Can black people be racist? What an odd question many would point out. But some people actually do believe that certain races are incapable of acts of racism. We will respond to this view in this short article and point out some of the problematic assumptions it makes and immoral claims it posits.
There is a narrative embraced by a minority of blacks that their race cannot commit racist acts. In a South African context, this belief is expressed openly by the Black First Land First organization and its founder Andile Mngxitama (1). According to Mngxitama “Obviously black people cannot be racists… People who are still asking whether or not black people can be racist are still behind, the real question should be how to get justice” (2). But as we will see, Mngxitama it holding to a racist perspective that would seem to highlight hypocrisy and irrationality. That black people can’t be racist is also not a belief only found within South Africa (3). It is evidently promoted by some black Americans, one of whom we will refer to shortly.
To begin we should look at definition. What is racism? According to the Standard Oxford Dictionary, racism is “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Most would agree that to present the idea that white or black people are superior, perhaps cognitively or genetically, to people from Asian or Pacific countries would be racist (and vice versa). Although this is a fairly straightforward and commonsensical notion of racism, it appears that not all accept this definition. Michael Eric Dyson, an American MSNBC pundit, redefines the term to say that “racism presupposes the ability to control a significant segment of the population economically, politically, and socially by imposing law, covenant, and restriction on their lives. Black people don’t have the capacity to do that” (4). Blacks can’t be racist.
On this redefinition, racism cannot apply to those without power and for Dyson, blacks have never had economic, political, and social power. Blacks have not been able to oppress any other races as have whites (e.g. during apartheid in South Africa, and seventeenth and eighteenth-century slavery in the United States, or the slave trade, etc.). Because racism has been defined this way it follows that it can only apply to white people because they have had all the power (at least in our Western context). If racism solely required power think of the absurdity it would create; for example, the coloured Lindsay Maasdorp would not be a racist despite saying that if a black man raped a white woman he would side with the rapist. Neither is it racist for South African politician Julius Malema to take to the stage and claim he has no plans to slaughter white people, “for now.” On Dyson’s view, these (what I consider to be racist, anti-white) statements are difficult to classify; perhaps they’re just mumblings and not anything worth thinking about.
We should question this logic. Most open to questioning is the underlying assumption that racism requires power. It does not. Racism does not presuppose economic, social, or political power. Although racism and power do go hand in hand it is mistaken to suppose this is always the case. Racism is an ideology and a practice promoted and conducted by a group of people or an individual. In such cases, you do not need to wield power to be racist. A second concern is that this view that blacks cannot be racist is itself openly racist and therefore tolerant of racist behaviour. It is a racist perspective itself. Here I credit associate professor Hlonipha Mokoena of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) for his commonsensical bringing into question the view that his own race is immune from committing acts of racism,
“Racism is any attitude or behaviour that is premised on the assumption that one group of people is superior or inferior to another… This question whether or not black people can be racist is itself a problem. I believe it is itself a mask for another kind of conversation we should be having but aren’t… I’m not sure why black people are being exempted from these prejudices as if there is a hierarchy of prejudices and racism has somehow become the worst thing that a person can be. Bigotry is as bad as racism because both cause harm to others. Black people can certainly be bigoted since they have the power to cause harm to others. To say that black people can’t be racist is to say that black people are superhumans who are incapable of engaging in anti-social behaviours” (5).
For Dyson and Mngxitama, to elevate the black race through exempting it from having to be held accountable to the same standard imposed on other races is a manner of distinguishing blacks as superior, or as “superhumans” to use Mokoena’s terminology. Because it elevates one race over and above others, it becomes a racist dogma itself.
An additional issue with Dyson’s redefinition is that it makes us talk past each other or not talk to each other at all. In South Africa, racism is in the media headlines frequently enough to no longer be a big surprise. Indeed racism is a moral and ethical problem that needs to be discussed. But if there are members of specific races who keep redefining what racism is to exclude themselves from ever being able to commit such act it will destroy discussion. Without discussion, progress will never be made and we can expect things to get worse. The reasonable individual is, I am convinced, supportive of maintaining a level playing field in debates, which means that we cannot have anyone in the debate positioning themselves as superior. White and Afrikaans human rights activist Ernst Roets of AfriForum, in one specific debate with Mngxitama, I think illustrates this point well,
“I don’t mean it disrespectfully in any way but I honestly find it laughable that we can have a discussion about whether Black people can be racist. I mean that’s ludicrous. Racism is if you hate another person or if you inflict ill will on another person. But the level of debate in this country [South Africa] has strayed so far from a sane debate so that we [in reference to Mngxitama] are now saying, “No, Black people can’t be racist.” That is absolutely ludicrous, and it is something we need to address” (6).
1. ENCA. 2016.WATCH: Black people can’t be racist, says Mngxitama. Available.
2. The Daily Vox. 2017. So can black people be racist? Available.
3. Shapiro, B. 2016. Racist CNN Host: Impossible For Black People To Be Racist. Available.
4. YouTube. 2012. Michael Eric Dyson Shares Why “Black People Can’t Be Racist” Backstage At Don’t Sleep! Available. [00:20-00:30]
5. The Daily Vox. 2017. Ibid.
6. AfriForum. 2016. Ernst Roets in debate on racism and white privilege in South Africa. Available. [13:08-13:40]