This article was penned by a professor of political science and African studies at State University New york.
Can there be such a phenomenon as a post-racial society? Here we need to distinguish between a post-racial society and a post-racism era. A post-racial society is one that has not only abandoned racism as a form of racial bigotry but has also shed race-consciousness as a residual mode of defining a group.
Although difficult, outgrowing racism can be attained sooner than the disappearance of race as a demographic category. South Africa will probably outgrow racism by about the middle of this twenty-first century. But it may take the same South Africa an additional full century to outgrow race-consciousness.
In post-colonial Africa it is infinitely easier to imagine a post-tribal society than a post-racial society. While many African societies were still basically ‘tribal’ at the time of independence, there has been an unrelenting effort to get beyond tribalism as a form of intolerance while still accepting boundaries of tribal identities.
In the pre-feudal days Western society was at one time pre-tribal. Then most Western European countries became tribal and feudal. And from the Treaty of Westphalia onwards Western Europe became more national and post-tribal, except in places like Scotland where clan loyalties remained powerful and compelling. If periods of national history can be pre-tribal, tribal or post-tribal, why cannot periods of continental history also be either pre-racial, racial or post-racial? It is possible to argue that while much of pre-colonial Africa was basically tribal, the continent south of the Sahara was still essentially pre-racial. Much of pre-colonial Africa knew little about either race or racism before large scale penetration by the Arabs and the more spectacular arrival of Europeans. To the present day, most African languages have no word for ‘race’ different from the word for ‘tribe.’ In Kiswahili both ‘race’ and ‘tribe’ are referred to as kabila, a word borrowed from the Arabic language. In Africa, European penetration racialised political life in colonised Africa . The question since the end of political apartheid is whether we are slowly evolving toward a world that is not only post-racism but may eventually become post-racial.
In the Black Atlantic world, there is a transition from the pre-racism world of Shakespeare’s Othello to the potentially post-racism America of Barack Obama. In Othello’s Venice , race-consciousness was indeed widely manifest from time to time. What was still less developed and obviously rare was the kind of racism that could lynch a Black man for engaging in inter-racial sex. Of all the countries with a white majority population, the one that was earliest to make room for a man of colour to be the absolute best in cultural creativity was Czarist Russia. Indeed, Russia ’s supreme literary hero has continued to be Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), one regarded as more than Russia ’s Shakespeare. Pushkin remains not only Russia ’s greatest poet, but also a great novelist, dramatist and short-story writer. In his versatile genius, Pushkin is widely acknowledged as the founder of modern Russian literature. Yet, by American definitions of a black person, Pushkin was indeed a man of colour. His mother was the granddaughter of an Ethiopian prince ling who was bought as a slave from Constantinople . Pushkin is said to have been adopted by Peter the Great and later fought alongside the Czar as his comrade-in-arms.
In North America , it took much longer than a century before such upward racial mobility was even conceivable. But in 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy envisaged a Black President of the US by 2008. On Voice of America broadcast in 1968, Bobby Kennedy foresaw that a Black could be US president in forty years “… there is no question about it. In the next forty years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother (President John F. Kennedy) had.” In the white part of the Black Atlantic, Barack Obama may indeed attain the highest pinnacle of political power ever reached by a man of colour in a primarily white society. We already know that Pushkin did indeed successfully rise to the pinnacle of cultural power in a society with a white majority. Was this possible only in a Russia that had yet to evolve into a more racist society? It was certainly a Russia that recognised supreme genius regardless of race.