My View II: Does Color-Blindness Offer a Barrier to Addressing Discrimination?



There is an interesting debate in society as to the best approach to solve racial tensions and discrimination. On the one hand is the notion that we should strive to be a colorblind society. This seems to derive from (I would argue, a misunderstanding of) Martin Luther King’s speech where he states, “I have a dream that my four little 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.”

However, as Adia Harvey Wingfield writes in this week’s Atlantic, sociologists are critical that colorblindness as an ideology is the means to remedy a history of racism.

Part of the problem, they argue, is that “the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination.”

On the other hand, Conor Friedersdorf argues in the same publication a week earlier that “the left’s attack on color-blindness goes too far.”

While I tend to agree with the view that colorblindness is a convenient filter allowing us to ignore present manifestations of discrimination as well as the institutionalization of unconscious forms of discrimination, I think Mr. Friedersdorft raises a lot of important points we should not ignore.

He writes, “When I was growing up in Republican Orange County during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, lots of white parents sat their kids in front of The Cosby Show, explained that black people are just like white people, and inveighed against judging anyone by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. The approach didn’t convey the full reality of race as minorities experience it. But it represented a significant generational improvement in race relations.”

Mr. Friedersdorf notes that the academic left had recast that approach as itself a form of “racial animus” where he writes, “colorblindness is considered a ‘micro-aggression’ at UCLA.”

This certainly represents a reasonable view of colorblindness – though not really how it is taught today. This is a point he recognizes well when he writes, “Having savaged that straw man, critics of colorblindness mostly don’t engage the more sophisticated version of the viewpoint: a recognition that race matters very much to the world as it presently exists, coupled with the beliefs that colorblindness is a goal that we ought to strive toward and that, all else being equal, race-neutral policies are preferable in a pluralistic country, even if various race-specific remedies are still necessary today.”

Mr. Friedersdoft adds, “Ensconced in campus bubbles, the academic left also underestimates how divisive it can be to put anything other than individualism at the center of identity.”

On the one hand, he notes, “A decade ago, when I lived at a liberal arts college, I’d have said that the worst flaw of the academic left’s approach to race was its tendency to mistreat blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who didn’t fit leftist stereotypes of ‘person of color.’”

Today, he writes, “I’m more concerned by the conceit, popularized on campus and spreading among activists, journalists, and diversity professionals, that racial justice is best pursued by encouraging white people to reflect on, interrogate, and identify more fully with their whiteness. This approach strikes me as naive and dangerous.”

His concern is, instead, that “the overall effect of encouraging white people to put whiteness rather than color-blindness or individualism at the center of their identity will be to swell and empower a faction in U.S. politics that Trump’s rise has helped to highlight.”

He cites evidence that white nationalists are a tiny but alarming part of the Donald Trump supporter base.

It is not that Donald Trump himself is a white nationalist, but rather that Mr. Trump reflects “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it.”

I think Mr. Friedersdorf probably stretches this point too far. He writes, “Even the most naive iteration of colorblindness looks damned good next to the subset of people who’ve interrogated their whiteness and then embraced white supremacy or separatism. The academic left casts all proponents of color-blindness as naive. Perhaps they’re correct that the ideal of colorblindness alone will never bring about an America where anti-black racism is no more prevalent than anti-Irish racism is today. But isn’t it more naive to imagine that masses of white people will identify more strongly with their racial tribe and then sacrifice the interests of that tribe?”

In responding to Mr. Friedersdorf, Adia Harvey Wingfield cites the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva who “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.”

She writes that the book by Bonilla-Silva, 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.”

Ms. Wingfield writes, “Friedersdorf also contends that they waste time picking apart this concept rather than addressing ‘macroagressions’ like police brutality and growing expressions of virulent racist hatred.  But Bonilla-Silva, among others, describes the ways that colorblindness sustains these very macroaggressions that Friedersdorf thinks are ignored.”

She adds, “In other words, Friedersdorf suggests the academic left wastes time dissecting the concept of colorblindness, and would be better served focusing on more pressing, systemic processes of inequality. But a careful read of sociological literature in this area finds that there are more than a few members of the ‘academic left’ who argue that colorblindness is problematic precisely because it offers a way to avoid addressing these exact social problems.”

That is my fundamental problem as well. Colorblindness is something to strive toward, but it easily becomes a way of avoiding addressing the underlying social problems.

The problem we have is that we are not now a colorblind society, so just as proclaiming “all lives matter” creates a way to avoid addressing the inequity with regard to the “black lives” experience, colorblindness creates a way to avoid noticing that there is still a huge divide between blacks and whites across the board.

This inequality at its core is a problem more in line with institutionalized discrimination and unconscious bias than overt racism.

As Ms. Wingfield notes, “For the first half of the 20th century, it was perfectly legal to deny blacks (and other racial minorities) access to housing, jobs, voting, and other rights based explicitly on race. Civil-rights reforms rendered these practices illegal. Laws now bar practices that previously maintained racial inequality, like redlining, segregation, or openly refusing to rent or sell real estate to black Americans.”

However, she argues, “Yet discrimination still persists, operating through a combination of social, economic, and institutional practices.”

She continues, saying that “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.”

In the end, while I think Conor Friedersdorf makes important points, I agree with Ms. Wingfield that colorblindness in a society that is not colorblind is like an ostrich burying its head in the sand to avoid danger.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “My View II: Does Color-Blindness Offer a Barrier to Addressing Discrimination?”

  1. Frankly

    However, as Adia Harvey Wingfield writes in this week’s Atlantic, sociologists are critical that colorblindness as an ideology is the means to remedy a history of racism.

    This is so telling coming from a publication infested with leftist ideology… and a membership in the lazy journalist and greedy media collective that perpetuates and exploits race wars to generate copy for sale.

    Colorblindness is not an ideology, it was the end goal of Martin Luther King.  It is the manifestation of the end of need for the civil rights activist because civil rights are accomplished.  It is what should be.

    I am a Carly Fiorina fan and have been from her days running against the hard-left Senator Barbara Boxer our hard-left state.  I also like Ben Carson.

    But I have to dig deep about the appeal of these two.  Am I attracted to their ideas and qualifications only, or is it something else?

    It might be something else.  And it still might be okay that it is something else.

    The something else is connected to the fact that conservatives, as a group and including me, are sick and tired of the Democrats and their liberal media puppets replaying their dishonest claims of racism and gender bias. The truth is that conservatives as a group are really only biased against victim mentality: the people that wallow in it and the people that attempt to exploit it for power and theft.

    Carly isn’t a woman running for president. She’s a presidential contender who happens to be a woman.

    Ben isn’t a black running for president. He is a presidential contender who happens to be a black.

    Conservatives should not discount the added GOP attraction to women and minority candidates that reject victim mentality… because they offer something profound in the opportunity to once and for all destroy the Democrat machine of destruction that perpetuates and exploits a mindset of victim.  This change will represent the end game of our civil rights march.  I will be civil rights 2.0.  It will be the beginning of the end of material racial conflict.  And Democrats and the lazy left media will have to work harder to finally find something meaningful to sell the public.

  2. MrsW

    I haven’t read any academic literature on this subject.  However, when I think about this subject to myself, I use a term “culture-blindness”to describe the ideology I think you are describing.  I define culture-blindness as the purposeful ignoring of another’s story–the story that forms their assumptions about the world–their religion, economic status, ethnicity, size of their family, and so forth.  It goes multiple-ways.  One behavior most folks have witnessed, is the tourist who offends their host(s) because they haven’t made the effort to learn local customs (when in Rome).  Another, is the host who just expects tourists to “know” their customs, without having taught them.

    I did graduate work in the South  and was particularly struck by this dynamic in our Biology department.  Most General Biology graduate teaching assistants were from the North and the curriculum included evolution.  We had undergraduate students who were raised to believe they’d go to Hell, if they talked about, let alone studied, evolution.  This was a very real conflict for all parties involved.  Should the curriculum make evolution optional? Should students be given zero’s for the evolution unit, significantly affecting their grade? What if one of the consequences of insisting that students be tested on evolution, is that the student dropped out of college all together?

      1. wdf1

        Having taught Earth science classes before, I finessed the issue of Darwinian evolution and the age of Earth being 4.6 billion years by prefacing test/homework questions with “most geoscientists generally agree that…”  Then it didn’t become an issue of declaring their own beliefs in conflict with what the science curriculum required.

        1. MrsW

          Several of our profs and TAs handled the situation, as you did (which I think is the appropriate response), though some students still couldn’t handle it.  Other profs and TA had the perspective that it was the students’ job to adapt, not theirs. The curriculum is the curriculum.

    1. Tia Will


       I define culture-blindness as the purposeful ignoring of another’s story–the story that forms their assumptions about the world–their religion, economic status, ethnicity, size of their family, and so forth. “

      I think that you have very succinctly described a distinction that is not being fully considered in these Vanguard discussions. That is the critical difference between “color blindness” which is something that humans may claim that we exhibit, but which I believe is virtually impossible to achieve since it is one of instantaneous ( subconscious) recognitions that we make when encountering another human being and “cultural blindness” which I believe it would be possible to overcome through attempts at mutual understanding. Racial or cultural difference recognition does not necessarily lead to differential treatment. That is an outcome that we must work continuously to achieve.

      The bigger issue as I see it is confusion of aspiration with present success. Yes, it is wonderful that in the United States we aspire to a society that is free of prejudice and discrimination. It would be even more wonderful if both sides of the ideologic/ political spectrum would be honest about the fact that we have not yet achieved that state and manifest a willingness to work together to achieve that goal.

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    I was wondering if David was feeling OK, he hadn’t written on racism in 3 or 4 days.

    Dr. Ben Carson recently went to Ferguson and said “We need to de-emphasize race, and increase mutual respect.”

    Nevertheless, the Left is playing the dog whistle of racism now over Ahmad the clock maker. Fact is, all kinds of white kids get kicked out of school for similarly odd reasons.

    So our President calls Ahmad, but doesn’t call the family of Kate, who’s daughter was killed in cold blood by a repeat felon? Quite telling.

  4. TrueBlueDevil

    I don’t even buy the article / premise to your whole construct.

    I see color, I can see dozens of facts about a person in an instant… height, weight, smile, demeanor, friendliness, accent, hair color, braces (or not), I know few people who want to be “colorblind”.

    Second, I see little proof of widespread discrimination. See Obama, see Dr. Ben Carson, see that a black married couple compares quite favorably to a white married couple.

    BTW David, can you name another white majority country that has elected a black president or PM? In fact, we elected a man with a thin resume and few accomplishments of note, further proof that a lot of Americans wanted to go above and beyond to prove that we are a meritocracy. So they elected a man who can give a good speech and make promises that were impossible to keep (also known as lies).

    BTW II, you do know that a small but important fringe group – the Black Panther Party – has supported the president, as well as communist groups? (See your Trump comments.)

  5. TrueBlueDevil


    – I have not heard the “debate” you reference to open your article. I have heard many Americans say that they feel that Obama has made race relations worse. I think Dr. Ben Carson has also made this observation.

    – I think Trump comes of more as a populist, and proud of America. He noted the large amount of crime committed by illegal immigrants, took a ton of heat, then the Kate murder hit us, and the media started to pay at least a tiny bit of attention to illegal immigrant crime. While the government and liberals have done a fantastic job of hiding the facts from us, people intuitively know and see the MS13, Norteno, and Soreno gang bangers in their cities. They also see Americans being displaced from their livelihoods.

    – If black men married black women, a large chunk of any perceived “housing discrimination” would disappear.

    – “growing expressions of virulent racist hatred” – can you give us some concrete examples?

    – I have read that we have a huge problem where Latinos are targeting African Americans in South Central with threats and graffiti and beatings that “this is our home now”. But I think you wanted to ignore this kind of racism, right?


  6. Tia Will


     “I see little proof of widespread discrimination”

    This may be a product of where you are choosing to look. I agree that here in Davis we see little evidence of widespread discrimination. Depending on which newspapers and programs one follows, one may also see little evidence of discrimination. What I would recommend is to start with a listing of groups devoted to racial discrimination ( some of which have originated within the past 5-10 years and/or are increasing in numbers as listed for many countries including the US on Wikipedia.

    I would then recommend visiting the web sites of these organizations themselves rather than accepting the listing of Wikipedia, or any other information gathering or reporting service to see what they are actually promoting in our society.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      I read pretty widely. What I often read are accounts like baby face choir boy Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot by the evil white police officer. Then the story crumbles upon examination.

      There are individual cases of discrimination, but I rarely see any kind of widespread racial discrimination. What I see are liberals trying to use it as some kind of wedge issue.

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