Written by Foghorn Staff
Professor Anthony Fels, in his Foghorn opinion piece “Letter: Be Proud of Being Colorblind” argues that pride, rather than white guilt, should be the basis for relationships in a racially integrated world. We respond that being proud of one’s accomplishments and being proud of the civil rights movements’ accomplishments are not enough to forge the path to racial justice. We agree that a “common effort by all to remove the economic and educational impediments to equal opportunity” is necessary. We would add that along with an integrationist vision, we need an awareness of how America’s racial past continues today. If we don’t take time to understand the particular racial realities of this present moment, but assume “the racial divides of America’s past are no longer powerful,” we commit a grave injustice because structural oppression goes unnoticed.
For example, legal punishment for crack is 100 times worse than it is for its powder form, cocaine. 93% of those punished for crack are black, while those punished for cocaine are predominantly white. Unconscious racism, such as the internalized fear of young black men, informs legal discrimination, and appears at a heightened rate in the War on Drugs (Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”).
In education, a color-blind attitude leads to a dangerous ethics of individualism and choice, where disparities are seen as character faults of the individual, not as embedded in racist institutions. 43% of Latinos and 38% of blacks attend “intensely segregated schools,” where only 10% of their peers are white (U.S. Department of Education). In a survey about school desegregation, 44% of respondents said they regarded blacks as lazy and 63% of those respondents did not favor welfare reforms, part of which would include school desegregation. (Colorblind Justice and Desegregation). To impose the myth of equal opportunity leads to the unwillingness to desegregate schools, which results in a lack of equal educational quality across racial lines — an injustice which was supposed to have been resolved in Brown v. Board and the civil rights era.
A color-blind attitude neglects implicit biases, where individual agents concretely and significantly reinforce structural racism. A U.S. federal housing audit revealed that “Black and Hispanic renters and homebuyers experience discrimination in most if not all aspects of their interactions with real estate agents” (Housing Policy in The United States), and that this discrimination occurs at numerous levels of the house-buying process, and can result in serious consequences, such as lower property values and lower quality schools.
Fels argues that “what does divide people” is wealth. He does not see wealth disparities as racialized, which is why he asserts that “racial advantages in themselves are practically nonexistent,” and that “racism is practically dead.” The historical legacy of race relations in the U.S. mediated wealth disparity through slavery and Jim Crow laws. Wealth disparities along racial lines exist without explicitly racist institutions because structural racism does not require individual agents to perpetuate racism, but is entrenched in societal institutions.
Color-blinders narrow our scope to overt racism but neglects systematic racism that continues today. Acknowledging race as an active and meaningful category means we can be more receptive to conversations on race and equality.