Last month the BBC published an article titled, "Do white people have a future in South Africa?" Western institutions like the BBC see no problem in commissioning articles like this due to mainstream whites' misconception of racism as a zero-sum game. Research shows that mainstream whites associate a decrease in anti-black racism with an increase in anti-white racism. The notion of "reverse racism" is rooted in this misconception.
Proponents of "reverse racism" often point to affirmative action as evidence of reverse racism.
Interestingly, political scientist Paul Sniderman's study in the United States (U.S.) reveals that the mere mention of the words "affirmative action" provokes racist stereotypes about blacks in the minds of white Americans.
The recent media statement by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), "Affirmative Action is killing babies and must be scrapped", ought to be read within this context. In the press Statement, the SAIRR goes on to argue that "... affirmative action is a veil behind which to conceal corruption and incompetence... " The racist stereotype of incompetent blacks is an enduring feature of racism.
Instead of viewing affirmative action as a policy designed to assist blacks overcome the legacy of apartheid, mainstream whites regard it as a confirmation of black inferiority. This is partly why the debate about the change in admission policies of some universities is presented as something good for blacks. It is argued that a move away from a reliance on affirmative action to achieve diversity will reduce racial stereotyping.
To use American sociologist Nancy DiTomaso's insight, this argument fails to take into consideration the fact that in post-apartheid South Africa, it is not overt racist acts that hinder the social mobility of blacks, but the racial advantage that whites enjoy through acts of favouritism that whites show each other through opportunity hoarding.
The Commission for Employment Equity report 2013 - 2014 shows that more than 53.8% of the white group was exposed to skills development as opposed to other racial groups. According to the report, white females are over-represented in non-profit organisations and in educational institutions, while white males are over-represented in the private sector, as well as in non-profit organisations and in educational institutions.
Whites do not have to subscribe to racist ideologies to benefit from the privileges of being white. The facts bear this out in post-apartheid South Africa. The economic benefits enable many whites to achieve a middle-class lifestyle by their mid-twenties. On the other hand, the economic cost for many blacks is disrupted careers and unemployment.
The system functions in a way that allows whites not to see how they might be complicit in the reproduction of racial inequality. In fact, as the BBC article demonstrates, mainstream whites are convinced that the country has made significant progress toward achieving racial equality at the expense of poor whites. The article argues, "semi-skilled white people have little chance of getting a job when so many black South Africans are unemployed."
The reality is that irrespective of class background, race and class determine the life chances available to the majority of black South Africans. This means that in addition to having affirmative action policies in place, class-conscious policies are urgently needed. Amy Gutman is a political philosopher and co-author of the book Colour Conscious: The Political Morality of Race.
Her analysis of U.S. society argues that class conscious policies ought to include social programmes that create enough jobs that pay a living wage, "provide adequate child care for parents so they can afford to work, secure a real safety net for those who cannot work, and institute adequate educational programmes for the children of poor parents." Without such class policies in place, it is premature to debate whether or not to abandon policies such as affirmative action.
Instead of doing away with affirmative action, white South Africans ought to acknowledge the fact that one of the legacies of apartheid that hinders the economic progress of many black people in this country is the history of unearned advantage that whites have over everybody else.
Academics who research white privilege point out that the advantage that whites enjoy might take the form of having access to community resources, whites receiving the benefit of the doubt in many areas of their lives, whites receiving strong recommendation for jobs, and being part of the socio-economic network that provide one with valuable "inside" information on how to take tests and present oneself for the job.
And here's the rub - white privilege is not illegal like racial discrimination.
Without affirmative action whites will not have to fight for or defend white privilege to enjoy its benefits. The trade union, Solidarity, understands this truism perfectly well. At the beginning of this year the union announced that it was starting a legal campaign to fight 34 more affirmative action court cases against the government and state-owned companies. What the union's legal campaign also reveals is that whites have enough social resources to challenge, interrupt and even reverse policies like affirmative action.
To use DiTomaso's insight again, the truth of the matter is that 20 years after the official demise of the apartheid system, whites still do not see their interests as being aligned with those of blacks. That is the mentality that perpetuates racial inequality in this country.
Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Read more articles by Mandisi Majavu.