Is Colorblindness Really the Answer?

A Millennial Take on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

"Some people question if we really get it -- the struggle, what the march really meant." It was an admission I had not expected from one of my peers. It made me question what the anniversary of the March on Washington really means to me, what it means for our generation of millennials.

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his infamous "I Have a Dream" speech. My peers and I grew up with that speech. We read about it in our history books, we watched sound bites and clips of it in social studies class. But the march does not belong to us in the same way it does, for instance, to those who were a part of it, who helped organize, who lived through the racism and the injustices of the civil rights era. More often than not, we find ourselves instead on the receiving end of their efforts.

For this, the pundits and the media often call us the colorblind generation.

It's a characterization that puzzles me, a definition that seems all too easily contrived. Not a single person that I've met who is my age buys this. We are perhaps colorful -- together making up a generation that in just 10 years will see minorities comprise more than half of our children. And yes, polling done by such research institutions as Pew Research Center, assert that we are more likely to have friends of a different race and to approve of interracial dating. But colorblind we surely are not.

A glance at social media, at our generation's response to the Zimmerman trial and the fatal shooting of Christopher Lane in Oklahoma or to the Supreme Court's recent rulings on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and affirmative action would seem proof enough of this. Indeed a study done in 2011 in Los Angeles with a focus group of millennials sought to debunk the "post-racial myth," coming instead to the conclusion that for this generation, the majority of us still do believe that race matters.

So why, I ask you, do they call us colorblind? This erroneous characterization is not just frustrating to me because it represents a clear failure to understand our generation but also because it keeps us from having an honest conversation about racism in our society where it does persist. And even worse, it confuses the kind of progress we ought to be working toward.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, there is indeed a case for progress. Racism is no longer overt in our law. But that does not mean it does not infiltrate our society -- in lyrics, in art, in the way we talk about race. In many ways racism has gone from being explicit in our laws to implicit in our culture. A college student put it to me this way: "It almost seems a greater offense to call someone a racist than to actually be a racist. It's a good thing that we've shamed the idea of being a racist but we have to realize this has also limited our capacity to call it [racism] out and fix it."

But the harder reality for me to swallow is what colorblindness implies. If we are to be blind to color are we to be blind also to the problems -- to the fact that there is an achievement gap, that there are problems in our educational system, that there is an earning gap between whites and blacks in our country? Because the reality is more African Americans are incarcerated, fewer finish higher education (although surely there have been gains in this arena), and still compared to their white counterparts, fewer own homes and there still persists an income gap. These socioeconomic differences matter. They are not just statistical outcomes but too indicators of a larger, more elusive gap -- a gap in opportunity.

Likewise, the suggestion that a colorblind society is what we should be striving toward is problematic to me. Indeed, the Pew Research Center implied as much when it lamented in a recent study measuring progress since the 1963 march that: "Blacks are much more downbeat than whites about the pace of progress toward a color-blind society."

But is a colorblind society what this generation should really be striving toward? In many ways, I don't think my generation even views colorblindness as a means -- much less an end -- to progress. In a generation defined by the Internet and social media, where everyone seemingly has a profile, the individual matters just as much as the group he belongs to. Progress for this generation is less rooted in blindness to individuality -- race, color, ethnicity, religious beliefs -- than in acceptance of it.

Fifty years later, our generation does get it. When Dr. King stood up at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a speech that would be ingrained into the conscience of this nation, he laid out a vision for a country with opportunity for all. He did not ask us to be colorblind but instead to look beyond color and to judge others instead based on the "content of their character." But to do so does not ask us to be dismissive of color. Therein lies the difference.

Our job, our progress, is working towards a country that rises to recognize race and see beyond it to a society that, in Dr. King's words, "refuse[s] to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation."