Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

Color Blindness Should Be the Norm

Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)
Not every idea deserves equal consideration

To defend America in these culturally turbulent times, conservatives must jettison an intellectual assumption popularized by the 19th-century British thinker John Stuart Mill. The assumption is that truth will emerge if competing ideas are equally entertained in the public square. Otherwise, according to Mill, we would be robbing the human race, if these ideas are right, of the chance to exchange error for truth, and, if they are wrong, of the chance to see more clearly because of the “collision with error.” Mill was committed to the belief that human progress is inevitable.

As a matter of fact, the inevitable triumph of good ideas or truth is not guaranteed, and certain ideas should not be allowed to gain a foothold in the public square at all. Among those who understand that ideas have consequences, conservatives in particular should be aware of the moral hazard of legitimizing certain ideas by thinking they can be defeated solely by open and rational discussion. One such idea that conservatives failed to challenge and debunk before it took root (in the early 2000s) in influential sectors and institutions of American society is the idea of anti–color blindness. Proponents of anti-color-blind pedagogy believe that the best way to navigate cultural differences in the United States is to openly discuss and highlight racial and ethnic differences. Highlighting differences of race, they argue, makes explicit the structural nature of white economic and social power, and how it is perpetuated at the expense of black Americans and other people of color. Any attempt to downplay ethnic and racial differences, or “homogenize” communities of color by offering platitudes about a supposed “American identity,” is seen as a pernicious form of color-blind racism.

Contemporary American conservatives failed to see just how corrosive and revolutionary the anti-color-blind pedagogy is. They took it for granted that the idea of color blindness was a bedrock notion that stood very little chance of being displaced. Legal precedent seemed to confirm conservatives’ complacency. The legal fight against those who opposed the idea that all people are equal before the law was difficult and bloody, but the fight was believed to be just and on the right side of history. In the 1850s, the Frederick Douglass wing of the abolitionist movement made the case for a color-blind reading of America’s founding documents. That reading led to a split with Garrisonian abolitionists, who agreed with Chief Justice Roger Taney’s pro-slavery interpretation of the Constitution. Most important, it was Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” and its attendant Civil War amendments that laid the conceptual groundwork for a color-blind interpretation of the founding documents. In 1896, Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson eloquently explained the relationship between color blindness and the Constitution of the United States:

But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.

Nearly five decades later, the civil-rights movement was effective because it sought equal, color-blind protection before the law, ensuring that black Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech are powerful indictments of segregation and its anti-color-blind position precisely because they appeal to the same founding American documents and Western philosophical texts that were also used erroneously to support segregation.

Given this historical effort in getting America to live up to its color-blind principles, one would think that any attempt to divide Americans along racial and ethnic lines for the sake of fomenting racial grievances would face stiff resistance. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The industry that undermines the idea of color blindness the most today is the diversity-training industry and the many experts it employs to further its goals. The ease with which diversity training has gained wide institutional support, both on campus and off, has been mind-boggling. The sad fact is, diversity experts have been very successful at promoting racial and ethnic consciousness among their clients.

Diversity training is an outgrowth of anti-color-blind pedagogy. It is intended to make white people aware of their unconscious racism towards people of color and lead them to accept that structural racism against blacks specifically is what accounts for the social disparities that afflict these communities. The training also tries to make an emotional impact on whites in order to encourage them to think sympathetically about the hard life experiences that communities of color face on a daily basis. The true intention of current diversity training in academic and corporate settings is not to offer a genuine understanding of the “lived experiences” of minorities, and blacks in particular. In many cases it is designed to promote intimidation and psychological control over concerned, but racially passive, white Americans.

There is a self-reflective component to diversity training as well. It requires that white Americans see how the lives they live actually work against all people of color in every way possible. For example, if a white person goes to college, gets a degree and a job, and then buys a home in an up-and-coming, affordable neighborhood, he is unwittingly contributing to systemic racism by pushing out people of color who rent in the neighborhood. As this thinking goes, the white person is racist for contributing to gentrification. When the focus on racism is as vague as “systemic racism” is, it is doubtful that the mandate of the diversity-training experts will ever be achieved. This lack of achievement is good for the experts because it keeps them employed, but bad for society because it stokes racial consciousness and, thus, resentment.

The virtue of color blindness is that it complements individual responsibility. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the transformative power of personal responsibility. His successful efforts in fighting racism during the civil-rights movement led to changes in the American political system by extending equal access to all Americans, but especially to black Americans and those who had been marginalized historically. To turn away from these changes is to undermine the integrity of individual choices and personal agency by simply judging others on the basis of their skin color.

For far too long, American conservatives have been too willing to give a fair hearing to points of view and ideas that are contrary to core American beliefs. In a heterogeneous society such as America, very few ideas or points of view have been as destructive as the anti-color-blind pedagogy. To highlight the racial and ethnic differences among Americans is to devalue the unifying elements that have traditionally defined the American identity. The color-blind approach is more integrative than self-regarding identities based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, and more effective at promoting a sense of American identity. The homogenizing role that faith, family, and tradition have played and continue to play in the evolution of the country, both politically and culturally, should be promoted by conservatives.

Black Americans would especially benefit from this homogenizing effort. As one of the oldest minority groups in America, the black community has already debated the merits of color blindness versus anti-color-blind pedagogy in the fight for racial equality. Unfortunately, given the history of blacks in America, it is difficult for some in the community to see that real racial advancement has steadily come through color-blind policies, not through the intimidation of white people.

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Andre M. Archie — Mr. Archie is an associate professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Colorado State University and the author of Politics in Socrates’ Alcibiades: A Philosophical Account of Plato’s Dialogue Alcibiades Major.

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