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How Conservatives Hijacked “Colorblindness” and Set Civil Rights Back Decades

Ian Haney López

Excerpted from "Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class"

Why do so many whites respond to the dog whistle refrain that they, and not minorities, are today’s most likely victims of racial discrimination? Colorblindness helps to legitimate the substance of dog whistle complaints because it promotes understandings of race and racism that obscure discrimination against nonwhites and magnify the ostensible mistreatment of whites.

“Is your baby racist?” The question blared from the cover of Newsweek Magazine in September 2009, eight months after the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. The accompanying story reported on several recent studies showing that young children not only notice race, they repeat painful stereotypes. In one study, a researcher recruited roughly 100 families from Austin, Texas; all of the families were white, with children between the ages of five and seven. When the children were asked how many white people were “mean,” they commonly answered “almost none.” But when asked how many blacks were mean, many answered “some” or “a lot.” The thrust of the article seemed to be that children possess racial biases. However eye-catching the title, though, it pointed in the wrong direction—at infants and little children rather than adults. The core of the article focused on parenting strategies, and especially on the desire to raise children to be colorblind—to be blind to race. The parents were not teaching their children to be bigots. Instead, they were doing their utmost to teach their children to reject racism by studiously ignoring race. Yet, even in a liberal bastion like Austin, it wasn’t working.

Today the dominant etiquette around race is colorblindness. It has a strong moral appeal, for it laudably envisions an ideal world in which race is no longer relevant to how we perceive or treat each other. It also has an intuitive practical appeal: to get beyond race, colorblindness urges, the best strategy is to immediately stop recognizing and talking about race. But it is especially as a strategy that colorblindness fails its liberal adherents. We cannot will ourselves to un-see something that we’ve already seen. In turn, refusing to talk about a powerful social reality doesn’t make that reality go away, but it does leave confused thinking unchallenged, in ourselves and in others. The Austin children exemplify this. Differences in race—including physical variation and its connection to social position—resemble differences in gender: they are plainly visible to new minds eager to make sense of the world around them. When unexplained, however, children (and our unconscious minds) are left susceptible to the power of stereotypes. As the Newsweek authors conclude, “children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue— but we tell kids that ‘pink’ means for girls and ‘blue’ is for boys. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”