Being colorblind is racist

Last week, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Myles Brown and I addressed what we found to be an upsettingly narrow public discussion surrounding Jalen Rose’s words in the Fab Five documentary and Grant Hill’s response in the New York Times.

Evaluating the Hill vs. Rose scorecard was small potatoes in comparison to the portrait of poverty and pain that Rose offered through his honest recounting of how he felt as a 18 year old from inner-city Detroit. It was tricky to distill my ideas, but luckily, I came across some relevant opinions of someone much more insightful than me in the February issue of The Sun magazine.

In an interview conducted by Arnie Cooper with Ohio State professor and lawyer Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are oodles of interesting and disturbing thoughts about the US Justice system, the War on Drugs, incarceration trends, race and public policy. For instance, did you know that despite the fact that the majority of the country’s illegal drug users and dealers are white, 75% of incarcerated drug users are black or Latino? Once incarcerated, rather than rehabilitating to become productive members of society, the convicted lose the right to vote, and have a much more difficult time finding employment. Alexander sees this a symptom of a backward War on Drugs, which began—in her opinion, as a political tool—in 1982 (a couple years before crack hit predominantly black inner cities) and disproportionately and negatively affects black communities.

Interestingly, Alexander believes the civil-right movement has been hampered by the goal of “colorblindness”—the idea that “once we reach this colorblind nirvana, racial consciousness won’t be necessary” because the effects of racism will not be evident has “proved disastrous for African Americans.”

“The concept has been interpreted to mean we should be indifferent to someone’s race, when the goal of civil-rights advocates in the 1960s was to encourage citizens to care about people of other races, not to be blind or indifferent to them. Colorblindess has inspired callousness. When people say, “I don’t care if he’s black,” what they’re really saying is that they’re not willing to view his experience in racial terms. Not caring about a person’s race is presented as some kind of virtue, as if it will lead us to act in a fair and nondiscriminatory way. In fact, not caring can be a form of cruelty, I firmly believe that we should be encouraging people to see and appreciate racial differences, to celebrate the contributions made by those of other ethnicities, and to care about the suffering of groups who are defined by race. Racial-justice advocates need to change the language they use and abandon this quest for colorblindess.”

That is not to say all people are racists, but that people instinctively use apparent differences, whether in height, skin color or tax bracket to differentiate in a variety of ways. Refusing to acknowledge and address differences only perpetuates prevailing social disparities.

“There’s not a sharp division between what’s conscious and what’s unconscious. It’s more of a continuum. Sometimes we’re not fully aware of the extent of our bias. We know we harbor some stereotypes, but we don’t realize how much they influence our actions and our thought patterns. The bottom line is, when we see larger percentages of blacks in prison or being convicted of certain crimes, do we stop and ask ourselves whether it’s a result of racism in there system and tin the culture? I think the refusal to ask those questions is rooted in racial bias. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, the harm caused it the same.”

Maintaining a façade of political correctness isn’t progress.

Now this is all well and good when it comes to greater society. But sports, and certainly the predominantly black NBA, are designed to be a meritocracy. Become the best player, make the most money, win the most games—get your due. Even Rose, for all the adversity he faced as a young man, is now a millionaire. He kept clean, stayed focus, had the ability (just like Grant Hill), and so he achieved a successful life.

But Alexander cautions against using examples like Rose, Hill or even Barack Obama to argue against the mountain of evidence indicating that for many poor black Americans, the chances at escaping poverty are as slim today as in 1968.

“Black exceptionalism—having some black people who are visibly successful—actually strengthens the current caste system of mass incarceration, which is predicated on the notion that most blacks choose lives of crime, and that if they just made different choices, they could be successful like Barack Obama…Obama is held up as an example of what’s possible for black men today if only they followed the rules, but Obama himself has admitted to having violated drug laws. If he hadn’t been raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii and attended predominantly white schools and universities, he might be cycling in and out of the criminal-justice system, unable to get a job and perhaps denied the right to vote, much less president of the United States.”

We don’t often think of it in these terms, after all, Harvard Lew Review alumnus Barack Obama didn’t grow up wealthy. And even his own administration has been unwilling to engage in a dialogue about race, fearing the perception that he uses his race as a crutch. It’s far more appealing to believe that America, like the NBA, is a meritocracy. In a way it is. But one’s merit will go undiscovered in the face of longer odds and public apathy. Opines Alexander, “I think his avoidance of race and denial of its relevance closes off public dialogue.”

This all to say things aren’t OK, and that we’re nowhere near a “post-racial society,” which may not be desirable in the first place. I agree with Alexander when she resists the implication of Rose’s Fab Five words, “the idea that there is a “real” black person—that to be authentically black, one must hold a certain point of view.” It can be a destructive form of racism that encourages “black youth culture embrace gangsta culture in an effort to carve out a positive self-image in a society that stigmatizes them.” But it’s far more destructive to ignore the conditions that produce such a belief by lazily clinging to false notions of a “colorblind” ideal.

The NBA world is, at least publicly, home to many talented black players, coaches, GMs, one owner (!), writers and on-air commentators. It’s tempting to look at the basketball landscape and extrapolate to say those with talent, black or white, can make it. That’s the American ideal, and in some cases it’s true. But we should never allow trivial debates over the correct way to represent a race (what an unenviable task!) to cause us, as a nation, to lose focus on a systemic flaws in our society that reproduces deplorable living conditions by punishing it’s own victims.

When something like the Fab Five documentary provokes “the conversations we should be having,” to quote oft-used sportswriter speak for racial dialogue, let’s not lose sight of the real goal—an American society that truly provides equal opportunity for all communities.

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