What the Critics of Colorblindness Get Wrong
Asking people to be hyper-conscious of race is likely to aggravate, not fix, racial injustice.
Colorblindness has long been seen as a virtue. Especially on the left, slogans like “I don’t see color” and “I don’t think in terms of race” were once seen as admirable. But lately many progressive activists and scholars have abandoned that ethos as wrong-headed or even racist. In its place, they advocate what they call “race consciousness.”
Many of its critics equate colorblindness with the deliberately obtuse claim that one is literally unable to see race. It is true that some conservatives have invoked colorblindness as an excuse for ignoring evident racial discrimination and injustice. But rightly understood, colorblindness does not mean tolerating the way in which race has shaped reality. It is entirely consistent with believing that racial minorities have a right to be heard if they experience racism, and that academics should study the causes and extent of racial disparities.
Rather than prescribing how to understand the world, the ideal of colorblindness tells us how we should act: we should not treat people differently on the basis of the color of their skin (except, perhaps, under specified, exceptional circumstances).
Refusing to ascribe importance to something morally neutral is a virtue. And because colorblindness is a refusal to discriminate against others on the basis of their skin color, it remains the best remedy for old-fashioned racism that we have.
The colorblind ethos has long been widely invoked. And yet, racial injustice clearly persists, as evidenced by the many ways in which black people are, on average, worse off than white people in the United States. This is the basis for the argument that to make real progress we must adopt a more race-conscious approach: Since many forms of contemporary racial injustice are subtle and structural, we need to look at how race relations shape every facet of our society. To remedy structural racism, it is, according to this view, necessary to treat members of different racial groups differently.
But this argument encompasses a fallacy. To recognize it, we need to consider the distinction between what political philosophers refer to as “ideal theory” and “non-ideal theory.”
Ideal theory is utopian: it attempts to portray a perfectly just society. Non-ideal theory, on the other hand, points out the political structures that are most likely to improve our imperfect world, which will always include many people who act in unjust ways.
So, is the claim that the race conscious ethos is superior part of ideal theory, which describes what a perfect society populated by deeply moral people might look like? Or is it part of non-ideal theory, which describes a set of actionable prescriptions that are likely to improve our imperfect world (which contains plenty of immoral people)?
Let’s consider ideal theory first. If you were asked to imagine a utopia populated by angels, you’d probably envision a society in which race would be almost entirely ignored. This is the kind of society that has played a large role in the American imagination since Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream of a world in which people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. A society that—though wonderful in all other respects—was also race conscious would be improved by becoming colorblind. Within the realm of ideal theory, colorblindness is superior to race consciousness.
Many people advocate for race consciousness not because they believe that people in an ideal society would obsess about race, but because they believe that letting people’s racial identity influence how we treat them is necessary to correct for the racism that currently exists in our less-than-ideal society. Angels might be colorblind. But to achieve justice, we flawed human beings need to remain acutely conscious of race.
Yet race consciousness is an especially dangerous ethos in a non-ideal world. If people become extremely sensitive to racial differences, most of them will not become crusaders for racial justice: many will instead advocate for the interests of their own racial group. In the real world, thinking primarily about what divides us is a recipe for suspicion, selfishness and social fragmentation.
Human beings are naturally tribal. Our ancestors lived in small groups that worked together for survival and frequently competed with other groups for resources. This evolutionary history has left a lasting impact on our psychology: We are always ready to draw sharp boundaries between in and outgroups. Often altruistic towards members of our ingroup, we tend to view members of the outgroup with suspicion.
The world is a much more peaceful place today than it was as recently as a century ago—largely because of attempts to emphasize our common humanity. If we focus on what unites us, our altruistic instincts take over and we become kinder and more trusting towards each other.
But our tendency to favor the ingroup can never be completely eradicated. If we focus on what divides us, our instincts of suspicion and competition will quickly take over. The more we draw dividing lines, the more acutely aware we will be of which side of each line each of us stands on.
This is why one of the core suggestions of critical race theory is likely to prove counterproductive: The race conscious ethos asks white people to embrace their identity as whites in order to become aware of their racial privilege, and fight to dismantle it. But while some white progressives have adopted a self-flagellating attitude, many others will see this as an excuse to take pride in their membership of a socially important group. Race consciousness is as likely to reinforce white identity politics as it is to liberate racial minorities.
A focus on racial difference is a recipe for conflict. That’s not a good thing. But since it’s such a pervasive feature of human psychology, we need to take it into account when reflecting on how to govern our imperfect society of imperfect people. And so colorblindness looks more appealing not just in ideal theory, which is concerned with perfectly just human beings, but also in non-ideal theory, which takes their imperfections into account.
Defenders of race consciousness commit the fallacy of comparing an ideal version of one kind of society to a non-ideal version of a rival social order. But as political philosopher Jason Brennan warns, that’s stacking the deck: ideal societies are always superior to non-ideal ones. Of course an ideal race conscious society in which virtuous people are acutely aware of racial differences but use that awareness only to pursue more inclusive forms of justice is superior to a non-ideal colorblind society in which flawed human beings fail to treat each other equally. But such a comparison proves nothing. Honesty requires comparing like to like.
This is not to say that we can simply claim to be colorblind, and leave it at that. To ensure that we actually treat people from different groups equally, we need to understand how our society has been shaped by racism. And since humans have a tendency to favor the ingroup, we need to remain vigilant that those who claim to be colorblind really do treat others fairly.
We will probably never achieve a perfectly just society. But that is no reason to dismiss an ideal, like colorblindness, that can do much to remedy injustice. It is only by seeing one another as human beings united by our humanity, rather than divided by race, that we can hope to create a better world.
Matt Lutz is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University.
A fine article and argument. But there are some additional points to be made against the ideal of race consciousness. Before I state them, let me say the way it is practiced by major sections of the American Left today is not merely race consciousness, but race obsession. An article in the Washington Post about South Asian food is replete with references to racism, colonialism and imperialism. Anybody who went into a coma in 2010 and woke up today to read this article would be puzzled. Why look at EVERYTHING through that prism? The sheer one-sidedness and extremism of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a concern. There is a totalitarian element here that seeks to explain all of human history through one idea. This is similar to Communism - in Communism, all of history could be encapsulated or made intelligible through the singular framework of class struggle. CRT replaces class with race. Here are three additional reasons to be very critical of the anti-modern and anti-liberal ideology of CRT.
1. It goes against the fundamental tenet of Enlightenment Liberalism which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "humanitarian individualism". Morally, it is profoundly wrong to reduce people to an identity that they acquired as an accident of birth. The fact that I am a brown man tells you NOTHING important about me, it tells you nothing about my uniqueness, my individuality as a human being which is not the sum total of my ascriptive identities. I would never privilege my race/ethnicity over everything else that makes me who I am and I will reject the demand from anybody else that I see them primarily through their racial or ethnic or gender identity. A rejection of individualism is a rejection of two centuries of liberal Enlightenment philosophy and the political culture and Institutions that we have built around this concept.
2. Some people are encouraged to feel "virtuous" and "superior" solely on account of their skin color and others are encouraged to feel "guilty" in a personal sense and "inferior" on the same grounds. Every interaction of people between different races is seen through the lens of power in this ideology. This is a very unhealthy attitude. How do you know from someone's skin color that they are privileged? An upper middle class Indian professional in UK belongs to the "dominant culture" of successful professionals - he was able to achieve what he did because he was probably born into a family that emphasized human capital accumulation and other cultural habits associated with success -a working class white person is from a "subordinate culture" - he may have been born into a family that did not prepare him for achieving things in life. I may be white but I may have struggled with poverty and health issues all my life. How morally intolerable and anti-humanist it must be that we are able to make assumptions about other people based on their race without knowing a single thing about who they are as individuals and what their experiences are like.
Notice how the major religious traditions of the world and major philosophical traditions make universal claims that are not contingent on race. It is wrong to assign moral status to people based on race, it doesn't matter who does it or for what purpose. Martin Luther King wouldn't have called it "reverse racism" - he would have called it straight up racism, plain and simple.
3. CRT and its sort of totalitarian, Manichean vision is incompatible with the fundamental principles of a free society. Why should we listen to the arguments of others with whom we disagree if we believe that their opinions are not good faith efforts to reason about a complex world, but are necessarily expressions of the power of dominant groups etc? That is why the modern Left in American universities and cultural institutions is so intolerant and we are today discussing cancel culture. Good faith disagreement is not possible with this paradigm - all disagreements imply that you have the "wrong" standpoint which will perpetuate the racial status quo- there is nothing called "reason" or "logic" based on principles we all share- no universal ethical or moral principles, everything is about a contest of power between different groups. It is not that the Left doesn't believe in free speech, with this ideology, they simply can't.
I expected to be very sympathetic to this article. But I'm afraid it understates some very serious harms / disingenuous crap that's been perpetrated for 20,50,250 years by people on the Right. This phrase in the article "while some white progressives have adopted a self-flagellating attitude, many others will see this as an excuse to take pride in their membership of a socially important group. Race consciousness is as likely to reinforce white identity politics as it is to liberate racial minorities" made me think of it. I think that looking back at the "canon" you see a shit-ton of racial pride / white supremacist thinking masquerading as 'neutral celebration of wonderful ideas and cultural content.' When Pat Buchanan announces how the Western Canon (greeks with democracy, the novel, the Enlightenment - does he like the enlightenment?) is the basis of WORLD civilization... it's not a very compelling argument. Though those things are wonderful, I think there is a serious bias in there that has been shown to be a lot of crap: see recent correctives about the history of mathematics and the role of the Arab world, Chinese civilization, to name a couple of obvious ones. So while I agree that this concentration will indeed continue to divide us, we have to acknowledge we've been dealing with an avalanche of white supremacist propaganda MASQUERADING as 'morally neutral history of philosophy, science, art.'