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. The rationale for "color-blind" practices is that racism and race privilege no longer exercise the power they once did, and/or that treating people equally leads to a more equal society. As described by Chief Justice Roberts, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
However, according to Christopher Doob in his textbook Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society, whites believe they live in a world in which "racial privilege no longer exists, but their behavior supports racialized structures and practices." Dr. Michael Kimmel made the statement not only in his book Guyland, but in a lecture, that "privilege is invisible to those who have it." It is argued that those who have not been the target of racial bias cannot see or comprehend exactly what this feels like, looks like or the effects that it can have on people's lives. Whites simply believe discrimination and white privilege do not exist, because in their world they do not. Doob also mentions in his book that many times, due to the prominent racism that is still evident in today's society, minorities often do not have a choice but to participate in the racial socialization. This, he states, is due to the fact that it can be a daunting task to maintain a social identity in such a society.
Put into 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.
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., said, that the hope was that people would be judged by "the content of their character" rather than "the color of their skin". Color-blind practices assume that that goal has already been reached.
Support of color blindness
Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute, has promoted and won a series of ballot initiatives in the states of 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. Each of the ballot initiatives have won, and Connerly plans what he calls a "Super-Tuesday" of five additional states in 2008.
Professor Carl Cohen of the University of Michigan, who was a supporter of Michigan's Proposal 2, have argued that the term "affirmative action" should be defined differently than "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 on June 23, 2003.
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 being promoted in to undercut 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 thus hide their true racial views, and that color blindness is used as a tool in attacking 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 colorblind 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.
Abstract liberalism, closely related to "laissez-faire racism", "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. Unlike Jim Crow racism, which was based on the notion of biological inferiority, laissez-faire racism emphasizes cultural inferiority. The rhetoric of the "level playing field" also stems from similar free market ideologies.
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?" In this rhetoric, blacks and other minority groups are blamed themselves for not 'making it', as other groups have.
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 colorblindness see government programs targeting race as "illegitimate" and no longer necessary. Blacks are also blamed as not being able to get over the past history of overt racism and slavery. Users of this framework point to the abolition of slavery to prove racism is no longer a problem without acknowledging the ongoing presence of racism in more covert forms today. The idea of "reverse discrimination" stems from this framework as well. Just as blacks and other minorities are accused of clinging to the past, this argument states, whites should not have to "pay" for instances of racism that occurred in the past.
Robert D. Reason and Nancy J. Evans outline a similar description of colorblindness by T.A. Forman, which is based on these 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 colorblindness 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.
Reason and Evans also outline the manifestation of colorblindness in university settings, as originally put forth by F.K. Stage and K. Manning. They recognize six assumptions underlying the interaction between universities and colleges and their students.
First, non-white students are expected to adapt to the university setting, which Reason and Evans argues is "almost always White and Eurocentric in structure". As an example, they cite the fact that university calendars do not provide the flexibility in order to accommodate Native Americans to be able to attend cultural or religious events on their reservations. Second, they claim that non-white staff, faculty, and students are expected to take the initiative in addressing "non-white cultural issues", while white staff, faculty, and students are not responsible. For example, when conducting diversity training, the assumption is usually that people of color will do it. Third, non-white and white students are assumed to have similar interests. Thus, when students of color join race-specific organizations or do not participate in "color-blind" groups such as student government, they are criticized. Fourth, when students of color do not participate in university-provided "academic support programs", they are seen as lazy and ungrateful. Fifth, a basic colorblind assumption is that all students are given equal opportunities for education at colleges and universities. Finally, an overarching assumption is that the "dominant White culture through which the university environment functions" is sufficient and successful, and there do not need to be any changes made.
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.
Additionally, researchers also offer alternatives to the colorblindness discourse. Reason and Evans call for the white 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.
Similarly, researcher Jennifer Simpson proposed that "In short, 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.
In a recent publication of academic journal Communication Theory, Jennifer Simpson proposed a "more productive dialogue about race" based on her understanding of the elements of dialogue. As a historically situated idea, a new dialogue of race must acknowledge the how racism is currently experienced. In order to be productive rather than reproductive the new dialogue must also 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. Finally, Simpson states 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". It also assumes that white people would be willing to make changes after understanding the consequences of the current dominant colorblindness discourse and the impact of embracing a more productive dialogue.
- Post-racial America
- Constitutional colorblindness
- Colour Blind (2009 film)
- White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-blind Society
- Stuart Wells, Amy (2009). Both Sides Now: The Story of School Desegregation's Graduates.. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780520256774. Retrieved 2013-11-20. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
- Christopher B. Doob
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