Racism rankles. Few things can be more provocative to a human being than to be judged, defined and pigeon-holed by a mediocre mind, drop-forged in the crucible of fundamentalist belief and segregationist thinking, and driven by a fear and loathing of the dark-skinned Other.
Most hateful and abusive is to be confronted by racist invective, labelling or stereotyping.
It is sufficient to elicit a violent response.
Many have been so provoked.
Racism instigates its offence at a visceral level, then progresses to unsettle the emotions into a seething rage, until eventually settling into stupefied disbelief – that amid all the progress made in debunking racist beliefs, there should still exist those with the intellectual sophistication of a Neanderthal gesturing feebly to the halcyon days when the racial pecking order was unquestioned, racial discrimination was socially acceptable – even institutionalised in law – and justified theologically.
In short, when everyone knew their place.
Nourishing the convictions of the racist are the imagined collective achievements of his or her group, with stand-out figures who are emblematic of the superior capabilities and achievements of the racially superior group.
Various false premises drawn from pseudo-science, and rooted in an execrable history of prejudice against the non-white Other, add grist to the mill.
The intellectual arsenal of the racist mind does not exhibit much range. It consists of the racial stereotype (with corresponding epithets), some deeply held prejudices about the Other, and a few fanatical beliefs about the superiority of his/her particular racial collective, none of these tested under the cold light of logical analysis and scrutiny, and most often replete with contradictions and illogicality.
Racial hatred and contempt had their genesis in the dispossession of the non-white Other of their land and resources, through brute force and butchery. Moral justification came from the belief that the sophisticate, who had a developed culture, had the right and even duty of tutelage of the unsophisticated, thereby cementing the subjugation and enslavement of the latter and arresting their development.
Therein was delineated the power relations between the racially supreme and the racially oppressed, reverberating through history for centuries, shaping the current political, economic and cultural landscape and bequeathing us our own racialised legacy.
Against such a backdrop, looking down upon the racial Other became pervasive. For the better part of the past millennium, non-whites of any hue were construed as inferior, persecuted, suppressed and held in servile bondage.
Contemporary racism holds us captive to this detestable blot on the evolution of humanity. The incalculable damage that this has inflicted on the psyche, self-esteem and developmental trajectory of blacks of any hue must impel an unequivocal response.
Racism in any form should not be tolerated, no matter the ignorance of the perpetrator, nor the feebleness of thinking that produces it. Tolerance of racism merely tethers us to our racialised past. Release from it is vitally necessary for future generations of black children to grow and develop to their full creative potential, without the yoke of inferiority that racism inflicts on them, or the judgemental gaze of the racist Other.
That racism is as prevalent among the nation’s youth in such impulsive and naked form as we have witnessed in recent weeks is quite dispiriting.
The particular episode sparked off by a largely forgettable young woman, exhibiting not only a poorness of mind through her rant but an astounding naiveté about the implications of posting her racist vitriol on a social media network, emphasises that despite the progress made in the past few decades in outlawing racism, it remains virulently pervasive.
That condemnation of this episode was immediate, widespread and unequivocal was heartening. The harsh but appropriate consequences for the model in question in terms of lost career opportunities will cause many to tuck away their racist proclivities in the dark recesses of their minds, only to venture out underground, in the guaranteed safety of the like-minded.
While many were prepared to be forgiving of this particular episode, such generosity provides a protective cloak for racists prepared to vocalise their prejudices and hatred and thereby continue the harm caused against fellow humans, confident in the knowledge that remorse or recanting will lead to forgiveness. The power to name and label, to construct and to destroy, remains seductive or intoxicating to the racist mind. When the damage is already done, and the threat of further damage is ever-present, it does not help us eradicate the cancer.
Also promising was the revelation that the ranks of unreconstructed racists are fast diminishing, and the nouveau racist is headed the way of the dodo, before securing a chance to evolve sufficiently as a species.
But so enormous is the effect of racism that more must be done to eradicate it.
A jail term might cool the ardour of any aspirant and should seriously be contemplated as a deterrent.
Undoubtedly, the rampant and brazen racism experienced by previous generations is in retreat.
Significant progress has been made in the past half century in outlawing it in most parts of the world.
In spite of these gains, the prognosis for the complete eradication of racism is not good.
A study in 2009 published in the journal Science found that even those who would ordinarily consider themselves tolerant and egalitarian often harbour racist attitudes.
It is not difficult to understand why.
For the better part of the past millennium, the non-white Other was dehumanised and subjugated through conquest, slavery and colonialism. While this constituted the most rampant form of racism, it was not the only one. Jews have endured anti-Semitism for centuries as well, culminating in the Holocaust. The racial Other has been on the receiving end of invective, discrimination, repression, marginalisation and genocide from ancient to contemporary times. Few influences on humanity have been as malevolent, or as enduringly damaging to so many innocents. Racism has been genocide of the spirit for hundreds of millions.
Ayn Rand, while controversial in some of her beliefs, was quite unequivocal when it came to racism: “Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism… appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals.” To allow such mentality to shape and define our future either as individuals or as a nation is too ghastly to contemplate.
Today difference continues to fragment societies and maintain a throttlehold on our evolution to a more egalitarian and humane society. The great divides of racial, class and cultural identities continue to imprison nations, fuel conflict and provoke violence.
For a young and fragile democracy such as ours, the quest for social cohesion and national identity is repeatedly set back by incidents of racism. To forge a nation that is more than a collection of conflicting ethnicities and group identities, mesmerised by a racialised past, we must shed the familiar lenses that have caused our racial and cultural opacity, and which shape our contemporary politics. Only then can we contemplate a future that helps us escape the familiar tethers of race and cultural identity, realise our full potential as individuals and as a nation, and thereby achieve the greatness that is so elusive now.
n Baijnath is Pro Vice Chancellor at Unisa