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How to Solve Racism in America: Two Case Studies

October 22, 2014
Okay, I can, but only because I was taught to spot the differences.

“The discussion about racism always evokes interesting reactions. It seems to have the power to unmask us and reveal primal emotions that embarrass and confuse us because they cut through our veneers of rationality and decency, exposing naked, primitive survival instincts.”


It's a metaphor?

A black baby plays with her armless white doll in rural South Africa.

People largely agree that racism is a problem in America. This is apparent culturally, socio-economically and even legally. Despite ostensible equality under the law, the percentage of black men in prison, in proportion to their white counterparts, as well the huge disparity between black and white men’s sentence durations, especially for drug related offenses, hint at the broader underlying issue. Too few minorities are leaders in business, tech or politics. Movies are still appallingly whitewashed. America has structural inequality that makes it more difficult for minorities to succeed, especially black women. Galtung calls it ‘structural violence.’ I call it money attracts money, power attracts power, and white man’s historical hold on both still give him a statistical leg up.

Where people don’t agree is on the best way to combat racism in modern societies. Two small anecdotes:

Solution One: Race Blindness

The summer I was fifteen, my best friend at camp was an African American girl named Crystal.

Not my friend Crystal.

Not my friend Crystal.

Crystal had it all figured out. She was going to go to Columbia University and study pre-med courses. Once she graduated, she was going to spend one year giving back to her rural Virginia community working locally in a health related field while she applied to med school. She was going to finish her doctorate by age 28, at which point she would marry her long-term (and as of then, completely imaginary) boyfriend. She would focus on curing lung cancer as her oeuvre, and have two kids, one boy and one girl at ages 30 and 33, respectively.

Even at age fifteen I saw holes in this perfectly laid plan. “Life isn’t neat! Things don’t always go the way you think they will!” I’d say in variations, inarticulately. She’d assure me that for her, with her type of motivation, planning and drive, it would be. To keep the peace, I finally conceded, “Maybe it will be for you. I mean, with affirmative action, getting into Columbia will be a bit easier, right?”

Crystal was furious. Tossing her head back, she fiercely told me that she hated affirmative action, that she wished it was abolished, and that she was NOT going to put her race anywhere on her application to college.

The fervent, albeit young, liberal in me was confused. Democrats supported affirmative action and it was designed to help black people, to say mea culpa and admit to generations of slavery and oppression. Wasn’t that good?

Delicately, I asked her why she was against affirmative action. Crystal answered in two ways:

  1. First, continuing to identify and judge people’s capacity and achievements through a racial filter merely recapitulates the importance of race as indicating difference for a new generation;
  2. And second, affirmative action practices meant that every success Crystal achieved would be tainted; was she receiving this award, this scholarship, this prestigious job because of the achievements she earned? Or merely due to color of her skin?

I nodded. It made sense to me. Race-blind practices had to be inculcated in America if racism was to be eradicated.

Solution Two: Race in Your Face- Continual Discussion and Acknowledgment

Fast forward five years. I was in London, working at a non-profit for the summer. The resident tech-guru was a middle aged man named Keith, originally from Guyana, now a British citizen.

Iconic Tower Bridge in London.

Iconic Tower Bridge in London.

One day we were hanging out in a pub after work and Keith mentioned that he was jealous of African American culture.

“How so?” I asked, futilely trying to get an orange slice out of my Pimms cup with a straw.

Keith explained that in Britain, there wasn’t really a separate black British culture, as distinct from the dominant white British culture. He admired that in America a specifically African American culture had evolved. He loved rap music, old blues standards and TV shows like The Wire. Having overt cultural differences down racial lines forces people to talk about race and recognize that the experiences and backgrounds of blacks and whites might differ. The British policy of inclusiveness was actually one of whitewashing. There was no allowance for organization, affiliations, or a sense of solidarity around racial lines.

This too made sense to me. I picked the orange slice out of my glass with my pale fingers and ate it.

Looking to Rwandan and South African Models

Thus a question becomes: “To combat racism, is it better to acknowledge race or better to enact policies of race blindness?”

Two men going from town to town via wagon and donkey.  South Africa.

Two men going from town to town via wagon and donkey. South Africa.

Luckily, with globalization and the Internet it is easier than ever to look to other countries struggling with similar problems and see how they tackle them. I have had the privilege of visiting both South Africa and Rwanda; I have discussed racial problems with citizens of both countries. I think their governments’ policies towards race are apt for comparison for many reasons. Both South Africa and Rwanda had distinct breaks with their pasts in 1994 and overtly tried new racial policies designed to limit racism in the future.

In South Africa, after a long period of white minority rule and ‘separate and unequal’ apartheid policies, the ANC finally got power, dismantled apartheid mechanisms, and initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was designed to elucidate truths regarding the physical, psychological and financial horrors black and colored people faced under discriminatory apartheid rule. Even today, it is not unusual to be asked “What are you?” referring to the old racist categories of black, colored, white or Asian/Indian. It is an accepted ordering label.

In Rwanda, the genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis ended in July 1994, and the post-genocide government expressly prohibited further discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and race, while also passing laws prohibiting emphasis of Hutu or Tutsi identity in most types of political, media or personal activity. Roughly, one could argue that Rwanda tried one of my two ‘solutions’ to eliminating racism and South Africa, the other. Rwanda is a model of using ‘race blindness and silence’ to combat racism, and South Africa is a model of being loud, aggressive and talking about race in such overt and constant terms as to never allow anyone to pretend that racial issues do not exist. Now it is 2014, and twenty years have passed since the enactment of these diametrically opposed policies. Now these two country-wide experiments provide evidence for, if not dispositive proof of, how the United States should shape its own racial policies in the years to come.

The Rwandan Race Blind Model

As previously mentioned in other posts I wrote on Rwanda, the post-genocidal government has pursued a strict policy of silencing discussions of race.

Okay, I can, but only because I was taught to spot the differences.

Two Rwandans I talked to in the North. Hutu? Tutsi? Can you tell?

The logic behind this is that Hutus and Tutsis are one people, and differences are social, artificial and in no ways entrenched in biology. By promoting a system of One Rwanda the government hopes to reduce the salience of ethnicity in every way- make it as unimportant socially as eye color, or height, or shoe size. Actually, the government goes further then this- if we extend the metaphor, it attempts to ignore that people even have any differences in eye color, height or shoe size. There is also the un-ignorable fact that the government is Tutsi dominated (despite them representing less than 15% of the Rwandan population). Thus this deliberate dismissal of ethnicity as even existing still feels very artificial after 20 years of it being in use.

But perhaps it won’t continue to feel that way after the generation alive before 1994 dies. Anecdotal evidence pointing to this is that though a Rwandan man I talked to told me he still notices and categorizes people based on whether they are Hutu or Tutsi as an entrenched survival instinct, this children do not. He is teaching his children that everyone is the same and they seem to have internalized that message. It is also true that Hutus and Tutsi live together in integrated communities, and that there are no legal distinctions made between ethnic groups.

In Rwanda.

Still, there are many potential problems with a forward-looking race blind policy that nonetheless lionizes the Tutsi victims and demonizes the Hutu perpetrators. To stop the genocide, and for the next one to two years thereafter when consolidating control of the country, the RPF (a Tutsi military force) killed many Hutus. These crimes go mostly unacknowledged and unpunished, even though the Hutus who killed Tutsis in the genocide were soundly castigated. As Corey and Joireman note,

The average Rwandan citizen is upset that these murders have not been investigated, which makes sense, considering 85% of the population is Hutu, and the Hutu’s were the victims of this wave of violence.  [The President of Rwanda] Kagame uses the red flag of ‘genocide ideology’ to limit the debate on RPF crimes and deny freedom of the press.  This only serves to emphasize Tutsi victimhood (sainthood?) and the inherent wickedness of the Hutu community.  In the long run, this might even be enough to derail permanent reconciliation in the nation.

Victoire Ingabire, a political leader of the Unified Democratic Forces who attempted to challenge Kagame in the 2010 presidential election, picked up this thread of unequal treatment. She said: “There is another untold story with regard to the crimes against humanity committed against the Hutus. The Hutus who lost their loved ones are also suffering; they think about the loved ones who perished and are wondering, ‘When will our dead ones also be remembered?'” Ingabire has since been arrested and imprisoned.

This all goes to show that being present and future race blind while past race conscious is a difficult needle to thread. While Rwanda is currently doing quite well economically, technologically and socially (though political repression is obviously still quite strong) there may come a breaking point, especially if Kagame doesn’t step down from the presidency in 2017, as he has promised.

The South African Race Confrontation Model

South Africa has taken the opposite approach and has adopted very race-conscious rhetoric. Perhaps this was inevitable due to the racial differences in question being more overt: while in Rwanda the even the minute physical differences between Hutu and Tutsi were obvious to Rwandans of a certain age, the pale skin of a Dutch descendant in South Africa is unmistakably completely different than the dark skin of a Zulu descendent.

About the Soweto Massacre

Regardless of why, the South African ANC government, religious leaders, and the general populace at large have taken discussing race and its impact on all facets of life very seriously. Beginning with the Truth and Reconciliation and continuing with Mandela urged South Africa to become ‘a rainbow nation’ marked by acknowledgment of different races and harmonious and constructive co-existence. Mbeki had an even stronger policy of critically examining questions of racism. Though South Africa has also had a policy of “One South Africa” like Rwanda, it is less a statement of racial blindness and more a plea for inclusiveness and cross-racial compassion.

Legally, for instance, the South African government has enacted various race-conscious affirmative action type laws, such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which mandates certain quotas for black employees in companies. There have been many attempts to tackle economic inequalities using overt racial winnowing. (In fact, some extremist white groups are now claiming that the ANC is gearing up for genocide against white South Africans). Many publications and academic journals explicitly discuss best methods on how to raise black South Africans out of poverty. It is a popular topic in op-ed pieces in local newspapers. Culturally, South African filmmakers have made a bevy of films addressing black/white income disparities and racially motivated crimes, including the world-renowned film Tsotsi.

But has opening up and encouraging a race-based dialogue worked?

In December 2012, a poll found that nationally, 43.5% of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race, and more than half (56.6%) rarely or never socialize across race lines.  There was also a telling split on the question whether or not black South Africans were still poor as a result of the lasting effects of apartheid. 82% of black South Africans thought this was the case but only about half of whites agreed.

Twenty years after apartheid has ended, the socio-economic disparities between whites and blacks are still stark. South Africa has the highest income disparity of any nation in the world, and the poorest people are overwhelmingly black, earning on average, a sixth of their white counterparts earn. Neighborhoods are still not integrated. There are still more students per teacher in predominantly black public schools, and less funding. Much of the violence in South Africa is along racial lines. Since 1994, there have been several violent white extremist groups like the Boeremag (2002 Soweto Bombings), the revived Afrikaner Resistance Movement, and Kommandokorps, a white supremacist camp for teenage boys, which have cast doubt that the race open policy of South Africa has helped mitigate tensions at all.

Whole site was devoted to how awesome the Dutch were to defeat the evil blacks.

This depicts an Afrikaner strangling an indigenous black man. No joke- at the Voortreker Museum outside of Pretoria.

Continuing to emphasize the importance of race, with the reality that different races undeniably having differing de facto access to the political system, to wealth and to opportunity has arguably backfired.

That said, there is some merit to forcing race to the forefront of people’s minds: all the race-correlated inequalities are not going to dissipate simply if people stop mentioning race. Though race rhetoric as it currently manifests may not have significantly helped black, colored and white South Africans integrate, it may still be useful in the future. Though it is a counterfactual, if race-aware policies did not exist, perhaps black South Africans would be worse-off.

Plus, encouraging people to engage in emotionally difficult dialogue is encouraging them to practice a skill that can be useful across a range of issues. Openness in discussing problems relating to race has perhaps been the catalyst to South Africans openly discussing other controversial topics. When I was in Cape Town hiking up Lion’s Head, I saw two people, one black and one white, wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “HIV Positive.” Whether these shirts were supposed to signal that the wearer herself was infected with the disease, or whether they merely supported people who did have HIV and wanted to de-stigmatize it, it struck me as unique- I can’t imagine someone in the United States so casually wearing that sort of statement. The willingness of South Africans to discuss emotionally charged issues is unique and perhaps the direct result of a system of in-your-face racial dialogues.

Conclusions: No One Size Fits All System

Okay, a weird stuffed statue of Mandela.  Which he keeps in his pantry to this day.

My friend befriends Nelson Mandela.

I wish that looking at these countries and their policies resulted in a clear winner for how to deal with racism. But even looking at racism primarily through a legal and political and economic lens as I have here (mostly ignoring the even more entrenched and insidious racism inherent in culture, individual psychology, and social constructs of worth) there is no clear solution for how to deal with racism in the United States. What is clear however is that looking at the discussion of race as a binary (stating that race is the most salient label by which to identify people or completely ignoring that racial differences exist at all) is not really possible. Any treatment of race has to be subtler than that, more respectful to the fact that race exists, but it is not the only difference by which people have been judged or define themselves.

In regards to history that has a racist component (and what nation’s history does not?) it also seems clear that ownership of historical racism, of slavery or imprisonment, of previous bad acts motivated by racial lines is an important first step towards reducing racial tensions. If something is swept under the rug, a sense of injustice merely grows. But equally important is a current and present willingness to try to mitigate these effects, and acknowledge that we still live in an unequal world. To look only to past injustices without trying to stop future ones seems hypocritical.

It is hard to acknowledge racism as a policy, but even harder to acknowledge racism in ourselves. And as long as people remain unwilling to do so, there will be racism in America.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2014 12:54 PM

    Interesting. I thought had an interesting perspective too.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    March 5, 2015 4:02 AM

    To stop racism you need to drop that bullshit of black and whites, racism starts when you consider yourself as black or white, when you start to acknowledge yourself as a nation for example Southafrican would mean im a Zulu, Xhosa, English and Afrikaneer all at the same time, because all of them are Southafrican and i am Southafrican.

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