Overcoming the Rainbow

South Africa is a beautiful country but we’re obsessed with race. Apartheid ended more than twenty years ago and, frankly, there are more important things to talk about.

If you think that’s just dinner party chitchat, you should know it’s now it’s supported by science.

The Institute of Race Relations conducted a survey that reveals, despite what social media would have you believe, that people are more worried about unemployment and crime and housing than racism.

So can we finally stop talking about racism? Almost!

When Twitter talks about racism, it’s always ‘structural’ racism, which is one of those trendy words like neoliberal and decolonisation that people throw around without stopping to explain what they mean. If this is an anti-intellectual tactic to shut down rational discourse, it fails, because critics can always make logical inferences about what those terms mean.

‘Black pain’ is a phrase that often comes up in connection with structural racism. It’s sad if some black people still feel pain in 2016, but as the survey explains, we can hardly prioritise individual pain when we have such crises as unemployment and crime to deal with. A big problem with the SJWs and their identity politics is they think their hurt feelings are the most important thing in the world, when crime is happening literally every day.

The other problem with identity politics folk is is that they actually deny the individual and only think in terms of groups and systems, which is anti-intellectual crypto-fascism. The fact that it’s so easy to condemn them for two completely opposite positions shows how confused they are.

Structural racism mainly refers to the way race is connected to institutions and access to resources and the distribution of power. Apartheid was really unfair, which is why we many say it’s fair to have reverse racism like affirmative action.

But if we want a truly non-racial equal opportunity society for all, we can’t have racialised policies like this forever. After all, apartheid classified people by race, which is exactly what affirmative action does.

As the survey made clear, what people really care about is jobs and houses, so we should prioritise policies that encourage economic growth, which will lead to more jobs and allow a greater number of people to afford decent homes.

That’s basic liberal common sense, but there is a slight complication. As Matt Bruenig reminds us, taking seriously respect for private property can have far-reaching consequences, because paying due respect to libertarian conceptions of just acquisition raises thorny questions about the the way South Africans have made their money.

It’s worth bearing in mind that affirmative action is actually a fairly vague form of redress, amounting to little more than an acknowledgement that certain population groups were denied types of opportunities, and are now being provided with privileged access to those opportunities.

Many liberals have pointed out that some black people have become rich in the last two decades and nonetheless received privileged access to work and tenders, even when up against poor white people. Is this fair? Well, if we are serious about respecting property rights and about the just acquisition of property, then fairness would dictate that a black person’s current level of wealth would not be the relevant consideration as to whether she is entitled to reparations, however these were to be determined. Due deference to principals underlying the just acquisition of property would, in fact, see white South Africans dispossessed of their material wealth at a scale that far exceeds anything seen in the last two decades.

That sounds scary, but we’re not libertarians. We’re pragmatic liberals. Just taking property from some people and giving it to others would scare away investors, ensure land and goods were inefficiently used and make everyone worse off.

But now we’re faced with a difficulty. What are the principles on which this free market pragmatism is based? What are equal opportunities based on if not the individual’s best use of fairly acquired property? Alternatively, if we have looser criteria for the acquisition of property, where is the line to be drawn? Can some people claim the property of others as their own? That sounds like a recipe for anarchy, and not in the good sense. Once we deviate from strict respect for property rights, we place ourselves in a very precarious position.

To avoid a racialised system of redress, we need to rethink our commitment to the just historical acquisition of property. After all, we’re looking forwards not backwards. But we also need a framework in which we can run a stable equal opportunity society that doesn’t disproportionately dispossess minorities.

Fortunately, as Bruenig explains, socialists don’t really have to concern themselves with the question of reparations, which doesn’t fit into their conceptual framework in the same way.

A neat solution to our obsessive discourse about race is therefore to impose a sufficiently robust form of socialism that sees wealth fairly redistributed to all South Africans, regardless of race or other criteria. This won’t exactly satisfy liberal conceptions of justice, which demand the full restitution of ill-gotten property, but as a pragmatist, this strikes me as a workable solution. After all, we’re not libertarians, so we don’t have to be fundamentalists about property rights. Finally we can stop worrying about race all the time and protect white people from the onerous demands of redistributive justice. All we need is strong socialism. I’d like to thank the IRR for making this so clear.