Color-Blindness Is Counterproductive
SEP 13, 2015
Many sociologists, though, are extremely critical of colorblindness as an ideology. They argue that as the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality have become more covert and obscure than they were during the era of open, legal segregation, the language of explicit racism has given way to a discourse of colorblindness. But they fear that the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination.
For the first half of the 20th century, it was perfectly legal to deny blacks (and other racial minorities) access to housing, jobs, voting, and other rights based explicitly on race. Civil-rights reforms rendered these practices illegal. Laws now bar practices that previously maintained racial inequality, like redlining, segregation, or openly refusing to rent or sell real estate to black Americans. Yet discrimination still persists, operating through a combination of social, economic, and institutional practices.
My colleague Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, for example, has written extensively about the idea of colorblindness, charting the ways that it functions as an ideology that legitimizes specific practices that maintain racial inequalities—police brutality, housing discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and others. His book Racism Without Racists is part of a broad set of sociological research that draws attention to the ways that colorblind ideology undergirds bigger, more problematic social issues.
Yet, in addition to suggesting that the academic left casts all proponents of colorblindness as naïve, Friedersdorf also contends that they waste time picking apart this concept rather than addressing “macroagressions” like police brutality and growing expressions of virulent racist hatred. But Bonilla-Silva, among others, describes the ways that colorblindness sustains these very macroaggressions that Friedersdorf thinks are ignored. In other words, Friedersdorf suggests the academic left wastes time dissecting the concept of colorblindness, and would be better served focusing on more pressing, systemic processes of inequality. But a careful read of sociological literature in this area finds that there are more than a few members of the “academic left” who argue that colorblindness is problematic precisely because it offers a way to avoid addressing these exact social problems. Other sociologists like Jessie Daniels and David Cort focus explicitly on researching hate speech on the internet and the lower rates of crime among immigrants relative to native born Americans, respectively—the very issues that Friedersdorf, by his own admission, charges are important and believes are overlooked by the academic left. Sociologists are actually very involved in highlighting these macroaggressions—and in underscoring the ways colorblind ideology allows them to go ignored.
Advocates of colorblindness, like Friedersdorf, tend to claim that emphasizing whites’ group identity as whites (rather than as individuals) is counterproductive. Rejecting colorblindness and encouraging whites to see themselves as members of a distinct racial group, they argue, will produce nativism. They will cling to, rather than critique, the privileges that whiteness affords, which are jeopardized by a more multiracial society. Friedersdorf calls it naïve to believe that upon focusing on their status as members of a racial group and the privilege and power that affords them, “masses of white people will identify more strongly with their racial tribe and then sacrifice the interests of that tribe.”
There’s a strong emphasis on individualism in American culture. Friedersdorf argues that “race is a pernicious concept that robs people of their individuality … the academic left also underestimates how divisive it can be to put anything other than individualism at the center of identity.” But ironically, this focus on individualism is itself a function of group position. Whites, by and large, enjoy the luxury of promoting the importance of the individual, because they benefit from living in a racially stratified society where whiteness is normalized. In most social interactions, whites get to be seen as individuals. Racial minorities, by contrast, become aware from a young age that people will often judge them as members of their group, and treat them in accordance with the (usually negative) stereotypes attached to that group.
ADIA HARVEY WINGFIELD is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work.
[Why is this so important and how does it challenge the ways we talk about race in contemporary America? Can you think of examples from class, from reading, and from films that highlight the dangers of colorblindness in perpetuating inequality, privilege, etc.