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A debate is being conducted between a couple of contributors surrounding white privilege.
The left holds the view that Affirmative Action policies are justified given that being white automatically amounts to privilege, given that white dominated societies view everything from a white cultural perspective, which amounts to discrimination against other races. South Africa has the added disadvantage that it had a policy of segregation, which undoubtedly was discriminatory in favour of the whites, but did such policies lead to material disadvantage and were whites enriched as a result?
The counter argument is that any meritocratic system will automatically lead to distortions, where some groups are more endowed in certain areas. This is not discrimination, but a natural course of events, and to impose Affirmative Action policies, once discriminatory practicies have been removed, to right non-existant wrongs is, in fact discriminatory.
What is this concept of white privilege and is it a myth? Decide for yourself.
Christi van der Westhuizen wrote an article in the Weekend Argus in which she accused whites of being “extremely resistant to owning up to their privileged status and how it came to be.” Whites are also guilty of benefiting from a race-based system and then claiming that they did not to know about the effects of that system on blacks. They complain “constantly about the employment equity laws which have the sole function to redress apartheid.” Their attitudes legitimise “continuing white privilege and the lack of any meaningful redistribution”. They are full of greed for power and wealth - and this “very same greed fuels white denial and consequently blocks efforts to defuse our socio-economic time bomb.”
Her views remind me of a debate I attended a few months ago between Professor David Benetar of UCT and his sociology colleague, Ms Zimitri Erasmus, on affirmative action. Ms Erasmus pointed to the impossibility of ignoring the accumulated advantages that white South Africans had derived from more than 350 years of racial exploitation and oppression. She argued with ominous intensity that it was necessary to ‘limit’ this white privilege in the pursuit of justice and equality. When question time came I asked her whether all white privilege was the result of past racial exploitation or might some of it have been earned? Her reply was very brief and to the point: yes, all white privilege was unearned and undeserved.
"All white privilege is unearned and undeserved." - Zimitri Erasmus, UCT
The proposition that black South Africans were unjustly prevented from competing against whites in the past is shamefully true – as is the proposition that whites benefited from better education and social facilities (even though they may have paid for those facilities themselves).
However, the conclusion that white privilege is therefore unearned and undeserved is fallacious – because there are so many other critical factors involved – including cultural orientation, individual initiative and effort, and the degree of material, educational and competitive advantage that immigrants originally brought with them from Europe. Do people who contribute to the economy - doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, mechanics, sales people, airline pilots, managers and engineers - not deserve to be remunerated according to the market?
Is there really any reason to suppose that a European immigrant community in South Africa would not have attained approximately the same level of material prosperity and educational development as their counterparts in the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand regardless of any other circumstances?
But there is reason to believe that the indigenous black population would not have been able to attain similar levels of prosperity, given their backward culture at the time, their level of development and, more recently, confirmation that they have significantly lower IQs. Moreover, the countries within which blacks seek redress were all constituted as white countries. Therefore it is logical that the institutions and culture were euro-centric, or white.
Whatever their shortcomings, South African whites are not lazy or incompetent: those who have emigrated have shown that they are well able to compete successfully with the best in the world.
The second fallacy is that all whites are “well-off” - as Ms Van der Westhuizen puts it. According to a recent survey by UNISA’s Bureau of Market Research 38.7% of white workers are in the poorest category that earns less than R50 000 per annum, which also constitutes the lowest IQ segment of the white population as well. 5% of whites do, indeed, dominate the super-rich class who earn more than R500 000. However, they make up a diminishing 45% of the 3 725 000 million people with incomes between R100 000 and R300 000. There are 4.4 million black, Coloured and Asian South Africans who earn more than 1.54 million whites.
On what basis of equity does affirmative action practised against the children of these poorer whites, when competing against the children of wealthier blacks, help to “redress apartheid”?
The third fallacy is that all - or even most - whites were insensitive to the injustices of apartheid. On the contrary, they were acutely aware of, and troubled by, the increasingly untenable situation that had developed by the mid-1980s.
It was precisely because of such concerns that 70% of them consistently supported transformation policies despite the enormous risks involved. In an almost unprecedented act of faith they were prepared to place their trust for their future security and basic rights in a constitution that they had negotiated with their former enemies - whom they had little reason to trust and every reason to fear.
Ms Van der Westhuizen also appears to blame whites for the shocking and increasing inequality in our society. She is quite right that this is a major threat to South Africa - but she is wrong to allocate responsibility to white South Africans - who no longer make the policies that underlie inequality. It is deeply ironic that the gap between white and black share of personal income closed from 72%-28% in 1960 to almost 50%-50% by 1994 - and since then has narrowed only marginally.
She is also right when she calls for some process of wealth redistribution. Liberal democracies (of which she fashionably disapproves) all make provision for such a process. It is called “income tax” - and it is effective, non-racial and fair. It means that the fortunate 22% of whites who earn more than R300 000 spend approximately two days every week working for their fellow South Africans. They receive very little in return - since nearly all of them pay for their own education, security and health services. The IMF reported in 1992 that the average white South African paid 32% of his income in tax - but received only 9% of this back in benefits from the state - giving them, what it called, one of the highest relative tax burdens in the world. Since then that burden has undoubtedly increased.
Governments can - of course - increase redistributive income taxes on a non-racial basis - but have invariably found that if they do so they seriously discourage economic growth and stimulate the emigration of highly productive people. Some 800 000 whites have already left South Africa since 1994 taking with them indispensable skills and causing a loss to our economy of more than R 150 billion rand per annum as well as more than a million jobs. They left primarily because of opportunities in the global job market, crime and affirmative action. However, many more would leave if the kind of “meaningful (racial) redistribution” of wealth that Ms Van der Westhuizen evidently has in mind, were ever implemented. This would greatly impoverish South Africa.
It should be remembered that whites contribute to the well-being of society not only through taxes and their role in the economy - but also through their disproportionate participation in civil society - and particularly in charities and welfare organisations providing services to disadvantaged communities.
The disturbing thing about Van der Westhuizen’s accusations is their blanket racial nature. She makes no distinction between poor whites and rich whites; between those who supported the former government and those who did not. Nor does she acknowledge the historic legacy and well-founded fears with which whites had to wrestle (Mark Gevisser has confirmed in “A Dream Deferred” that virtually all the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee in the mid-1980s were also members of the then staunchly Stalinist SACP.) There is a word for pejorative stereotyping of ethnic communities, whatever their colour: it is racism. It is unacceptable in terms of our Constitution - regardless of its originator or the targeted group. Wittingly or unwittingly, Ms Van der Westhuizen’s views inevitably feed the very dangerous concept of collective racial guilt. They will be enthusiastically welcomed by ideological supporters of the National Democratic Revolution who see white collective guilt - reaffirmed as frequently as possible - as the justification for their open-ended and very disturbing racial agenda.
Italics added by blogger.