Commentary: Blindspots Enable Systemic Racial Disparity

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final article in a series probing causation and correlation in the impact of racism on public policy issues, as discussed in a new book on the subject, which is pictured above and is available in the Easton Public Library.

On the cover of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone, a teenage boy is seen jumping from a diving board. Author Heather McGhee does not identify the young person in her book, but the reader is provided with clues about what the picture of the diver might represent. 

It could very well be a stand-in for the actual young Black person who drowned in 1953, swimming with three friends, two white and one Black, in the dangerous waters of Baltimore’s Patapsco River. They were swimming in the river because the city’s seven pools did not permit mixed racial swimming. 

The NAACP sued the city over the discrimination and after three years won an appeal, which ordered the city to allow all children to swim with all other children, regardless of race. That was short-lived progress, however, because white children stopped going to the pools. 

A similar court order in the late 1950’s desegregated a pool, the crown jewel of the Montgomery, Alabama Parks Department. The result was that city drained the pool, filled it with dirt, and paved it over. Children of both races were reported to have cried over the outcome, according to McGhee. 

And that metaphorically is what The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs All of Us is all about, the possibilities and pitfalls of racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion. 

It seemed in the 1950’s and1960’s that the civil rights movement would correct and possibly make amends for the history of racial discrimination and disparity that had had thrived on judicial blessings and legislative indifference for a century after the abolition of slavery.

In 1954 the court reversed the “separate but equal doctrine” of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, in which the court had disingenuously argued that “enforced separation of the two races [in public accommodations] stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

Then, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal, and that legislation was followed by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments against discrimination by state voting laws.

But the gains of integration under the law (de jure) did not alter the reality (de facto) of racial discrimination and disparity. This became apparent in widespread violent protest and unrest in 1967, in response to which a presidential commission concluded that America was “moving toward two societies—one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Race still mattered. 

In her book, Heather McGhee addresses her coming of age on race issues in her own experience as a person of color: “Growing up we were taught that the way to be a good person was to swear that race didn’t matter, at least not anymore.

“We had all leaned the lessons of the civil rights movement: everybody is equal.

“What was racist was pretending that people were any different from one another. The most un-racist people didn’t even see race at all; they were color blind,” McGhee writes.

In time, McGhee came to understand that this color blindness made the civil rights movement a victim of its own success. The prevailing idea came to be that the time had come to treat the issue of race with benign neglect. 

Not tenable, McGhee argues in her book, when the work left undone was the taking on of systemic racism, its power and structural hierarchy. “We now know that color blindness is a form of racial-disparity denial.”

“The moral logic and social appeal of color blindness is clear and many well-meaning people have embraced it” McGhee writes. “But when it is put into practice in a still-racist world, the result is more racism.”.

For an analysis of color blindness, McGhee turns in her book to sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silver’s, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, which holds that color-blind racism “explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of non-racial dynamics.”

“Whites rationalize minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations,” Bonilla-Silver writes. He concludes that such explanations are used to “exculpate white people from any responsibility for the status of people of color.”

“If racism is no longer actively limiting the lives of people of color then their failure to achieve parity with whites in wealth, education, employment, and other areas must mean there is something wrong with them, not with the social systems that somehow always benefits white people the most,” McGhee writes sardonically about the mindset of the color-blinded.

For McGhee, well-meaning or not, racial deniers “align themselves with, and give mainstream cover, to a powerful movement to turn back the clock on integration and equality. Color blindness has become the weapon of choice for conservatives in the courts and in politics.”

Consistent with her thesis that racism exacts a price from everyone, regardless of race, McGhee maintains that putting blinders on to avoid recognizing racial disparities is an equal-opportunity social problem.

“Color blindness has become a powerful weapon against progress for people of color, but as a denial mindset, it doesn’t do white people any favors either,” McGhee writes. 

While attending a diversity workshop in northern Kentucky in 2017, McGhee was given a dog-eared copy of a book by Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, written in the troubled late 1960’s. 

“I read that book cover to cover that night, and as I closed Berry’s book in that Kentucky hotel room, I thought about what it must be like to be part of the dominant group in an unfair ‘meritocracy’ that denies its oppression and pathologizes the oppressed,” wrote McGhee, noting that racial deniers are “terribly invested” in their own innocence.

“When you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and your own life,” Berry had written. McGhee writes, “This is the psychic and emotional damage that racism does to white people. This is the wound.”

Heather McGhee understands that the abandoning of color blindness and racial denial might cause “conscious and unconscious panic” in many white Americans. But such an outcome could be what she calls our biggest strategic asset: “The research has born this out in education, jurisprudence, business and the economy. Put simply, we need each other.”  

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