The Answer You Get Depends on the Question You Ask

A few days ago, I wrote about the incident in Johannesburg, South Africa at the Free University involving a video of black students being humiliated by white students. The fallout from the video continues to roil the university and the country as a whole according to reports from South Africa. One blogger (affiliated with the BBC) writes that there is a “lot of soul searching in South Africa” right now and then poses this question:

In a country anxious to shed it’s divisive past, is this just another example that society can never really be totally rid of racism?

The responses (13 so far and the post just went up earlier today) suggest a resounding pessimism about the possibility of eliminating racism, and it’s one I’ve encountered in my classes when I teach about racism.  I can’t begin to count the number of undergraduate essays I’ve marked which begin with some variation on: “Racism has always existed.”     Uhm, no.  “That’s simply not correct,” I invariably write in the margins of such papers.   Racism as an ideology emerged at a specific historical period as a justification for the practices of global capitalism at the time known as colonialism and the slave trade (See for example, Snowden, Before Color Prejudice).    By asking the question in this way: “Can you ever rid society of racism?” you leave open the possibility that the answer is “no,” as most of those 13 people commenting suggest.    I think we can do better, frankly.   Instead, let’s ask:  “How can we dismantle racism given how persistent it seems?”    The answer you get depends on the question you ask.


  1. Right. Or, “what are the social conditions that support and promote racism?”–a question that will turn our attention to the business of changing things, rather than useless pessimism.

  2. mgs

    The answer you get depends on the question you ask indeed. Will we ever rid ourselves completely of racism? Probably not. The more pertinent question: Is it worth combating racism? Absolutely.

    The argument that racism came into being at the time of colonialism seems like an argument that “racism didn’t exist until races came into repeated contact with each other.” Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years. Spanish warriors received names like”Matamoros” (roughly: kills blacks) during the 14th century.

  3. Will

    I am curious to ask if you have noticed any pattern regarding which students say that, “racism has always existed.” That seems to be a legitimization for the current structure of racism making it inevitable and therefore to be ignored. Why students who believe that are compelled to take a class on racism is another discussion. I assume that most of the students who write that are white as that seems to be the group most likely to answer that way on my campus.

  4. mgs

    After further consideration, I feel that the question you ask is only one variable. The answer you get also depends on the operational definition of racism. Racism as an ideology is far different from Gary Becker’s definition: an aversion to interracial interaction. Racism as an ideology may be easier to dismantle and may be something with a specific starting point in historical records. On the other hand, racism as defined in the economics literature may have always existed, as your students suggest.

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