This isn’t racism (except that it is)

I’m unpopular with a good segment of the population, I’m sure, for my stance on the definition of racism. I contrast the “classical” understanding of racism – violence and open hatred aimed at the subjugation of one race in favour of another – with the current face of racism – a de facto subjugation of one race through passive social structures and institutions. They both come from the same root, which is the attribution of group characteristics to individuals based on their ethnicity. Most of the time such attribution is based on a faulty understanding of the ethnicity in question, manifesting itself through easily-identifiable and understandable cognitive mechanisms.

The reason why my stance is unpopular is that there are many people who would simply like to be done with racism. By rejecting the modern contextual understanding in favour of the “classical” one, these people are able to throw up their hands and say “I don’t actively hate anyone – racism over!” Racism becomes, as a result, everyone else’s problem – if only others were as enlightened as I, they could become non-racist too. As I’ve pointed out before, being “non-racist” isn’t an option for anyone. Racism is built into our culture, and pretending it doesn’t affect us is like building a car without airbags or seatbelts because you don’t even want to think about the possibility of a crash (actually, it’s more like drawing a free-body physics diagram and not including the normal force because you don’t believe in it, but not everyone would get that reference).

The problem is that clinging to the “classical” definition of racism screws our cognitive blinders on so tight that we end up with situations like this:

[South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande] said chicken past its best-before date was being recycled – thawed, washed and injected with flavouring – then sold to shops in black townships. A spokesman for the poultry industry admitted the practice takes place, but said it was both safe and legal. The meat is removed from major chains of supermarkets and is re-distributed to spaza shops – smaller, family-run shops which serve black communities – and independent wholesalers.

The meat being re-packaged is (the industry assures us) completely safe to eat, and poses no health risk above what is acceptable by the health department’s standards. This is not an attempt to poison black people with tainted meat, or anything so sinister. Under the “classical” definition of racism, there’s absolutely nothing racist about this practice. They are simply re-selling meat, and it just so happens that the consumers of this meat are predominantly black people.

The one sentence that is the key to unraveling this whole thing is right here:

But [poultry industry spokesperson Kevin Lovell] also accepted that re-worked chicken did not go on sale in major supermarkets, which served the country’s wealthier suburbs.

There’s nothing unsafe, illegal or in any way racist or wrong with the practice of re-selling the meat, he says. But just to be safe, only the poor black people get it. This is the same kind of logic that fueled the incredibly-racist “literacy tests” for voting back in the days of Jim Crow. You have to be able to read to vote, the logic says. There’s no reason why black people can’t vote, as long as they can demonstrate the requisite reading ability. Please ignore the fact that black schools are underfunded, and that the tests often had nothing to do with literacy, and that they were often only required of black voters… Please ignore that, and also ignore that the end result is that black voters are turned away in droves, thus disenfranchising people based on race. That’s not racism though, at least not under the “classical” view – no laws have been made to target one group, so there’s no problem.

It’s this uncomfortable truth that people who cling to the antiquated view of KKK-style racism are so reluctant to confront, preferring instead to becoming indignant and dismissive whenever it is pointed out. It’s not just liberal propaganda designed to make white people feel guilty though; it is a real thing that has real effects on real people. Whether you are made a second-class citizen by the passage of a blatantly racist law or by the willful ignorance of the ruling class, it is a distinction without a difference. The discrimination is real, the effects are real, and the only thing that is surreal about the whole process is the repeated refusal by the oppressors to see what is happening.

Such people aren’t evil or malicious in their racism. Maybe they’re just chicken…

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