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Colorblind Racism

March 2, 2012
Chief Justice Roberts’ declaration that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” at once announced an enticing cure-all for the racist virus that infects our society and staked his claim to racial enlightenment.  It’s a good soundbite, and reassuring to some white folks looking for relief from confronting the legacy of racism and its Siamese twin, white privilege.  For many on both ends of the political spectrum, sadly, colorblindness serves as a mantra for putting slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and pervasive real estate and employment discrimination behind them.

But Roberts and his ilk protest too much; their enthusiasm for repudiating our ancestors’ history betrays an anxiety that Faulkner’s words just might be true for racism: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

“Colorblindness” for Roberts and others is a matter of personal consciousness.  If you’re not willfully discriminating, you’re not tainted by racism.  If a government program is race-neutral on its face, there is no racism there either. The problem is that unconscious racism –– deeply ingrained in structures and cultures of public institutions and programs –– bludgeons people of color all the time.

Take our drug laws, which massively target black men.  In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander thoroughly documents the “stark racial disparities” in their enforcement.  So pervasive is the racism in the criminal punishment system that it has created “a new racial caste system,” with black males at the bottom.  Under the color of law our society has reinstituted “all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

The devotees of colorblindness turn a blind eye to such systemic injustice, however.  They prefer to establish their enlightenment by loudly denouncing individual racists.  Take Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish (Louisiana), who refused a marriage license to a mixed race couple (for their children’s sake).

A liberal father is not on board with mixed race marriage.

Pundits all across the political spectrum gleefully piled on Bardwell.  Even the conservative governor of Louisiana, who backed Birther legislation calling for the release of candidates’ birth certificates, called for Bardwell’s resignation.  But no one –– left or right –– mentioned that the same parish’s school system has been the subject of a decades-long racial discrimination lawsuit brought by the NAACP, in which the Parish has distinguished itself by violating court orders and being held in contempt.  Focusing on institutional racism like this would spoil the phony assurance colorblindness offers that ‘we are beyond all that.’

We need to turn the spotlight on this systemic racism, because the harm it inflicts is far more damaging than individual racist acts.  If the principalities and powers are arrayed against people of color, all the ringing declarations of colorblindness in the world will not secure justice for them.

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