Color blindness (race) in the United States
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Color blindness (sometimes spelled colour-blindness; also called race blindness) is a sociological term referring to the disregard of racial characteristics when selecting which individuals will participate in some activity or receive some service. In practice, color-blind operations use no racial data or profiling and make no classifications, categorizations, or distinctions based upon race. An example of this would be a college processing admissions without regard to or knowledge of the racial characteristics of applicants.
Proponents of "color-blind" practices believe that treating people equally inherently leads to a more equal society and/or that racism and race privilege no longer exercise the power they once did, rendering policies such as race-based affirmative action obsolete. As described by Chief Justice John Roberts, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
Opponents of "color-blind" practices believe that racism and white privilege remain defining features of American society and that "color-blindness" simply allows whites to ignore the disadvantages of the non-white population. In Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society, Christopher Doob says that white people believe they live in a world in which "racial privilege no longer exists, but their behavior supports racialized structures and practices."
The goal of the 1960s landmark civil rights legislation was to remove racial discrimination and so establish a race-blind standard. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s central hope was that people would someday be judged by "the content of their character" rather than "the color of their skin". Whether color-blind policies provide the best means of achieving racial equality remains controversial.
Support of color blindness
The American Civil Rights Institute, led by founder Ward Connerly, has promoted and won a series of ballot initiatives that prohibit state government institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. Such initiatives have been passed in California (California Proposition 209 (1996)), Washington (1998 - I-200), and Michigan (the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative - MCRI, or Proposal 2, 2006). California's initiative was co-authored by academics Tom Wood and Glynn Custred in the mid-1990s and was taken up by Connerly after he was appointed in 1994 by Governor Pete Wilson to the University of California Board of Regents.
Professor Carl Cohen of the University of Michigan, who was a supporter of Michigan's Proposal 2, has argued that the term "affirmative action" should be defined differently from "race preference," and that while socioeconomically based or anti-discrimination types of affirmative action are permissible, those that give preference to individuals solely based on their race or gender should not be permitted. Cohen also helped find evidence in 1996 through the Freedom of Information Act that led to the cases filed by Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter against the University of Michigan for its undergraduate and law admissions policy - cases which were decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger.
Professor William Julius Wilson of Harvard University has argued that "class was becoming more important than race" in determining life prospects within the black community. Wilson has published several works including The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) explaining his views on black poverty and racial inequality. He believes that affirmative action primarily benefits the most privileged individuals within the black community. This is because strictly race-based programs disregard a candidate's socioeconomic background and therefore fail to help the poorer portion of the black community that actually needs the assistance. In a society where millions of blacks live in the middle and upper classes and millions of whites live in poverty, race is no longer an accurate indication of privilege. Recognizing someone's social class is more important than recognizing someone's race, indicating that society should be class-conscious, not race-conscious.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the only current black Justice, supports color-blind policies. He believes the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids consideration of race, such as race-based affirmative action or preferential treatment. He believes that race-oriented programs create "a cult of victimization" and imply blacks require "special treatment in order to succeed".
Some national bloggers and internet resources who favor the "equal opportunity" approach over "positive discrimination" include John Rosenberg's Discriminations, Tim Fay's Adversity.net, and Chetly Zarko's Power, Politics, & Money.
Actor-producer-director Kenneth Branagh frequently uses race-blind casting in his Shakespearean films. In Much Ado About Nothing, he cast Denzel Washington as Don Pedro; in his version of Hamlet, Francisco, one of the sentries in the first scene, was played by a black British actor; and in his As You Like It, David Oyelowo portrays Orlando. There are also several Japanese actors in the latter film.
Criticism of color blindness
In 1997 Leslie G. Carr published "Color-Blind Racism" (Sage Publications) which reviewed the history of racist ideologies in America. He saw "color-blindness" as an ideology that undercuts the legal and political foundation of integration and affirmative action. Stephanie M. Wildman, in her book Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America, writes that many Americans who advocate a merit-based, race-free worldview do not acknowledge the systems of privilege which benefit them. For example, many Americans rely on a social and sometimes even financial inheritance from previous generations. She argues that this inheritance is unlikely to be forthcoming if one's ancestors were slaves, and privileges whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality.
Critics allege that majority groups use practices of color-blindness as a means of avoiding the topic of racism and accusations of racial discrimination, and that color-blindness is used to undermine group legal rights gained exclusively by some minority groups.
Critics assert that color-blindness allows people to ignore the racial construction of whiteness, and reinforces its privileged and oppressive position. In color-blind situations, whiteness remains the normal standard, and blackness remains different, or marginal. As a result, white people are able to dominate when a color-blind approach is applied because the common experiences are defined in terms which white people can more easily relate to than blacks. Insistence on no reference to race, critics argue, means black people can no longer point out the racism they face.
Critics of color-blindness argue that color-blindness operates under the assumption that we are living in a world that is "post-race", where race no longer matters, when in fact it is still a prevalent issue. While it is true that overt racism is rare today (Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo.; 2006, p. 25), critics insist that more covert forms have taken its place (Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo.; 2006, p. 25). Eduardo Bonilla-Silva suggests that racial practices during the Jim Crow Era were typically overt and clearly racial, whereas today they tend to be covert, institutional, and apparently nonracial. Another criticism is that color-blindness views racism at the individual level (e.g. Lines of reasoning such as "I don't own slaves" or "I have very close black friends" to defend oneself) without looking at the larger social mechanisms in which racism operates. In an article in the journal New Directions for Student Services, Nancy Evans and Robert Reason argued that color-blindness fails to see the "structural, institutional, and societal" levels at which inequalities occur.
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While the ideal that race should not "matter," critics say, is certainly not a bad thing, the problem lies in asserting that race should not be taken into consideration even when trying to address inequality or remedy past wrongs.
Professor Bonilla-Silva of Duke University lists four main frameworks in which color-blindness operates: "abstract liberalism, biologization of culture, naturalization of racial matters, and minimization of racism."
Abstract liberalism "abstracts and decontextualizes" themes from political and economic liberalism, such as meritocracy and the free market, to argue against the strong presence of racism. It is also often used in discussions of affirmative action. The principle of laissez-faire emphasizes a "hands off" policy in terms of the government's involvement with economic activity. When applied to issues of race, it results in people being for equality in principle but against government action to implement equality, a policy often called laissez-faire racism.
The "biologization of culture" explains the inequality among race today in terms of cultural difference. Where disparities were once explained in terms of biology, they are now being discussed in terms of culture. "Culture" in this framework is seen as something fixed and hard to change. One example form of rhetoric used in this framework is the argument, "if Irish, Jews (or other ethnic groups) have 'made it', how come blacks have not?" Such rhetoric blames blacks and other minority groups for their own situations because other previously disadvantaged groups have managed to 'make it' in American society.
Similarly, certain frameworks "naturalize" aspects of racism, used commonly in discussions of residential and school segregation. For example, using this framework one would say it is simply natural that people of the same race would tend to live together, that it's "just the way it is". This viewpoint, however, ignores the possibility of other factors underlying residential segregation such as the attitude of realtors, bankers, and sellers.
Finally, as color-blindness rests on the idea that racism is no longer a prevalent issue today, a fourth framework seeks to minimize racism. Thus, modern occurrences of racism are seen as rare aberrations committed by the last few racists in society. Because racism is viewed as no longer a problem under this belief, people who ascribe to color-blindness see government programs targeting race as "illegitimate" and no longer necessary.
Robert D. Reason and Nancy J. Evans outline a similar description of color-blindness by Professor T.A. Forman of Emory University, which is based on four beliefs: 1. racial groups receive merit-based privileges, 2. most people do not notice nor are they concerned about race, 3. social inequality today is due to "cultural deficits" of individual people or racial or ethnic groups, and 4. given the previous three assumptions, there is no need to pay "systematic attention" to any current inequities. The prevalence of color-blindness is partially attributed to lack of knowledge or lack of exposure. Due to segregation that exists in housing and education, many Americans may not have direct contact with the discrimination that still exists.
Alternatives to color blindness
Researchers also offer alternatives to the color-blindness discourse. Reason and Evans call for people to become "racially cognizant", that is they need to acknowledge the role that race plays in their everyday lives. Being racially cognizant also demands a continuous examination and reinterpretation of race and how it affects our lives. It is also important to balance looking at a person as an individual and acknowledging the role their membership to a social group plays in their daily lives.
Researcher Jennifer Simpson proposed that "in setting aside color blindness, Whites must learn to see, accept, and experience their lives as raced and to explore the possibility that some of the good, ease, or rewards they have experienced have not been solely the result of hard work and just effort but of a system biased in their favor." This conscious exploration of whiteness as a racial and social identity and the acknowledgment of the role of whiteness is connected to modern whiteness studies. However, the field of whiteness studies has been criticized for its focus on reprimanding the white population, whereas similar fields such as Black studies, Women's studies, and Chicano Studies celebrate the contributions of the eponymous group.
In a recent publication of the academic journal Communication Theory, Jennifer Simpson proposed a "more productive dialogue about race". New dialogue must take a more complex look at race, openly looking at all different perspectives on race. As dialogue is a means of empowerment, it should take into account how all experiences contribute to our understanding, particularly those experiences very different from our own. Simpson believes that whites must be willing to openly engage with people of color in discussing the ongoing effects of racism today. However, this requires white people to participate in "communicative behavior that may threaten simultaneously their sense of self and their material power in the social order".
Outside the United States
While the subject of color-blindness is most often discussed in terms of the United States, researchers have begun to look at color-blindness in other countries as well.
Amy Ansell, a sociologist at Bard College, has compared and contrasted the development of the color-blindness in the United States and South Africa. Given that whites are a minority population in South Africa and a majority population in the United States, Ansell expected to see a significant difference in the manifestation of color-blindness in both countries. The thirty-year time difference between the departure from Jim Crow and cessation of apartheid and differences in racial stratification and levels of poverty also led Ansell to expect a clear difference between the colorblindness ideology in the United States and South Africa. However, she concludes that while color-blindness stems from two very different origins in the two countries, the current structure of color-blindness in the two countries is nearly identical.
- Post-racial America
- Constitutional colorblindness
- Colour Blind (2009 film)
- White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-blind Society
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The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
- Doob, Christopher Bates. Social inequality and social stratification in US society. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2013. Print.
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