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Warren J. Blumenfeld

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"Color Blindness" Is Denial

Posted: 03/22/2012 12:42 pm

With the ascendency of Barack Obama during the primaries and his election as the 44th president of the United States in 2008 and to the current time, the media have, on numerous occasions, asserted that the United States can now be considered as a "post-racial" society, where the notion that "race" has lost its significance, and where our country's long history of racism is now at an end.

For example, on All Things Considered, National Public Radio senior news analyst Daniel Schorr, during the presidential primaries on Jan. 28, 2008, noted that with the emergence of Barack Obama, we have entered a new "'post-racial' political era," and that support of Obama "transcends race" and is "race-free."

And MSNBC political analyst Chris Matthews, responding to Obama's State of the Union message on Jan. 27, 2010, said: "He is post-racial by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about."

These commentators and others imply a number of claims in their statements: The first that we have become a "race-blind," or "color-blind," society -- that race has become unimportant, that we don't see race anymore. The second implication states that racism (i.e., prejudice along with social power to enact oppression by white people over people of color) is a thing of the past.

Is the United States now a "color-blind" society? Or even more importantly, should the United States be a "color-blind/race-blind" society? I find the very notion of "race-blindness" to be deeply problematic.

Although it may seem like a righteous statement when we tell another, "I don't see your race; I just see you as a human being," what are we really telling the person? And how may this come across -- "I discount a part of you that I may not want to address," and "I will not see you in your multiple identities"? This has the tendency of erasing the person's background and historical legacy, and it hides the continuing hierarchical and systemic positionalities among white people and racially minoritized people.

In addition, the assertion that we have fully addressed and finally concluded the long history of racism in the United States with the election of Barack Obama is simply unfounded.

Anti-racism consultant Valerie Batts discusses what she terms "new forms of racism." While the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954), the Civil Right Act (1964) and other judicial and legislative actions have criminalized a number of past realities (for example, slavery; "Jim Crow" laws; lynchings; cross burnings; segregated educational, employment, business and governmental institutions), many forms of racism continue.

While some of these conditions certainly remain today on a de facto basis, Batts lists these "new forms" of racism as: "dysfunctional rescuing" where white people "'help' people of color" in a condescending and patronizing way, believing they can't help themselves; "blaming the victims" of systematic oppression for the oppression itself; "avoidance of contact," when white people self-segregate in their personal and professional lives from people of color and show little interest in learning about the cultures of communities of color; "denial of cultural differences," the notion of "color blindness," which minimizes the cultural and behavioral difference among people, which simply mask discomfort with racialized differences; and "denial of political significance of differences," in which white people deny the profound impact regarding the social, political and economic realities of the lives of people of color.

I add to the list of conditions that perpetuate systemic racism the concept of stereotyping. A stereotype is an oversimplified or misinformed perception, opinion, attitude, judgment or image of a person or a group of people held in common by members of other groups. Originally referring to the process of making type from a metal mold in printing, social stereotypes can be viewed as molds of regular and invariable patterns of evaluation on others.

With stereotypes, people tend to overlook all other characteristics of the group. Stereotypes of out-group members by in-group members depersonalize them, in effect seeing them largely as members of a group and not as individuals with unique and distinctive qualities and attributes. This often results in the tendency to diminish the humanity of out-group members relegating them to the category of "other," and as "different."

Individuals sometime use stereotypes to justify continued marginalization and subjugation of members of that group. In this sense, stereotypes conform to the literal meaning of the word "prejudice," which is a prejudgment, derived from the Latin praejudicium.

This is the case, for example, in actions explicitly intended as a mockery of Black History Month, when a number of institutions around the country a few years ago -- and most recently when a group of students at the University of California at San Diego -- threw off-campus "ghetto-themed parties." Attendees were advised to come wearing chains and cheap clothing and to speak very loudly; female students were urged to come as "ghetto chicks."

More recently, during the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament game between Kansas State University and Southern Mississippi, a number of Mississippi students taunted Kansas player Angel Rodriguez with mocking chants of: "Your green card! Where's your green card!" -- an obvious racial epithet against a Latino player from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

And now we hear of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida by a neighborhood watch leader on February 26. Martin was simply walking on the sidewalk talking on a cell phone to his girlfriend and carrying a can of ice tea and a small bag of Skittles when George Zimmerman confronted and shot him, and then claimed self-defense. Martin's crime: walking while being black in a predominantly white gated community while visiting family and friends.

We must not and cannot dismiss these incidents as simply the actions of a few individuals, for racism and other forms of oppression exist on multiple levels. These incidents are symptoms of larger systemic national problems.

In their book Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Brown et al), the authors show how the concept of "color-blindness/race-blindness" attempts to deny and further entrench hierarchical and deeply rooted systemic racial inequities and privileges accorded to white people that permeate throughout our society.

We must, as a society, get beyond this false and counterproductive notion of "color-blindness/race-blindness" and confront our past history head-on and current realities of racism and transcend, to use anthropologist Mica Pollock's term, "colormuteness" by engaging in honest and open conversations on the impact and legacy of race and racism in our country.