Beyond a 'colorblind' America, a new ideal

A new generation of African-American thinkers say recent tensions show the challenges of racism are evolving, requiring a new approach to address them.

John Minchillo/AP
Black Lives Matter protesters march in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

The years of the Obama presidency, which some hoped would mark the triumph of a colorblind America, have instead convinced many African-Americans that the country’s desire to see past race is a primary impediment to further progress.

Since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed that ignoring color is the best racial unifier, that sentiment has been a core pillar of race relations. Race-based programs such as affirmative action or the Voting Rights Act have been seen as temporary steps toward the goal of a colorblind society.

Indeed, in overturning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts argued: “Our country has changed.”

The explosion of racial tensions between black communities and police during the past few years has, in many ways, been a visceral backlash against that claim. The Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, maintains that colorblindness has merely become a way for white Americans to ignore the deeper and more insidious forms of racism many blacks say are still rampant.

Amid this ferment, a new class of African-American thinkers is pushing a different vision of race in America. If colorblindness, in their view, has increasingly allowed for a blithe dismissal of the central role race still plays in society, then the solution is a more clear-eyed “color consciousness” that openly acknowledges the continuing importance of race and seeks to address it head on.

Black Lives Matter’s first list of demands, released Monday, offers a taste, from criminal justice reforms to safe drinking water to reparations for slavery.

Not all advocates of color consciousness go so far. But they argue that, for all the progress made on race in America, W.E.B. DuBois’s observation still rings true: “whiteness is the ownership of the world forever and ever, amen.”

The increasing momentum behind color consciousness among the African-American community and beyond marks an attempt to fundamentally change the American conversation on race.

•  •  • 

To Heather Townsend, a blond Millennial born in Atlanta, clawing at old racial grievances is a bad idea. 

Last year, two of her friends – young, white men – were killed during a robbery attempt near the hipster neighborhood of Little Five Points. Police charged three black men and one black boy with the murders. Though no hate crime charges were filed, many people in the neighborhood, including Ms. Townsend, felt that the killings had racial overtones.

But she doesn’t want to make anything of race, and she worries how the reaction to such incidents might shift if color consciousness became a more explicit part of the national conversation.

For example, essayist Jim Goad, author of “The Redneck Manifesto,” suggested in Taki’s Magazine that the diversification of the neighborhood is “a gamble,” with “the possibility that the result will be conflict rather than peace.”

Going even further down that road won’t help, she suggests.

“Race remains an issue, a real issue, but I’m not going to fight it, because it’s only going to get worse,” she says. “I just walk away when [race] comes up. There’s no need to go dredging up the past in order to bring it to the future.”

Stan Robertson, an unemployed black Atlantan, has a different take. “I think we should be more conscious of race than be colorblind, because it’s obvious that so much of what’s going on is tied to race.”

The hope of color consciousness is that, by forcing Americans to be more honest about how they classify each other into groups – with positive and negative connotations – they will check prejudices and double-check each other’s motives, proponents say.

It is a focus on race and identity, even at the expense of diversity, tolerance, and social niceties. It doesn’t matter if the call for reparations makes others uncomfortable, for instance. The topic at least forces a conversation on whether the spiraling consequences of enslaving America’s black population had consequences that ripple into the present, the thinking goes. 

Donald Trump’s overwhelming appeal among white Americans – and the accompanying backlash against “political correctness” – speaks to the discomfort such ideas kindle among many voters, some analysts say.

“Trump is using tried and true talking points that resonate with a white populace that feels under attack,” says University of Connecticut sociologist Matthew Hughey, the author of “White Bound.”

•  •  • 

But demographics are destiny, add some scholars. The United States is becoming less white, and the inevitable discomfort raised by the gradual transition to a majority minority society must be addressed and overcome.

“A big part of the problem is that the country has shifted so much [demographically], but there hasn’t been a refashioning of white identity in a way that makes sense in a modern, multicultural society,” says Adia Wingfield, a sociologist who focuses on race at Washington University in St. Louis. 

“White identity remains built on the idea of unquestioned advantage, superiority over people of color,” she says. “And a real important political shift [away from] that has to happen, where whites can see themselves as part of [a multiracial] society, can be proud of being white, but that also doesn’t have to include guilt or feelings of entitlement.”

“That’s when you’re much more likely to see profound and long-term shifts in race relations,” she adds.

These remain controversial conclusions in many quarters. To be sure, America has made tremendous racial progress. Polls show that African-Americans are the most optimistic race or ethnicity in the United States, and experts say that is because black Americans see their lives as better than those of their parents. The election of a black president, while symbolic, is also substantial.

Clearly, the country has changed.

Moreover, the idea of emphasizing race holds real dangers and could backfire, some say. If blacks can focus on their blackness, then whites could do the same.

“It’s dangerous to push whites to focus on their whiteness rather than their humanity,” the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote last year. “Adherents of colorblindness are more easily convinced to add specific nuances to their views, or to do more to live up to race neutrality, than persuaded to embrace an entirely new paradigm of race in America.”

In his view, the focus on “white privilege” and arguing about “black lives” versus “all lives” “seem to produce as much interracial animus and tension as understanding.”

•  •  •

But some note that Dr. King saw colorblindness as the goal, not the method, to racial reconciliation in the post-Jim Crow era. And recent events have shown that America has not yet reached that goal, they argue.

  • Americans remain overwhelmingly segregated in their neighborhoods and houses of worship.
  • In 2014, 6 percent of all black American men between the ages of 30 and 39 were behind bars, compared with 1 percent of Caucasian men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • “The median black household has just 59 cents for every dollar of white median household income” – a stagnant gap, the Economic Policy Institute reported last year.
  • Black unemployment last month in the US was 8.6 percent compared with 4.4 percent for white workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A linen-suited black Atlantan who refers to himself only as Mr. Mohamed says colorblindness has failed: “Whites are killing my people in the streets with impunity. That’s not an opinion. I’ve lived in this country for all my 76 years. That’s my experience. It doesn’t make me hate, but it does make me angry!”

To critics, color consciousness is an attempt to absolve the black community of any responsibility for these problems.

For proponents, it is an attempt to prevent white people from absolving a sense of guilt or concern by their insistence that “I’m not a racist.”

Even well-meaning, socially attuned whites are part of a system that may not be racist on its face, but whose outcomes are unmistakably colored by skin tone, they say.

“Colorblindness doesn’t allow us to get to the roots of the material inequalities, but instead allows people to say, ‘Let’s just forget about it, let’s not talk about it,’ “ says Professor Hughey. “It’s simply a societal way to stick one’s head in the sand and hope that it might go away.”

Beneath the claims of a subtler racism is the latent perception that whites remain American society’s central reference point, rather than simply one group among many, some sociologists say.

“Because there are particular groups of people – specifically, whites – who are considered objective and neutral, they don’t want to hear about race, unless racism is overt and obvious,” says Kimya Dennis, a sociologist at Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C. “But when you say, ‘I don’t see race,’ you imply that there’s something wrong about seeing race.”

“This idea of colorblindness has now been going on for generations – it’s seen as being nice to people and a way to stop racism,” she says. “But it’s actually the way to perpetuate racism, because if you file a racial discrimination complaint the response would of course be, ‘I don’t see race, I see you.’ “

•  •  • 

On one hand, Johnny Jones is wary of color consciousness.

When he goes out on the town, the Atlantan says, he’s careful to heed native son Martin Luther King’s admonishment to see character over skin.

Counting himself among Midtown’s gay population, he says he’s open to people of all creeds and colors, seeing life-affirming diversity in the multitudes.

But he also acknowledges that that is harder with what he calls the “ghetto folks” – poor blacks listening to bone-rattling subwoofers. “I don’t see eye to eye with them, and I don’t think they see eye to eye with me,” he says.

He notices these contradictions in other parts of his life, too.

Being a white guy living in a black-run city has helped him challenge some racial prejudices. He says seeing black leadership up close, warts and all, has convinced him that it’s pretty much the same thing as white leadership.

But looking at his city more deeply, he wonders if Atlanta really is a city “too busy to hate,” as the famous motto goes. Housing, schools, and churches remain starkly segregated.

If that’s proof of racial progress in America, it suggests that racial tolerance is enough – and that’s a pretty low bar for the most diverse nation in the world, says Mr. Jones. “It’s a sad fact that just right there in front of our faces,” he says.

Surveys show that many white Americans literally stutter, chuckle nervously, and directly contradict themselves when asked questions about black people.

“Because the new racial climate in America forbids the open expression of racially-based feelings, views and positions, when whites discuss issues that make them feel uncomfortable, they become almost incomprehensible,” writes Duke University sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in an analysis of the studies.

•  •  • 

Even white liberals are not beyond reproach. “Racism knows no political boundaries,” says the University of Connecticut’s Hughey. “The left, for its part, has a serious problem with white paternalism: ‘We know better than you.’ That’s the white savior complex among white Democrats.”

Playing up skin color in order to acknowledge racism at its root is risky, both short and long term, critics say. Already, “[no] one can speak honestly without being branded a racist, sexist, homophobe or simply insensitive, and ridiculed to their demise in the New York Times, Washington Post and major network newscasts,” the economist Peter Morici wrote on Monday for Fox News.

Yet Professor Wingfield argues whites who are enlightened about the racial struggle of blacks tend to lose their apathy in favor of conducting antiracist work in their communities.

“The big turning point for white people is when they can no longer see themselves through this colorblind lens,” says Wingfield. “It has to do with people’s comfort level with being uncomfortable, and that’s a process that’s difficult to negotiate and balance for all parties, regardless of racial background.”

“But we cannot gloss over it,” she adds. “We are changing in terms of who we are and what we are, and we’re not going to be prepared to deal with those challenges by pretending that we don’t see those challenges.”

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