The affordable education loan option
It is only when we have a clearer conception of what we mean by race that we can craft meaningful processes for admission to UCT, says Xolela Mangcu.
Cape Town - The more I listen to discussions of affirmative action at UCT, the more I am convinced that the debate is about everything except race.
On the one hand are those who look at race as a matter of skin colour. Even the most radical political movements never saw blackness as simply a matter of skin colour. Skin colour, no doubt, was the basis of an ascription that, in turn, became the basis of one of the most hateful ideologies of the modern world – racism.
What makes this even sillier is that skin is the most inconsequential part of our genetic make-up, accounting for 0.012 percent of the genetic difference between those who developed melanin and those whose bodies did not develop such a need because the climates they lived in were not hot enough.
It is simply astonishing how a biological adaptation to sunlight – the development of melanin that made some skins darker than others – became twisted into an ideology upon which were constructed 400 years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow and apartheid. But as Thomas Carlyle said upon hearing Virginia Woolf’s comment that she accepted the universe: “Gad! She’d better! There it is.”
Those of us whose ancestors’ bodies found clever ways to protect themselves from extinction unfortunately also inherited this most obnoxious of gifts from the white “race” – a term that was borrowed from natural history, where all it referred to were different species of animals or plants.
In response to this absurdity, black political movements found different ways of resisting skin-based ascription of human value. They reappropriated race, which had now engulfed all of their social reality, and gave it non-biological meanings. There are many examples of how black people did this, but the responses were mostly political and cultural.
The founder of Negritude, Aimé Césaire, warned about biological conceptions of race as follows: “I do not, in the slightest, believe in biological permanence, but I believe in culture. My Negritude has a ground. It is a fact that there is a black culture: it is historical, there is nothing biological about it.”
Steve Biko drew a distinction between non-whites and blacks precisely because for him, blackness was a political identity, not a biological one. Non-whites were those who had decided to align themselves with the white oppressive system. They were non-white because they had chosen to define themselves by white standards instead of identifying with those oppressed on the basis of their skin colour.
Identification became the basis of Biko’s description of blackness: “black people are all those who are by law and tradition discriminated against and identify as a unit for the realisation of their aspirations.” There is no mention of skin colour in that definition because, for Biko, Black Consciousness was “an attitude of mind”.
Those who argue for affirmative action on the basis of skin colour alone will struggle very hard to find examples of skin colour as the sole determinant of black identity.
What is key is the connection between one’s skin colour, the historical legacy of racial oppression in all of its political, cultural and economic dimensions, and, most importantly according to Biko, one’s consciousness.
However, those who oppose the use of race in affirmative action do so on the grounds that it has no scientific basis – as if anyone ever suggested it did. In other words, they create “strawmen” that they can then easily shoot down.
It was black people themselves who over a long time pointed to the absurdity of skin colour as the basis of human differentiation – if only because they were feeling the perniciousness of the system of racial oppression. These opponents of race-informed affirmative action will then argue that economic disadvantage is a proxy for racial oppression. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
I have expressed myself enough times on the preposterous foundations of this proposition that I hardly need to dwell on it, except to cite what Karl Polanyi said about the experience of colonised people in his classic work, The Great Transformation: “Not economic exploitation as often assumed, but the disintegration of the cultural environment of the victim, is then the cause of the degradation… The result is a loss of self-respect and standards, whether the unit is a people or a class…”
But if race is neither biology nor poverty, what is it then and how do you quantify it in the admissions process?
This is an important question for which there are no easy answers. But the absence of easy answers is no justification for the wrong answers, which then leads people to think they are solving a problem when they are not, to think they are talking about race when on both sides of the divide they are talking about biology and poverty.
To be sure, biology and poverty intersect in crucial ways with race, but they do not exhaust race as an historical experience. The attraction of biology and poverty is also that they are relatively easier to measure than the impact of history on people’s consciousness.
However, that is no reason for pretending you are talking about race when you are talking about everything else. It is only after we have a clearer conception of what we mean by race that we can craft meaningful affirmative action processes.
My next article will be an attempt at a practical application and quantification of this skin colour + consciousness model of affirmative action for the purposes of admissions at UCT.
At the very least, the discussion would be about race, and not what is now essentially two horns of a non-dilemma.
This would put us and our students at a level of intellectual sophistication about race and identity far higher than anywhere else around the world.
* Mangcu is associate professor of sociology at UCT and a non-resident senior scholar at the Brookings Institution, Washington. He is the author, among others, of Becoming Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Identity and Public Deliberation in Democratic South Africa, and Biko: A Biography.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers