Word of the Day: Biko

First published on my legacy blog, Principia Politica, adapted from an essay submitted while studying as a first-year undergraduate student at University of Cambridge, 2018-19. The essay was awarded the mark of first.

‘It will not be long before the blacks relate their poverty to their blackness in concrete terms. Because of the tradition forced onto this country, the poor people shall always be black people. It is not surprising, therefore, that the blacks should wish to rid themselves of a system that locks up the wealth of the country in the hands of a few. No doubt Rick Turner was thinking of this when he declared that “any black government is likely to be socialist”‘ (Biko 2002:53). 

Meet Steve Biko.

Steve Biko made this striking declaration in his paper on ‘White Racism and Black Consciousness’. He shows how racial inequality in South Africa was enmeshed not only in the ‘totality of white power’ but also in some fundamental structures of capitalism. Biko, like W.E.B. Du Bois in his later years and Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, saw the ownership of capital as a key determinant of racial inequality. Racism existed psychologically, too, as racism is characterised not only by the fact of inequality but by perceptions of this inequality’s supposed legitimacy. But even these perceptions are conditioned by the interests of the owners of capital (whites). Ask the question, ‘who controls the flow of capital?’, and you’re on the right track to finding who benefits from racial inequality (whites). Ask the question, ‘who controls political, economic and social systems in society?’, and you’re on track to finding out who controls the flow of capital (whites). For Fanon, Du Bois and to some extent Biko too: To control capital is to control society. So black liberation means economic development of black communities: it means ‘buying black’, it means challenging whites’ monopoly of capital and the means of production (Biko 2002:97). Du Bois and Fanon thought it also meant the ultimate overthrow of global capitalism through international socialism. Clearly, Biko thought that these structural conditions shape racial inequality. But he also thought that racism had psychological and moral dimensions, too. 

Psychologically, racial inequality is manifested in racist attitudes towards black people and black people’s partial internalisation of these attitudes. White perceptions of black ‘inferiority’ are very important, because they are fundamentally ‘what [made] South African society racist’. Therefore, ‘while the race problem started off as an offshoot of the economic greed exhibited by white people, it has now become a serious problem on its own’ (Biko 2002:88). Over time, whites came to believe that blacks were unequal to them, that blacks were in a biological or moral position of inferiority to whites (Biko 2002:88). The initial racist attitudes may have been partly adopted expediently as a means of justifying the exploits of colonial capitalism. But over time these racist attitudes became embedded in white psychologies. ‘[W]hite-oriented education’ creates an imaginary of black culture as encased in ‘barbarism’, which permeates through both white and black psychologies (ibid.:70). Over ‘generations’ of social reproduction of certain ways of thinkings, the ‘inferior-superior black-white complexes’ which began as the ‘deliberate creations of the colonialist’ become partially internalised by black people themselves (Biko 2002:69). As Desmond Tutu notes, this internalisation of inferiority complexes is powerful enough to make black people sometimes even doubttheir moral status as ‘God’s children’ (Biko 2002:xv). For Biko, blacks must respond through ‘Black Consciousness’: the changing of psychologies through concerted activism, revealing ‘the lie that black is an aberration from the “normal” which is white’ (Biko 2002:49). He saw racial inequality as the result of institutionalised patterns of thinking, as shared psychological attitudes and inferiority-superiority complexes. But these attitudes are only instilled in people by the owners of capital (whites) for the sake of psychologically justifying racial inequality. Some might argue that Biko didn’t go far enough: the world-capitalist system itself may rely on the extraction of resources and labour from the ‘darker nations’ (Wallerstein 1974:393). According to this view, any movement of Black Consciousness might need to be coupled with a movement for Black Emancipation from the underlying infrastructure of racial inequality: capital and its relations. 

Immorally, racial inequality is manifested in the derecognition of black people’s humanity.  The status of black people as equal human beings was not always recognised by white people and value systems. Whites not only held psychologically abusive attitudes towards blacks in South Africa and elsewhere, but they denied the ‘status’ of blacks as equal persons (Biko 2002:92). So black people must ‘build around themselves their own values’ (ibid.:71). This isn’t just about black consciousness. This is about black moralities: a rejuvenation of the authentic values of pre-colonial African communal life. I’m not certain whether Biko is completely right about this last point: as Frantz Fanon pointed out, colonialism did its best to trample over most aspects of the pre-colonial cultures of Africa. It left few – if any – stones unturned. But Biko’s overall moral message is more relevant than ever before. Feminist struggles for equality, as Nancy Fraser argues, rests  on redistributing wealth and income in the economy to the less privileged members of society. But it also rests on recognising people’s chosen gender identity. This involves creating some new values about equality – beyond the male-centric  and white-centric discourses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fraser (2013:176) captures this nicely: ‘To be misrecognized, in my view, is not simply to be thought ill of, looked down on, or devalued in others’ conscious attitudes or mental beliefs. It is rather to be denied the status of a full partner in social interaction’. Fraser’s project of economic redistribution and moral recognition maps neatly onto the views of Du Bois, Fanon and Biko. All three thinkers were committed both to the overthrow of structural racial inequality and to the deconstruction of those white values which derecognise the equal status of all human beings.

Further reading

Biko, S., 2002. I write what I like. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Du Bois, W., 1973. The Philadelphia negro. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Du Bois, W., 2007. The souls of black folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanon, F., 1967. Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Fraser, N., 2013. Fortunes of feminism: From state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. London: Verso.

Gilroy, P., 2011. Darker than blue: On the moral economies of black Atlantic culture. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Wallerstein, I., 1974. The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system: Concepts for comparative analysis. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 16(4), pp. 387-415.

Image sourced from Creative Commons.

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