For those seeking to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the modern antiracist movement, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists is a valuable resource. Bonilla-Silva’s central thesis is that the overt bigotry of the Jim Crow era has been replaced with a new racial ideology that he calls “color-blind racism.” This “new racism” is rooted in several “common sense” propositions: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism. Abstract liberalism “involves using ideas associated with political liberalism (e.g. ‘equal opportunity,’…) and economic liberalism (e.g. choice, individualism)” (p. 76). Naturalization “allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting that they are natural occurrences” (p. 76). Cultural racism “relies on culturally based arguments such as … ‘blacks have too many babies’ to explain the standing of minorities in society” (p. 76). Minimization of racism “suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (p. 76). Bonilla-Silva concedes that the ideology of “colorblind racism” is not expressed in overt acts of hatred like lynchings or cross-burnings, but maintains that it is still effective at privileging whites and disadvantaging people of color.
While I see fundamental problems in Bonilla-Silva’s work, it includes several positive contributions. First, Chapter 2 “The New Racism” exposes the striking racial disparities still present in the United States, in arenas such as residential segregation, economic mobility, education, social life, and politics. A few examples: “race is the most salient predictor of intergenerational downward mobility, with ‘[the odds of downward mobility 3.6 times as large [for blacks] as the odds for whites'” (p. 33), “U.S. schools were more segregated in the 2000-2001 school year than in 1970” (p. 35) “the  Senate has a total of five people of color” (p. 38), “of the people killed by police, over half are black” (p. 45) “Of 3,984 people lawfully executed… 2,113 were black… almost five times the proportion of blacks in the population as a whole” (p. 47). The causes of these disparities are complex, but they illustrate vividly that we do not live in a “post-racial” society. Race still correlates very strongly with important variables like socioeconomic status, incarceration, and education.
Building on this first point, Bonilla-Silva is right to note that colorblind policies can and do perpetuate these racial disparities. For example, reducing the funding of public transportation can disproportionately affect black residents, who are more likely to rely on public transportation than whites. Even if our colorblind, race-neutral policies are not intended to disproportionately harm people of color, they can still have that effect in practice. It’s important for us to grapple with these realities when we’re reflecting on public policy
Finally, I agree that we can hurt people even if we don’t hate them. Acting on racial stereotypes or minimizing the racialization of our society can negatively affect others, even if we have no ill-will in our hearts. Charity dictates that we be concerned not only with our intentions, but also with the impact that our behavior has on others (note that I am not suggesting that intent is irrelevant, but rather that impact ought to be a consideration).
The primary question to address is whether Bonilla-Silva’s use of the term ‘racism’ is helpful or legitimate. Recall that Bonilla-Silva understands racism in terms of ‘racial ideology’ or structure, not in terms of personal animus: “the problem of racism [is] a problem of power… the intentions of individual actors are largely irrelevant… based on my structural definition of ‘racism’… I conceive of racial analysis as ‘beyond good and evil.’ The analysis of people’s racial accounts is not an analysis of people’s character or morality” (p. 102).
Although we are in some sense free to define terms however we see fit, provided that we’re internally consistent, I see at least three problems with Bonilla-Silva’s definition:
First, conceiving of ‘racism’ as systems, beliefs, and behaviors which perpetuate a racial hierarchy is far too broad. All kinds of systems perpetuate existing racial disparities: marriage, private property, homeschooling, inheritance, personal retirement accounts, etc… Should we conceive of all of these systems as racist? If so, then which of these systems should be dismantled and which “racist” systems should be left in place?
Second, adopting a structural definition of racism obscures the essential immorality of racism. If the label of ‘racist’ is equally applicable to a Klansman and a white progressive, whence comes the tremendous moral difference between the two? If everyone is racist, then the term has lost its meaning.
Finally, because racial attitudes have improved tremendously in the in the last 50 years, people who lean heavily on the structural definition of racism necessarily insist that it is largely hidden. Bonilla-Silva writes that “today racial practices operate in a ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ fashion” (p. 3) and that “‘new racism’ practices have emerged that are more sophisticated and subtle than those typical of the Jim Crow era” (p. 25). Elsewhere, he refers to “the increasingly covert nature of racial discourse and racial practice” and “the invisibility of most mechanisms to reproduce racial inequalities” (p. 26).
The upshot of these assertions is that it’s very difficult for the average person to determine whether something is or is not racism; we have to defer to the experts who can identify it for us. Yet I can’t help wonder whether we ought to be skeptical of a definition that seems optimally designed to increase the power of those who offer it while minimizing the ability of others to critique it.
Function versus truth
My second major critique of Bonilla-Silva’s project is its emphasis on function over truth. The bulk of the book is spent defending the claim that post-Civil-Rights-era whites have adopted a new racial ideology based on the four frames of abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism. Through the analysis of extensive interviews, he shows how these four frames are used to explain and justify racial disparities. However, Bonilla-Silva spends very little time addressing the question of whether these explanations are true or justified. This is a vital question, because in order to argue that whites ought to think differently about racial disparities, he needs to argue that these explanations are false or unjustified.
Consider an example that is less controversial than black-white disparities: While only 6% of the U.S. population is Asian, around 23% of doctors are Asian. How do we explain this overrepresentation? I’d imagine that, when asked, most people will probably appeal to a variety of factors: abstract liberalism (perhaps Asians have the highest test scores and the highest GPAs), naturalization (perhaps the high existing percentage of Asian doctors encourages young Asian students to pursue a career in medicine), cultural factors (perhaps Asian culture places a special emphasis on education or the medical field), and minimization of racism (perhaps the racial discrimination that Asians face does not significantly affect their achievement). Do these explanations represent a subtle form of racism? Or not?
Bonilla-Silva seems to vacillate between a purely descriptive project and a prescriptive one. While his interview data shows how people do explain racial disparities, it would take a very different kind of book to show that they are wrong to invoke these explanations. To be candid, I’m of the opinion that the answer is complex. I think it’s undeniable that present-day racial discrimination does exist, a fact that has been demonstrated by numerous, carefully controlled experimental studies. Yet I’m also hesitant to say that whites are naive or even racist to affirm that factors other than present-day discrimination influence racial disparities or that we should reject the concept of ‘abstract liberalism’ as a guiding legal principle.
Bonilla-Silva himself offers some interesting confirmation of this last point in Chapter 8, “Are Blacks Color Blind, Too?” While the overwhelming majority of whites appealed to the frames of abstract liberalism, cultural racism, a naturalization, a sizeable minority of blacks did as well. 35% of blacks appealed to abstract liberalism to explain racial disparities, 24% appealed to cultural racism (!), and 24% appealed to naturalization. Bonilla-Silva admits that these data do, indeed, demonstrate that “blacks are influenced directly (e.g., the cultural rationale and naturalization of racial matters) and indirectly (e.g., the free-market rationale and laissez-faire racism) by the frames of color-blindness” (p. 220). This fact underscores the need to grapple with prescriptive questions like: is ‘liberalism’ an important guiding principle when it comes to policy? Can we safely assume that culture plays no role in disparities? Should our policies be aimed at “equality of outcome” or “equality of opportunity”? These questions are complicated, but the answers need to be debated, not assumed.
The theory behind the theory
Both of these concerns stem from the theoretical underpinnings of Bonilla-Silva’s project, which is rooted in critical theory. Critical theory is an academic ideology that is based on an analysis of power dynamics between groups. Particularly relevant is the idea of ‘hegemonic power,’ the ability of a group to impose their norms, values, and expectations on culture. According to critical theory, dominant groups appeal to reason and evidence, but these appeals are merely justifications for their place at the top of the social hierarchy. The thesis of Bonilla-Silva’s books fits perfectly into this framework: in our culture, whites wield their “hegemonic power” to create a racial ideology which keeps them at the top of the social and economic hierarchy. Whites then justify their dominance in various way, whether through the old racism of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, or through the new racism of color-blindness.
Despite Bonilla-Silva’s insistence that his work is descriptive, not prescriptive, and that he removes ‘intent’ or ‘morality’ from consideration, it’s hard not to notice that intentionality and motivation often slip into his descriptions of whites’ racial explanations, which is exactly what we’d expect given his adoption of critical theory. For example, he writes: “By framing race-related issue in the language of liberalism, whites can appear ‘reasonable’ and even ‘moral’” (p. 76), “if anyone dares to point out [the] tremendous level of racial inequality… whites can blame minorities (blacks in particular) for their own status” (p. 95), “Psychologists since Freud have argued that projection is a part of our normal equipment to defend ourselves.. College students and DAS respondents projected racism or racial motivations onto blacks and other minorities as a way of avoiding responsibility and feeling good about themselves” (p. 111-112) “whites rely on diminutives to soften their racial blows” (p. 114) “[racial stories] serve whites as vehicles to vent deep-seated emotions about racial matters” (p. 146).
My fear is that these kinds of assumptions about whites’ motives will make discussions of racial issues almost impossible: Failure to see rampant systemic discrimination is not merely the result of ignorance, but is a kind of wilful blindness. Appeals to merit or equality of opportunity are attempts to maintain dominance. Any failure by whites (or blacks) to accept any of the tenets of critical theory are not sincerely held beliefs, but are the symptoms of the pernicious influence of color-blind racism.
In an increasingly polarized culture, we’ll never bridge our ideological differences by assuming the worst of our interlocutors. Both charity and reason demand that we assume the best of their motives, and focus on the truth or falsehood of arguments. I worry that the arguments of Racism Without Racists will be taken as a license to do the opposite.
See all content on critical theory here.
- The Worldview of White Fragility – A Review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility
- Reconstructing the Gospel or Obscuring It? A Review of Jonathan Hartgrove-Wilson’s Reconstructing the Gospel
- A Short Review of Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
- A Long Review of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning – Part 1