NOT SO: The idea that black students cannot do well at university is a self-fulfilling myth of professors who do not see it as their mission to nurture their potential, says the writer.
NOT SO: The idea that black students cannot do well at university is a self-fulfilling myth of professors who do not see it as their mission to nurture their potential, says the writer.

Racially offensive diatribe has no place

By Xolela Mangcu Time of article published Jul 2, 2015

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 David Benatar’s article, “Those Who Seek Changes Must Show They Are Desirable (Cape Times, June 29) took me back to a comment made by two leading members of the famed Detroit Pistons basketball team, the eccentric Dennis Rodman and the mild-mannered Isaiah Thomas. They both said that if the Boston Celtics star Larry Bird was black he would not be the big deal he was made out to be in the white media. Rodman and Thomas were excoriated for that remark. However, the larger point was white people are often given credit that is denied to black people of similar or better talent.

Similarly, if David Benatar was black, he would not be enjoying the audience he does at UCT. I make six points to illustrate why his racially offensive diatribe does not belong in a modern-day university.

First, it strikes me as particularly hypocritical that a professor of a university, who always insists we must prove our international expertise, can write a page- long article about race and higher education without a single reference to international scholarship. He starts off by describing the concepts of transformation and decolonisation as meaningless “slogans”. Clearly he has not read the literature on decolonisation since Ngugi wa Thiong’o introduced the concept in the 1960s. But surely we are not going to allow Benatar’s limited epistemological range to define our intellectual horizons?

Second, Benatar rehashes the hackneyed argument that affirmative action sets up black students for failure. This is the so-called “mismatch theory. This is nothing other than a display of his own ignorance about how these programmes have worked at the very best universities in the world, and what constitutes student success beyond the point of admissions.

In her latest book, the Tyranny of the Meritocracy, Harvard law professor Lani Guinier cites a recent study of success among Harvard alumni conducted over three decades. The study found a high correlation between measures of success, such as income, community involvement and professional satisfaction on the one hand, and “ two criteria that might not be associated with Harvard freshmen: low SAT scores and a blue collar background”. Guinier then interviewed administrators at the most elite universities in America, who also confirmed that “above a minimum level of competence, ‘initiative’ or hunger” are the best predictors of success”.

These results confirm those of an earlier study, The Shape of the Rive r, conducted by the former presidents of Harvard and Princeton, Derek Bok and William G Bowen, that there is no statistically significant difference in the performance of black students admitted on the basis of affirmative action and their white counterparts at the most competitive American universities.

But Guinier also shows how these universities have come up with creative strategies to recruit from poorly resourced high schools, including professors who teach at the high schools and students who have access to university libraries and classes. Benatar does not discuss this literature either, because he is not aware of it, or it would confound his racial stereotypes.

Third, Benatar has a misguided understanding of the call for representivity as just being about demographics. It is also about one of the foundational principles of democracy: no taxation without representation. For as long as South African universities receive public money, they have a fundamental duty to make sure black people are properly represented in them. Failure to achieve this diversity would simply be a repetition of the apartheid practice of black people subsidising white privilege. UCT departments, including Benatar’s, must be evaluated on the extent to which they fulfil this democratic obligation.

Fourth, when it comes to the hiring of black academics, Benatar relies on the tired shibboleth that there is a small pool of black academics. Just as creativity is needed in admitting students, we cannot rely on the same methods that have kept black academics out of the universities.

Are there any incentives to keep black academics at UCT from leaving not only for government and the private sector but for Wits University? And here I am talking about black academics who have what Benatar calls “finely honed analytical skills, a command of their field and who can publish articles in excellent international journals, and books with prestigious journals”. In fact, because of apartheid, many black academics have had to make sure their qualifications are far superior than their white counterparts, so they could not be turned back at the door. I refuse to accept that UCT is not aware of these individuals, and that it cannot attract them.

Fifth, and this is the most racially offensive piece of Benatar’s tirade. In this day and age we have a professor and a senior member of the UCT Senate arguing that Africa must prove it has something to add to the world. What chutzpah! He writes, in the language of colonial anthropology, that: “If European universities had insisted, as conservatives might have wanted, on preserving traditional European thinking, there would not have been the advances in knowledge that there have been. Similarly, if advocates of “decolonisation” insist on injecting traditional ways of African thinking, there would be similar stultification. The success of modern universities is not based on self-consciously pursuing or affirming traditional or ethnic-specific ways of thinking.” So there you have it in black and white, folks. Africa equates traditions and Europe modernity. Even Joseph Conrad could not have put it more starkly.

But why is it acceptable to talk about Greek or French philosophy or Western philosophy and inadmissible to talk about African philosophy? And if African philosophy must make its case, will that demand also be made of the other philosophical traditions taught at UCT’s philosophy department, and by whom? Surely, a man concerned with limited public resources would welcome such evaluation?

Sixth, Benatar tries to pull a fast one by arguing that while the humanities can be Africanised, this is not applicable to philosophy. This is because – wait for it – philosophy is a science along with mathematics and physics, which have nothing intrinsically African. Any respectable philosopher of science will tell you that the distinction between humanities and science is sheer baloney – just read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, if you don’t believe me.

Benatar also makes the mistake of thinking mathematics and science exist in isolation from the uses to which they are put. But as Max Weber pointed out in Science As a Vocation, the point of science is to help us answer humanistic questions. Africans have been dealing with these life and death questions longer than Benatar is capable of imagining, blinded as he is by the Western philosophies that have disfigured African lives for centuries.

The distinguished Harvard duo, Jean and John Comaroff have described the place of Africa in the world of knowledge as follows: “The north has long adopted techniques, knowledges and practices that have prior histories in Africa and elsewhere… Subsequently, many northern innovations emerged directly out of the colonial encounter, the effect of which on the metropoles of Europe has been expansively documented… The point (Benatar’s point, I might add) – that the place of Africa in the received narrative of Universal History is fundamentally flawed – need not be laboured further.”

l Mangcu is an associate professor of sociology, UCT

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