Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Are Americans Really "Colorblind"?

Ever since the election of Barack Obama, the "punditocracy," has been rejoicing that discrimination on the basis of race is a thing of the ancient and best forgotten past. It ain't so, says Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012). I heartily agree, although I have to admit to a particular fondness for the book since it was given to me by my brilliant and beautiful granddaughter, Jessica, who is a sophomore at U.W. Madison. I will reserve comment on one of the book's two driving theses: that mass incarceration, under the pretext, of the so-called War on Drugs, is nothing more than a more sophisticated, and therefore even more insidious, version of the age-old "war on young black males" that drove slavery and legal segregation. That is a highly complicated thesis that I need more time to study before commenting.

Not so with "colorblindness," because the author drives the biggest nail yet into its coffin. Professor Alexander's critique of "colorblindness" is subtle and nuanced, and bound to be very controversial, especially to supporters of affirmative action.  She addresses the topic throughout the book, but especially in the final chapter "The Fire This Time" (pp.221-251). She forthrightly states her purpose on Page 16:  "what this book is intended to do---the only thing it is intended to do--is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States. The fate of millions of people--indeed the future of the black community itself--may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society." She admits that the temptation to ignore race "may be overwhelming," because it "makes people uncomfortable." She cites a study in which some "whites" are so "loath to talk about race and so fearful of violating racial etiquette that they indicate a preference for avoiding all contact with black people." Even some serious scholars who abhor racial prejudice in any form have argued that we would be better off not talking about race at all. Many white liberals, nearly as much as reactionaries, seem to have "lost patience with debates about racial equality." She notes that even President Obama has stated that "white guilt has largely exhausted itself," and that even many of those who are staunchly dedicated to racial equality and the elimination of poverty "tend to push back against racial victimization--or race specific claims based on the history or race discrimination." She contends that shrinking government budgets and---ironically enough,---reaction against such miscarriages of justice as "mandatory minimums" and "three strikes and you are out" have created the fantastical belief that we could end mass incarceration "without saying a word about race."

The reality, Alexander asserts, is that the "prevailing caste system" based upon the mass incarceration of young black males" cannot be successfully dismantled with a purely race-neutral approach." Such a strategy would, at best, produce a environment in which "implicit racial appeals" would be employed even more frequently. Colorblindness, she boldly proclaims, "though widely touted as the solution, is actually the problem." She courageously attempts to resolve the conundrum created by progressives and Civil Rights  leaders themselves: that Affirmative Action is "a legitimate exception to the colorblindness principal." Once we achieve a "colorblind nirvana," they insist, there will be no need to discuss race consciousness at all. Alexander emphatically disagrees, saying that "colorblindness has proven catastrophic for African Americans." Protesting that one does not care about race "is offered as an exculpatory virtue, when in fact it can be a form of cruelty." It sees black inmates as "raceless men, who have "failed miserably to play by the rules the rest of us follow quite naturally." The fact that black and brown men are incarcerated for offenses that are largely ignored when committed by whites goes unnoticed. So do the "racial and structural divisions that persist in society." We have become blind, Alexander proclaims, "not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America." She quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that "blindness and indifference to racial groups is actually more insidious than racial hostility, per se. It allows basically decent and dedicated men" to look the other way," while simultaneously denouncing the methods and slurs of more ignorant and brutal whites. She also invokes Dr. King's belief that the slaveholders and designers of "Jim Crow" were "victims of a spiritual and intellectual blindness. They literally knew not what they did. The whole system,..was largely perpetuated through spiritually ignorant persons." Millions of  black Americans, she concurs, have been crucified by "conscientious blindness." (Although Professor Alexander does not explicitly make the comparison, it reminds me of those in the 1950s, who piously denounced the words and actions of McCarthyites and  H.U.A.C, while simultaneously rationalizing them as necessary to combat "Communism.")      

Alexander dismisses colorblindness as "a wholly unrealistic goal," because to pursue it is "to aspire to a state of being blind in which you are not capable of seeing racial difference--a practical impossibility for most of us." It is a surrender to the notion that we "can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion." Recognition of color consciousness "places faith in our human capacity to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible race differences." The "uncomfortable truth," Alexander opines, is that "racial differences will always [emphasis mine] exist among us." The only way to guarantee a truly just and equitable society is to recognize this scientific reality-- and to learn to deal with each other in "a positive, constructive way." The far greater danger is that "we, as a society, will choose not to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others" look the other way and deny our public agencies the resources, data, and tools they need to solve refuse to celebrate what is beautiful about our distinct cultures and histories, even as we blend and evolve." That, she warns, is the real"cause for despair."

One of Alexander's most crucial and controversial arguments is that colorblindness can only thrive through the maintenance of"racial bribes." Lower class whites readily accept their lowly station because they are constantly assured that it doesn't really matter, because they are members of "the superior race." <At least we are "white."> Similarly, minority people are often "bribed" by allowing a privileged few (e.g.athletes, entertainers, politicians, corporate officials, and Supreme Court justices.) to gain a degree of wealth and fame. (In the Jim Crow South, every community had a few "token blacks," who received minimal privileges so that they could be trotted out to proclaim that there was no racial discrimination, whenever "outside agitators" tried to "stir up trouble.")  What sustains these "bribes" is a seemingly unshakeable faith in "the American Dream" and "individualism.": <Since anyone can "succeed," no matter what his or her origins, those who fail to do so must be, ipso facto,, lazy, incompetent, immoral, or perverse. They reinforce the widely held canard that America is a nation of sovereign individuals, not one of classes, races, or ethnic groups. Poverty is, therefore, either a "crime" or a "sin"--depending on your frame of reference.>

Probably the argument that will most upset sincere and courageous Civil Rights advocates is Alexander's blunt statement that "Racial justice advocates should consider, with a degree of candor that has not yet been evident, whether affirmative action--as it has been framed and defended during the past thirty years--has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice." She brands current affirmative action programs as "cosmetic racial diversity" which make institutions "look good on the surface without the needed structural changes." They have actually helped to facilitate mass incarcerations, while interfering with the development of a more compassionate race consciousness. She challenges its advocates to "reconsider the traditional approach to affirmative action because (a) it has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a 'trickle down' theory of racial justice;(d) it has greatly facilitated the divide and conquer tactics that gave rise to mass incarceration; and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations." <Much like those who focus on shrinking the national debt, while ignoring unemployment and rampant economic inequality.> 
Doing this will not be an easy task, she candidly admits." Civil Rights organizations are populated with beneficiaries of affirmative action like myself and their friends and allies." Ending it "arouses fears of annihilation. The reality that so many of us would disappear overnight from colleges and universities nationwide if affirmative action were banned, and that our children and grandchildren might not follow in our footsteps creates a kind of panic that is difficult to describe." She even suggests that it would be a panic "analogous to that of working class whites faced with desegregation--the fear of a sudden demotion in the nation's racial hierarchy." She disputes the idea that such action would "allow the clock to be turned back to the days of racial caste" because we are already there." 

There can be no doubt that ending affirmative action would cause jubilation among its many critics. But the author argues that it would, more importantly, force all Americans to realize the existence our racial caste system, and to concentrate on remedies that would actually strike at its foundations. It would, she insists, be a paradigm shift in understanding that "structural arrangements," and not "personal and cultural traits," are the real bulwarks of racial inequality. For those of us--black, white, or other--who have championed affirmative action  against its detractors all these years, Alexander's argument is what we used to call, in Latin class, a "dura mater."--a hard, but inescapable, reality that we can not afford to reject without serious discussion. Regardless of whether we completely agree with Alexander or not, her book makes it painfully obvious that we are still as far away from being a "colorblind" society as we have ever been.             

1 comment:

  1. This is complicated as we are always trying to create a rules based universal system. In such a system, everyone should be seen as a human, no matter what color, religion, or creed. However, we are all human and yet some of us need help "succeeding" in the system - because of disadvantages we face. If we have a system that allows success based on criteria that certain colors, religion or creed disproportionately lack, is the system not biased? But, how are we to design a system that can "fairly" catch the disadvantaged and allow them to succeed? How too can this be done if the system is founded on the inability of everyone to "succeed'?