Skip to main content

Why "Colorblindness" Needs the No-Racism Axiom

In my last post I highlighted the No-Racism "Axiom" of modern "colorblindness." The axiom states that "systemic racism is not a thing," and upon this axiom proponents of colorblindness build a worldview in which the racial ills of our world can be cured by individuals making the decision not to engage in interpersonal racism, or recognizing that race even matters in the world. "I don't see color, I only see people," the colorblind individual asserts.

Colorblind people generally know that race has no biological basis. Perhaps they've read The Myth of Race or The Mismeasure of Man. Since science has proven race irrelevant, colorblindness seems to be an obvious and proper response. This is seemingly in line not only with a general sense of morality and personal goodness, but it also appears to echo the famous line from Martin Luther King Jr's I Have A Dream speech in which he envisions a day when "[people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." What could be more admirable than living by the words of the American hero MLK?!

I'll admit that this view seems, at first glance, very appealing. However, the No-Racism Axiom is demonstrably false. And as I'll argue here, without this false axiom colorblindness not only proves to be useless in solving racial problems, it actually becomes a form of racism.

We Live In A Racial World

The No-Racism axiom is readily disprovable using many lines of reasoning. Here, I'll highlight two that I find to be extremely important.

1) We live in a society that is racially segregated. In a simple study of personal social networks, "respondents were asked to name up to seven people with whom they had 'discussed important matters' in the past six months." They were then asked about several characteristics of these individuals, including their race. The results are rather stunning:

White US-Americans have social networks that are, on average, 91% white. Similarly, Black US-Americans have social networks that are 83% Black. 

To put it another way, 75% of white US-Americans have social networks that are entirely white. 

This is not a random outcome given that only about 68% of the US population is white, while roughly 13% of the population is Black. There are many conclusions to draw from this, but for the sake of disproving the No-Racism Axiom, I'll simply conclude that citizens of the United States see race. 

Race is relevant in schools. Racial segregation is just as bad today as it was in 1968!

Chart from The Unfinished March
Modern-day school segregation is described thusly:
In most metropolitan areas, if one were to randomly choose two high poverty segregated high schools and two middle class white and Asian schools, and visit for a day each of the classes purporting to teach the same subject and grade level, the inequalities would become so apparent they would shock the conscience of anyone who truly believes in equal opportunity. (Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012, xvi)
Segregation is also a salient feature of housing in the US. Let's look at this for one of the nation's largest cities: Chicago, IL (from the Chicago Reader):

The concentration of Black residents in Chicago, IL's
77 residential areas (communities). Source
A description of this map is given in the text of the article:
Chicago's population of 2.7 million is 33 percent African-American, 32 percent non-Latino white, and 28 percent Latino, according to 2008-2012 census estimates. More than half of the black population (52 percent) lives in only 20 of Chicago's 77 community areas—neighborhoods that are each more than 90 percent black. 
I suspect that some skeptical readers are thinking, "Well, Black people are just as segregated as white people. People live near and socialize with with people who are like them." First, this notion of like-with-like certainly doesn't jibe with a colorblind life, does it? Secondly, this segregation has a harmful effect on Black and Latin@ people that is not felt by white people because of the second key point, below.

2) Race strongly correlates with life opportunities, choices and outcomes. Let's look at this first in terms of unemployment, using the previous map of Chicago housing segregation:

The map on the left shows the concentration of Black residents among Chicago's 77 residential areas, while the map on the right shows the concentration of unemployment. Focusing on the regions with the highest unemployment (dark brown) shows that those regions are 91-100% Black. Conversely, those regions with the lowest unemployment (gray) have Black populations that are mostly < 10% and all < 20%. 

Furthermore, history matters. One can compare the features of both maps above with a redlining map of South Chicago that was used to designate certain areas as "high-risk" for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans (orient yourself with Calumet Heights near Calumet Lake). Those dark regions are all red, meaning that the Black people who lived there in 1940-1960 could not own homes and build wealth, and were instead subject to predatory housing practices such as contract lending. The Chicago ghetto, as with all ghettos, is a matter of public policy.

In our country, race also correlates strongly with other important aspects of life:
If we lived in a world in which the color of ones skin is irrelevant compared to the content of a person's character, these race-based disparities would not and could not exist. Yet they exist in almost every aspect of US life. One tempting "out" for the colorblind individual is that these disparities are tied to the culture of non-white groups. Maybe it's the deficient culture of Black, Latin@ and Native people that leads to these differences in life outcomes. Perhaps they need to work harder, value education more, say no to drugs, and stop being so dependent on taxpayers.

But can this opinion, which ties the content of a person's character to the color of their skin be deemed "colorblind?" 

Colorblindness as Racism

Black, Latin@ and Native people live lives that are separate and very much unequal to the lives of white people. This simple fact of life is not news to most People of Color in our country. However, this is what colorblind people ignore when they claim to not see color. White people may not see these aspects of life because the vector of disparity aims in exclusively one direction: away from them. 

When these disparities are pointed out to white people, most respond with stories of their own hardships, or point to the struggles of their immigrant ancestors. Yes, white people are impacted by poverty. But not systematically on the basis of their race. The poverty of any individual white person cannot be traced to race-based historical policies. When making comparisons across racial divides, the comparison must be made between people at the same socioeconomic class level. When done so, white people still face huge advantages, and PoC still face the same litany of disparities I listed above. That time you were unemployed and had to go on food stamps? Just try to tell me that the outcome would have been the same for a Latina woman. 

As for white people with ancestors who came to the US in poverty, I'll allow MLK to take it from here:
Negroes have grown accustomed now to hearing unfeeling and insensitive whites say: "Other immigrant groups such as the Irish, the Jews and the Italians started out with similar handicaps, and yet they made it. Why haven't the Negroes done the same?" These questioners refuse to see that the situation of other immigrant groups a hundred years ago and the situation of the Negro cannot be usefully compared. Negroes were brought here in chains long before the Irish decided voluntarily to leave Ireland or the Italians thought of leaving Italy. 
Furthermore, those European immigrants had a country to flee to. A country that would offer them opportunity based on their whiteness (cf 1790 Naturalization Act). That country was built on the destruction of American Indians and on the stolen lives and labor of Black slaves (and the invention of Blackness itself for that purpose). There would have been no country to move to without the racial/colonial injustice that paved the way! Even late arrivals in this country, post-slavery, can participate in the benefits of whiteness and are not exempt from benefiting from the effects of race. 

Another key distinction is that Irish, Italian and many Jewish immigrants were able to become white by simply changing their last names, dropping their accents and discarding their former culture. Once they were white, they were able to move to nicer neighborhoods, and have access to better schools, healthcare, employment and college education. Further, they were eligible for FHA loans, GI Bill benefits and they were safe from housing covenants, blockbusting, white flight and predatory lending. Black and Brown people have historically been unable to, and cannot currently choose to become white, no matter how they change their names or discard their culture. 

Thus, the No-Racism Axiom is roundly disproven by readily accessible and abundant present-day and historical data. But can "colorblindness" remain a tenable approach to race in the US without this false axiom? I argue that the answer is no because our present racial disparities are so closely tied to race-based policies and practices. The only way to undo them is to recognize that certain races deserve recompense for these past and present injustices.

This lofty ideal can only be approached once these injustices are properly recognized and seen for what they are, and viewed within a racially-unbiased (e.g. non-white-supremacist) historical perspective. No colorblind individual can recognize nor repair racial injustice for the simple reason that they, in their own words "do not see race." Without the ability to see, much less fix racial injustice, they allow the status quo to continue. Their inaction props up and perpetuates systemic racism instead of calling it out and challenging it. Thus, perhaps paradoxically, their colorblindness becomes a highly effective mechanism for perpetuating racism.


mama mia said…
Some questions from one who is recently trying to remove the blinders: what would recompense look like in the reality of all the historic and current disparities/injustices? beginning within one's circle of influence and moving outward to effect change, how can it proceed? thru local and wider political engagement?

If one remains colorblind, then one stands to lose the upper hand indeed. Perhaps you've reached the truth about why it is that we prefer to "not see color" continue to deny the separateness we've created and controlled is based on fear of losing power...that is why we have such a hard time talking about race, we've been trained not to do so, to keep the status quo in place...

committed to continuing to keep my eyes opening and praying for the courage to know how to proceed on the journey as an ally in this struggle

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The Bright Line is not Monotonic

The anthology of myths commonly known as America rests upon the notion that history is linear. In the past people in this country ignorantly did bad things to other people. But thanks to the passage of time, we can now "let the past to be the past," because today we live in a time when things have gotten much better. Furthermore, any problem that our society faces in the present will inevitably be solved as "the old guard" dies off and a new generation of better people takes their place. 
Of course this story isn't told so simply or explicitly. But the assumption lurks beneath the other stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves and each other. The myth certainly undergirds the notion that racism is a thing of the past, and that today we inhabit a "post-racial" world in which all people, regardless of race have equal access to betterment, dignity and happiness. We are lulled into beliving that at some point in the mid to late 1960's, a wise reveren…