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.