An honest conversation and better governance are vital for fight the legacy of racism, writes William Gumede.

Official racism may long have been abolished in South Africa and the US, yet its terrible legacy persists. The challenge is how to overcome this.

Centuries of colonialism, slavery and apartheid have left a legacy of institutional racism, where there is instinctive prejudice against dark skins, in societies across the globe.

Racism is also endemic in global relations: nations seen as “white” are invariably higher in the pecking order.

“White privilege,” as American feminist and activist against racism Peggy McIntosh describes it, is an “invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools and blank cheques” that accrues benefits to a person purely for their “whiteness”.

This is a fact of life in countries and international institutions across the globe.

“White privilege” also means growing up with the implacable assumption that one’s social understanding and view of the world are the “norm” – whether in films or thought, quality universities and global media. People of colour have to adapt to “whiteness” or play by “whiteness” rules.

In the US and South Africa, racism has infused the DNA of almost every institution and racist practices have in many ways become so part and parcel of habits and interaction that they are often not even recognised as such.

In South Africa, incidents of government corruption are interpreted by some whites as a failure by all blacks.

Racism has a terrifying impact on individuals. The Institute for Peace and Justice in the US describes some aspects of racism as a “rejection or neglect as well as attack – a denial of needs, a reduction of persons to the status of objects to be broken, manipulated, or ignored. The violence of bombs can cripple bodies; the violence of miseducation can cripple minds. The violence of unemployment can murder self-esteem and hope. The violence of a chronic insecurity can disfigure personalities as well as persons.”

Sociologist Johan Galtung points out that victims of racism are often “depicted as being poor ‘by choice’ as a result of their own actions and faults”.

Part of South Africa’s 1994 democratic project and the US post-segregation project was to undo the racism embedded in institutions and social life, and build societies based on human rights.

Institutionalised racism and apartheid have left black South Africans and African-Americans with massive “existential insecurity”. Chronic insecurity caused by humiliation scars the sense of self.

Slavery, colonialism and apartheid have caused a “dislocation” of “familiar and trusted social benchmarks”– whether cultural, individual or social. This leaves a void in many individuals. The challenge for the US and South Africa is how to help broken individuals fill that void.

Writer Frantz Fanon points out how institutional racism scars the black “psyche”, causing inferiority complexes, low self-esteem, aggression, anxiety, depression and often “a defensive romanticisation of indigenous culture”, whether emphasising fundamentalist Zulu-ness or Africanness, or nostalgic African ideologies or communal development ideologies.

In our globalised world, self-esteem, identity and value are measured increasingly by possessions. This reinforces existential insecurity among poor blacks.

To overcome such scarring, governments need to govern in a more socially conscious way, with a greater sense of public duty, empathy and solidarity with the black vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Some blacks tend to overcompensate for white racist attitudes: overasserting their “blackness”, seeing the world only in black and white, not in between or as a mosaic of different colours.

Many white South Africans and Americans appear to be ignorant of the continuing legacy of “white privilege”. Some argue that poor blacks are in their predicament because of their own doing.

Others say affirmative action is making blacks privileged. Yet others make fundamentalist calls for merit appointments to continue “white privilege”.

For whites glibly to dismiss the continuing legacy of racism and apartheid is deeply offensive.

To argue that achievement is only a white preserve – if blacks do well, it must somehow have to do with their “political connectivity” – is outrageous. White instances of incompetence should not be ignored.

Some white South Africans and Americans have argued for “colour-blindness”, saying race does not matter. Yet, as the African-American psychologist Monnica Williams argues, “colour-blindness” has helped to make race a taboo topic that polite people cannot openly discuss.

And if you can’t talk about it, you can’t understand it, much less fix the racial problems that plague our society.

Without an open, honest and sober conversation about race in South africa and the US, we cannot understand the extent of the continuing legacy of racial segregation, and the policies needed to rectify it.

One danger is that institutional racism could plunge black people into perpetual victimhood, never taking accountability for their individual and country failures, for ever blaming racism, apartheid and colonialism, and not being able to take control of their destinies.

The temptation is often to hide behind racial solidarity to support undemocratic practices by black leaders or organisations, merely because they are black and anti-racist.

American scholar on race Cornel West rightly argues that we must “replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype, but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics”.

What we should not do, in our bid to debunk outrageous racial generalisations, is defend individual incompetence, wrong-doing and even corruption, just because the person is black or white.

Black liberation movements-turned-governments should not, after decrying discrimination by colonial and apartheid governments, practise discrimination by appointing ethnic, regional and family and friends to positions in their governments, rather than the best talents.

Poor governance, corruption and a lack of accountability only reinforce racial stereotypes. Better governance is crucial in slaying the racism dragon.

* Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. His latest book is South Africa in Brics: Salvation or Ruination, Tafelberg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

Sunday Independent