It is not an uncommon view that racial inequality has not changed in the way that many think it has since the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) of the 1950s and 1960s. While there was progress made in terms of facilities and schools no longer being segregated legally and discrimination was no longer allowed in a legal sense, in my view, that’s where the most significant progress ended. Many people have been lulled into a false sense of comfort that “we have come so far” when it comes to race relations, and in turn has promoted damaging colorblind racism which further perpetuates racial inequality as it neglects to acknowledge how much more work there is to do. And most importantly, colorblind racism fails to fully recognize that many in this country still hold racist views, implicit bias and prejudices unknown to them.
In her book “From #blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation”, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor outlines the many systems that have existed since slavery and still exist today that play an important role in maintaining racial stratification. All of these persist in spite of how far we’ve come, a clear indicator that colorblind racism has a strong hold in our country. These systems are important to acknowledge as they have not yet fully dissolved and they ensure the continuation of racial inequality even in light of the achievements that many people of color have been able to make.
During Barack Obama’s campaign for President, he was heavily scrutinized in a way that no President has probably ever been scrutinized. Of course, running for President opens up much of your life both professionally and personally for debate. But Obama as a Black man had to be perfect in order to win the highest office in the land and the hearts of the people. This is a man who is well educated, respected, a pillar of family values, commands a quick wit and easy going charm. And still he had to fight off hordes of birthers, demanding he prove his citizenship and calling into question his patriotism and commitment to our country. Vile racists called his wife an ape and defiled her image. Yet he handled it all with grace and dignity, refusing to get in the dirt with the muckrakers and kept things classy instead.
Obama might not have been the best President there ever was, but he was an important one. Especially for people of color. He showed that someone with darker skin can make it all the way to the top and that we can reach that bar, even when it’s set impossibly high. Then Donald Trump took the stage and dropped the bar of standards for the Office of the President of the United States, to the lowest it has ever been. The fact that Trump, who had so many mishaps, conduct issues, demoralized women, people of color, people with disabilities and so many others while on the campaign trail, but still was elected is the direct result of colorblind racism. People were so surprised he was elected, primarily because they had seen a Black man rise to power, and so therefore, the country must be healed. But therein lies the problem.
From the very beginning of her book, Taylor dives deep into the “culture of racism” that was built into slavery and everything that has come after it. This is crucial in understanding the background and deep-seated nature of racism in the U.S. and why the CRM, while important, could not easily undo and remove these long lasting beliefs and structures. For example, it is easy to believe that after slavery Blacks were able to live in relative freedom, even though it would take over a century for this to be true. The Black Codes were a set of laws enacted during the period before reconstruction that restricted the movements of Blacks through vagrancy laws and other laws that required they remain in the employment of whites. These codes essentially criminalized the existence of Blacks and continued to bind them to whites either through mandated employment or through convict leasing and legalized slavery as a result of violating the codes and being jailed for those violations (Taylor p. 109). While these codes were repealed in 1866 with the beginning of reconstruction, they were re-envisioned as the Jim Crow Laws that held many Blacks hostage until the 1960s.
It would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would finally appear to level the playing field for Blacks in the U.S. Discrimination based on race no longer had any legal standing when it came to housing, jobs or education. The Civil Rights Act also offered protections against discrimination due to gender, religion or national origin. Although it came ten years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and the attempt at desegregating schools, it was a historic triumph for the Black community in particular. While the CRM was deemed an overall success, the fact that it’s primary focus was on economic empowerment is lost in its message of racial unity. It was also leading up to this and during this time that social support programs had been introduced like food stamps, Head Start and welfare (Taylor p. 42). Many of the people that initially benefited from these programs were not just Black, but poor whites as well. There is debate over whether or not these programs have evolved to actually further oppress the Black community and some have used that argument as the sole cause for continued racial inequality, something I do not completely agree with.
Some, like economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell, would argue that the welfare programs and Affirmative Action that came out the end of World War II and the CRM were simply only “favors to Blacks” that did them no good, and only served to further disrupt and destroy the quality of life for Blacks in the U.S. While some of Sowell’s arguments have a ring of truth to them, for example there is no doubt that giving every Black student an A in Chemistry at an Ivy League school out of sheer laziness and disregard whether or not they knew the material would do them more harm than good. However, the idea that Black students should not be so harshly disciplined when Black boys especially are so often disciplined much more strictly than their white peers of either gender, is unbelievably problematic.
Sowell doubles-down on this notion however, attributing this attitude of lax behavior rules to Democrats looking to gain another edge on political power. He even further waters down his argument against deeply rooted racism, segregation and discrimination, by arguing that charter schools are godsends to inner city and minority youth, and that their undoing will be at the hands of more power hungry Democrats, greedy labor unions, and even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People itself. In reality, the programs that were built to support the public, including Blacks were primed for destruction by Ronald Reagan who “shredded the already decimated welfare state” with a series of drastic and devastating budget cuts, including many that harmed children (Taylor p. 93).
Many fell into complacency and believed that the plight of poor Blacks simply came down to economics alone, while also believing that we were well on our way to a reconciliation with our country’s racist past and moving toward a harmonious future. As a result generations of whites grew up believing that everything was okay. This was in spite of continued rampant inequality, the mass incarceration of Blacks, the crack epidemic, the crumbling inner city and the brutalizing of Black bodies by the police. In the face of all this, when Barack Obama ran for President of the United States and won, liberal progressive whites declared a full out victory against racism. According to many white progressives, we were officially “post-racial.” However, what they failed to see is that Obama was by default held to an incredibly high standard, simply because so many, while okay with a Black guy delivering their mail or putting braces on their kids teeth, could not fathom or stomach the idea of a Black President.
Colorblind racism in today’s world is saying that race relations in this country are okay because you voted for Barack Obama. Twice. And that you have three Black friends. And that you know all of the words to “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang. Colorblind racism is when white people say, “I don’t see color”, which means “I don’t see you And I don’t want to see the struggle of non-whites because it is much easier to ignore it because it doesn’t affect me directly, does it? And even though I want to help I don’t know how so I laugh at super racist jokes even though I know they’re wrong because it’s easier than calling out the racist people in my family/at my job/that are my friends and having really really hard conversations about whiteness, white supremacy, white privilege, white guilt, white tears and white fragility.” Colorblind racism is saying, that just because non-whites are successful, that they didn’t struggle and face incredible hurdles to get where they are. And that they don’t continue to face those same hurdles and struggles everyday.
Colorblind racism is most importantly however, thinking that the work is done, when we are still stuck at the beginning. This is what to me drives racial inequality to this day, even after all of the hard work of those that were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. All of those who died, who suffered, who shed blood, sweat and tears for the economic security and fair treatment of everyone. This is what they were fighting to stop and undo. As Taylor writes in the conclusion of the chapter “From Civil Rights to Colorblind”, she says in perfect concision, “colorblindness and ‘post-racial’ politics are vested in false ideas that the United States is a meritocratic society where hard work makes the difference between those who are successful and those who are not (p. 72).” Until those who stay with their heads in the sand can fully unpack and acknowledge what that statement means, it remains to be seen, how much more progress can be made.