Problems in prejudging every incident as ‘racist’

IT IS hard to think straight in a crisis, but let’s try. More whites are shot by police in the United States than black people, and during the Obama presidency, there has actually been a decline in the number of police killings.

Wait, before you settle into smugness, there’s more.

More blacks are actually shot than whites as a proportion of the population of blacks compared to whites.

By the same measure, many more blacks end up in prison relative to their size of the population.

And so institutional racism is the problem – the case made so powerfully in Michelle Alexander’s astounding book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colour-blindness.

South African universities can rightly claim there are many more black students in former white universities, often a decisive majority that accounts for a remarkable “transformation” in student demographics.

True, but that is still a small percentage of black youth participating in higher education when compared to the vast majority who do not.

So, for example, black African students accounted for more than 69% of enrolments, at the last count. But that is only 16.45% of black African youth in the 18-24 year old age group.

By contrast, Indian South African enrolments stand at 6% of university enrolments but that is a massive 54.8% of the same age group, higher than the proportion of white enrolments.

You cannot, of course, blame universities for this reality – dysfunctional schools and impoverished communities need to be redressed.

The point is simply that what you see is not what you get until you start thinking more deeply about “the facts” presented so glibly in education statistics.

For the same reason I was somewhat puzzled by a columnist for a Sunday newspaper whose simplistic explanation for photo-coverage of black deaths versus white deaths was race.

All kinds of sensitive arguments were made, and upheld, about not publishing images of the slain body of Reeva Steenkamp but there was no such restraint in repeated images of the xenophobic slaying of a black Mozambican in a township.

The straightforward explanation was race; maybe, but the intersection of race with class is too powerful to ignore.

Remember those images of the white Afrikaner men lying injured next to their car in Mmbatho in the run-up to the 1994 elections?

Over and over again images flashed across the television and print media of bullets being pumped into their bodies by an angry black policeman.

Their problem, as right-wing AWB supporters, was that they were not wealthy whites who enjoyed the privilege of class and culture afforded to more sophisticated families.

Class matters, but that depends on what you are determined to see.

Which brings me to the instant photograph of the little black girl in a Centurion playschool shown sitting by herself without a cupcake while her white classmates sat at a different table eating their cakes.

The outrage in our newspapers was instant followed by a well-advertised visit by the provincial MEC for education. Racism!

That’s possible, but was it?

Subsequent reports suggested that the black child was sitting alongside a white child who shortly before the photograph was taken was picked up because she was crying. And that the black girl did have a cupcake but that she did not like the colourful icing which was scrapped off; in the darkish photo, she seems to not have a cupcake.

If those contrary reports are true, then one has to wonder about the damage done by our eagerness to “see race” in an otherwise innocent event.

None of this suggests that racism in education does not exist or that it is not widespread; but it does mean that to label on first sight a singular, photographed event as “racist” can do great harm.

Any judge will tell you that two honest people who have seen an accident can report completely different observations of the same event.

That is because what you see depends on where you stand, physically and on personal bias, what you prefer to see.

A familiar experiment is one in which film recordings are made of how people react to a well-groomed girl appearing lost in a public place and how the same people react to the lost girl when she is deliberately dressed down and disheveled.

We all like to believe that we are sincere, objective and truthful but our lenses are loaded to see what we want to.

That is why the race debates are so difficult to mediate … we make up our minds ahead of the evidence.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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