In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander criticized the “colorblind” approach to racial issues in America as a potential hindrance to addressing the issue of racism because it takes race completely out of the conversation. Racial disparities in income, police aggression, education, and other areas still continue within a colorblind society, but under a different justification. Alexander writes:
In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.
Recently a black man named Corey Jones was killed by a police officer in Florida. They interviewed his brother and one of the things that his brother noted was that they were raised not to see color. To demonstrate this, Corey’s brother pointed out that he was married to a white woman. It is curious that a man claiming to be raised not to see color was perfectly capable of seeing the color of his wife. It is even more curious that some black people continue to view the ability to be colorblind as virtue. In reality, being colorblind actually helps to perpetrate the problem of racism by making the victims of racism invisible or by denying the existence of systematic racism altogether.
Before continuing I wish to elaborate on what racism is precisely. Most people think of racism as an individual prejudice or bias against a group of people, but it actually runs deeper than that. Racism is much more than an individual prejudice. It is also systematic and is related to the power relationship between two racial groups. We can look at Jim Crow as an example. Jim Crow was a set of laws that stipulated that one racial group was allowed more rights and privileges than another. This was done largely because certain white people had the power to enforce such laws against the African American population, which was both numerically smaller and had fewer resources at its disposal to combat such laws. Racism in the United States was not only an individual prejudice, but it was also something that was literally encoded in the law.
Racism as a power relationship is important to understand because very often I see people of African descent being accused of reverse racism. The fact is that black people simply do not have the power to be reverse racists. For instance, the Zulu or Xhosa people of South Africa simply do not have the power to conquer England and force the population there to live under an apartheid regime like what was forced on the Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa. Certainly African people can have individual prejudices towards white people, but those prejudices typically do not become institutionalized or systematic. Moreover, those prejudices are often responses to white racism in the first place.
We have to have an understanding of racism before we can actually confront it for what it truly is. This is one of the reasons why the colorblind approach fails because it seems to think the problem with racism is merely in recognizing differences in race. These differences are a historical fact, however. We cannot deny, for instance, that people of African and European descent come out of different cultural and historical experiences, which continue to shape us today. To be colorblind and to not recognize such differences is to be unable to recognize some of the specific challenges that plague particular communities. Such differences do not have to represent an antagonist relationship, but the differences do exist nonetheless.
Certainly most people will recognize and admit to the existence of economic disparities between black and white communities in America, but the issue goes deeper than that. African Americans (and Africans across the Americas) are still grappling with the legacy of slavery. This was a legacy that robbed people of African descent of their very identities. Of their names, languages, religions, etc. It replaced that stolen identity with a set of ideas based on the concept of white supremacy. Africans were made to see themselves as ugly, lazy, and uncivilized. At the same time, they were made to associate whiteness with wealth, power, beauty, and civilization. To this day, we find African people bleaching their skins at alarming numbers all throughout the Americas and even on the African continent. Another example of the manner in which racism has destroyed the self-image of people of African descent is the doll test that Kenneth and Maime Clarke conducted in the 1950s. This test demonstrated that African American children had a preference for white dolls, as opposed to the dolls that looked like them. The same test was done in 2003 by Kiri Davis and produced the same results. Many of the black children felt that the black doll was the ugly one and the white one was the nice one.
To take a colorblind approach to the problem is to say that we should not recognize color, when in fact African people have been degraded precisely on the basis of their color; on the basis of their very identity. They have been taught that their culture was inferior. That they have no history and that they came from the savage jungles of Africa. These negative stereotypes are still with people of African descent today and the only way to correct it is to allow people of African descent to affirm their identity. Slogans such as “Black is Beautiful” in the 1970s have worked towards achieving that, but in my opinion it must go deeper than just an affirmation of blackness. The movement towards restoring the self-esteem of black people must also affirm Africanness, which includes history, culture, and even language. America is already an English speaking nation and schools help to further affirm European identity by teaching languages such as French, Spanish, and Latin in schools (I’ve taken all three courses at various points of my school career). The classrooms furnish white children with their history and cultural heritage, tracing it back to Europe. For black children to truly get an equal education in school, they must be given an education which does the same for them.
I have studied this issue in detail in Brazil and Cuba, and both of these nations demonstrate precisely why colorblindness does not work as a solution to addressing racism. Whereas colorblindness or “post-racial” are relatively new concepts in America’s public discourse on race, Brazil and Cuba were claiming to have been post-racial since slavery was abolished in those nations. Keep in mind that these were the two last nations to abolish slavery: Cuba did so in 1886 and Brazil did so in 1888. Unlike the United States, neither nation implemented explicitly racist laws after slavery ended. Whereas the United States put in place laws to prevent interracial marriage, whites in Brazil actually supported interracial marriages. This support was not because of a sincere belief in the equality of races. Just the opposite was the case. Interracial marriages were encouraged in Brazil as a way to breed out the black population. The following quote from a Brazil statesman makes this clear:
You of the United States are keeping the blacks as an entirely separate element, and you are not treating them in a way that fosters their self-respect. They will remain a menacing element in your civilization, permanent, and perhaps even after a while a growing element. With us the question tends to disappear, because the blacks themselves tend to disappear and become absorbed…
Brazil has also been the nation that is famous for touting “racial democracy.” The image of Brazil as a nation that is free of racial strife is far from the reality of the situation. Brazilian activist Edna Roland pointed out in 1997 that South Africa under apartheid had more black people in universities than Brazil did. This should give one some idea of the level of poverty and neglect which many Afro-Brazilians live in. Another activist in Brazil named Abdias do Nascimento stated:
The black people feel in their flesh the lie that is racial democracy. You just have to look at the black families. Where do they live? The black children—how are they educated. You’ll see that it’s all a lie.
The issue with addressing racism in Brazil has been that many people continue to deny its existence. Edna Roland said that fighting racism in Brazil was like fighting an invisible force. Much like in the United States, colorblindness in Brazil has not made racism suddenly vanish overnight. It has only made it more difficult to address the problem because many people are made to believe that the problem isn’t even there in the first place.
Cuba has not been as vocal as Brazil in declaring racial democracy, but it too has a history of attempting to downplay or deny the existence of racism, even when racial inequality is apparent. Jose Marti, the famed Cuban poet and freedom fighter, played an unwitting role in shaping Cuba’s racial democracy myth. Marti believed in a Cuban identity, which was neither African nor European. Marti argued that there were no races. This is an understandable view given that Marti was attempting to forge a united Cuban identity in the face of Spanish colonialism, but given the realities of life in Cuba this was also a view that was not particularly helpful to the Afro-Cuban population at the time. It has created a situation in which those black people who have come forward to challenge racism in Cuba are labeled as the racists and as threats to the goal of creating national unity.
The Universal Negro Improvement Association was an organization that was founded by a Jamaican named Marcus Garvey for the purpose of uniting people of African descent around the world to improve their conditions. Historian Tony Martin noted that the UNIA tended to “proliferate” in the most oppressive areas. The fact that Cuba had more branches of the UNIA than any other nation, except the United States, demonstrates the feelings of oppression that Afro-Cubans must have had. The UNIA was not the only organization in Cuba working to improve the plight of Afro-Cubans either. There was also the Partido Independiente de Color (Independent Party of Color), which was founded by Evaristo Estenoz in 1908 to address the racism in Cuba.
The PIC was criticized by both white and black Cubans for being a racist party that divided rather than united Cubans. Members of the PIC were accused of preferring to be black rather than Cuban. In an effort to shut down the PIC, and similar organizations that were working to correct racism in Cuba, the Cuban government passed what is known as the Morúa Law. This law outlawed all political parties that were based on race. It not only made the PIC an illegal party, but it also forced all of the Cuban branches of the UNIA to shut down. When the leaders of the PIC revolted to protest this law, the leaders, along with thousands of other Afro-Cubans, were massacred. Some of the causalities were Afro-Cubans that had fought in Cuba’s independence wars—people that had put their lives on the line to liberate Cuba, only to neglected after independence was won.
The law demonstrated that the elites of Cuba were willing to enforce the myth of racial democracy, even if it meant shutting down Afro-Cuban organizations or massacring thousands of people. One of the saddest aspects of the events that played out is that the PIC was denounced by many black people precisely because they also believed that the goals of the PIC was counterproductive to the creation of national unity in Cuba. They were convinced that the PIC was doing something wrong by addressing the plight of Afro-Cubans, rather than continuing the rhetoric of Cubanness that the elites in Cuba promoted. In fact, the Morúa Law is named after Morúa Delgado, a mixed race man who belonged to the Cuban elites and who opposed the PIC.
In both Cuba and Brazil having African ancestry was seen almost as having tainted blood. In Black in Latin America, historian Henry Louis Gates points to cases in both Brazil and in Cuba where mixed race people were able to purchase legal recognition of having “purity of blood.” That is to say they were essentially paying to be legally recognized as having only European ancestry, despite having an African parent or grandparent. The United States had the “one-drop rule,” which stated that one drop of African blood makes one an African. Cuba and Brazil had a reverse concept which allowed mixed race people to legally be recognized as white, given that they had enough wealth. Gates himself encountered a mixed race Cuban man who was classified as “white” on his ID card.
The fundamental problem in Brazil and Cuba is that both nations are nations rooted in white supremacy—the notion of whiteness as being the standard for which all people must strive towards. Because both nations have denied the existence of racism, it becomes impossible to actually address that fundamental problem. This colorblindness essentially renders the black population as an invisible group, even though census data shows that people of African heritage make up more than 50% of Brazil’s population and some estimates claim that Cubans of African heritage make up over 60% of the population. That is also what the colorblind approach in America does as well. The African American population has a unique set of challenges that the white population does not face, but in an attempt to be colorblind those issues simply are not addressed. This is what the Nixon Administration called the policy of “benign neglect.” This was described by Daniel Moynihan as “a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.” In other words, under this policy African Americans are expected to somehow make progress, while at the same time not explicitly or specifically talking about racial issues.
If we are serious about addressing the issue of racism we have to recognize that differences do exist. People of African descent have a historical experience that is unique and that continues to impact us today. To take a position that is colorblind is a position that not only blinds one to the realities of racism and racial disparities, but it also blinds one to the complexities of the struggles that people of African descent today undergo. I have written here mainly on the African experience because that is the one that I am most familiar with, but I would also extend this argument to the other oppressed groups as well, such as the Indigenous American population, which continues to be a virtually invisible social group in a number of nations, including the United States and my own native Guyana. The experiences of Indigenous people since 1492 certainly has many parallels with that of Africans, but they are also different in key areas and therefore the solution to these specific problems would be different as well. The colorblind approach is ineffective because it attempts to downplay or dismiss these differences.
Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
“Myths of Racial Democracy: Cuba, 1900-1912” by lejandro de la Fuente (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2503962?origin=JSTOR-pdf)
-Dwayne Wong (Omowale) a graduate of FIU and the author of a number of books on African and African Diaspora history, including “Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essays,” “The Life, Goals, and Achievements of Marcus Garvey,” and “Kingdoms and Civilizations of Africa.”