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Color blindness remains the best form of antiracism

Of course we all see race. But it’s a bad basis for determining how to treat people or craft public policy.

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We all see race. We can’t help it. What’s more, race can influence how we’re treated and how we treat others. We are all capable of racial bias. In that sense, no one is truly color-blind. Even people who are literally color-blind — because their eyes lack the right cone cells — still effortlessly distinguish between people of different races.

But to interpret the term “color-blind” too literally is to misunderstand the philosophy of color blindness that I seek to defend. Rather, “color-blind” is an expression like “warmhearted”: It uses a physical metaphor to reference an abstract idea. To describe a person as warmhearted is not to say something about the temperature of their heart but about the kindness of their spirit. Similarly, to advocate color blindness is not to pretend you don’t notice race. To advocate color blindness is to endorse an ethical principle: that we should treat people without regard to race, both in our public policy and in our private lives.

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Confusion surrounding the color-blind principle is partly the fault of its advocates. Often, for instance, they say things like “I don’t see color” as a way of expressing their commitment to color blindness. But statements like that are virtually guaranteed to produce confusion. Defenders of color blindness would do themselves a favor by eliminating phrases like “I don’t see color” from their vocabularies and instead saying things like “I try to treat people without regard to race.”

There is what I am calling a modern neoracist movement, which defines itself in opposition to the color-blind principle. Here, for instance, is an example of racial stereotyping from a neoracist, the author Robin DiAngelo:

“I strive to be ‘less white.’ To be less white is to be less racially oppressive. This requires me to be more racially aware, to be better educated about racism, and to continually challenge racial certitude and arrogance. To be less white is to be open to, interested in, and compassionate toward the racial realities of people of color.”

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DiAngelo’s statements use a racial stereotype. She implies that being white is tantamount to being arrogant and ignorant about race, to feeling guilty and defensive about it, to being closed-minded, uninterested in and uncompassionate toward the struggles of non-white people, and to engaging in racist patterns of social interaction.

DiAngelo doesn’t describe particular individuals. She doesn’t accuse Fred of acting defensively or Ginger of believing she can’t be friends with Black people. DiAngelo instead describes a general category — whiteness — that encompasses a range of characteristic beliefs, actions, and attitudes. That’s exactly what a stereotype is. It’s what psychologists call a “heuristic” — a mental shortcut allowing the user to make sweeping judgments about entire groups of individuals.

The problem with racial stereotypes is not that they’re never true. In fact, stereotypes often do reflect truths about average differences between groups of people. This is why racial humor so often rings true, even to the group being caricatured. The real problem with stereotypes is that they reduce unique individuals to the average characteristics of their group, provoking justified anger and resentment. I view the anger experienced in these moments as akin to road rage: counterproductive, perhaps, but totally understandable. Being stereotyped can feel like being accused of a crime that you know you didn’t commit.

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This essay is an excerpt from Coleman Hughes's new book, "The End of Race Politics," which will be released on Tuesday.Penguin Random House

What’s true of DiAngelo is true of other neoracists. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, has claimed that Kanye West is a champion of “white freedom,” which he describes as follows:

“Freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun . . . a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers . . . ; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.”

Neoracists have even built political support into the concept of race. Back when he was campaigning in 2020, President Joe Biden said, “If you have a problem deciding whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”

What’s so insidious about the new form of racism that’s emerged in American society is that it invokes the names of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass while betraying their deepest convictions. It’s like a company that keeps the same label on the packaging while completely changing the product inside.

Neoracism insists that sharp racial classifications are a necessary part of a just society. But they don’t use these categories as mere descriptors. They use terms like “Blackness” and “whiteness” to encompass far more than descriptions of skin color and ancestry. They use those terms to encompass all kinds of stereotypes — stereotypes about thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, habits, and character.

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The civil rights movement fought against all kinds of racial stereotyping. It fought against any kind of race thinking that discouraged us from seeing other people as individual human beings — any kind of thinking that encouraged us to see people instead as undifferentiated representatives of a collective mass: the white, the Black.

Civil rights leaders saw race thinking as dehumanizing — a way of seeing people that opposed our common humanity and the importance of individual character.

“The significant thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin but the texture and quality of his soul,” King said.

Likewise, on the subject of interracial marriage, King objected to the term itself. “Properly speaking,” he wrote, “races do not marry; individuals marry.”

Another great antiracist, Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” opposed any concept that would subordinate individuals to groups. “Races have never done anything,” she wrote in her autobiography. “What seems race achievement is the work of individuals.” Notions like race pride, race consciousness, and even racial solidarity, she argued, are fictions that people accept because they appeal to base instincts.

You might think I’m attacking a straw man — that I’m mischaracterizing how neoracists view the concept of race. After all, they don’t deny that race is socially constructed. Ibram X. Kendi says race is a “power construct,” but a construct nonetheless.

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However, though neoracists say they believe that race is a social construct, their actions point in the opposite direction.

Suppose your new friend Tom tells you that he’s an atheist — that he does not believe in the existence of any God nor in the truth of any religion or holy book. Now suppose that you slowly discover that every other belief and value Tom has is perfectly compatible with a literalist reading of the Bible. Tom believes that the world is 6,000 years old. He doesn’t believe in evolution. He even refuses to wear clothing woven with two different kinds of fabric (Leviticus 19:19). When you press him on his bizarre beliefs and lifestyle choices, he insists that they have nothing to do with believing in a God, much less a Christian God. Nevertheless, you can’t find any beliefs or habits he has that don’t align with every jot and tittle of the King James Bible. How much stock would you place in Tom’s claim to be an atheist?

Neoracists are like Tom. They say they believe that race is a social construct, but they don’t act in accordance with that belief. The hallmark of believing something is a social construct is taking that social construct less seriously — relaxing the rules and norms surrounding it. Neoracists do just the opposite. DiAngelo insists, for instance, that white women shouldn’t cry in front of Black people. Neoracists are the most likely to insist that Black people can use a certain word that starts with the letter N but no one else can in any context. Neoracists are the most likely to insist that someone with European ancestry must not open a Mexican food restaurant. Out of everyone in Western society, neoracists (along with old-school racists) are the most fixated on enforcing the rules and norms surrounding the concept of race. They police the rules of race with a zeal that they could not possibly have if they really believed it was just a social construct.

Humans have an inbuilt tribal instinct — a tendency to identify strongly with a group, to aim empathy inward toward its members and suspicion and hatred outward. That tendency appears to be baked into each of us at a biological level. That is our “hardware.” The question is whether we use our “software” — cultural ideas, early childhood education, political discourse, art, media, entertainment, and so forth — to amplify our natural tendencies or tamp down on them. The neoracist mindset, wittingly or not, amplifies them.

I dream of a different society, one that recommits itself to the ideals that people like Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Zora Neale Hurston defended and sometimes died for; a society that’s stronger because of its commitment to fostering unity, not division; a society that instead embraces our common humanity; one that recognizes that the way to move closer to achieving the goals we care about together is not by revitalizing race thinking but by extracting ourselves from its grip and ensuring our policies and institutions embody a commitment to color blindness.

Coleman Hughes is an author and podcaster. This essay is adapted from his book “The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America,” to be published on Tuesday by Thesis, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2024 by Coleman Hughes.