How conservatives hijacked “colorblindness” and set civil rights back decades
MLK dreamed of a world where race doesn't divide us—not one where we pretend it doesn't exist
By Ian Haney-Lopez
We should also acknowledge that colorblindness has an additional appeal: it seems to provide a safe route through the minefield of race relations. Many whites are understandably nervous to talk about race at all, though especially in racially mixed company. What if they slip and say something that sounds ignorant, or worse, bigoted? Simply avoiding race altogether seems to offer a solution. Yet, those who adopt a colorblind strategy often come across as more racially hostile, not less. Refusing to acknowledge obvious social differences creates an impression of suppressed dislike, and studies have shown that whites who studiously avoid mentioning race even when it is clearly relevant are perceived as more bigoted. Perhaps this contributed to how the Austin children came to interpret their parents’ racial attitudes, after their parents tried so hard to suppress references to race. Asked “do your parents like black people,” more than half either said “no, my parents don’t like black people,” or simply answered, “I don’t know.” The researchers remarked, “in this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions— many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.”
If colorblindness seems to backfire, is there something that does help our children—and us—navigate the dangerous shoals of race? Yes: talking openly about racial differences and what they might mean. Psychological research shows that cognitive biases in social judgment “can be controlled only through subsequent, deliberate ‘mental correction’ that takes group status squarely into account.” The Austin researchers reached a similar conclusion, for they urged parents to use in the racial context the express methods they employ to help children overcome gender stereotypes. “Parents are very comfortable talking to their children about gender, and they work very hard to counter-program against boy-girl stereotypes. That ought to be our model for talking about race. The same way we remind our [children], ‘Mommies can be doctors just like daddies,’ we ought to be telling all children that doctors can be any skin color. It’s not complicated what to say. It’s only a matter of how often we reinforce it.” In other words, best practices in the area of race involve doing the opposite of what colorblindness seems to command. We must notice and talk about race, self-critically and carefully, in order to understand and attempt to set aside its power over our imaginations.
The right’s dog-whistle trick: How it exploits racism to rip apart the social safety net
Conservatives use coded racial appeals to win very specific policy goals, law professor Ian Haney Lopez explains
By Sean McElwee
The impact is tremendous. Politicians can seed the media with these frames and because these frames have a strong racial logic behind them, they end up being picked up by the media and amplified dramatically. An example would be Ronald Reagan’s warnings about undocumented immigrants and the threat of them pouring across the border. He essentially creates that issue as a sort of a media frame. When he’s first elected people don’t have a sense that this is a major social problem facing the United States, but by [Reagan] constantly talking about it, the media begins to pick up on it and report stories on it and it becomes a national hysteria. I would say he does the same thing with crime. The more he talks about crime, the more it becomes an issue, the more the media find that it’s actually easy to report on crime stories. Reporting on crime stories goes up by 200 or 300 percent while the incidence of crime doesn’t. That generates a tremendous amount of fear around these coded threats that the politicians are using to campaign on.
With the Tea Party there is both a racial hysteria that is occurring on a national level and at a more regional level. On a national level, you have organizations like Fox News, which understand perfectly well that they can energize and mobilize a large portion of the white population by constantly hammering away at racial issues. That’s exactly what it does with Obama, with the notion that he is foreign, with the notion that he is Muslim, with Sarah Palin’s notion that he is “palling around with terrorists.” She makes that comment with respect to a white activist [Bill Ayers], but with respect to the time, terrorist codes as “Muslim.” On a national level, a lot of energy is being expended by Tea Party mobilizers to motivate people in terms of race.
The solution is clear, although it’s not short-term. We have changed the way race operates. The rhetoric of race has changed dramatically in a way that racial justice projects have lost, but also, and more fundamentally, liberalism has lost. It’s lost because race has shifted to a coded and expressed register and on both registers the language of race is controlled by conservatives. So on the coded register, you have this constant drumbeat of insinuations that taint liberalism as a giveaway to minorities through language like “welfare” or “amnesty” or “causing terrorism.” And you don’t see liberals using a coded racial language to rebut that. Then on the express level, conservatives have made racism mean only an open reference to race itself. What that means is that whenever liberals or racial progressives say, “Hey, you know racism remains a big problem in our society,” something as innocuous as that, they immediately get slammed for playing the race card and conservatives run around saying, “Hey, we’re a post-racial society, but you just introduced race into the conversation.”
An interesting example was when Obama made the brief remark that he doesn’t look like all the other presidents on the dollar bills. He doesn’t! We ought to be able to say that, and we ought to be able to say that there has been a practice of scaring people around race. The minute he said that, he was the racist, he was the one injecting race into the conversation and poisoning the post-racial harmony that otherwise defines the U.S. as far as conservatives were concerned. We cannot restore a robust commitment to progressive government that helps everybody until we can challenge that rhetoric. And we can’t challenge that rhetoric until we once again engage with the power of race in our society. And that is a medium-term project. But it requires the commitment of lots of different actors, from politicians themselves, from foundations, from unions and from the media to really reengage with the role that race is playing and to be much more sophisticated in our understanding of how racism works and the many different forms of racisms. We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood. Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms. And until we recognize that and start talking about it we’re going to see that some of those forms of racisms are easily used to manipulate broad swaths of the American electorate.