Racism: Blaming the Liberals?

     The cyberworld rightly responded with shock and outrage at the recent Swedish art installation at which the Swedish Minister of Culture cut into a cake decorated to look like a grotesque caricature of a Black woman. Supposedly, the cake was supposed to call attention to the problem of female circumcision, but all it seemed to call attention to was poor taste and latent racism. Expressions of outrage emerged from all over the world, including this article by South African filmmaker Gillian Schutte http://www.sacsis.org.za/s/story.php?s=1273.

      Unfortunately, Ms. Schutte takes her justifiable outrage over the cake incident and uses it to launch an attack not merely on “white privilege” but upon “liberalists”, including Nelson Mandela. Dismissing Mandela’s efforts at reconciling South Africa, and the entire Truth and Reconciliation process in that country, she accuses Mandela and others of betraying Black South Africans and presumably protecting and preserving white privilege. This is a growing and disturbing trend, namely to attribute racism to those who espouse a doctrine of non-racialism, and this of course plays directly into the hands of conservatives. 

     First, it should be noted that Nelson Mandela’s non-racialism was a consistent part of his outlook from nearly the beginning of his struggle. Who can forget his eloquent statement at the Rivonia trial in 1964 where he stated “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against Black domination.” His “liberalist” views about race were not pragmatic ones born in the situation of the 1990’s.

     Secondly, it must be added that many whites risked imprisonment and death in choosing to take the part of the African National Congress against the Nationalist government, from Benjamin Pogrund to Bram Fischer to Albie Sachs to Trevor Huddleston to Helen Joseph to Joe Slovo.

     Finally, the “liberalist” route taken in the 1990’s by President Mandela and President F. W. DeKlerk was the best outcome possible given the circumstances. Caught between Afrikaner Resistance Movement and Afrikaner Volksunie demands for an all-white “volkstaat”, Ikatha demands for an independent Zulu nation in Natal, and Pan-African Congress and AZAPO slogans such as “One Settler, One Bullet” suggesting a guerrilla war to drive all whites out of South Africa, there were few options that would have not become a civil war or a bloodbath.

     The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions may not have been perfect, but they revealed much of the evil perpetrated by the Nationalist government, brought many of the perpetrators to justice and answered many questions about how the apartheid state operated. The commissions went far beyond anything that has ever been done here in the United States in the wake of slavery and segregation.

     That Gillian Schutte is outraged by racism is admirable. I’m outraged by it. I can never understand why so many white people are not. Nevertheless, the blame for the kind of racism that pervades the world today should not be laid at the feet of liberals, for we are the main ones who have been fighting it all along.

     It was neither the Liberal Party, nor the Progressive Party, nor the Communist Party who came up with the Race Classification Act, or the Group Areas Act, or banning, detention without trial, the pass laws, or any of the manifest ways that racism was encoded and extended in South Africa. Likewise, a good study of the United States will show that political liberals have historically fought against racism.

    We as liberals offer a solution to racism that is based in reconciliation within a united nation. All other solutions offered usually are in terms of some degree of separation in either separate countries or separate states within some sort of federal structure. But for good liberals like Nelson Mandela, that’s where South Africa would be today, a former nation divided into racially-defined homelands. 

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