Thursday, April 15, 2010

Realism and Identity

The classic realistic dictum is the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  So, it should not be that surprising that:
After years of mass unemployment, mutant inflation, chronic shortages and state violence, Zimbabweans simply don’t care about skin color. In fact, Mr. Mugabe has managed to achieve the exact opposite of what he set out to do in 2000: the forging of a postracial state(NYT op-ed)
Whites and blacks in Zimbabwe share a common enemy--Mugabe.  So, the simple realist story would be that that blacks and whites are cooperating now due to the common threat.  The problem is that this cut at the issue would then predict conflict between whites and blacks once Mugabe leaves the scene (he will die at some point, right?).  

A somewhat different take is that blacks and whites are sharing a series of common experiences, increasing the salience of other identities, injecting the various identities with new meanings.  This would mean that the current bridging of race (if it really is bridged, I am taking the writer's word on this) may actually not be as fragile as a realist approach would predict. 

Ethnicity, including race, is more complicated than hard-wired, ancient differences based on a single attribute such as race.  No ethnic group is as unitary as our theories (including much of my work) posit.  There are differences within each group.  And there are always multiple identities in play--race can be one or more than one set of competing identities, but language, religion, kinship (clan, tribe), region, class, gender may all be bouncing around and relevant for the political struggle.  And the content of each identity is usually contested.

On the other hand, something that I learned during my dissertation research nearly twenty years ago: the dynamics within the country often get a different gloss outside.
Mr. Mugabe knows exactly what he is doing in constantly invoking race-based rhetoric. By framing the crisis in Zimbabwe as a struggle against the West — against the white world — he escapes censure from other postcolonial African leaders who understand their own countries’ histories in the same way. And when the West allows Mr. Mugabe’s narrative to go unchallenged, it plays right into his hands. 
 Just as Cold War conflicts were seen as ideological or racial rather than tribal (Congo/Katanga), and just as conflicts among kinship groups were seen as religious (Nigeria/Biafra) [see Ties That Divide], it is easy but wrong to see the current conflict in Zimbabwe as one of race.  It belongs to another class of cases--not racial wars but of cases where leaders do their best to stay in power, often destroying their society.  Hence the title for our book: For Kin or Country.

1 comment:

Bill Ayres said...

Keep in mind, too, that "black" in Zimbabwe isn't a terribly relevant category, especially this far post-1980. There are serious tribal divisions among black Zimbabweans, and those matter a lot (as they tend to everywhere in Africa). In the same way that the west misread black-on-black violence in the early 1990s in South Africa (because it was Zulu on Xhosa violence, and vice versa), we can easily misread alliances across racial lines in Zim.