Although both these forms of racialism—or, as their proponents prefer, “race-realism”—are the more dominant approaches to race, there exist alternatives to an acceptance of race-thinking, namely anti-realist approaches.

Unfortunately, the more innovative anti-realist approaches—such as interactive constructionism—fail, as Phila Msimang points out.  The alternative Msimang offers, via a defense of a softer minimalist account of race as a social kind, suffers from the same problems identified in a maximalist approach. In particular, while it rejects biological basis of race it must concede that features of racialization such as heritability, are dependent on understandings of human biology.

It is perfectly reasonable for us to reject the biological basis of race but attempts to maintain a world in which races are socially constructed are self-defeating. The aim may be to reject biological racism and racialism but, unfortunately, we cannot escape its logic. If we are to forge a world in which the remnants of racism are long gone, depending on its tools will only leave us trapped in a world of racialism.

What is needed now more than ever is a culture of rejecting racialism in any form, while remaining attentive to the social and material inequities that exist in our society. Because some of these inequities are rooted in the history of racism, supporting such a cultural shift is consistent with the aims of eradicating racism in our society.

Further Reading

It has no place

COVID-19 exposes the continued inability of most white South Africans to critically reflect on privilege or engage constructively about the handling of the pandemic.