Monday, July 09, 2007


A post at The Ambrosini Critique has reminded me of a post I've been meaning to write for some time now, but have never gotten around to.

The apex of Chief Justice Roberts' opinion in the recent school desegregation cases, the line he hoped would be quoted and deified as a constitutional cornerstone, was this: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." It represents a vision by which the harms of racial hierarchy (represented by, though by no means limited to, discrimination) can only be overcome by strict color-blindness. Admitting color, even for remedial purposes, even without intending to stigmatize, even where it is sanctioned by both Black and White parents as in the best interests of their children, is and will be disastrous. Race and color must be avoided at all costs, lest we be consumed by the darkness of our racist past.

In my Race LASIK article, I noted the peculiarity of proudly naming a philosophical paradigm after a medical disorder. Few of us actually wish to be medically color-blind. I know I am quite happy that I can identify my laptop as black, my desk as white, my sheets as blue, and my New Jersey Devils jacket as red. And I certainly cherish that ability strongly enough such that I want to preserve it, even at the "expense" of also being able to see that this man is Black and this man is White. I assume most people are no different than I am in this respect. So right from the start, there is at least some dissonance in the "color-blindness" paradigm--it isn't really accurately describing the society we want to live in.

A better name for what most people call the "color-blind" mentality, I propose, is a "colorphobic" mentality. As a society, we are terrified of color (in terms of race), and we wish to banish it. Any admission of color into our city gates is poisonous, corrupting, corrosive. We can't handle it. And the mark of a mature society, one that has gotten beyond racism, is that it never uses race, never discriminates or differentiates on the basis of race, and does not, in fact, even notice race.

I want to quickly distinguish what I'm talking about here from a concept called "negrophobia", coined by Jody Armour in his article, "Race Ipsa Loquitur: Of Reasonable Racists, Intelligent Bayesians, and Involuntary Negrophobes" (later published as a book). Negrophobia refers to the condition of being afraid of Black people, generally as the result of some psychological trauma (for example, being mugged by a Black man). Armour examines whether such a condition could or should be used to excuse certain discriminatory behavior (see here for a scenario). This is not what I mean by "colorphobia." By colorphobia, I mean a fear of the entire concept of race, not necessarily (or specifically) of people of color.

To be sure, it is not entirely unreasonable for us to fear color. After all, the majority of America's history has used color to enact and legitimize some of the gravest and most horrifying injustices. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. Rape. Even genocide. White people who feel guilty about such atrocities, as most do, understandably do not want to return down that path. It is the site of our lowest moments as human beings. Instinctively, we are averse to anything that seems to even risk bringing as back there.

In our heads, race has become the villain, the perpetrator of these crimes against humanity. One could argue that this serves the function of shifting the blame from the shoulders of White people--now it's not the fault of people, it's the fault of a concept. That's a subject for another post. What I want to focus on is how this historical narrative has cast race as irredeemably corrosive to the functioning and maintenance of a civilized, liberal society. More so than any other distinction we might make, race is uniquely invidious in that it can never be used, regardless of motive, regardless of end. This construction of race as a larger-than-life, invincible, unconquerable foe, can be described by no other word but a phobia. Color-blindness is the political manifestation of hiding from a demon we fear we cannot tame, one that will consume us if admitted into our presence.

Race has primarily been used for terrible things, that's true. And it is a truth admitted by all the advocates of color-conscious policy. However, they argue that in our current situation race is an indispensable tool for righting these wrongs, and for creating and ordering a more just society. We can't do without it. The color-blindness mentality has us run from our past through exile and banishment. This is no longer a tenable option. We have run for too long. We must use race without subordination. And to do that, we must show courage, face our fears, and overcome the monsters in our past.

The mark of mature society, of one that has gotten beyond racism, is not that it shuns race. That is the mark of an immature society still beholden to its past and unable to move beyond its phobia. The mark of a mature, post-racist society, is that it uses race without subordination and without fear. This does not mean that we use race uncritically. Like most tools, race can be a dangerous thing, and should not be wielded casually or with reckless abandon. But it cannot be avoided altogether. We must use it courageously, with noble purpose, to forge a path towards justice. Anything else is cowardice.

And in that way, race without fear will give us a world where nobody need fear race.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

"Colorblind" as you and most others use it would indeed be as you describe, but that's not what true colorblindness is. My brother is colorblind. Yet as he explains, he had the 800 box of Crayolas, he knows the names of the colors - as he sees them. He just happens to see them differently than the non-colorblind person. And in some cases, he can't detect a difference between certain colors at all.

It's the latter definition that I know people are reaching for when they say "colorblind," but it's actually the former that I think is more descriptive of our current status in this society. We all see the colors just fine. We just happen to associate different words with them. It's when we all agree on what the color:word associations are that we run into trouble.

Mark said...

If you've got the time, perhaps you could explain to a supporter of color blind policy why poverty not race might be a qualifier for preferential treatment.

For example, race based admissions actions advantage non-whites over whites. How is this "fair" or a good policy for the poor white societies and students of Appalachia?

What would your response directly to those people be to justify race based policies?

David Schraub said...

First a response to you, then a response to them. The response to you is just to point out that, at the point where you agree to economic-based preferential treatment, you are forfeiting your right to make a merit-based objection to racial AA. The argument that it is unfair to give a position to a less qualified Black man over a more qualified White man are the same as the argument that it is unfair to give a position to a less qualified poor man over a more qualified rich man. In other words, you are conceding that "pure merit" (if that even has a meaning, which I'm unsure that it does) can be outweighed by the need to give remedial preferential treatment to the socially disadvantaged. The only question is whether in contemporary America, race remains an independent source of disadvantage. You might be fine with all this, in which case I apologize for the digression, but many AA opponents (Justice Scalia) have launched massive barrages decrying the abandonment of pure merit standards only to register their support for economic AA in the same paper. It's massively hypocritical, and it needs to be called out, so I'm just making sure we're on the same page.

Which moves me to response to the poor White people. First, I'd note that I have no objection to also enacting economic AA programs in conjunction with race-based ones. I think that poor people are disadvantaged, and I think that institutions such as colleges benefit from economic diversity (I don't want everybody at Carleton to have names ending in "the Third"). Most colleges do, indeed, practice this already. So poverty already is a "qualifier for preferential treatment." However, the fact remains (and again, the data is just there on this) that race remains a source of disadvantage in America operating independently of class (this is response #2). Black people of equal (or even somewhat higher) economic status than White people still tend to have worse overall life chances. Our friends in Appalachia may face many disadvantages, but they will never (for example) be pulled over by a cop on a "Driving While Black" (and by contrast, Black people still face that prospect no matter how rich they get). Since nobody really disputes giving economic AA, the real question isn't "what do I say to the White Appalachian, who faced economic deprivation that a middle-class Black kid never saw." The real question is "what do you say to the middle-class Black kid, whose faced racial taunting, discrimination, and police harassment that the Appalachian never saw." Why is only one considered "disadvantaged", but not the other?

And third, I'd argue that racial diversity policies benefit poor White people once they get into college, in that diverse institutions foster better learning environments and impart a broader array of skills (most notably, being able to interact with people from a variety of different backgrounds) than do non-diverse institutions (I'd argue the same about economic diversity--rich kids benefit too from their institutions representing not just the social elite). Getting rid of racial AA might make it marginally easier for a poor White to get into a given college (marginally because statistically wealthy Whites will be the ones taking up the new spots), but they'll be attending a worse college when they get there.