Ever since race became a dominating political issue across America in the 1960s, some Americans have claimed that they have transcended race, they have learned to be color blind.
These claims have mainly come from conservatives, who were lukewarm about or openly opposed to civil rights legislation, affirmative action plans, school desegregation, or other policies which attacked racial discrimination. For example, the Texas-based Campaign for a Color Blind America is a conservative organization whose purpose is “to challenge race-based public policies”.
Claims about being color blind are not personal statements. I don’t think I have ever heard a friend say that they are blind to skin color. I hear public assertions of virtue, made to support policy. In April 2008, when a controversy broke out over Sarah Palin’s attitude toward hiring African Americans in her Alaska administration, her spokeswoman said, “Governor Palin is totally color blind.”
These claims typically go further, like this: “I am color blind. My organization, my party, my church, my business, we are all color blind. Good Americans are color blind. So we don’t need to think about race any more. The need for government concern with discrimination is over.” When the Supreme Court in 2007, under the new leadership of John Roberts, decided that plans to desegregate schools in Seattle and Louisville were unconstitutional, this was applauded by conservatives. They especially liked Roberts’ statement, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
I don’t believe the claims of individuals that they are color blind, and I certainly don’t think that the issue of race in America is a thing of the past. Here’s why.
I was raised by a family that passionately believed in racial equality. My father had been given lessons in racial persecution by the Nazis, escaping with his life and most of his family before all those left were murdered. When he returned to Germany with the US Army, he and other interrogators heard some of the first claims of color blindness, as Nazi prisoners denied everything they had just done.
By the time I was born in New York City in 1948, Jackie Robinson had just broken the color barrier in baseball in Brooklyn. In my family the Brooklyn Dodgers stood for moral goodness, even if their baseball was hapless. When I was young, discrimination was still a live issue for Jews as well as blacks in America.
I learned to believe in the goal of equality, equal treatment of everybody by everybody, even if I have come to suspect that it is a utopian dream.
But I am not color blind. I see color very well. I notice instantly the color of the person I am looking at. Then out come all the things that I carry around in my head about race. That includes my desire to get to color blindness, my experiences in communicating and trying to understand people who look different than I do, my feelings about fellow minorities. It also includes other ideas that I absorbed from my American surroundings, whether I wanted to or not: the idea that blacks and whites are different; that blacks are potentially dangerous; that race matters.
No matter what my rational self thinks, those racist ideas deep in my consciousness never disappeared. I still see myself flinch as a big black man ran towards me on a street in New York many years ago. He was in a hurry, but I only figured that out after he was already past. I saw color and reacted.
That experience tells me how far I still have to go to get to color blindness. Our nation also has far to go. Claiming that we are color blind, that whites no longer have privileges in America, that we need no longer worry about preventing discrimination is nonsense. One need only have observed the reception of our first black President to know how important skin color still is in America.
Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the H
olocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007). Republished with permission from Taking Back Our Lives.