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A couple of years ago, I would have told you that I was colorblind. I didn’t look at the color of people’s skin, I looked at who they are inside. This seemed like a solid approach. After all, the media seems to uphold colorblindness as the ideal racial perspective. Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his most famous speech ever, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” [See note at bottom.] Stop seeing color, and we will stop judging by color. Right?
At the time, I only had one close friend who was a person of color. I don’t remember this friend ever objecting to my perspective, so I assumed that it was valid. As I built relationships with more people of color, I naturally began to have more conversations about race. Primarily assuming a listening role in the conversations, I increasingly heard criticism of colorblindness, especially from those active in the work of racial reconciliation and justice. The crux of the criticism, as I understood it, was that refusing to see race is to deny seeing a facet of a person’s identity. Furthermore, they said that “not seeing color” usually means “seeing everyone as white.”
In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander said this:
A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and the constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like. The same group of respondents also perceived the typical drug trafficker as black.
She points out that white people are more likely to use, abuse and deal illegal drugs. In fact, young white males are more likely than any other demographic to violate drug laws. Statistically speaking, the face of a drug dealer is that of a young, white male. Despite this and for a myriad of other reasons, the face of a drug dealer that is ingrained in our national psyche is that of a young black male.
This is troubling in and of itself. It demonstrates that—however colorblind our conscious though processes may be—racism is still deeply ingrained in our national subconscious. However, more frightening is the way that this subconscious discrimination manifests itself—with devastating effects on the African American community. Our justice system discriminates against people of color from their point of entry through to sentencing, growing exponentially more egregious with each step.
A study sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department and several of the nation’s leading foundations, published in 2007, found that the impact of the biased treatment is magnified with each additional step into the criminal justice system. African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.
Colorblindness does not permit race to enter the conversation. Yet, clearly, race is still a substantial issue in the United States. As much as it would soothe all of our consciences to believe that we have moved out of slavery into Jim Crow and out of Jim Crow into a post-racial society, the facts belie these possibilities. Yet the media has so championed the cause of colorblindness, that speaking of race has become somewhat taboo.
I believe race must be reintroduced into the conversation, though it may be unpopular and uncomfortable to talk about. This introduction must be done with extreme sensitivity and with a willingness to forgive honest mistakes, for there will be many. However, we can no longer afford to pretend that it does not exist. Acknowledging race is necessary if we want to address the inequalities that are associated with it. Subconscious biases must become consciously acknowledged if they are ever to be eradicated.
King said that he did not want his children judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Today our own subconscious still discriminates according to the color of people’s skin. Does the content of our character possess the courage to reject colorblindness and bring race back into the conversation?
[Note: I am not suggesting that Dr. King was arguing that our nation should embrace colorblindness. I mentioned that quote because I used to interpret it as an avocation for colorblindness. I now believe that my original interpretation was incomplete. Furthermore, I believe that Dr. King would have strongly object to my interpretation—especially in today’s context.]