By Isaac Butler
For many years now, the Right in American politics has promoted so-called "color blindness" as an alternative strategy for ending discrimination. The idea is devilishly simple: shift our legal regimes to total race blindness (thus promoting a "true meritocracy") while also encouraging individuals to simply ignore race. Perhaps the best encapsulation of this argument is Chief Justice John Roberts's declaration that, "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," when arguing for the dismantling of affirmative action.
Color blindness has been a remarkably successful meme, finding broad acceptance even amongst some white liberals and within the media. In particular, the idea that noticing race or discussing the racial element of a event is itself racist has become deeply entrenched, and very, very difficult to argue against. Color blindness offers a narrative of hope and uplift to white Americans and, since most Americans sincerely are against discrimination, it provides the comforting balm that they themselves do not discriminate and that discrimination is rare.
It also narrows the definition of "racism" to the point where all we think of is Bull Connor, dogs unleashed, fire hoses, and lynching. This makes discussion of racism's usually subtler and institutionalized manifestations that much more difficult to talk about, because the very terms racist and racism raise people's anxieties to the point where their cognitive function starts to jam up.
There are many people who have been convinced of and sincerely believe in what my old employer called The Color Blind Ideal. Yet I've always suspected that the convincers themselves, the politicians and Fox News anchors and writers at the National Review and Right Wing jurists who have promoted color blindness understood it to be a rhetorical ploy, a convenient and very convincing argument that allows for the political exploitation of resentful whites and the maintenance of a convenient social order that leaves them in power.
Recent events have only confirmed this suspicion, and that is what I find so revealing about Jeb Bush's refusal to say racism lay at the heart of the Charleston attacks, or Fox News calling it attack on "people of faith," or Rand Paul's claim that the attack happened because of secularism, or Nikki Haley's complete dodging of questions about the Confederate Flag.
These claims are absurd given what we know about Roof, who wanted to start a second civil war, wore white supremacist patches on his jacket, and claimed he attacked the church because black men rape white women. Roof, unlike Darren Wilson, or George Zimmerman, or any of the other murderers of unarmed black people over the last two years, is a very clear example of explicit racism naming itself.
If you are someone who sincerely believes in the color blind ideal, someone who genuinely thinks that is the way forward to equality for all, the Charleston shootings provide you with a very clear example of what to you would be the only definition of racism. If Jeb Bush truly believed in color blindness, he could just say, "see, all those liberals want to tell you that this thing is racist or that thing is racist, but we know racism when we see it, and it is Dylan Roof murdering innocent black people at their place of worship, not someone shouting `you lie' during the State of the Union address or a black man not getting a job he wants." It's a no-brainer argument to make. (He'd also be wrong, by the way, study after study shows that color blindness doesn't work and could possibly increase discrimination).
The last twenty four hours clearly demonstrates that the Right's strategy when it comes to racism is to simply gaslight liberals, reaching for the most convenient argument they can find. It's designed to lead us into a never ending feedback loop of arguing whether or not something is racist, instead of doing something about it. I'm not sure how we avoid falling into that trap. I'm not sure how we convince more people that color blindness is built on a foundation of sand. But I am sure that both of those things are true.