To fight racism, we must admit it exists by Steven Friedman, 1 April 2015

1 April 2015

WE CANNOT fight racism until we admit it exists. If our leading English-speaking universities had figured that out 20 years ago, they might not face angry black students today. If many in the national debate had worked it out then, we might be a less angry society now.

The conflict over statues at some universities is only the tip of an iceberg. Not that statues are unimportant. Would those who say they don’t like a fuss about statues be comfortable with a Vladimir Lenin statue? Those who say the statue should stay because history deserves respect are usually also those who oppose any mention of pre-1994 history. But the controversy is really about something deeper — the racial denialism of a strong strand of South African liberalism.

Black students and academics are angry because, 20 years after the end of apartheid, they remain second-class citizens on most campuses: black academics remain a small fraction of teaching staff, while the writings of black thinkers are relegated to the margins. Most students are black but the world in which they study is distinctly white. This shows how deep-rooted the attitudes that underpinned apartheid are — and it points a finger at a form of liberalism that has washed its hands of racism while continuing to practise it. It is no accident that the protests are happening on the campuses of English-speaking "liberal" universities, which have long claimed to be victims of racism: it is precisely at those institutions that race is kept alive by denying it.

Under apartheid, many English-speaking whites insisted that apartheid was created by Afrikaners alone. The "liberal" English-language universities joined in — they proclaimed their right to teach whatever and whomever they pleased, declaring that discrimination was imposed on them by the state. This smugness ignored the extent to which white English speakers in the professions and business profited from the denial of opportunities to others — and the degree to which they believed that blacks could win acceptance only if they adopted the values of whites. The universities ignored the reality that, when they were allowed to do as they pleased, they limited black student numbers and taught courses that assumed that every South African was white.

When democracy arrived, the legal barriers tumbled; deep-rooted beliefs that whites are superior did not. The "liberal" universities now had the right to teach who and what they pleased: they used it to keep alive the racial pecking order in a "colour blind" guise. In the early 1990s, sociologist Harold Wolpe warned against a view that white English-language universities were the only "real" institutions of learning and should be left alone to do what they had always done. He argued that they were also products of the past and so they too needed to change.

Events at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and other universities show that Wolpe was right — but that the universities ignored him. Whites remain largely in charge — but, because they are "liberal", they always have a good "nonracial" reason for why this should be so. These universities continued to assume that whites had academic quality, while blacks still had to show they had it. Most white academics, including those who claimed to be left-wing, insisted there were "no good black academics": ignoring the point that, even if that were true, and it wasn’t, they had failed to develop the abilities of their black students. The problem is illustrated by the fate of Archie Mafeje, a renowned black anthropologist. In 1968, the apartheid government prevented UCT from appointing him to a junior position, sparking protests. In 1991, when the university could give him any job it chose, it offered him only a senior lecturer post, although he was then a professor: so it still treated him as a junior academic. While UCT apologised to Mafeje after his death, the make-up of its teaching staff and the content of its courses — and those of other English universities — show that the racial thinking that caused it to insult him had not changed.

Some universities like to claim that they are dealing with our racial past — not by changing who teaches and what they teach but by helping black students from poor backgrounds. They are, they say, therefore less elitist and less "racial" than those who believe the problem is the treatment of back academics. But these programmes prepare black people to fit into what those who run the universities want them to be — they are no substitute for strategies that would make the universities become what most citizens want them to be. That this "nonracial" failure to address racism causes huge anger now is no surprise.

Events on the campuses show that racism here was not the preserve of a few white zealots — it was and is deeply ingrained, among those who wash their hands of it as well as those who actively pursue it. This is true of all institutions, not just universities. Unless the turmoil forces all these institutions to face their role in keeping prejudice alive, racial tension will plague universities and the country.