Timothy Carney: Color-blindness as a prescription for social interaction is a mistake
Reasons Carney, writing in the Washington Examiner:
I think it’s pretty easy for a white person to (1) decide to treat black people equally, (2) assume he is treating black people equally, (3) if he witnesses no or very few acts of blatant racism decide that generally black people are treated equally, and then (4) conclude that the proper approach to race is total color-blindness.
Preaching color-blindness often implies a couple of things: (A) completely rejecting any type of affirmative action; and (B) wanting minorities to quit putting so much stake in their minority-ness. Both of these stances are mistaken, in my opinion, because the premises behind the doctrine of color-blindness are mistaken.
Folks who preach color-blindness, I think, often fall short on both introspection and empathy.
On introspection: It’s really hard to actually be colorblind with strangers. You can probably forget that your friend is black, hispanic, or Indian. But when a stranger, or a rough acquaintance enters the picture, race probably subconsciously enters your judgment of that person. If you decide a certain character on the subway is sketchy, it’s often for reasons you can’t fully articulate. Clothes, demeanor, grooming, posture all matter. And sure, you’ll be more wary of the leering tatted-out white dude than the black guy in a suit on his iPad. But skin color probably plays a role in your subconscious, even if it’s not always the deciding factor.
In other words, even when you’re trying to be color-blind, you’re probably not being color-blind. This shouldn’t be surprising. Man is a fallen creature.
And this leads us to the empathy issue. Black males grow up being eyed with suspicion more than white males do — whether because of subconscious racism, people profiling based on crime statistics, or overt racism, it happens. So, if you say to a black person, “stop acting as if your race matters,” you’re asking him to be color-blind in a society that isn’t.
Probably more important: even where no White Man is Keeping Them Down at the moment, African Americans still suffer from the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Black children are more likely to be born into poverty, and into a fatherless home, which makes it harder for them to get out of poverty, and more likely they will fall into crime — and maybe leave their own kid in fatherless poverty.
The average white person alive today may not bear any blame for this situation, but that’s why I’m invoking empathy here — just because it’s not your fault that a black kid started life with a disadvantage doesn’t mean you should pretend he didn’t start life at a disadvantage.
There is so much wrong here that I barely know where to start, but let me begin this way: to determine that the “premises behind colorblindness are mistaken,” one must first detail what those premises are, then explain why they are mistaken. For Carney, the empirical fact that we are able to see different skin colors, coupled with the fact that we’re aware of certain empirical facts about people of certain skin colors (when meshed with all the socioeconomic cues Carney details), makes it impossible for us to truly be colorblind — therefore, we should simply abandon the ruse.
This is very similar to arguments made by those who reject intentionalism: we can never be certain that we have reached the proper decoding of an author’s desired meaning, therefore we are permitted to ignore it altogether. But the fact is, the striving for colorblindness — as an ideal, and as it relates to the notions of equality, not to notions of sensory observation — is what we supposedly misguided champions of colorblindness are after: we recognize that there are people of different colors, and we are quite capable of recognizing the potential cultural or ethnic differences within various communities. None of which changes the fact that the goal is to treat these people all equally before the law, and to grant them the basic humanity explicit in the dictate that “all men are created equal.”
So premise one, the failure of proper introspection on the part of those who advocate for colorblindness, is a classic straw man argument. It misrepresents colorblindness by deploying the term literally and then treating the literal to an analysis that doesn’t jibe with the figurative meaning of the phrase as it is deployed by those who’ve adopted it.
Moreover, it is the very “empathy” that Carney believes (in premise two) those who champion colorblindness lack that, I would argue, is responsible for the continuation of a society that persists in using empathy as an excuse to avoid taking the necessary measures toward creating the colorblind ideal.
It is not empathetic to keep alive the same kernel assumptions about disadvantaged birth, a history of slavery and Jim Crow, etc., as excuses for the plight of many in the black community. Instead, it is self-indulgent, sanctimonious, historically obtuse, and dangerously enabling.
After nearly 50 years — and all sorts of Great Society programs, affirmative action programs, jobs training programs, etc., — all we’ve succeeded in doing is entrenching the idea of permanent victimology into various racial and ethnic groups who come to rely on that as part of their identity.
And that is much easier to do — on both ends, from the perspective of the cosmopolitan and empathetic racial “realist” and the perspective of those who have been treated as projects and pets by often well-meaning whites — than to begin to make the changes necessary to bring about the ideal as expressed in our founding documents and implicit in our notions about liberty, property, and opportunity.
The fact that “Black children are more likely to be born into poverty, and into a fatherless home, which makes it harder for them to get out of poverty, and more likely they will fall into crime” is hardly the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. Instead, it is the legacy of government intervention, paternalistic policy, manufactured and encouraged racial divisiveness, and, frankly, institutionalized cowardice to pursue the dream Martin Luther King Jr himself had, where people weren’t judged by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character.
King never said that people wouldn’t be noticed as having different color skin, nor should they be — and that’s not something those who adhere to a colorblind philosophy have ever demanded. Instead, the idea is that, because we are all of us unique individuals, skin color needn’t be determinative of anything — and that a truly diverse society is one where those kinds of differences are acknowledged and enjoyed, while the common identity of Americans as free individuals is the overarching ideal.
That we haven’t obtained it in any perfect platonic form doesn’t mean it is not a goal worth pursuing. And rather than continue to pretend the legacy of racism in the US is responsible for current racial inequality, where it exists, we’d be better served not taking the easy “empathetic” way out and instead do the hard work (as have, eg., the Thernstroms and others) of noting that it is instead a kind of sickening and undeserved enforcement of this notion we all be empathetic that is itself the problem — that the pose of empathy is in fact the very poison that keeps us from pursuing solutions that, one day, may evince an actual empathy, and ultimately keep the playing field permanently even.