SIT RACIST, LET’S TALK: A review of Eusebius McKaiser’s Run Racist Run

In his recent book, Run Racist Run, the prominent ‘public intellectual’ Eusebius McKaiser sets aside his desire to write about issues relating to illness, death and the meaning of life in order to write a second book about race and racism. He wishes he were free to write about other issues, but he cannot do this ‘while the country is burning’. Writing about race is his ‘burden’; it is his ‘duty’. 

The general aim of the book is to address issues that have not ‘been discussed in any public discourse on race’. In particular, he wants to ‘to give the fullest possible exposition of the manifestations of racism in South Africa’. This is necessary, he says, because without an ‘overlapping consensus about what the world we all live in looks like’, it is impossible to ‘truly think through the potential solutions for the most urgent social challenges we face as a society’.

Such are his motives and aims, as ambitious as they are admirable.

What type of book has he written? He tells us that he wants the work to contribute to the lives of ordinary people. But, how does he try to do this?

He begins with a one-line paragraph: ‘I wish this was not an anthology on racism’. So, he intends the 11 short chapters to be connected by the idea of racism, and he thinks that his work has a literary quality. This is reflected in his use of ‘storytelling as a heuristic device’. He comments on the state of the country by recounting the experiences of various people, including his own. This suggests a kind of literary-sociology, which though having an ‘agenda’ is not self-consciously ‘activist’. He also aspires to be philosophical, with the heart of the book focusing on conceptual analysis—on what it means to be racist. Whilst he writes emotively, ‘[m]erely emoting won’t help us to eliminate racism’, so he asks his readers to hold him ‘to the standards of sound argument that you find in analytic philosophy’.

Taken together, we have a cri de cœur, which aims to be an ambitious mix of literature, sociology, intellectual activism, political theory and philosophy. 

This way of writing can make it difficult to come to grips with his ideas. Because it is not always clear who he is addressing—philosophers, sociologists, political theorists, the literati, or the general public—the standards by which we must judge his arguments are not clear. This style of writing brings to mind the criticism philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her essay ‘The Professor of Parody’, directs at theorist Judith Butler:

Butler gains prestige in the literary world by being a philosopher; many admirers associate her manner of writing with philosophical profundity. But one should ask whether it belongs to the philosophical tradition at all, rather than to the closely related but adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric. Ever since Socrates distinguished philosophy from what the sophist and the rhetoricians were doing, it has been a discourse of equals who trade arguments and counter-arguments without any obscurantist sleight-of-hand.

Like Butler, McKaiser has admirers. Ndumiso Ngcobo, for example, tells us that his ‘brain is still tingling from the aftershock of the jolts it received from McKaiser’s pen’. The book may be worthy of this high praise, but in what way does it jolt? Is it through in-depth analysis and rigorous treatment of ideas, or is it through persuasive but shallow argument?

It is no defence to a charge of sophistry to identify his eclectic method. His aim is to give an exposition of the various manifestations of racism, and this requires a definition of racism. So, he aims to analyse philosophically the nature of racism for the purpose of describing the forms in which it manifests in our country. This is why he tells us to judge him by the standards we expect from philosophers.

So, what do we find in Run Racist Run? Do we find philosophy, or do we rather encounter rhetoric and sophistry? 

It is difficult to spot the differences between these methods, but the foreword provides a hint. We are told that the arguments are those of ‘a World Masters Debate Champion’. This suggests a method of argument closer to rhetoric and sophistry than it is to philosophy. Debate is about persuasion. It is adversarial, a contest. There is one goal: victory. Winning is all that matters, even if it is at the expense of analytical depth, rigour and consistency. Philosophy, contrarily, is a joint effort to arrive at truth and an understanding of ourselves, others and the world. Philosophers get heated, true, but it is understood that what matters is not victory or who is right; but what is right.

The hint in the foreword is confirmed by McKaiser’s typical method of argument. It has three parts. First, he tells the story of someone who has experienced discrimination. Second, he introduces a concept by weaving it into the story. Third, he asserts or attempts to justify with cursory analysis the correctness of the concept.

This method can be effective, as it can be persuasive. But, it is a template for how to argue rhetorically. It is the style of a debater. Truth is often assumed and his ideas are rarely properly interrogated. When he does analyse a controversial idea, there are often jumps in logic. Some of his most important claims are conceptually confused, metaphysically unsound, or contradictory. His method of argument, on the whole, belongs to the school of sophistry. 

Labeling him a sophist is not necessarily a criticism. Effective intellectual activism can take many forms. Rather, it is to say that he does not meet the standards by which he wants to be judged. 

That said, Run Racist Run illustrates why sophistry that masquerades as philosophy can make for bad activism. The book is inspired by a ‘shift’ in McKaiser’s ‘racial politics’ to something resembling identity politics. This shift is apparent from various arguments and ideas. For example, he rejects the need for comprehensive, inclusive and ongoing dialogue when trying to dismantle racism. He says black people do not have a duty, where possible and necessary, to explain racism and race to white people who do not ‘get it’. Bigots, he says, must journey out of racism ‘on their own’. Such illiberal ideas, though, cannot be reconciled with his essentially liberal definition of racism—which emphasises reasons, choice and action. The fact that he is a liberal at heart, but has internalised certain key illiberal ideas that belong to identity politics, means that practically important ideas such as these often conflict. Whether he is fully aware of these tensions is unclear. Such are the practical pitfalls of sophistry.

Whilst public intellectuals might enjoy drawing on various disciplines, this comes with risks. One risk is that the work ultimately fails to be literature, philosophy, political theory, sociology, or anything at all. Instead, it becomes sophistry or rhetoric, which on its face is persuasive and might score points in debate, but on closer inspection is revealed to lack depth, rigour and coherence. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, McKaiser fails to avert this risk.

Despite these failings, many of the essays are worth reading. 

His best work is found in the second half of the book, where he has put down the heavier ‘philosophical tools’, instead focusing on stories. His story-telling is often good: crisp, emotional and humorous. It is more effective than his stabs at philosophy in conveying the ideas and arguments that he wants to make—some of which, he notes, are common sense rather than ‘rocket science’.

He explores the idea of shame, informs about the implications of ‘black tax’, and concludes with a strong essay about xenophobia. He makes good points about the importance, in politics and in our ordinary lives, of mixing emotion and passion with principle. His essay on Steve Hofmeyr and Max du Preez, though not without faults, illustrates that racism manifests in different forms. The same can be said about his discussion of the relevance of perception and pre-judgments when evaluating individual merit. And, the essay in which he distinguishes the standard of proof required in criminal cases from that used in daily life—though diminished by jumps in logic and fragile conceptual and normative analysis—makes good points about what can reasonably be expected of us when we interact with others.

It is important to understand why his stories are effective. They work because they share experiences with the reader. They enable us, through the exercise of our imaginative faculties, to put ourselves in the shoes of a person who has faced discrimination, understand their point of view, and empathise with them—that is, experience their suffering as our own. 

Our capacity to empathise, Justice Edwin Cameron notes in his recent book, Justice: A Personal Account, ‘is not unique to black people in racist societies, or to women in gender-oppressed societies, or to lesbians and gays. It is available to everyone . . . simply because each of us is uniquely different’ and have in some way been ill-treated and alienated because of something about us or because of who we are. Thus, for us to experience the world as others do, for our personal experiences to become shared experiences, we must ‘listen carefully’ to what others have to say.

If our experiences of ill treatment and alienation are rare or have never been acute, we may have to listen very carefully. Sometimes very, very carefully. This is why many white people, especially men, have a duty sometimes to sit back and listen to the experiences of black people and women; listen to their grief, anger and frustration. This does not mean that we cannot share the burdens of the struggle against racism, for its nature requires us to partner in our efforts to rid society of this evil. Rather, it means that the position of some relative to others might make it more difficult, but never impossible, to grasp what others have suffered and continue to suffer on a daily basis.

For those who subscribe to identity politics, or are shifting in that direction, victory can only ever be secured if the racist is silenced, jailed or banished: ‘Run racist run!’ This is why McKaiser rejects the idea that black people have a duty, where necessary and possible, to explain race and racism to white people. This is why he says the bigot must journey out of racism on his own.

This approach will not work. Identity politics fails to see that racism is our problem. It is our problem not because we have ‘overlapping interests’ that make ‘strategic cooperation’ wise. We are not ‘allies’. This is not a war. We are not islands unto ourselves—absolutely sovereign, essentially different, parties—inspired only by self-interest. We are equals in a common struggle. Racism is our problem simply because this struggle is for our humanity.

We have a natural capacity to share our experiences and reasons with others. All of us inescapably care about truth. And, truth is reconciliation. These facts about our shared human nature must form the basis of our efforts to dismantle racism. To deal effectively and finally with racism in its entrenched entirety, we must sit down with the racist, converse with him—that is, live and transform together with him—and change his mind.

So, racist, don’t run. Sit, let’s talk.

This piece is an edited version of a longer review that will appear in Focus 78—The Economy, The Journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation.

Matthew Kruger
Legal Researcher