Concurrently, it is no longer socially acceptable in many quarters to identify oneself as racist. Instead, many Americans purport not to see color. However, their colorblindness comes at a cost. By claiming that they do not see race, they also can avert their eyes from the ways in which well-meaning people engage in practices that reproduce neighborhood and school segregation, rely on “soft skills” in ways that disadvantage racial minorities in the job market, and hoard opportunities in ways that reserve access to better jobs for white peers.
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently argued that the academic left errs in attacking colorblindness. He suggested that encouraging whites to be color conscious and to think of themselves in racial terms would encourage the nativism embraced by some Donald Trump supporters—that a heightened awareness of whiteness would produce a sense of persecution, and encourage some to rally in defense of white rights. He contends that there is some merit to colorblindness that has been ignored by what he describes as “the academic left,” which spends too much time focused on nitpicking colorblindness rather than drawing attention to “macroaggressions” such as “racially tinged hatred and conspiracy theories directed at the first black president” or the convenience of labeling Mexican immigrants rapists “despite the fact that first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans.”
As a presumptive member of the “academic left” that Friedersdorf critiques, I read the post with particular interest. I think that Friedersdorf makes some important points worth more detailed attention from both academics and those outside the academy who are familiar with the debates and concepts he references. For instance, academic debates can often become divorced from broader audiences. It is way too easy for academics in many fields to ground their conversations, disputes, and discussions among other like-minded scholars. He’s right to note that, by and large, academics can do a much better job engaging with folks outside of our ivory towers.
However, there are some misrepresentations in Fridersdorf’s piece as well. Based on a single statement from one book chapter in an edited volume, Friedersdorf makes the sweeping generalization that “the academic left casts all proponents of colorblindness as naïve.” I’ve read books and articles by numerous sociologists who critique the colorblind ideology, and while they find problems with the ways this perspective allows individuals to ignore patterns of racial bias, I’ve never seen any studies that broadly categorize advocates of colorblindness in this way. What’s more important to sociologists are the consequences of how this ideology has implications for social inequality.
My colleague Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, for example, has written extensively about the idea of colorblindness, charting the ways that it functions as an ideology that legitimizes specific practices that maintain racial inequalities—police brutality, housing discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and others. His book Racism Without Racists is part of a broad set of sociological research that draws attention to the ways that colorblind ideology undergirds bigger, more problematic social issues.