Color blindness as “the best form of antiracism”?

Wendell Phillips

On the first day of Black History Month, the Boston Globe posted a piece entitled “Color blindness remains the best form of antiracism.” It may be behind a paywall.

“Coleman Hughes is an author and podcaster. This essay is adapted from his book ‘The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America,’ to be published on [February 6] Tuesday by Thesis, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.”

The subtitle of Hughes’ article was, “Of course we all see race. But it’s a bad basis for determining how to treat people or craft public policy.”

Part of his argument points out an earlier definition of color blindness, which is better enuciated in a TED talk called The Case for color blindness.

He notes that the adverse “reaction to color blindness is actually a fault of its advocates. People will say things like, ‘I don’t see color’ as a way of expressing support for color blindness. But this phrase is guaranteed to produce confusion because you do see color, right? “

An observation here. Small children likely see race and pick up cultural values about it much earlier than we might have believed. This is why I believe discussing race is essential, just at the point that there are forces in the United States that want to ban books dealing with race, gender identity, and the like.

19th-century roots
Hughes is correct when he says we should eliminate the phrase “I don’t see color.” Instead, we should “replace it with what we really mean to say, which is, ‘I try to treat people without regard to race.'”

He makes an interesting historical observation. “The philosophy of color blindness… actually comes from the radical wing of the antislavery movement in the 19th century. The earliest mentions of color blindness come from Wendell Phillips, who was the president of the American Anti-Slavery Society and a man whose nickname was ‘abolition’s golden trumpet.’

“He believed in immediate full equality for Black Americans. 

And in 1865, he called for the creation of a ‘government colorblind,’ 
by which he meant the permanent end of all laws that mention race.”

Of course, we know that did not happen. Jim Crow, sunset laws, Plessy v. Ferguson, restrictive housing covenants, etc., etc.  And actions that didn’t have to mention race, such as lynchings.

Speaking of Plessy, I’ve discovered that John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in that case was rather narrow. From this journal article: “The consensus
regarding the then-extant legal understandings of ‘rights’ in post-Civil
War America are on display in Justice Harlan’s opinion.” In other decisions, “Justice Harlan recognized and accepted the legal distinction between civil rights and social rights, a distinction ‘mark[ing] a sphere of associational freedom in which law would allow practices of racial discrimination to flourish.'”

And “in a passage containing his well-known metaphor of a
colorblind Constitution, he stated:
“[I]n view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this
country no superior, dominant ruling class of citizens. There is no
caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor
tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all
citizens are equal before the law.

“This call for civil-rights colorblindness was immediately preceded by this
“‘The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country.
And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth,
and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it
remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of
constitutional liberty.” Thus, the definition of the term color-blind was not universally understood.

I think Hughes’ point that having policies meant to reduce inequality be executed based on class instead of race has merit. But maybe it is more of a “both-and” thing. How do we address the loss of generational wealth resulting from previous discrimination? The risk to pregnant black women’s health when dealing with the medical establishment appears to be irrespective of the prospective mother’s socio-economic status.

Coleman Hughes has added to the discussion. I haven’t fully embraced his POV, but that’s okay.

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