Over the years, the question whether blacks can be racist has ignited a heated discussion. The Chicago Tribune, for example, once carried a story about a controversial poll which suggested that, “Americans, including black Americans, tend to think blacks are more racist than whites or Hispanics.”
In 2009, Bikoist and public intellectual-turned-politician Andile Mngxitama wrote a controversial essay titled “Blacks Can’t Be Racist“. The essay drew a lot of ire, particularly from right-wing conservatives. Henri Le Riche, for example, accused Mngxitama of sounding like a Nazi-style propagandist.
Mngxitama subsequently delivered a talk under the same heading at Wits University in 2011 (watch). The good folks at Kagablog were kind enough to transcribe parts of Mngxitama’s talk here. He explained his argument as follows:
I’m arguing […] that what we need is conceptual fidelity…. If racism is everything, if you say white people can become victims of racism, what you have done right there, is to wipe off the historical slate clean of the specialized, unique ways in which Black people have been oppressed over the ages…. Steve Biko helps us a lot here because he says that racism is defined as the subjugation of one group by another for the purpose of exploitation. Now, we Black people, we don’t have the intention of subjugating anyone.
Mngxitama is not alone. The view–as one commenter pointed out here–is that racism is about prejudice and power. She argues that racism “includes the ability to access resources, being able to control it and decide who is restricted from it. It is whiteness (not blackness), which has formed a globalised power structure (this doesn’t have to be material resources.) It therefore becomes redundant to say a black person is racist because while they can be bigoted and ignorant, they lack power.”
The core premise of view expressed above is that “racism” is distinguishable from bigotry or “racial ignorance”. David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum, makes the point more succinctly here:
Can blacks be racist? The answer, of course, will depend on how you define racism. If you define it as “prejudice against or hatred toward another race,” then the answer is yes. If you define racism as “the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” the answer is yes. And if you define racism as “prejudice and discrimination rooted in race-based loathing,” then the answer is, again, yes. However, if you define racism as “a system of group privilege by those who have a disproportionate share of society’s power, prestige, property, and privilege,” then the answer is no. In the end, it is my opinion that individual blacks can be and sometimes are racists. However, collectively, blacks are neither the primary creators nor beneficiaries of the racism that permeates society today.
I think the video (above) is important because it provides some context for the debate. Power is relative. What about “micro power”? Take a white barber in a black neighborhood needs to cut black hair. Do black customers have a relative power against the barber? If they refuse to be served by him, he goes out of business. I am not suggesting that this is the answer. I do think, however, that the video opens the floor for a more nuanced debate.