Color Blindness: The New Racism?

Larry Yu September 15, 2010 Comments Off

For many people, the idea of a color blind society is a laudable and self-evident goal to aspire to. The very phrase evokes iconic images from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, in which he famously declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Related to color blindness, the idea of a “post-racial” society has gained significant currency in the US. This concept suggests that America has reached a point where race is no longer a significant socio-political distinction – that is, a state of color blindness.

After all, US culture is becoming more multiracial as we see celebrities, business people, and public figures of various racial backgrounds. Most media networks have their requisite dash of diversity with African American, Latino, and Asian American performers and media icons. Interracial couples are no longer taboo and increasing in number. Most sectors of American society from government to corporations to schools to civil society claim to “celebrate diversity” as an institutional value. And in politics, Barack Obama was the first African American to become US President.

America is the land of racial tolerance and diversity. Or so it claims.

Racism in a Post-Racial Society

What is often ignored by the US media and establishment is a fundamental contradiction: ideas like color blindness or a post-racial society are increasingly promoted, even as American racial inequality and oppression continue unabated.

A few examples come to mind: In the past several years, the US government has engaged in racist profiling, imprisonment, and deportation of Arab, South Asian, and Muslim immigrants in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks. Indeed, bigotry against Muslims and Arabs has become a staple of American society, with a massive spike in reported hate crimes against people perceived to be from these backgrounds and demagogic nationalist campaigns like the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.

American anti-immigrant xenophobia directed particularly against Latinos and Asians has increased, as evidenced by phenomena such as Arizona’s SB 1070 law and similar legislation; the rise of the Minuteman militia; and the militarization of the US-Mexican border with the deployment of Predator drones and construction of a huge border fence. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in particular has launched thousands of raids across the country to crack down on the most vulnerable of undocumented workers or even, as in the case of Hui Liu Ng, to imprison and kill them.

African Americans and Latinos continue to be subject to the persecution of the American state, as incarceration rates of these groups are wildly disproportionate to their percentage of the US population. Nationwide, African Americans and Latinos thus comprise a staggering 70 percent of the US incarcerated population. Moreover, many US police departments effectively function as a domestic counter-insurgency force against communities of color, with police murders and harassment of minorities bleeding across the landscape from New York to San Francisco.

Yet, many Americans still promote the idea of the US as a color blind society.

The New Color Blind Racism

This contradiction between the dominant ideology of color blindness and the reality of America’s enduring racial caste system reveals how lofty “ideals” like color blindness function as legitimizing rationales for racial inequality, even as they purport the very opposite.

At first glace, this assertion may seem confusing or counter-intuitive particularly with respect to the Civil Rights movement. For was it not Martin Luther King Jr. himself who advocated a color blind world based upon “judging people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin”?

At first glance, who could argue with this principle? It appeals to the ideal of a common humanity composed of individuals who are unique in their own right beyond the limiting stereotypes of racism.

As scholars like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva have asserted, however, America has effectively adopted a new form of racism called color blind racism in which the idea of not judging people based upon race has now mutated into not admitting the political reality of (White) racism.

David Wellman provocatively suggests, “Formal color blindness fails to recognize or address the deeply-rooted institutional practices and privileges that sustain racial inequality. Color blind ideology no longer is a weapon that challenges racial inequality. Instead, it has become a powerful sword and near-impenetrable shield, almost a civic religion that actually promotes the unequal status quo.”

In the realm of popular consciousness, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has been reduced to CNN-style soundbites that can be manipulated to serve the interests of White nativists like Glen Beck and his “Restore Honor” rally on the 47th anniversary of King’s famous speech.

In short, color blindness today in practice often means being deliberately blind to color and ultimately American racial injustice.

Far from entering a color blind era where racism is largely an insignificant issue of the past, America has merely undergone a shift from an older form of racism based upon Jim Crow apartheid to a more sophisticated one premised upon concepts like “color blindness,” “post-racial society,” or “diversity.”

Though not understood by many people, this new racism is critically important to expose, as it will be the paradigm of American racism – and White hegemony – for the twenty-first century.

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