Rethinking Colorblindness

The wide circulation of the Policy Forum’s public education tools is the product of a development process that commenced years earlier in conversations between organizations, advocates and researchers who shared the challenge of responding to shifting opinions and changed environments for racial justice. These challenges have continued apace, and the Policy Forum has set forth an aggressive strategy to develop and hone a set of ideas and practices that promise some traction against the broader juggernaut that handicaps the most effective means of social inclusion: colorblind “laissez fair” ideology. This set of ideas and presumptions has long been expressed in the public debate as opposition against all policies that even notice racial disparities. A failed initiative in California sought to eliminate even the collection of racial data.

These ideas came closer to the center of American law when the United States Supreme Court struck down two school integration programs that utilized race in enrollment policies to remedy both de jure and de facto segregation. Four Supreme Court justices rejected such plans based on the notion that the Constitution mandates colorblindness. These jurists maintained that race conscious remedies should not be invoked based on assumptions regarding the contemporary salience of race. Instead, they adopted a colorblind vision of the Constitution that prohibits the presumption that race matters even in the context of racial isolation in schools, hyper-segregation in housing patterns, and yawning disparities in other public arenas. In a departure from the preexisting consensus on such matters, these justices maintained that protecting racial integration in the schools and responding to the effects of historical and contemporary segregation was not a compelling state interest. Fortunately, this four-person opinion is not yet constitutional precedent, but only one justice stands in the way.

Contrary to these simple and absolute declarations of colorblindness that are now commonplace, an examination of the material reality in which most people live demonstrates that race still does matter quite a bit in American society. In education, employment, criminal justice, health care, and housing, race continues to be a significant determining factor in who has access to certain opportunities and who does not.

Proponents of racial justice have not yet developed a robust response to the fiction of colorblindness embraced by many judges, opinion leaders and ordinary Americans. The stakes are even higher now that President Obama’s election has given rise to a belief in post-racialism that is in some ways indistinguishable from the Court’s colorblindness.

The confusion is heightened because despite its simple edict against all race consciousness, many questions about colorblindness remain unanswered. For instance, what exactly is colorblindness? Is it a social theory, a moral imperative, or simply a rhetorical prophylactic? Can human beings be colorblind? Is colorblindness a choice, or is it a cognitive impossibility? Does the idea of colorblindness represent a route to racial equity or instead is it merely a way to erase race as an explanatory factor in contemporary United States?

There are answers to these questions that remain buried behind the walls of the academy. Work from a variety of disciplines disproves some of the central claims made for colorblindness, and casts considerable doubt about how a future wrapped around this ideal will unfold. But, despite the weight of scholarly understanding about the inadequacies of colorblindness as a theory, policy, cognitive possibility and/or constitutional principle, this existing knowledge has provided little traction in efforts to draw attention to the realities that the colorblind perspective works to obscure. There is a wealth of data produced in the academy pertaining to race — historical, economic, sociological, psychological, literary and legal — but this data has yet to converge into a coherent common sense understanding of the world that we live in.

The central goal of our project, “Rethinking Colorblindness,” which we have been refining over the past 18 months in collaboration with historian George Lipsitz, is to integrate disparate strands of information that bear on this idea into an accessible picture of American life. Contrary to the instincts of colorblind advocates, we think that the more people understand the every day ways in which race functions in our institutions, structures and in society at large, resistance to and anxiety about equality measures may lessen. Moreover, wider and more flexible coalitions across many movements will be easier to sustain.

For more information on our CASBS Colorblind Seminar held at Stanford University from June 1-5, 2009, please visit here.  Materials can also be obtained by emailing



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