Colour blind, deaf, and dumb

Right now, as you read this, some well-intentioned white kid on the internet is posting a link to this video. In it, the actor Morgan Freeman states that the way to solve racism is to stop talking about it. Specifically, Freeman says that if the host stops seeing him (Freeman) as “a black man”, then he will stop seeing the host as “a white man” and they can presumably just be man-friends and hold hands under a double rainbow or something. Needless to say, I am far from impressed by both the content and the ubiquity of this clip, as it serves more to confirm the “I don’t need to do anything” impulses of white people who haven’t given much thought to the matter beforehand.

For my part, I much prefer John Legend’s response to a very similar question. And I think there’s something to be gleaned from the age difference between Messrs Freeman and Legend. The former is a man who came up in a world where the consequences of anti-black racism were dramatically self-evident: vicious racist slurs coming out of the mouths of police officers and judges, blatantly and unashamedly racist laws and policies, frequent acts of race-motivated physical violence with a blind eye turned toward it by an indifferent society*. The latter is a man who came up in the world of ‘polite’ racism and “post-racial” politicking, where the fashion is to find an endless string of euphemisms to disguise racist attitudes and behaviours that, minus the drama, haven’t changed much.

Which isn’t to say, incidentally, that the kind of racism that Morgan Freeman experienced isn’t still very much alive and well today; it’s just less common.

But I think there is something important in the different prescriptions given by these men from different generations. For the most dramatic examples of racism – the lynchings, the housing discrimination, the Jim Crow laws – it would seem to make sense that ignoring race would have a massive and beneficial effect on the world. Once we are no longer overtly segregating people, holding them up for different treatment, we will see a marked reduction in the amount of hatred and violence, and move toward a more tolerant world.

The problem is, however, that ‘move toward’ doesn’t equal ‘arrive at’. And, somewhat paradoxically, the only way to move on from being blind to race is to explicitly notice race, and how policies and institutions can exhibit racist behaviours even in the absence of malicious intent:

Here is one way to think about this: You are black. You have gotten your college degree and a decent job. But your younger brother isn’t doing so well in school and needs some tutoring. And you’re worried about your grandmother because her neighborhood isn’t safe. And your homeboy, whom you were raised with, just finished a bid for intent to distribute. And your homegirl had a kid when she was 15, but the father is out.

You have made it out of a poor community, but your network is rooted there and shows all the markers of exposure to poverty. Because of a history of American racism, your exposure will be higher than white people of your same income level. Perhaps you would like to build another network. That network, because of a history of racism, will likely be with other black people — black people who, like you, are part of a network that, on average, shows greater exposure to poverty. Meanwhile, white people are building other networks that are significantly less compromised by exposure to poverty.

This is how segregation compromises the power of black community. It takes a societal ill — say a lack of insurance — and then concentrates it one community.

Ignoring race doesn’t solve problems like those inherent in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the very problems under discussion are those created by a policy that doesn’t allow for the consideration of how race plays a disproportionate role. If we forcibly shackle our vision to exclude race, out of a perhaps well-meaning but ultimately disastrous impulse, we make ourselves unable to see when problems do actually fall along racial lines.

The issue with colour “blindness” is that it is always accompanied by two handmaidens: colour “deafness” and colour “dumbness”. We become colour “deaf” when our commitment to ignoring race makes us unable to hear the legitimate grievances and problems of communities of colour. If we cannot (or will not) hear about race problems in favour of demanding that we ignore race, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to tailor our policy approaches to the people with the greatest need (or at least different needs than the majority). Further, by maintaining a ‘unseen, unheard’ policy, we make ourselves unable to even talk about race. After all, talking about it is noticing it, and noticing it is the problem. And so we become, by our own actions, unable to see, hear, or speak about racial problems.

This is, to be clear, a different argument from the separate-but-equal point that you cannot will yourself to be ‘non-racist’. Racism is part of the air we breathe, and to suggest that we can, through sheer force of will, simply “not see race” is self-delusional**. There are people who commit racist acts who simply do not allow themselves to see their own racism, but that’s it’s own animal. What I am referring to here is the popular idea that not being an overt, conscious, intentionally-bigoted person is sufficient to qualify as ‘not a racist’.

No, in this case we are asked to consider the harms inherent in the idea that problems that exist along racial lines are specifically caused by noticing the existence of racial groups. The argument would suggest that if black people simply stopped realizing they were black, this kind of segregation would not happen. Or, perhaps more charitably, if white people stopped seeing black people as “black people”, then racial problems would simply disappear.

What the above hypothetical shows is that inequalities that are divided along racial lines persist even in the absence of conscious bigotry. The people in that scenario aren’t the victims of colour-consciousness. They are doing the things people do: looking after their families, being members of their communities, participating in what networks they have available to them. The simple fact of already-extant inequalities between racial groups means that normal human behaviour exaggerates their impact. Put another way, the problem gets worse when you “don’t see race” – it doesn’t get better.

The answer, contrary to the oft-linked advice of Mr. Freeman, is to explicitly consider race. Not in a way that means that we consider people more/less deserving or able, but in a way that recognizes what the consequences and realities of racial inequalities are. They are inequalities in access. They are structural inequalities that do not require bigotry to manifest themselves. They are the consequence of a society that has, at various times throughout its history, had overt policies designed to create inequalities along racial lines.

When you apply a “one size fits all” approach to communities that have different lived experiences and challenges, you’ve set yourself up to fail. And you will fail repeatedly if you demand that you must use such an approach because that will, somehow, fix racism. It took intentional recognition of race to get us into the problem, and simply taking your foot of of the proverbial gas pedal doesn’t reverse the car’s motion.

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I guess some things haven’t changed…

**the title of the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece is “A Religion of Colourblind Policy” – self-delusion is not an accidental word choice on my part