Dictionary definition: not influenced by differences of race, especially : free from racial prejudice
Antiracist definition: “not seeing” race or ignoring race
While these definitions are similar, they have different emphases and are employed in very different ways. The dictionary definition has distinctively positive connotations: colorblindness is a good quality and is contrasted with racial prejudice. On the other hand, antiracists generally follow Critical Race Theorists in seeing colorblindness as a problematic way of approaching race.
“Color blindness can be admirable [but] it can be perverse, for example, when it stands in the way of taking account of differences in order to help people in need…Critical race theorists… hold that color blindness of the latter forms will allow us to redress only extremely egregious racial harms… Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery.” – Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory, p. 27
“Here are ways colorblindness is actually racist: Colorblindness foists whiteness on everyone…Colorblindness strips non-white people of their uniqueness… Colorblindness suppresses critically important narratives of oppression… Colorblindness assumes everyone has the same experience here in America…Colorblindess promotes the idea that non-white races are inferior.” – Doni Bostock, “How Colorblindness Is Actually Racist”, Huffington Post Blog
Antiracists rightly recognize that explicitly ‘colorblind’ legislation and policies can conceal discriminatory intent and practices. For example, after the Civil War, state legislatures heavily restricted voting rights using poll taxes and literacy tests. However, ‘grandfather clauses’ were added to these laws to exempt people from these conditions if their ancestors had been able to vote prior to the Civil War. While race was not explicitly mentioned in these laws, they were clearly intended to disenfranchise blacks while allowing whites to bypass the same restrictions.
‘Colorblindness’ can also be used as an excuse to ignore racial issues. For example, when antiracists argue that racial disparities in the criminal justice system, in education, in housing, or in hiring are caused by discrimination, whites sometimes respond “Well, I don’t think we should talk about race. I think we should be colorblind.” This response, even if well-intentioned, misses the point. To argue that everyone ought to be free of racial prejudice is irrelevant to the question of whether people still are influenced by racial prejudice.
Antiracists also make the related point that explicitly race-based policies may be necessary to offset the effects of racial prejudice. For example, the motivation behind affirmative action policies, they argue, is not to enshrine racial prejudice in law or policy, but to counteract racial prejudice which existed and continues to exist within education and in the workplace. It is not enough that institutions affirm in theory that race is not a factor in their decisions if race is still used to discriminate in practice. The racial bias of a company’s HR manager (whether conscious or unconscious) can lead to discrimination regardless of the colorbind policy that is officially on the books.
While some whites may indeed use ‘colorblindness’ to express the (incorrect) sentiment that “we should ignore race entirely,” many others are simply adopting the dictionary definition which stresses the idea of being “free from racial prejudice.” Because antiracists do want everyone to be free from racial prejudice, they should be hesitant to issue a blanket condemnation of ‘colorblindness’ and even more hesitant to attribute bad motives to anyone who uses this term.
A more complicated issue is whether racial discrimination always necessitates a non-colorblind approach. For example, if there is a worry that people of color experience discrimination during hiring or mortgage lending or home buying, applications can be stripped of any personal identifying information. At some point, technology may even permit electronic interviews to be conducted without revealing racial information so that the interviewer could not discriminate based on race even if he wanted to. Why, then, should we resort to race-based policies if we can absolutely ensure that decisions are made in a race-blind way?
The answer exposes a much larger ideological debate. Antiracists generally argue that processes and policies which are ‘fair’ in a narrow sense can still be ‘unfair’ in a much broader sense due to historical injustices like slavery and Jim Crow, which have lead to large racial disparities. Hence, even if we can ensure that a particular decision is entirely colorblind and is based only on the candidates’ merits, any resultant racial disparities are still problematic. Antiracists contend that a colorblind selection process cannot account for the unequal opportunities afforded to candidates of different races, so that race-based policies are desirable even in the absence of any institutional bias.
My intention here is not to impugn antiracist skepticism towards ‘colorblindness’, but merely to show that it is connected to deep philosophical questions like “What is justice?” and “What is equality?” But once again, antiracists should not assume that opposition to explicitly race-based policies can always be attributed to malice or indifference.
Because Christians recognize that racism is a sin, they should likewise recognize that ‘colorblindness’ is in some sense desirable, at least insofar as it demands valuing, honoring, and respecting all people equally, regardless of their race. At the same time, Christians should recognize that in a society where racism still exists, “colorblindness” should never be used as a reason to ignore racial disparities.
Regarding questions of justice, the Bible is extremely insistent that Christians are to judge impartially (Deut. 1:17, Deut. 10:17, Prov. 20:13, etc…). On the other hand, the Bible also insists that God is especially concerned for the plight of the poor and vulnerable (Ps. 41:1-2, Prov. 31:19, Ps. 12:5, etc…).
The upshot here is that, in my tentative opinion, Christians should be hesitant to adopt unequal standards, particularly those that treat entire classes of people as indistinguishable members of a monolithic group. We can certainly take individual circumstances and opportunities into account (see, for instance, the concessions for poverty in Lev. 5:7 and Lev. 14:22, c.f. Lk. 2:24). But adopting blanket antiracist policies that institute preferences based on race alone seems to run afoul of the same principles by which we judge racist policies to be sinful and unjust.