In 1903, historian and sociologist WEB du Bois, wrote that “the problem of the 20th century” was “the colour line”.
His claim, and its attendant teleology, was distinctly universal, notwithstanding his specific role in the civil rights movement of the US. The problem of the colour line, Du Bois wrote, was “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea”.
It is usually good practice to consider teleological statements with deep caution.
There are, however, indications that Du Bois may have been right, but that he was a century off target.
Barely two decades into the 21st century there is a rather frightening rise in identity politics of the offensive and destructive variant, that may be pushing us into deadly conflict at home and abroad.
In SA the daily news is marked by accusations and counter-accusations of white or black genocide, accusations of white, black or Indian racism.
This is not for the faint- hearted. There are daily abuses and violence against people simply because they are considered to be of a different race or ethnic group.
Black people prance about with slogans like “f**k white people” or “kill white people”, and white people throw about racist slogans, and are preparing to kill and die for what they believe are black people who want to destroy their “culture”. Here, “culture” is code-speak for white, or Caucasian.
In Europe, there is a rise in ethno-nationalism, a polite term for preserving white identity. This is most virulent in Germany, where the Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded in 2013, last year won 94 seats in parliament. The AfD is made up of outspoken racists, anti-semites and xenophobes, and are committed to identitarianism, which translates, in the US, to “white nationalism”.
This toxic identitarianism also has a presence in countries like Sweden, France and Austria. The election, last December, of the far-right wing Austrian politician, Sebastian Kurz, with his anti-immigrant and anti-Islam politics, is considered to be a “tipping point” for Europe. There are fears that Kurz’s coalition government may lead Austria out of the European Union.
In the US, more recently with the election of Donald Trump as president, but increasingly since the horrendous attacks on New York City and Washington DC in 2001, there has been a rise in Islamophobia. Trump specifically singled out Mexicans and Latin Americans as inherently criminal and violent, thus harkening back to when Europeans considered dark-skinned people as savages who needed to be “civilised” or contained.
Elsewhere in Europe, there are moves to strip the Roma (in Italy) of their civil rights. All of which is causing heightened fear and loathing of refugees from conflicts in West Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. In Asia, Buddhist nationalists are waging what has been described as a genocide against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine province.
The ugly rise of identitarianism is usually associated with right-wing politics and intolerance.There is evidence that identitarianism is finding a home in SA, where “non-Africans” are increasingly being singled out as the causes of all the country’s problems.
In Germany, France, Italy and in parts of Scandinavia “non-Europeans” (immigrants) are identified as the cause of all society’s problems. The way that Adolf Hitler made scapegoats of Jews, populists in SA are targeting whites and Indians as villains.
We may be reaching, now, the conflict on the colour line that Du Bois wrote about more than 100 years ago. It is not contained in the US, from whence Du Bois came. It is proliferating across the world under the banner of identitarianism, a base form of identity politics that may be edging the world to conflict.
Much like the last century was marked by ideological conflicts, we may see conflicts along the colour line in the coming years. These conflicts may be couched in terms of protecting “cultures”, as “economic” or “geo-strategic”, but an underlying theme may be struggles for perceived racial, ethnic or religious superiority or dominance.
Trump’s rekindled love affair with the “war on drugs” was described by investigative journalist Steven Thrasher as “a white power grab to control black and brown people couched in the restoration of past glory”. The military stand-off between the US and China is as much a battle for political economic and geo-strategic dominance in the South China Sea, as it is about the fear of a non-European power emerging as a global superpower. The one thing that stands out from the horrors of Trump, Hitler, the AfD or SA is the idea of a return to a time of racial or ethnic greatness – before the “foreigners” arrived.
I have written about this elsewhere (See http://ilagardien.co.za/published-elsewhere/)