Roblematizing Race for

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Race, Gender & Class: Volume 11, Number 2, 2004 ( )
Race, Gender & Class Website:
Problematizing Race for Journalists: Critical Reflections on the South African Human Rights Commission Inquiry

into Media Racism
Guy Berger

Department of Journalism & Media Studies,

Rhodes University, South Africa

Abstract: How journalists report race and racism was at the center of the South Africa's Human Rights Commission Inquiry into racism in the media. A critical analysis of the conceptual assumptions in the Inquiry’s Final Report, however, reveals serious limitations to the enterprise. In particular, the flawed conceptualizations plus the generalized character of the findings are of little help in assisting the momentum of eradicating racism in South African media, and for linking race transformation to issues of class, gender, sexual orientation and xenophobia. This article identifies the problems as a race essentialism and a racism relativism, and argues instead that journalists need the concept of racialization in order to change their reporting. The argument upholds the desired role of the South African media as one that contributes to a non-racial, as opposed to a multi-racial, society.

Race, Racism, Apartheid, Media, Journalism, Human Rights, Inquiry

Guy Berger is head of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa. He conducted the research for this article during a Fulbright African Research Scholarship at University of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2001.
Address: Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa. Ph: 27 (46) 603 8336/7 Fax: 27 (46) 622 8447, Email: Website:

"The boundary and meaning of the concept of racism

is the site of theoretical struggle." Miles (1993:7)

his article is written with the explicit acknowledgement that it cannot be "race-free" in its authoring. The writer grew up as a "White" South African under apartheid, and although he was later jailed for fighting the system, he would not presume to be free of all aspects of a racist mentality—many of which are deep and not always easy to recognize. It is an ongoing process of learning and unlearning. As made clear in his submission to the hearings of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in Johannesburg during 2000, one who is not a victim of racism may not pick up all instances of racism—the desire to be as sensitive as possible notwithstanding (Berger, 2000a; see similar points by Essed, 1991:59; and Knowles & Mercer, 1992:111). Thus, in writing this article, there has been an attempt to be aware of the blinkers deriving from "White" racial experience.

On the other hand, as Cohen (1992:95-6) rightly argues, there are dangers in "ethnic credentialism", the view that a body of work possesses a monopoly of the truth about racism because it derives from an author who experiences it. Similarly, Miles (1989:6) observes that although there are limits to the experience of many "White" people when compared to "Black" people, there is no single truth about racism which only "Blacks" can know. He continues: "To assert that the latter is so is, in fact, to condemn 'white' people to a universal condition which implies possession of a permanent essence which inevitably sets them apart." It is in the spirit of Miles' anti-race thinking that this article is intended as an anti-racism contribution and one which aspires to transcend at least some of the limitations of its source.
South Africa has been the site of the world's most intense struggles against racism. What the struggle has been for, has been less clear—especially whether the objective has been an entirely race-free society (non-racialism), or one that remains racial but without the racism (multi-racialism). As part of the country's transition away from apartheid, South Africa's media is a factor in both defining, and moving towards, one of these objectives over the other. There have been significant media changes since 1994, including in the race, nationality and class of ownership; in the race and gender of staffing; and in the environment of freedom of expression and pluralistic broadcast regulation. However, it remains of relevance to examine the state of racism in media representation, and what this means in terms of the trajectory of transformation to either non-racialism or multi-racialism.
This matter also has implications for several important questions facing South African media. How do journalists understand racial factors, and how do they report in a way that counters, rather than contributes to, racism? Can they ensure that race sensitivity does not mean an insensitivity to issues like class, gender, xenophobia and sexual orientation? And how can their reporting lean in the direction of either non-racialism or multi-racialism? This article does not aim to fully answer these questions, but to offer the preliminary step of chopping through some of the tangled undergrowth obscuring paths that may otherwise be hidden.
The article is an intervention into a debate triggered by the SAHRC Inquiry, although it also ranges wider than this. The argument is that the SAHRC’s conceptualization of race and racism ends up reifying racial differentiation, and that this holds out a future of multi-racialism, rather than non-racialism. In this article, the distinction between (neutral) racialism and (negative) racism is accepted―but with the immediate corollary that the distance between these is extremely short. The recommendation is to strive towards ridding journalism of abstracted racial thinking altogether, and instead acknowledging only the potential salience of racial identity as an historically shifting factor and one which may well mask other social dynamics just as much as it can appear to be adequately explanatory. This entails elaborating the concept of racialization (which can be neutral or negative) as against that of race or racialism.
By way of essential background, it may be pointed out that South Africa's media under apartheid played a chequered role. There are major debates about which parts of it helped maintain the racist order, and which opposed the system, and how that history implicates the kind of role they should play post-apartheid (see Berger, 1999). It is true to say, however, as was concluded by South Africa's Truth and Reconcilation Commission, that the bulk of media—with some important exceptions—either expressly promoted apartheid, or implicitly complied with it, and in both ways contributed to a climate of gross human rights violations. (See TRC, 1998).
It was not unexpected, therefore, that the spotlight would be focused on the media in the post-apartheid era, with the aim of assessing the institution as a factor for or against transformation, and in what direction. Various conferences, studies and critiques have taken place, but the most impactful initiative has unquestioningly been the 1999-2000 Inquiry by the SAHRC. This statutory body was set up as part of the new democratic constitutional apparatus in post-apartheid South Africa, and which dispensation expressly holds out the promise of a non-racial society. It is charged with promoting the country's bill of rights, which include the rights to dignity and equality which were so denigrated under legalized racism. The Commission is primarily an investigative and monitoring unit, and while it has powers to achieve these objectives, it has no legislative, administrative nor judicial role. Its impact is, by its own acknowledgement, primarily symbolic, and this capacity has special congruence with the media whose products can do so much to construct the realm of ideology.

The initial impetus for the Inquiry into racism in the country's media came from complaints to SAHRC in 1998 by the Black Lawyers Association and the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa. The two alleged there was racism in two liberal newspapers they perceived to be "White". This designation reflects part of the complexity of current South Africa. In the past, it used to be that most media was "White"-owned, "White"-edited and "White"-staffed, and served a "White audience" with "White content" informed by a "White worldview". The two newspapers referred to cannot be so easily classified (at the time of the accusation, both had editors of what is commonly considered mixed-race ancestry, one had "Black" owners and both had only a minority of "White" readers). My wording, "perceived” to be “White,” signals the impressionistic nature of the reference. In similar vein, this article uses racial labels in quotation marks in order to signal that there are question marks over the meaning of categorizing people in these blanket terms. The reasons for this caution will become clear as the article proceeds.

The SAHRC's subsequent decision to launch an inquiry into the media as a whole evoked a lot of controversy. The matter heated up with the publication of an Interim Report that criticized much of the media for racist content. The two-part document is titled "Cultural Bloodstains", and "The News in Black and White", and was compiled by private researchers hired by the SAHRC, namely Claudia Braude and a non-governmental organization called the Media Monitoring Project (MMP). (See Braude, 1999; and MMP, 1999). Boiling point was reached when the SAHRC went on to issue numerous editors with state subpoenas requiring them to testify in response to the report's (widely-disputed) findings. A deal was eventually brokered, and once the subpoenas were lifted, numerous journalists gave evidence in hearings that took place in a climate of catharsis. A Final Report on the Inquiry, titled “Faultlines” was published by the SAHRC several months later (SAHRC, 2000). In it, the Commission concluded that the South African media was indeed guilty of racism, and it made several proposals to change this, including calling for statutory support for media diversity and for stronger professional codes of conduct among journalists.
In remarkable contrast to the hostile reception given to the Interim Report (see Jacobs, 2000), the Final Report elicited comparatively mild and even positive media response (see, for example, editorials, Sunday Times, City Press, 27 August 2000). This suggested a possibly positive taking up of the appeal in the Preface to the “Faultlines” document, which declared: "Let this report speak ... to the hearts of every media practitioner in the country and let it guide every human rights advocate, inform and inspire the work of every anti-racism activist" (2000:4). Unfortunately, as will be argued below, the document "speaks" in a confused, and confusing way, and offers a problematic understanding of the nature of the problem.

In the view of this article, the positive momentum set up by the Inquiry process will need to continue despite, rather than because of, the analysis in the Final Report. Fortunately, useful insights were generated in the hearings (see ANC, 2000; Whitfield, 2000). Commission recommendations like racism awareness training for journalists are being implemented on a small scale, and many media workers have increased sensitivity about the issue. Journalists, many of whom were strongly divided along racial lines during the Inquiry, have emerged with greater awareness of each others' perspectives. The grievances of many "Black" editors in particular have been aired. But a lot more work still needs to be done in terms of promoting a serious understanding of what constitutes racism. It is with such an understanding that instead of treating racism in isolation as the SAHRC Inquiry did, media workers can also begin to grasp its articulation to xenophobia, sexism and class exploitation. The SAHRC to its credit has also launched a campaign called "roll back xenophobia". The challenge for journalists (and researchers) is to see the connections between all these issues. As Bertelsen (2000) has well demonstrated, one of the problems of the SAHRC position was that its researchers read race into a certain report, when class would appear to have been the greater determinant in that particular case. The issue is: how do we locate racism in amongst the multiplicity of social relations within what Memmi (2000) includes under the umbrella term of "heterophobia"? It is the case that, as Brah (1992:138) points out, a search for grand theories of interconnections between race, class and gender has been less than productive. I agree with her that these are best construed as historically contingent and context-specific relationships, but that still requires clear conceptualization about what each of them is. Few would dispute that in South Africa, racism is an appropriate topic to prioritize because of its historically overdetermining role in structuring the lives of South Africans. It is then on the basis of establishing the analytical distinctiveness and unity of racism (even in its various guises) relative to other forms of privilege (and hidden privilege), that connections between all these relations can begin to be drawn.

The problem illustrated
In the wake of the SAHRC hearings, a workshop was convened in Johannesburg in July 2000 by the South African National Editors Forum to discuss racism in reporting. In the course of the discussions, a particular story came up concerning a court case where three people were sentenced for murder and rape. This being South Africa, it was not unnoticed that the murderers were poor young "Blacks" (two brothers and a cousin), and the victims were rich "Whites" (mother and daughter). A participant at the Johannesburg workshop objected to a news report which had stated that "the mainly black crowd at the court" had cheered the severity of the sentences that were handed down. The racial reference, argued the participant, signaled that the racial mix of the crowd was noteworthy, and in so doing implied that "Black" people normally did not place the same value on human life as "Whites", and indeed that "Blacks" in South Africa ordinarily support the killing of "Whites". Other workshop participants took a different view. One said that it was precisely because of the existence of such stereotyped assumptions that the story was correct in highlighting that most of the crowd was "Black"—how else could the prejudice be shown to be incorrect? And in a society where the majority of "Whites" had dehumanized the majority of "Blacks", was it not newsworthy that "Black" people transcended this to demonstrate their support for punishment of killers of "Whites"?
A third participant said that it would have been better to show the racial aspect visually, rather than mention it explicitly. This comment in turn was criticized for overlooking the limitations of media such as radio that could not show visuals, and more deeply for failing to tackle the basic issue. At the end of the discussion, there was no consensus as to whether the report had been racist, and whether it had perpetuated racist stereotypes or not.
Imbedded in this discussion was the difficulty in South Africa of assessing what race signifies, when it is a relevant factor and when it entails racism. As the society moves away from the legalized racism that was apartheid, racial designation continues to be frequently acknowledged precisely in order to recognize ongoing effects of the system—in part to address these. The paradox is that in thus working with the categories created by apartheid, they are partially perpetuated. For South African journalists to get a grip on this, requires a sophisticated understanding of racism. In short, they need to know when racial issues should inform their reporting, and when it is racist to be color-blind and when it is racist not to be.

The central challenge: conceptualizing racism
Essed (1991:77) has usefully observed that "without general knowledge of racism, individuals cannot comprehend the meaning of racism in their lives." This principle applies to everyone—whether as victim, perpetrator or accomplice of racism, because experience has to be made sense of. Likewise, Knowles and Mercer (1992:110) write: "Experience is often presented as if it is an unmediated encounter between categories of people and their environment. ‘But what is experience?’ It has no such immediacy—it is organized by our understanding, how we interpret behaviour."
For Essed, the general knowledge enabling an understanding of racism has two components: (a). Generalizations about specific types of racist episodes, and (b). Abstract cognitions about the processes and mechanisms of racism (1991:76). She is correct in this, and yet it can be argued that a third and even more fundamental element is also required: (c). a clear conceptualization of what defines racism. This triangle of elements is the key to making—and changing—the meanings of racism. However, it is the third element that informs the others and which is therefore the critical axis upon which a general knowledge of racism can be operationalized.
As part of the SAHRC Inquiry, a huge amount of time was spent researching, preparing submissions, discussing at hearings, preparing the Final Report—but still there was very little clarity or consensus about defining the devil under the spotlight. Media commentator after commentator agreed there was racism in the South African media, but what they meant by this was many varying things and most disagreed with the cases cited by the Interim Report. There are of course obvious features of racism and racist stereotypes that can be identified without problem, and some were during the Inquiry hearings. These are cases evident by both omission and commission. But as the SAHRC Final Report concluded: "(g)enerally speaking, we have found no evidence of the mainstream media indulging in blatant advocacy of racial hatred or incitement to racial violence. We have found much evidence of condemnation of hate speech" (2000:90).
So, the issue of extreme racism in South Africa’s media is not the main matter that bothers people there. The trouble comes in the less obvious cases. These are far more complex—and indeed controversial, as evidenced in the responses to the research in the SAHRC’s Interim Report (see inter alia, Berger, 2000a; Glaser, 2000). The difficulty is that if there is no real agreement on what amounts to racism, there can be little scope for spotting it and combating it (or for relating and extending this struggle to other dimensions of human oppression such as racist xenophobia which is a growing problem in South Africa). Without a clear concept of racism, there is also little scope for academics to apply a research methodology and come up with credible findings—as the SAHRC researchers discovered to their peril (see criticisms by Steenveld, 2000; Tomaselli, 2000).
This general point about the importance of conceptualizing and defining racism is especially, but not exclusively, relevant to "White" journalists (in South Africa and indeed in many other places too). Martinot (2000:xvii) highlights “White” ignorance by pointing out that while most “White” people do not consider themselves privileged, “the freedom from having to deal with gratuitous hostility, or suspicion, or subtle exclusion, remains the quintessential privilege.” Further, as noted by Knowles and Mercer (1992:113), “... some white people are responsible for certain sorts of racial exlusions, but ... in developing antiracist strategies it is helpful to know exactly how they are racist, so their actions can be challenged.”
However, defining racism is also relevant to “Blacks.” Essed (1991:43) points out that it should not be assumed that all “Whites” are agents of racism and all “Blacks” only the victims. Indeed, as Miles (1989:55) argues, racism covers all acts that have as a consequence the creation or maintenance of racial disadvantage—no matter whether these acts are done by “Whites” or “Blacks.” In the USA, Campbell (1995:92/3) writes that “... minority journalists may indeed be inadvertently playing a role in advancing the sophisticated attitudes of contemporary racism.” For him, it is a paradox, but “Black” journalists in the USA “may actually contribute to contemporary racist myths...” Similarly, both the SAHRC’s interim and Final Reports suggest that South African “Black” journalists can and do sometimes perpetuate the same inequalities that are stacked against “Blacks” (SAHRC, 2000:58,69; MMP, 1999:52-3). So, just as it would be wrong to say that a beneficiary of racism is automatically a racist, it would also be wrong to say that a victim of racism cannot be a racist. This is not suggest a symmetry between the two sides here: it is of course far more likely that the beneficiaries will support racism (even without always recognizing this; there are many rationalizations for such privilege), and it is far more likely that the victims will oppose racism. Ultimately, it is who practices racism, and who challenges it, that needs to be looked at. But this in turn requires a clear conceptualization of racism—what is being practised and what therefore needs to be challenged.

Dodging the difficulties
The problem with the SAHRC Final Report is that it fails to give a coherent account of what racism is. The consequence is that it is―as will be shown―not only unwilling, but also unable, to establish responsibility for media racism.
In the Interim Report, the point was strongly made that the findings did not mean to impugn or criminalize any specific medium or journalist as being racist (MMP, 1999:7,59; Braude, 1999:17). This proved somewhat naïve, given that specifically named media were selected for analysis, and this list provided the basis for identifying the individuals against whom subpoenas were later issued. Nonetheless, the intention was evidently there. Even greater delicacy appears in the Final Report (2000:88): "It was agreed prior to the commencement of the hearings that there would be no findings in respect of individual journalists, publications or titles." In addition, " ... (o)ur view is that the manner in which the inquiry was conducted, in any event, does not lend itself to the making of such individual findings." The document also argues that:
"If racism is the outcome of an historical process it is not the personal fault of anyone now experiencing its effect. Although racism is expressed by individuals, it is not primarily or only a personal characteristic. It is a manifestation of a centuries-old shared ideology about how merit is measured by a person's physical appearance .... Personal responsibility comes into the equation only when the syndrome is understood but neither acknowledged nor rejected in practice" (2000:59).
This is a first conceptual problem: you have—for the SAHRC—texts effectively without authors. It amounts to saying that no one is really to blame for racism in the media. This leaves hanging the issue of how much, or how consistently, must a medium or a journalist, commit racism or fail to challenge it in order to be called racist.
Of course, name calling—branding someone a racist―is not a particularly good fertilizer for the growth of constructive dialogue. But there are ways to approach this difficult issue. Knowles and Mercer (1992:117) point out that a failure to challenge racism is not the same as its active promotion. This observation has important political significance that the SAHRC could have done well to pursue. The distinction draws attention to the more serious offenders—and even here, a further distinction can be made between the unintentional and the intentional racists. Sooner or later, confrontation with the latter has to be faced, and meanwhile there is no need to shy away and keep silent on specifics as regards the other categories of culprits. Underlying the Commission's lack of finger-pointing is probably diplomacy, and there may be some arguments in favor of such a non-confrontational stand (especially after the subpoena wrangle). However, as argued here, a case can be made for a different political practice by the Commission than its blanket refusal to finger specific culprits.
Setting aside tactical debates, however, it would still have been instructive for the SAHRC to take a leaf from Alcoholics Anonymous practice (see also Derman-Sparks and Brunson Phillips, 1997). This is: to combat a problem does require acknowledgement and recognition of it. To continue the alcoholism parallel, as many writers (eg. Essed, 1991; Martinot, 2000) point out, and as the SAHRC Final Report makes very clear (2001:63-5,107), denial is a very common bedfellow when it comes to issues requiring painful acknowledgement. So, the SAHRC effectively allows denial to persist. Yet, the propensity for individuals accused of racism to plead innocence is not—in principle—sufficient reason to drop an indictment. But the SAHRC avoids prosecution specifics and does not even come close to naming the suspects or the cases.
Steering clear of details and in this regard taking a step backwards from the Interim Report, the Final Report states that "there was a general recognition before us that racism was manifested in the media, in a general rather in particular or specific ways (sic)" (2000:79-80). This formulation misses the point that the general would need to be evident in the particular, a point made well by Wieviorka (1995). Unsurprisingly, the final verdict is just as general: "... South African media can be characterized as racist institutions" (2000:89). The report explains this conclusion in terms of inter alia a "persistent pattern" of racist content (2000:89). But by not supplying examples of such content, it leaves the meaning of "racist institution" overly abstract.
As Essed (1991:39-41) points out, institutions and individuals are linked: "structures of racism do not exist external to agents—they are made by agents." She argues that individual power is a function of group power, meaning that "White" and "Black" individuals are "representatives of groups with relatively more and relatively less power", and—at the same time—"racism as group power only exists because it was created and is maintained through individuals." This insight points to the SAHRC’s shortfall in its silence about linking the institution to specific instances of media racism and the individual authors of these instances.
If journalists are to change with the institution, they do need explanation as to what and why certain practices and representations are indeed racist. However, even if the SAHRC had decided to name names and cases, there is a logical difficulty in coming down to such specifics on the basis of the theorization in the Final Report. It is, in short, not possible to credibly cite cases of racism when you do not have a clear concept of racism.

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