Why Mere Color-Blindness Isn’t Enough

How often have you heard, or been tempted to think, that as long as we and the policies we support are color-blind (i.e., explicitly indifferent to race), we/they can’t possibly be contributing to systemic racism? Some even go so far as to claim this shows that systemic racism no longer exists in any meaningful way in America today, that the only “real” kind of racism we need to worry about is the individual racism of the few “bad eggs” who blatantly buck the officially color-blind policies. But while I hesitate to wade very deeply into these heated issues as someone who admittedly does not have a lot of personal familiarity with them, I think the core idea behind this attitude is one that deserves addressing.

To put it briefly, the problem with this view that color-blindness is enough is that it often looks a lot like a subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle kind of racism in practice, particularly when it comes from a position of white privilege. How so? Well, consider what is perhaps the most classic illustration of systemic racism, the fact that an overwhelmingly higher percentage of blacks than whites are caught in the clutches of a generational poverty cycle, for whatever blend of historical and current reasons. It’s pretty obvious how a white supremacist who just blatantly looks down on black people could find in this statistic a motivation for supporting policies that make it harder to break out of that poverty cycle. He might insist on sticking with strictly local funding of schools, for example, so that schools in poorer districts can’t raise as much money as schools in wealthy districts, and will tend to educate their students more poorly as a result. He might also resist any economic development of poor, “blighted” areas in favor of wealthy ones. He might also argue for a heavily militarized police force that isn’t afraid to use highly adversarial tactics in the poorer neighborhoods where they naturally have to spend most of their time. But now consider another person who also supports the exact same policies, not for overtly racist reasons like the first person, but perhaps just for ideological reasons, because he sees no reason to change them from his position of privilege. Even though the second person isn’t overtly racist on an individual level like the first person is, does he really look all that different in practice, given that he supports the exact same policies that are in fact serving to perpetuate the systemic racism that currently exists in our society?

I don’t deny that this kind of argument can be (and far too often is) taken too far. There are legitimate differences of opinion on issues like exactly what and how much government should do to redistribute wealth and help break generational poverty cycles, for example, and we shouldn’t label each other racists just because we don’t all end up with the same view. But I also don’t think we should just ignore the argument entirely. Though color-blindness is of course a step up from overt racism in our personal attitudes, when it comes to the trickier issues of systemic racism rather than individual racism, it seems clear to me that mere color-blindness in the policies we support isn’t really sufficient to avoid contributing to the problem. We must instead also consciously seek to understand the effects of our policies on people from other backgrounds besides just our own, including those whom we might not take much notice of from our position of privilege if we used mere color-blindness as our only criterion for racial fairness. I hope this seems like a very small and obvious point, because I think it really is. But sometimes even the very small and obvious points still need to be made.

This page copyright © 2020 Edward A. Morris.  Created June 11, 2020.  Last updated June 11, 2020.

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