Colorblindness and the Problem of White Supremacy

November 16, 2016

When I attended seminary, a classmate once told me that I was not like the rest of “them”; instead, I was rational and logical. He was white, I am Mexican-American, and in the context of our discussion, “them” meant the other seminary students of color.

I was dumbfounded and speechless. With a few words, he had divided “us” from “them,” associating the former with calmness and rationality and the latter with emotion and irrationality. The black and brown students, by his interpretation, were unreasonable. In placing me on his side of the divide, he expressed approval of me and my ability to reason. This “compliment” reflected a way of dividing the world and valuing people along racial lines. With his words, he assumed competency to judge and the authority to pass judgment. And to him, none of these assumptions was problematic for he did so with ease. His comment was a window onto his view of campus race relations and the product of racial habits which had been ingrained into him by the various communities of which he was a part.

This was neither the first nor the last time someone felt free to judge my intelligence—and not always with approval. Compared to the brutal experiences of people of color throughout this country, my example may seem insignificant. But it serves to reflect the broader, underlying social structures at work in our nation, churches, and schools.

Race in America is often said to be a problem that belongs to black and brown communities. Stop racism, and the problem will disappear. Here, “racism” is understood to mean the intentional or purposeful discrimination of a person or group against another on the mere basis of race. In other words, eliminate intentional discrimination against black and brown communities, and they should be able to participate on an equal basis with the rest of society. So goes a dominant form of colorblind-reasoning about race in America, as expressed by Chief Justice John Roberts when he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” His point was that race-conscious remedies for social ills that fall roughly along racial lines only encourage racial discrimination. In other words, taking account of race in providing a remedy is equivalent to taking account of race in creating the ill. Racial awareness, both positive and negative, is the problem colorblindness is meant to correct.

This racial myopia, however, misperceives how racial categories function in our lives. Take, for instance, the claim that race is a problem belonging to communities of color only obscures the idea of whiteness as a racial category or identity which confers benefits on the person who has it, regardless of what that person does or intends. I have often heard many well-meaning Christians express the view that they do not have a place in discussions about race since they are white and not racist. By distancing themselves from whiteness as itself a racial identity, they create or reinforce the impression that race is a black and brown problem which those communities need help remedying but which good white people have no role in creating or continuing. Whiteness recedes from view, as if white people of good will occupied a race-neutral point of view unaffected by history and power relations. Self-deception, then, can give rise to an attitude of benevolent paternalism toward people of color.

While benevolent paternalism is better than hateful racism, it still tends to reinforce existing power imbalances rather than altering them. The invisibility of whiteness allows one to disavow responsibility for and deny complicity in the social structures that seem to designate certain forms of life as less valuable. Social structures which designate black and brown life as less valuable and white life as most valuable reinforce white supremacy even when the whites who participate in those structures are nice, polite, and philanthropic.1 Colorblindness does nothing to hinder the workings of white supremacy in this context, and it can even impede efforts to reform the basic structures and institutions of our society.

The ideology of colorblindness overemphasizes intentional or purposeful acts of discrimination. When we think of racism, we tend to think of someone expressing contempt, denying someone a benefit, or imposing harm for some other racial group on the basis of race or imposing a harm on that basis. In short, we think of overt acts expressing clearly racist intentions, like those acts carried out by the Ku Klux Klan or Bull Connor. But things are not quite so clear anymore.

Most agree that intentional racism is wrong or, at least, socially unacceptable. Under such conditions, overtly racist acts expressing a clear intent are rare, though recent political developments have begun to change this. More indirect forms, however, proliferate under the guises of colorblindness and implicit bias: the job applicant is not a “right fit” for the position, she does not look “the part” of whatever role, he looked like a “criminal,” she does not speak “proper” English, he does not look “professional,” they do not “fit in” with the local culture, he is not “smart” enough, etc.2

Each of these judgments is, at face value, race-neutral and supposedly applied to individuals who fail to meet some standard regardless of race. But their ambiguity can also serve as a cover for implicit racism or standards of judgment that already include differing valuations of race. Take, for example, what it means to look like a criminal. What about someone’s appearance indicates a tendency to criminality? Is it attire, hairstyle, hygiene, or physical comportment? How do we know? The point is that the standards we use to judge such matters very often already include racially-charged beliefs. These beliefs express what everyone already knows, the “common sense” regarding such matters. But these beliefs are often little more than false stereotypes, anecdotes, or sweeping judgments on the basis of a few, limited experiences: the criminal Mexican, the welfare queen, the Muslim terrorist, the black thug, etc. Lingering unacknowledged in the background is the fact that the norms of whiteness frequently serve as the baseline for such judgments. However we go about deciding these matters, we must recognize that there is no neutral basis by which to decide. Assuming that there is guarantees one’s desired outcome.

We should also question how these beliefs and judgments come to be formed, the processes through which they are constructed. As historians have argued, racial stereotypes and common sense tend to be the products of concerted efforts to prevent people of color from claiming full freedom and equality as citizens, disciples, and human beings. A primary focus on intentional racism omits implicit racism that flies beneath colorblind judgments and beliefs, while allowing white supremacy to go unnamed.

Emphasizing acts of racism also overlooks structural or institutional expressions of white supremacy in habit and custom, law and policy. American history overflows with examples: slavery, the three-fifths compromise, Dred Scott v. Sandford, Johnson v. McIntosh, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Chinese Exclusion Case, Korematsu v. US, Jim Crow, redlining and restrictive covenants, school segregation, and more. These are only a few of the most obviously discriminatory cases and policies. To these we might add laws and policies which, though racially-neutral at face value, had a disparate impact on communities of color: the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from social security and labor laws; the explosion of the prison-industrial complex; granting vast amounts of unaccountable discretion to law enforcement, district attorneys, and judges; the war on drugs; the dismantling of welfare programs; tying educational funding to property value; voter identification laws; and harsh and punitive immigration policies. The cumulative effect of these laws and policies, the results of bipartisan efforts, has been the entrenchment of a racial hierarchy that subordinates black and brown communities to white communities and interests. The image of American citizenship that emerges is one in which people of color are unfit for the full benefits of citizenship and are instead relegated to second-class status. The message sent is loud and clear: people of color are less valuable, less worthy, less dignified.

Out of this arises the proclamation that black lives matter—not to assert racial superiority, but to claim equal citizenship, dignity, and status. When those at the bottom of the racial hierarchy of white supremacy are valued equally with those at the top, all lives will truly matter. Black and brown people are valuable even if not in fact valued by the practices and institutions of racial subordination. Unfortunately, movements by people of color that revalue demeaned identities and claim equality in the face of white supremacy are often labeled identity politics and are seen as divisive. Those making such claims about struggles for freedom and equality are held captive by a picture of race, as if the act of redeeming identities imposed by white supremacy were itself the cause of the division rather than a remedy. We need to understand white supremacy as the original form of identity politics to which people of color have been forced to respond. This understanding does the most justice to our shared history and current political environment.

Though the legal and social prohibition of intentional racism is an undeniable good, structural and institutional white supremacy has been allowed to flourish in an era of colorblindness and neoliberalism. Colorblindness, as argued above, prevents us from noticing and addressing the devastating consequences of white supremacy. Neoliberalism undermines our capacities to sustain shared projects oriented toward the common good and instead promotes privatization and free markets, both of which are breeding grounds for discriminations of various sorts. (Neoliberalism is a fuzzy concept. By it, I merely mean increased reliance on privatization, deregulation, and free markets as means of ordering society.) Imagine responding to the civil rights movement, as some did, by insisting that free markets would eventually resolve racial discrimination, if only the government stepped aside. It is no coincidence that the ostensibly racial-neutral policies named above were enacted as free-market ideologies developed in response to the civil rights movement. Rather than reforming vital institutions, the move toward privatization and free-market solutions dissolves them, leaving white supremacy undisturbed. We can do better.

As Christians, we need to reflect more deeply on the practices and institutions of white supremacy in our churches, schools, and communities. White supremacy challenges Christian teachings: prohibitions of idolatry, what it is to be created in the image of God, the command to love our neighbors as exemplified by the good Samaritan, the leveling force that our unity in Christ has on social relations, and the importance of the common good.3 We need to find the resources within our religious and theological traditions to help in the struggle for freedom and equality.4 Where freedom was once the privilege of an elite few, wealthy enough to secure their economic independence on the backs of slaves, equality is a democratic ideal that levels vicious hierarchies.

It seems to me that a Gospel undistorted by the predominant ideologies of our age has much to say about such issues. For did not Jesus claim to fulfill the scripture, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”? And did not Paul write, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”? Proclaiming this Gospel in our time requires faith, hope, and love supported by justice, courage, and wisdom. It is not a popular message, but one desperately needed today.

About the Author
  • Gustavo Maya is a PhD candidate at Princeton University in the program in Religion, Ethics and Politics. Prior to Princeton, he received a B.A. from Fresno Pacific University, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley. His dissertation examines exploitation and resistance among the farmworkers led by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong.

  1. Why is it always one group trying to prove its benevolence to the others? The answer is partly structural and partly ideological. One group actually benefits from greater power, but it also draws on the special value that is unconsciously associated with the powerful. The group with the least power comes to be viewed as the least valuable, the least worthy. They are cast in the role of victims in need of charity, rather than in the role of co-equal citizens.  

  2. Note the importance of sight and appearance. Colorblindness seems to shift the emphasis from race to proxies for race. 

  3. These claims require unpacking which I do not have the space to explain here, although those familiar with these teachings might already begin to see how they relate to the problem of white supremacy.  

  4. By freedom, I mean freedom from domination. To be dominated is to be in a position subject to arbitrary exercises of power, the position characteristic of a slave. To be free is to be protected from arbitrary and unaccountable power. By equality, I mean the democratic expansion of such freedom to all.  

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