What is So Wrong with Being Colorblind?

By Zach Oaster

Society has come so far since the civil rights era, am I right? Many adults in the U.S. today have been taught their whole lives that racism is a function of paying too much attention to the race of other people and not enough attention to the content of their character. Thus, the solution taught many of us growing up was to embrace diversity – and doing so meant widening the invitation in existing spaces to all people, regardless of race, and pay no mind to race at all. Instead, value what each person brings to the table. The saying goes, “if we stop paying so much attention to race, we’ll stop seeing race and we’ll all just be people.” Most of us have been taught the virtue of colorblindness. We were taught to strive for it. So, what has changed? What is so wrong with being colorblind? Can’t we just drop all the hyphens and be Americans in the United States?

These are fair questions that often do not receive an in-depth answer. As always, it is my goal to challenge my readers to wrestle with thoughtful content that, at times, questions the basic notions that we have imbibed in our varied upbringings and, most importantly, causes us to consider the experiences of those who are not like us. We are a diverse and beautiful society, and, as I’m sure you might agree, we are certainly not all the same. By merely highlighting the experiences of one group we do not erase the experiences of another. Thus, our differences are at times what offer us a window into the unknown, and an opportunity to learn and grow alongside our fellow human beings. This is why, in the most basic sense, the well-intentioned idea of colorblindness is flawed. We do indeed see skin color in the same way that we notice when our coworkers change the color of their hair. The difference is that skin color is a trait that, due to its permanence, brings with it a history, and a contemporary lived experience that is different when we compare between groups. And so, social scientists challenge the notion of colorblindness on the grounds that it fails to honor that history, the lived experience, and the very differences that add beauty and true human diversity to our social world – a diversity that does not overlook any aspect of the human experience, including the body. 

First, it is imperative to recognize the destructive power of racism as expressed through this seemingly well-intentioned and widely-accepted notion of colorblindness. Bobo (2004) argues that racism is not over, rather it is simply expressed through a series of alternative color-blind narratives that appeal to dog whistle terms related to class, culture, or work-ethic. ‘Dog whistle’ is a term used to describe when placeholder words are deployed in discourse which actually cause the reader or listener to think of a specific group, often in place of using a racist, sexist, or other bigoted distinction or term. For example, when President Ronald Reagan famously spoke of “Welfare Queens” in the 1976 lead up to his presidential campaign, it was very clear to those listening that he was speaking about poor black women, even though the majority of welfare recipients are actually white (Edin & Shaefer, 2015). Dog whistle terms are one form of what Bobo (2004, p. 150) calls “laissez-faire racism,” which, “involves persistent negative stereotyping of African Americans, a tendency to blame blacks themselves for the black-white gap in socio-economic status, and resistance to meaningful policy efforts.” Colorblindness is a key tenet to this laissez-faire racism, as it is regularly deployed to erase social differences; and, in the ignoring of differences, instead heaps blame on the individual for failings that are much better understood through analysis of systemic social, political, and economic systems.

Bobo (2004) used focus group analysis in his 2001 study, with nine white and nine black participants, in order to tease out some of the ways in which these groups talk about race in contemporary speech. He found that race and racism are being reconstructed constantly through the social process. He says that those on the political left tend to view race as simply one of many possible factors to explain inequality. Those on the political right, he argues, look for ways to justify blame of character or disposition among people of color. In both cases, he says, they are missing the point and minimizing race as a primary factor in institutional and power organization. A finding unsurprising to most social science researchers, but often shocking to the public, is that whites hold a low opinion of black persons, yet seem to think that racism is largely over.

And so, we can begin to see how it is not racism to merely speak of race. Nay, both in terms of noticing the subtle physical differences between humans, like skin pigmentation, nor the critical examination of how our society socially constructs stereotypes and systems of meaning around these visible differences. In the same way that we often get uncomfortable when we need to discuss the role of race in our contemporary society, it is also in the act of ignoring the highly racialized past of the United States that we foray into the territory of racism. When we allow our discomfort to prevent us from being honest and critical about our past and present, we reinforce the power of systemic racism rather than confront it head on. This is how, even if you are a white person who believes that you have never deliberately exploited your whiteness, it is still possible to participate in racist systems that cause harm to people of color.

While it may seem that the U.S. society has come so far on race, it is not nearly so far as white people in America would like to think. Lipsitz (1995) argues that the problem of race in America is much exacerbated by the absence of acknowledgement of the construct of  ‘whiteness’. The privilege that comes along with being white in America is that it is the default, thus ‘American’ means white. ‘Citizen’ implies white. Thus, while some might suggest that we merely need to “drop the hyphen” and call everyone ‘just’ American, to do so in today’s society would be dishonest. It would be an act of erasure – denying the lived experience of people of color who do not have the privilege associated with being the ‘default’ American citizen, nor could access equality simply by dropping the prefix of “African” in “African-American.” While we go on spending a great deal of time talking about the race of people of color and its effects, we rarely criticize whiteness and pay attention to how harmful its individual and institutional programs bear on the oppression of other groups.

Turning to history, Lipsitz (1995, p. 140) argues that we have gone from a country that was formally built on legally-imposed “de jure segregation” and white supremacy to a society that practices de facto white supremacy through institutional practices (e.g. those of real estate, banking, education, and federal agencies) which benefits whites while simultaneously perpetuating barriers to people of color that keep them from building intergenerational wealth and having access to economic and social privileges. This includes the present-day continuation of neoconservative economic policies that are meant to castigate people of color and further limit their access to social services, such as the regularly proposed so-called ‘welfare reforms’ which are insisted as being necessary by politicians who appeal to some form of the aforementioned racialized negative stereotype of the (presumably black, poor) ‘welfare queen.’ Similarly, people of color do not enjoy the privilege of fair employment markets, as U.S. Civil Rights Commission data shows that in the late 1970s minorities endured disproportionate numbers of layoffs. This interrupted the economic benefits of seniority, which in effect served to “guarantee that minority workers would suffer most from technological changes because the legacy of past discrimination by their employers left them with less seniority than white workers” (Lipsitz, 1995, p. 143). This, compounded with “discriminatory FHA financing policies” (ibid), left blacks in America largely excluded from home ownership and generational wealth accumulation which were widely enjoyed by their white counterparts. 

Bullard (2001) calls the disparity between blacks and whites a “racial apartheid” with regard to home ownership, segregated neighborhoods, and the geographic proximity of so many of these black neighborhoods to massive pollution and health-threatening circumstances. Bullard (2001, p. 186) argues that despite numerous State and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and the passage of laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, “people of color have known about and have been living with inequitable environmental quality for decades – most without the protection of the federal, state, and local government agencies.” His conclusions are that government protection systems are utterly broken and racist, and that organizing is needed to respond to this as a civil rights issue of the utmost importance.

There are myriad other examples in healthcare, the justice system, and the social safety net that show how whiteness was consistently privileged, and being black in America was to exist in a multi-faceted state of oppression, all bolstered by hearty appeals in politics, business, and media to colorblind dog-whistle terms meant to veil the racial nature of the widespread differences experiences between the groups.

All of this is happening while whites are largely unaware of this privileged system – its “possessive investment in whiteness” (Lipsitz, 1995, p. 147) -- or its injustices and lack of responsibility. It is not uncommon for whites to suggest that, ‘Nothing prevents minorities from living where they would like,’ or that, ‘there are no laws stipulating race as a barrier to homeownership.’

Lipsitz (1995, p. 145). explains how “Jurists, journalists, and politicians have generally been more vocal in their opposition to ‘quotas’ and to ‘reverse discrimination’ mandating race-specific remedies for discrimination than to the thousands of well-documented incidents every year of routine, systematic, and unyielding discrimination against blacks.” Yet, Lipsitz (1995, p. 147), like so many others who study race in America, and historical figures like Walter Benjamin – a German ethnic Jew who died fleeing the Nazis -- pleas that whites work to develop a presence of mind. That is, a revealing of this process where there is a “stark contrast between black experiences and white opinions,” such that the realities of experience can be addressed substantively, free of a political culture that preferences and invests in those white opinions while failing altogether to acknowledge the black experience.

To think this is a problem in the distant U.S. past would be mistaken. Wilson (2011) looks at males ages 25-29 at ten year intervals – 1977, 1987, 1997, and 2007 -- and shows that while there was an uptick for black males’ economic opportunity in the 80s and 90s, that those gains were again reversing by 2007. He argues that the gap between poor and middle class blacks has continued to widen, and that things are worse today for poor blacks than even in 1977. He advises political action toward public job creation in inner cities and continued and persistent intensified support for race-based programs like affirmative action, alongside class based measures – since he argues that they go together.

However, it must be acknowledged that the work of academics such as Wilson originally bolstered the premise that racism was on the decline and that the U.S. was on a trajectory toward a colorblind social, political, and economic system. In Wilson’s 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, he argued that “changes in the system of production and in government policies have affected, over time, black/white access to rewards and privileges as well as racial antagonisms” (Wilson, 2011, p. 55). Unfortunately this idea caught on well before it was proven. In his 2011 revision, Wilson explains how this claim proved untrue, nevertheless, pervasive.

The notion of colorblindness is pervasive and frequently tied back to Dr. King’s oft quoted “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” statement. It is deployed by the state and the market as a way to promote sameness and an “abstract fairness” (Guinier & Torres, 2002, p. 101). So, this abstract and formal notion of fairness proceeds to completely ignore inequalities in favor of essentially conflating the ideal of equality for an actual state of equality, accompanied by a system that still pathologizes blackness (Guinier & Torres, 2002; Klein & Naccararto, 2003).

Gallagher (2003) argues that due to its pervasiveness, the false ideology of color blindness became synonymous with social equality. It functions to alleviate whites from being the oppressor and empowers whites to take up pride and cause for their own racial identity (“white rights”). It allows for a feeling of moral superiority among dominant groups, where whites are no longer racist and racism is no longer a widespread social problem. Socioeconomic differences are erased by token examples (e.g. high ranking political leaders like President Obama, The Cosby Show, etc.).

And so it is for these reasons that we may not have come so far as we think as a society, and the tight-fisted grasp among whites to the notion of colorblindness must come to an end. It is not, as some originally argued, a means toward an ideal of equality. Rather, it has become a symbol for how attention to an ideal, in the absence of acknowledging the reality, becomes a huge ideological failing -- erasing the experiences of people of color in favor of listening to the din of white opinion. It is a system which amplifies self-congratulatory moral superiority yet fails to acknowledge the falseness of the utter nonsense that it spews. Colorblindness, alongside other forms of laissez-faire racism, does not negate the fact that inequalities still persist, and that normativity in the United States is still defined by whiteness. That is what is wrong with being colorblind; and why I, like George Lipsitz (1995, p. 147) and those who came before him, like Benjamin, implore you, reader, to develop a “presence of mind… facing the present openly and honestly.”

REFERENCES

Bobo, Lawrence D. (2004). Laissez-Faire Racism, Racial Inequality, and the Role of the Social Sciences. In Charles A. Gallagher (5th Eds.), Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity (148-157). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Bullard, Robert D. (2001). Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters. In Charles A. Gallagher (5th Eds.), Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity (184-195). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Edin, Katherine J. & Shaefer, H. Luke. (2015). $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gallagher, Charles A. (2003). Color-Blind Privilege: The Social and Political Functions of Erasing the Color Line in Post-Race America. In Charles A. Gallagher (5th Eds.), Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity (92-100). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Gallagher, Charles A. (2003). Color-Blind Privilege: The Social and Political Functions of Erasing the Color Line in Post-Race America. In Charles A. Gallagher (5th Eds.), Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity (92-100). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Guinier, Lani & Torres, Gerald. (2002). The Ideology of Color blindness. In Charles A. Gallagher (5th Eds.), Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity (101-105). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Klein, Roger D. & Naccarato, Stacy. (2003). Broadcast News Portrayal of Minorities: Accuracy in Reporting. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 46:12, 1611-1616. DOI: 10.1177/0002764203254617

Lipsitz, George. (1995). The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy. In Charles A. Gallagher (5th Eds.), Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity (139-147). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, William J. (2011). The Declining Significance of Race: Revisited and Revised. Daedalus Vol. 140:2, 55-69. Retrieved from http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:8052151

Zach Oaster is a public sociologist, shepherd, and artisan. He is a full-time graduate student of sociology at Western Michigan University as well as a longtime performer of music and organizer around social justice issues. Zach identifies as a radical queer godless apostate and heretical disaffiliated United Methodist. He prefers masculine pronouns, and has a fabulous talent for writing third person bios. Zach describes his academic research as, “exploring the conflicts within conservative political and social discourse, revealed at the intersection of neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies – especially as those discourses converge on issues important to the LGBTQIA communities.” Find out more about Zach at www.FatToaster.com, or on Facebook.com/ZachOaster

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