Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Whiteness and the Utility of the Colorblind Paradigm

The conversation on race in the U.S. is currently dominated by the paradigm of colorblindness.[i] The colorblind paradigm is based on a story that goes something like this: 
There was, at one time, a terrible problem with racism in this country. But, thanks to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, and the shifting attitudes of the American people, racism is now mostly behind us. Today, although there are still individuals with racist beliefs, the main barrier to the dawning of a post-racial era is the false belief on the political left that racism remains a significant force in U.S. society.
Indeed, according to the proponents of the colorblind paradigm (whom I’ll call race conservatives),[ii] it is this preoccupation with race that actually perpetuates racism. I should add that, although this framing was developed in conservative circles to advance a conservative political agenda, many well-meaning liberals have been seduced by it, proclaiming their post-racial stance with the slogan “I don’t see color; I only see people.”  

One of the race conservatives’ key maneuvers is to set themselves up as the legitimate heirs of the Civil Rights Movement, the true and exclusive aim of which, they claim, was to ban discrimination based on race. This formula was in evidence last summer when Fox News personality Glenn Beck held a rally on the anniversary of one of the movement’s epic moments, the 1963 March on Washington. Indeed, the proponents of colorblindness typically justify their position by citing the part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he expressed his vision of a world where people are no longer judged by their color. Distorting the true intent of his words, they make the demonstrably false claim that Dr. King himself would oppose public policies that directly address historical (and ongoing) injustice. They claim the mantle of King’s legacy and then decry affirmative action, proactive desegregation, and other efforts to redress racism, efforts that King would likely have supported. They label all such efforts “reverse racism,” suggesting that they constitute unfair discrimination against white people.

Being colorblind does not mean simply overcoming discrimination, however. To race conservatives, even talking about racism is inappropriate. For example, to point out the salience of race in some public episode, such as, say, the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in front of his own home, is to “play the race card.” Because racism is seen solely in terms of the intentions of individuals, to cite race means to call someone a racist. So, for racism to have played a role in the Gates episode, Officer Crowley would have to be personally racist. And the inference that someone is a racist is seen as tantamount to character assassination (unless the target is a person of color). This clever moral reversal, whereby the agent[iii] of injustice is made into a victim of slander, is quite effective at changing the subject, so that we don’t have to discuss the possibility that, even in supposedly post-racial America, mere social status cannot protect a black man from the hazards of his skin color.

Meanwhile, to suggest that the unique experiences and perspectives of historically marginalized people ought to be represented in public discourse is, according to the colorblind paradigm, to indulge in identity politics and political correctness. This dynamic was on clear display during the confirmation process of Sonia Sotomayor. Race conservatives were outraged by a quote in which Sotomayor suggests that her unique life experiences as a Latina woman have enriched her judicial wisdom. The implication that a legitimate alternative to the dominant (white) perspective is possible, let alone beneficial, provoked indignation because the latter is, by its own lights, the epitome of neutrality and objectivity. Indeed, the presumption that the dominant view is neutral and objective – not “colored” by racial or ethnic particularity – is fundamental to the colorblind paradigm. To question that principle constitutes a heresy of the highest order.

Another pillar of the colorblind paradigm is that, in post-Civil Rights America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. As the story goes, the legislative achievements of the 1960s represent the final fulfillment of the nation’s founding idea of itself as a land where the individual is free to pursue his/her dreams without fear of undue government interference. Notice that this story defines opportunity negatively, as simply the lack of a definite barrier. According to this logic, if there are people of color in the upper echelons of society, there are no racial barriers; ergo, everyone has equal opportunity. But what if opportunity is not an all or nothing proposition? What if it is understood in terms of relative life chances? It should be obvious that, understood in this way, opportunity is not, and can never be, truly equal. The question then becomes, to what degree does race, in particular, still shape the life chances of individuals in America? Whatever the answer to this question may be, to be colorblind means not even having to ask it.

Not having to consider the effect of race on people’s life chances means not having to look for structural or institutional causes. Obviously, everyone who’s paying attention is aware that there remain substantial racial disparities in wealth, academic achievement, employment, etc. However, since the colorblind paradigm presupposes that everyone has equal opportunity, the blame for these disparities can only be attributed to individuals. And since there do not seem to be enough individual racists left to sustain large scale social inequity, people of color themselves must be seen as entirely responsible for their circumstances. Either they are not working hard enough, or they are somehow unfit for the social-Darwinian competition we call the marketplace. Since citing biological differences would violate the tenets of colorblindness (besides being overtly racist), race conservatives lament a lack of discipline and responsibility, for which they fault cultural pathologies within communities of color. Of course, there is another possibility. What if the very existence of these communities is a result of residential segregation practices, whereby white folks sequestered themselves off in virtually all white spaces? And what if, all else being equal, these white spaces offer real material advantages, in terms of economic, educational, and employment opportunities? Once again, being colorblind means being protected from questions like these by unfalsifiable epicycles of victim blaming and white innocence.

Although colorblindness entails conceptual segregation with respect to race, political demagogues still have much to gain from a racialized discourse. Workers in this country have been under siege for four decades, thanks to deindustrialization and corporate globalization. In this environment, politicians and quasi-political figures benefit greatly when the disaffection and frustration of white workers can be channeled into resentment of racialized others. Since the political lexicon has been purged of overtly racist references, however, the mobilization of white racial anxiety is now accomplished by way of coded language that conceals its racially charged implications. Since language like “tough on gangs,” “welfare,” and “Joe six-pack” do not have explicit racial meanings, it is impossible to prove racist intent, but intent is really beside the point. This language is used because it is effective, and it is effective because of the racialized imagery it evokes. Who, among us, pictures someone who looks like Timothy McVeigh when we hear the word “terrorist,” or imagines a Canadian college student with an expired visa when we hear “illegal” used as a noun. If “post-racial” means anything, it means that one no longer needs racist language to stoke white racial fear and resentment.   

Perhaps the most important thing about the colorblind paradigm is that it is a paradigm. That is, it is a system of interrelated and mutually reinforcing concepts. It is all but impossible to overturn a paradigm with facts alone because facts acquire meaning from the very matrix of ideas and assumptions that constitutes the paradigm. This is why race conservatives can always explain, or explain away, all racial disparities without ever calling their “post-racial” approach into question. The entire paradigm is grounded in the doctrine of individualism, which holds that only individuals are truly real. This permits inter-group social dynamics to be rendered invisible along with the five-century history of brutal racial oppression that produced them. But individualism, like historical amnesia and perpetual innocence, is not merely an ideological prop for the colorblind paradigm, it has been, from the moment the first settlers arrived on this continent, at the very heart of the cosmology of whiteness.

[i] My thinking on this topic has benefited enormously from the writings of Tim Wise, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, David Roediger, and others.
[ii] I call them race conservatives to emphasize the irony embodied by the colorblind paradigm. Also, I want to avoid attributing this view of race to all conservatives.
[iii] Note that agent is not the same thing as perpetrator, as the former does not bear sole responsibility for the events in which he or she plays a role.