The Delusion of Color Blindness

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When the Supreme Court reconvenes next month, the justices will take on the case against integration policies in Louisville and Seattle. Both cities, in an effort to overcome residential self-segregation, use race as a factor in assigning students to public schools. Parents of white students have complained that these practices discriminate against their children.

Predictably, the Bush Administration agrees. In a friend of the court brief supporting the Kentucky petitioners, Solicitor General Paul D. Clement wrote, "The United States remains deeply committed to [the] objective [of Brown vs. Board of Education]. But once the effects of past de jure segregation have been remedied, the path forward does not involve new instances of de jure discrimination."

I laughed out loud when I read this.

The effects of legalized segregation have been remedied? Recent studies indicate that schools in many communities are growing more segregated. Just 50% of blacks earn a regular high school diploma, compared with 74% of whites, according to research by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute. Brown was decided more than 50 years ago, but cities like Louisville and Boston were still rioting over busing plans in the 1970s. And is two generations really long enough to counteract 300 prior years of institutionalized inequity?

I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised. It's long been assumed that blacks and whites don't experience race or recall racism in America in the same way. Now there's proof. In a fascinating new study, sociologists at the University of Minnesota asked whites, blacks and Hispanics what caused whites in the U.S. to have an advantage and blacks to have a disadvantage, and how much they adhered to "color-blind" ideals.

Among the findings (which I summarized in another article) were these telling nuggets: First, most whites believe that prejudice and discrimination put blacks at a disadvantage — 75% agreed with that statement, compared with 88% of blacks and Hispanics. But fewer whites say those factors gave white people an advantage (62%, versus 79% of the non-whites). Second, whites are only about half as likely as blacks or Hispanics to attribute white advantage and black disadvantage to laws and institutions. White Republicans in the survey specifically resisted crediting the legal system as important to white advantage.

One of the major questions the researchers were trying to answer, according to Douglas Hartmann, a co-author of the study, was "whether whites see the problem of race as one of white privilege as opposed to African-American disadvantage." And this is no small distinction.

"If one looks at the response patterns for African-American disadvantage, one might conclude that most white Americans would be supportive of policies designed to equalize opportunities for African Americans," the authors write. "It is not until looking at the response patterns for white advantage that we can see that white Americans may not be overtly racist but may, in fact, have very different (if not na´ve and simplistic) visions of the social system of race. This is an important finding with implications... for how we understand the policies Americans adopt (or fail to adopt) to challenge [racial] inequities."

That is to say, taken together, these stats shed light on why so many white Americans have a tough time getting onboard with affirmative action. In a Pew poll, 54% of whites said programs to increase the number of minorities in college are a good thing, compared with 87% of blacks.

"That to me is a reflection of how ahistorical and individualist so many Americans are," Hartmann told me. "We understand that history matters but don't want to see how it pervades our culture. It's kind of surprising but also really typical of how Americans can't reconcile race problems. To support affirmative action, you have to have a historical understanding of where these problems come from."

These days, Americans prefer to talk about "color blindness." I hate the term. For one, it's an impossibility. Color is immutable and unavoidable; it's the first thing you notice about someone, whether you register it consciously or not. For another, it's offensive. "It blurs the real problems of jobs and education that communities of color are struggling with," Hartmann says. And just as your race affects how you experience the world, it also determines the perspective that you bring to any group dynamic — and we should value those different perspectives.

Diverse classrooms enhance learning for all students, as the Seattle school officials argue. Perhaps more important, exposure to diversity, racial and otherwise, is in itself a form of education that remains today in too short supply.