Are we ready for a colorblind society?
I hope we're never ready for a "colorblind" society.
I don't like the expression because it sets the wrong
terms for discussion when it comes to issues of race,
equality, and social justice. To me, "blind" means
not being able to see things, and wanting to be "blind"
to color or race seems to mean wanting to ignore race
or pretend its social and historical effects don't
exist. When the larger question is how do we have
an equitable society today, we have to be mindful
of the historical and social complexities of race,
not willfully ignore them. [Unless, of course, one
believes that race doesn't have or hasn't had any
impact, in which case there's no need for discussion.]
We should strive to be color "full" rather than colorblind.
This doesn't mean, however, that we should divide
people by race today. A central difficulty is the
slipperiness of race and the many forms it's taken
historically. To address the issue of race and equality,
we must consider color in several different, seemingly
contrary ways. The first is to recognize race's illusory
status to avoid recapitulating racial categories and
racial divides. The second is to acknowledge the real
effect those categories have had and continue to have
on peoples' lives and circumstances. And the third
is to understand that racial divides, by their very
nature, create imbalance and inequality.
These various shades of "color" must all be kept in
perspective, none at the expense of the other, if
we want to address seriously the question of how to
be an equitable society today. There may not be a
solution, but if there is one, it will almost certainly
be difficult, and it will require effort, awareness,
and responsibility. We can not afford to be "colorblind."
We need to develop our ability to see "color" for
what is, has been, and will be, so we're prepared
to deal with its consequences.
On the one hand, the Civil Rights era officially
ended inequality of opportunity. At the same time,
civil rights legislation did nothing to address the
underlying economic and social inequalities that had
built up through hundreds of years of discrimination.
The one statistic that best captures the state of
racial inequality in America today is wealth, or net
worth. Add up everything you own, subtract all your
debts, and that's your net worth. Today, the average
white family has eight times the net worth of the
average Black family. That difference has grown since
the 1960s, and is not explained by other factors like
education, earnings rates, and savings rates. It's
really the legacy of racial inequality from generations
past. No other measure captures the cumulative disadvantage
of race, or cumulative advantage of race for Whites,
than net worth or wealth.
Economists have shown that 50 to 80 percent of our
lifetime wealth accumulation is attributable, in one
way or another, to past generations. The house, the
Lexus, the big bank account - these aren't just the
pot of gold at the end of game, they're also the starting
point for the next generation. Until we address the
underlying inequalities and structures that advantage
whites at the expense of other groups, we're stuck
with this paradoxical idea of a colorblind society
that is totally unequal by color.
|David M.P. Freund
For the U.S. to function equitably as a "colorblind"
society, two conditions would be required. First,
all Americans - regardless of socioeconomic status
or racial/ethnic background - would need to have equal
opportunity to educate themselves, to pursue their
professional goals, and to take care of themselves
and their families. Second, all Americans would need
to rise above the kinds of color-consciousness that
perpetuate inequality. Yet there is little evidence,
historical or contemporary, that we have met either
of these requirements.
Racial minorities have been denied access to jobs,
capital, housing and educational resources throughout
U.S. history and, of equal importance, are regularly
denied access to this day. Institutions - both public
and private - have played a critical role in determining
which groups have benefited most in U.S. society,
often giving whites an advantage at the expense of
minorities. And those institutions continue to play
this role, despite laws that forbid discrimination.
They continue to play this role in part because of
a related, and equally important, factor: Americans
are acutely conscious of "color," although they often
have very different assumptions about its implications.
For example, when nonwhites talk about "race," "multiculturalism,"
and "colorblindness," they are much more likely to
see questions of economic and political power as crucial
variables. Whites, by contrast, tend to focus on the
issues of "prejudice," "mutual understanding," and
"personal responsibility." Indeed whites often argue
that if all people could "look beyond" race, then
"racial problems" would go away. This emphasis on
"prejudice" and "understanding" is important. It does
not, however, address the role that power relations
have long played in racial conflicts in the U.S.,
and the role that power has played in facilitating
whites' relative success in American society.
Why are there such different understandings of the
"difference that race makes?" It is partly due
to the fact that many Americans - especially white
Americans - are deeply invested in the idea that individuals
(or groups of individuals) are solely responsible
for their own success or failure, and thus they attribute
success or failure solely to a person's "effort,"
"culture," or "values." Perhaps if all Americans were
to engage in a more concrete, historically informed
discussion about "opportunity" and "achievement" in
the U.S., including the role that institutions have
played (and continue to play) in shaping people's
lives, we might have a very different understanding
of "race" and its implications.
|Sumi P. Cho
The question, "Are we ready for a colorblind society?"
assumes that colorblindness is an ideal we should
strive for in the 21st century. I would argue that
colorblindness generally perpetuates rather than challenges
racism. Certainly there has been a long history of
state-sanctioned white supremacy in this country.
At one time, colorblindness may have been a legitimate
strategy to counteract the formidable power of pseudo-scientific
thinking that asserted the inherent biological inferiority
of people of color. Today, however, advocates of colorblindness
promote an understanding of racial inequality as individual
"prejudice" devoid of historical context, thus preventing
dialogue about more systemic kinds of oppression.
The fact that colorblindness is so entrenched in court
precedents, legislation, and policy making testifies
to our inability to achieve racial equality while
stuck in a pre-civil rights understanding of race
Perhaps opponents of racial equality embrace colorblindness
because eliminating race consciousness conveniently
eliminates accountability for white supremacy. Witness
the latest Ward Connerly incarnation in California:
the so-called "Racial Privacy Initiative" that would
eliminate collection of statistics that use racial
categories. This "colorblind" initiative would relieve
the state of any accountability for racial disadvantage.
Are we ready for a colorblind society? Only if we
are ready to deny responsibility for racism.