A woman holds a sign in Westminster, in central London, Britain June 24, 2016.     REUTERS/Phil Noble
A woman holds a sign in Westminster, in central London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Noble

End of an ideal of racial purity

By OPINION Time of article published Jul 3, 2016

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We are now privileged to witness the unscrambling of Euromegalomania, writes Xolela Mangcu.

Apparently the most popular internet search on the day after the majority of the British people voted to leave the European Union (EU) was: “What is the EU?” Put differently, the majority of the British people voted to take their country over the cliff on the basis of ignorance. In responding to their nativist sentiments they hardly stopped to think about the political and economic implications of their decisions.

In claiming their country back, they may have given away whatever was left of British power in the world. Little did they know that their decision would lead to the resignation of the prime minister, David Cameron, the devaluation of the pound, and the exodus of several companies.

Cameron is of course not entirely innocent here. He called a referendum in the hope that it would bolster his position against that wing of his party that wanted to get out of Europe. It may be premature to rank this as the worst political gambit of the 21st century but I am sure it will be the benchmark for generations to come.

Cameron should have known that racial nativism runs deep in the British culture, before calling for a referendum on such a hot button issue. As Edward Said brilliantly demonstrates in his classic work, Orientalism, the Orient, which invariably meant the Islamic world, was always a source of anxiety for the European, going back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria in the 18th century and all the intellectual projects that justified the region’s ultimate conquest.

What made Islam such a threat was that “it lay uneasily close to Christianity, geographically and culturally. It drew on the Judeo-Hellenic traditions, it borrowed creatively from Christianity, it could boast of unrivalled military and political successes.”

So much for theories of racial and religious purity, or what Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations”.

For centuries Britain ran roughshod all over the world trying to do this history of syncretism in search of the pure white race, unspoiled by any contact with the racial and religious Other.

To be sure, the British did not invent race. The concept of race can properly be located in the Spanish inquisition in the close of the 15th century, where it originated as a religious reference to Jews and Muslims who refused to assimilate to the ascendant Christianity.

Religion and race became the toxic ideologies that ultimately led to the dismemberment of the “orient”, a dismemberment that has continued well into the 20th century. It is indeed rather rich for the British to complain about immigration given this history of destabilisation of the Middle East - yet another linguistic construction of the Orientalists.

You destroy the social foundations of societies for generations, you prop up dictators of your choosing and topple them as and when you wish, and when the whole thing comes tumbling down, you act surprised. You not only wring your hands of your historical responsibility but you close the door not only to them but the rest of Europe, the very Europe with which you were co-conspirators in the construction of the Orient.

What is revealing about the Brexit vote is that it was overwhelmingly decided by the older people. Apparently 65 percent of those who voted to leave were over 50 years old, driven by ancient anxieties that they are now passing on to younger generations. That is how racism reproduces itself - when narratives about which human beings are worthy are passed down from old to young, both through direct racist comments but also through cultural practices that continue to put value on the least significant genetic variation among human beings skin colour.

I love the look on the face of my students when I tell them that skin colour is nothing more than a hormonal reaction to geographic conditions. Early humans developed melanin - the hormone that darkens the skin - in order to protect themselves from the ultraviolent rays of the sun. However, as some of these early humans moved away from the equator their bodies had no need to produce the darkening hormone and they became lighter and lighter.

The students get shocked because they believe God created them black or white. Like Brexit, racism is premised on false and stupid premises.

What we are now privileged to witness is the unscrambling of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called the era of Euromegalomania of the past 500 years.

The idea of a pure white race that is untouched and unspoiled by the presence of other people on this planet is over. The resurgence of racism around the world is a panicked response to this changing reality. The responses are as dangerous as the last kicks of a dying horse.

The emergence of Donald Trump is an illustration of the United States’ own anxiety about this reality. The United States will soon be a minority majority country. Hispanics are already the biggest majority in states such as California.

There is nothing either Trump or Brexit’s Nigel Farrage or France’s Marie le Pan can do to stop the clock of demographic change. For as long as human beings continue to have sex then for that long will humanity in all its diversity confound theories of racial purity.

These demographic changes are in part the reason for the resurgence of racism in South Africa, where the white population consists of only 8 percent of the population. It is a matter of time before this becomes a miniscule figure - give or take a couple of decades.

What we are privileged to witness is the end of a particular ideal of racial purity. What will come in its place is the big question. So far the racist nativism has invited an equally dangerous religious and racial fundamentalism. Surely, there must be a way out, if those of us who do not buy into these ideologies are to survive.

The United Kingdom is now the Divided Kingdom.The silver lining may well be that Theresa May will most likely join Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel as leaders of the most powerful countries in the world. What this will portend for the resolution of these ancient quarrels is also an open question.

The Oxford don, Isaiah Berlin, described the test of leadership all these leaders must pass. This is a test of judgement Merkel has passed with flying colours and one Cameron has spectacularly failed: “If I am driving a car in desperate haste, and come to a rickety-looking bridge, and must make up my mind whether it will bear my weight , some principles of engineering would no doubt be useful.

“But even so, I can scarcely afford to stop to survey and calculate. To be useful to me in a crisis such knowledge must have given rise to a semi-instinctive skill.” In short, leaders must think before they act, and think hard.

* Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and 2015 Harry Oppenheimer Fellow.

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

Sunday Independent

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