When you think about the world’s most intractable problems, racial inequality is among the most challenging. Societies have grappled not just with how to treat community members equitably in public spaces, but how to judge individuals based on qualities that extend beyond race in personal interactions. For many decades, some have pointed to “color blindness,” or treating people without regard to race or ethnicity, as the best way to promote equal opportunity. But, there are many who believe the approach downplays racial bias and silently maintains discrimination.
In this special live event hosted by TED and Open to Debate, we debate the question: “Does Color Blindness Perpetuate Racism?
Hi, everybody. Welcome to Open to Debate. I'm John Donvan, welcoming you to this special debate, where we are taking on the question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?" It's being co-hosted by my organization Open to Debate in partnership, I am delighted to say, with the organization we all know and love, and that is TED.
So to kick things off, I would like to invite the head of TED Chris Anderson to join me for just a couple of minutes. Hi, Chris. How are you?
Good to see you, John. We've actually long admired Open to Debate and your mission. I think the world needs more discourse around divisive topics. So that's what you do, and it's (laughs) really very meaningful for us here at TED to get to partner with you on this one.
And I want to say we're also thrilled to have you joining us today. We share a mission with TED, uh, where we, we share the view that hearing ideas is an important thing, that it matters, that ideas have power, that ideas live. Um, but we also recognize that very often ideas are going to be in conflict with one another, ideas held by people who disagree, but in good faith. And our goal is to get those people together and to get them into a forum where they can test their ideas against one another, to do so civilly, and to do so respectfully. Let's be open to listening. Let's potentially be open to changing our minds. But let's, in the end, learn that we can disagree with somebody without having to think that they are our enemy. And in that way, we hope to advance the cause of civil discourse.
So Chris, I just wanted to ask you, how does this idea of healthy debate kind of live up to TED's tagline of Ideas Worth Spreading?
Chris Anderson (01:34):
Well, I think it's integral to it. You know, because of our format of these short talks, it's easy for someone to conclude that we think that an idea can just come packaged neatly in 14 minutes or 12 minutes or whatever. And we actually don't think that. I think most ideas don't arrive in the world fully formed. They actually need testing, and they need exploration, and they need nuance, and they need defending, and they need critiquing.
And so it's, it's actually very exciting to have this chance now to dive in deeper.
And today's event is definitely going to explore an idea that we hope we can explore with some nuance. It's, it's been one that has been debated for decades. It's very much been in the headlines, uh, recently as a result of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions. And it, uh... I'll, I'll let you take it, uh, because we really got the inspiration from a TED Talk.
Well, indeed. One of today's (laughs) debates is Coleman Hughes gave a talk about color blindness at our flagship event this year in Vancouver. It's a powerful talk, and it, and it sparked, uh, a lot of emotion, a lot of reaction, a lot of pushback, a lot of discussion, a lot of interest. And it's a, it's a wonderful chance to dive deeper into, into that issue.
And it's, it's a test on something that people feel so passionately about, about whether we can do this, John, whether we can actually debate in good spirits and, and in good faith and so forth. I'm, I'm excited to see how this goes.
John Donvan (02:54):
Well, as you say, it inspired this program we're about to do now. And again, thanks so much for kicking things off with me, and we'll get started.
Thank you. Good luck.
So to what we are debating this time, when the Supreme Court recently struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions, one of the concepts that the conservative and liberal justices disagreed on was that of color blindness. The idea that not using race to determine either one's judgment of another person or how to offer opportunities to another person is the most fair way to proceed and amounts to treating everyone equally.
But color blindness defined that way also has many critics who say that the concept overlooks the realities of racism that persists in our society and that not taking race into account in many situations is the opposite of being fair.
So the court may have settled the law on affirmative action for now, but color blindness as a value is far from a settled question. And that is what we are taking on in this debate, where we are asking, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?"
So let's get to it and meet our debaters. Arguing that the answer to that question is yes, I want to welcome New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie. Jamelle, welcome back to Open to Debate. It's great to have you here.
Thank you for having me.
And answering no to the question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?," he is host of the podcast Conversations with Coleman, contributing writer to the Free Press, also a contributor to CNN, Coleman Hughes. Coleman, you're also a previous guest on the program. Welcome back to Open to Debate.
Great to be back.
So let's get on to our opening statements. Jamelle, you are up first. Once again, an answer to the question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism," you are saying, "Yes, it does." Please tell us why.
So as you said, the question at hand is, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?" And I think that before we try to answer the question, it is worth defining the terms of the question, in part because people have different senses of what each of these words mean. So color blindness, I think it's fair to say, in its modern form is generally understood as Coleman has written in fact, to be the idea that we should strive to treat people without regard to race in our public policy and our private lives.
My main concern here is public policy. So I think we can say that to be colorblind means that the state in particular does not see race as a social reality, does not acknowledge it. But I think this actually raises a additional question, which is, "What is race?" And we know that race does not exist independently of a set of historic conditions. Uh, specifically the modern idea of race as we know it emerges out of the subordination of indigenous Americans and various groups of Africans during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a conceptual schema that explained and justified their enslavement and exploitation.
And so I think given those facts, we would be on safe ground to say that race refers to the set of social relations produced by racism. It is the mark on our social reality, left by the fact that one group needed some kind of ontological explanation for why another group was destined to be enslaved.
So if that's race, then our definition of racism is straightforward. In terms of social policy, it should be broadly agreeable to say that racism, emphasis on the ism here, is a system of social action meant to inscribe relationships of subordination and domination between groups. The political, ideological, economic, juridical systems created to preserve a supposedly natural domination of one group over another, that's racism.
When we say perpetuate, we mean to continue on or to reinscribe. To say that we are reinscribing a problem is to say that we aren't alleviating or ameliorating it.
So one way we can pose our initial question is to ask, "Can you ameliorate racism as a system of subordination and domination while turning a blind eye to the social relations produced by that subordination and domination?" Now, if racism is simply another form of inequality, and that's what it is, then our question really is about how we address inequality generally.
So I think we can substitute inequality for racism in the question and pull it up a level of abstraction to this. Can you ameliorate a system of inequality without reference or retention to the social relations produced by that system of inequality? And I think the obvious answer is no.
Consider class. Class is not simply question of income. It is a relationship between two groups or multiple groups as it relates to production. And as a result, we mostly recognize that to reduce or, or even end class inequality, we have to also take account of class domination. We can't simply redistribute wealth from one group to another. We have to do something about the relationship between laborers and owners of capital and everyone in between. Otherwise, we end up in the same place that we started.
And so back in the 1930s, when we began to really tackle class inequality in a serious way, we passed both the Social Security Act and the Works Progress Administration, but also the National Labor Relations Act, aimed directly at reconfiguring the relationships between workers and nonworkers. We recognized that it was not simply people who were disadvantaged, it was workers, and we acted accordingly.
So unless racism is a special kind of inequality, then the same goes for it as well. The way to address it, to ameliorate it is to at least take note of and respond to the social relations that structured and continue to structure its ongoing existence. Uh, and that would put us against, uh, an idea of color blindness.
Thank you very much, Jamelle. Coleman Hughes, you are up next. Uh, you are answering no to the question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?" Here's your chance to tell us why.
Our question today is, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism," and my answer is an emphatic no. Color blindness historically and today is actually the best way to fight racism. Color blindness doesn't mean pretending not to see race, right? We all see race, of course. We can't help it. It means that once we've noticed race, we still commit to treating people without regard to it, both in our personal lives and in our public policy. Color blindness is the antidote to the poison of racism.
Now, there's been a very dishonest but effective PR campaign against color blindness for decades. It's been painted as somehow naïve at best or actually racist at worst. But I'm here to say today that the principle of color blindness, the same principle which, uh, my opponent attacks today, is the one that our most celebrated civil rights luminaries wielded to great effect in the battle against white supremacy and segregation.
The idea that color blindness is racist is not just untrue. It's the opposite of the truth. The leader of the most important abolitionist organization Wendell Phillips said in 1865 that the end goal of the abolition movement was to create a government colorblind.
The founder of the original March on Washington movement A. Philip Randolph had atop his list of demands the elimination of every law that made a racial distinction.
Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP made Justice Harlan's phrase, "Our Constitution is colorblind," their mantra and quoted his Plessy dissent in nearly every anti-segregation court case they filed.
The senators who sponsored the Civil Rights Act literally called it colorblind.
Bayard Rustin wrote that race-based preferential policies had nothing to do with and were indeed antithetical to the civil rights movement.
Now, my opponent's in the rather unenviable position of having to argue that all of these civil rights activists were somehow perpetuating racism by promoting color blindness. It's not just not true. It's the opposite of the truth.
Our failure to enshrine color blindness has led to a list of disastrous race-based policies. I could talk about the Restaurant Revitalization Program, which you heard about at TED, where emergency funds for restaurants were handed out primarily based on race and gender identity. I could talk about Governor Kathy Hochul's recommendation to hand out limited COVID antivirals based in part on racial identity of the patient. Or we could talk about affirmative action.
Now, my opponent's employer, the New York Times, ran an interesting podcast about it. They noted a college tutor in Queens, uh, who had lots of Asian students as young as 16, 17 years old who were desperately scrubbing their applications of any sign that they might be Asian, erasing things like chess club and math club, because they know the admissions officers on the other end would devalue their application if they were known to be Asian, which is virtually identical to what Jewish kids had to do applying to college in the first half of the 20th century.
And once again, my opponent's in the unenviable position of arguing that it's not these policies that perpetuate racism, but it's somehow ending them, which is really racist. Again, I submit it's not just untrue. It's the opposite of the truth. If you want to fight racism, remove race from public policy. And if you want to fight injustice, do so based on class. And by definition, class policies will disproportionately benefit Blacks and Hispanics, because they are disproportionately likely to be poor. That was the position of the civil rights movement, and that is my position today.
Okay. So now, we know where each of you stand and why. We'll be diving into discussion on our question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?," right after this.
Welcome back to Open to Debate. I'm John Donvan, and we have Jamelle Bouie and Coleman Hughes debating this question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?" And in the opening statements, we saw Jamelle Bouie taking the point of view that to embrace color blindness is to turn a blind eye to reality, the reality that, uh, racism exists and continues to exist. He makes the point that you can't begin to address inequality if you don't want to name and acknowledge that inequality.
Um, Coleman Hughes argues color blindness is the antidote to racism. He would enshrine color blindness in our institutions and in our thoughts and ideas and in our documents and that the failure to do so has actually exacerbated racism, leading to, uh, race conscious policies that he has described as disastrous.
Um, Jamelle, I want to go to you first and ask you to address Coleman's recitation of the list, starting with abolitionists and then through leaders of the civil rights movement, embracing color blindness as he defines it. And I'd like you to take on the historical aspect of the term color blindness as Coleman has done and please respond to it.
Well, I want to be- begin this with a focus on Wendell Phillips in particular. If people aren't aware of Wendell Phillips, he's probably the, one of the most famous abolitionists of the Antebellum period, sort of really a luminary.
It's very significant that Coleman, uh, points to Wendell Phillips as kind of the origin point for the term color blindness. And in Coleman's gloss, he says that what Phillips meant was a government that did not recognize race in any manner, that took an entirely neutral approach to citizens. But that's... I, I don't think that's quite correct.
So Wendell Phillips uses the term color blind, or specifically the phrase in government color blind, in a big debate between Phillips and Garrison and Douglass and other abolitionists over President Lincoln's initial reconstruction policies. Now, Lincoln's initial reconstruction policies centered on the quick readmission of Louisiana to the Union. And in the relevant portion of the speech, the portion that leads up to the use of the phrase government color blind, Phillips excoriates this policy. And the reasoning he gives is that simply readmitting Louisiana without any attention to the relationships of subordination and domination between whites and Blacks in the state would not address anything. It simply recapitulated the conditions of slavery. We'd be right back to where we w- started.
Uh, it's in that context that he says, "a government color blind," no distinction of race in the camp or of in the Senate. Uh, so color blindness here in the context of the portion of the speech does not mean the non-recognition of race. It means the non-recognition of racism, that is the rejection of the legitimacy of any kind of hierarchy by the state. The state says there's no race hierarchies. No one is above or below.
You, it sounds like you are saying that this, this disagreement about what we meant by color blindness goes way back. And I want to take that to Coleman.
I'll start simply by quoting Wendell Phillips, and I will let the audience decide what he means by this. "God has chained this generation to the one great duty of eliminating from American politics the idea of race. Whenever an American magistrate is color blind, unable to distinguish white from black, when that day comes, the duty of this generation is done and sealed, and this epoch is closed."
It seemed very much that by color blind, he meant what I mean by it. And when Phillips passed away, America's first Black judge, George, uh, Lewis Ruffin described him as one of the few white Americans wholly color blind and free from race prejudice.
Taken together, it seems that c-, you know, W- Wendell Phillips really meant color blind when he said color blind.
So again, we have to remember we have to consider the context of the late 1860s. And so what Phillips wants is, first and foremost, he wants Black Americans to have the vote, which is considered at the time to not be a color blind (laughs) policy. It's very much considered to be a race conscious policy. And he describes it as such in this 1865 speech.
The second thing is he wants the redistribution of land, specifically to freed people, but also some free people. And so again, this is not a color blind policy, uh, as we understand it today.
So you were, were left with kind of a bind, right? Like, is Phillips just self-contradictory or is he, again, not talking about the recognition of race as identity, but the recognition of racism as a system of caste insubordination.
There is not really a language for race as identity back in the 19th century, but there was a language, uh, of race and racism as caste insubordination. And the subsequent examples that Coleman used in his opening, these figures are also talking about a context where race means in public policy, in, in judicial policy, it means a system of subordination. It means a system of domination.
And so in that context, color blindness takes on a very different hue, no pun intended. And the solutions that these folks come up with, um, are not ones that pay zero attention to those relationships of subordination and domination.
Okay. It's, it's clear that the two of you disagree on how you interpret the his- historical use of the term, but I want to move now on, Coleman, for you to address the thrust of what I believe is Jamelle's opening argument, that color blindness also amounts to essentially being blind to reality. And that turning a blind eye to that reality means not setting yourself up to deal with that reality.
So can you address that piece of his argument, that you've, you've got to see it, you've got to name it to address it.
This is a total straw man. Eh, you know, I, I think everyone would acknowledge that race is a social reality. There are also many other variables in life that are social realities, like, um, beauty, nepotism, height. Y- scientists will, will find that people c- have an average tendency to treat people differently on all, along all kinds of dimensions.
It's a separate question how one fights that. If you want to fight it by re-enshrining that same principle into policy and trying to reverse discriminate along those lines, well, that's fine. That may be your position. But you can't then say to people who disagree with you, "Well, you just aren't acknowledging that this is a social reality."
If you want to discriminate along a particular dimension, you should simply own that position. But you shouldn't say of your opponents that, "You guys are saying this, this social reality, uh, doesn't exist." These are two different positions.
So Jamelle, Coleman takes issue with, with your claim that it's a head-in-the-sand attitude.
Yeah. So I, I should say first that it's a bit of a category error to analogize race to beauty or height or eye color or... You know, that's not what race and racism (laughs) are. They aren't analogous to this, first of all because they're not biologically real, right, like skin color is. But the meaning we attach to it is socially constructed.
But the second is the United States isn't marked by a system of hierarchy based off of hair color or based off of height. There was no kind of like Jim Crow for short people, right? There was a system of subordination and domination beginning in slavery, recapitulated and reinscribed after reconstruction, continued through Jim Crow, spread across the country. They did structure people's outcomes based off of this thing that we call race.
And I want to, I want to make really clear what we're talking about is entrenched segregation, it's exposure to concentrated poverty, it's a persistent exclusion from the labor market, it's exposure to premature death, it's the degradation of political equality in a system that hinges on it.
And so to tackle these things, which come as a bundle, right, some, some groups are affected by one or the other, but racism bundles them up and attaches them to particular groups. It seems to me to, as, to use your phrasing, kind of head-in-the-sand to then pretend like we're not seeing who exactly that it's responding to.
Jamelle is right to point out that, um, you know, beauty and hair color are not analogous to race in, in every sense. I, I wasn't saying that. I w-, I was just saying in the sense of his, his previous argument.
Um, but, you know, certainly, the civil rights luminaries of the past, from Dr. King, uh, on down, were hardly head-in-the-sand about the history of racism, and they knew it on a visceral level, uh, that even we today could not. And yet their proposal to address was color blind policy and class-based anti-poverty policy, right?
Dr. King in his book Why We Can't Wait, he address this specific problem of preferential treatment or compensation for what would have been then called the Negro. And what he said, his proposal, and he knew that there was affirmative action going on in India, he instead proposed something he called the Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, which would target the white and Black poor alike.
Now, the advantages of this are twofold. First is that class is a closer proxy to true disadvantage. So you are actually targeting more precisely the problem you're trying to address, which is intergenerational poverty regardless of its skin color. And secondly, class-based policies tend to be more popular than race-based policies, I think precisely f- for that reason, because most people, um, at least many people and I would share this instinct, have the instinct that the true disadvantage is class and poverty. That is really closer to what we mean when we're talking about privilege and disadvantage than skin color, especially nowadays.
So Jamelle, I want to pick up from that very thought. Uh, given that Coleman talked about several people, uh, who were involved in civil rights movements, using the word color blindness as a positive. And I think that that, that understanding has broad popular appeal.
But I want to ask you, is, is it your contention that those who are asserting, uh, color blindness as a positive value, are they cynically weaponizing the term or are they sincere and perhaps, in your view, misguided?
I think people are sincere. I would not accuse someone of cynically using a term, uh, in the absence of any evidence of, of cynical use of the term. I think they're very sincere.
There are a few substantive points that Coleman made that I really think are worth addressing, and that is his continuous advocation of civil rights luminaries and, uh, Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, uh, somehow advocates for an entirely race neutral set of policies.
Now, we can say for certain that Rustin and King wanted eventually a color blind society, one in which race had no particular significance on people's lives. And I want that society as well. I think we can all agree on that, or 99% of us.
But when it came to dealing with the situation of Black Americans in the '60s, in the '50s, in the '70s, I think it is a little disingenuous to suggest that they were absolutely opposed to race conscious policies, right? So he was-
I, let, let... I, I want to stop you there, Jamelle, 'cause you-
... I want to go right to that point to Coleman-
... that, that in fact, uh, Coleman, Jamelle is saying that Dr. King and others, while using the term color blindness as an aspiration, that they were not opposed to race specific solutions and policies. And I'm sure that Jamelle can cite some examples. But it, it sort of is a challenge to your claim that, uh, I think you're making the case that they would not have wanted anything that would be race specific. He's saying that's not true.
I'm not sure you can cite examples, actually, and I, I... But I'm sure that I can. So for example, Bayard Rustin, who en- ghost wrote parts of, uh, MLK's book Why We Can't Wait and organized the famous March on Washington and was in MLK's inner circle, he wrote to the Wall Street Journal in 1974 when affirmative action was a controversy.
He said, "The controversy over quotas and preferential treatment did not originate in the agenda of the civil rights movement. The leaders of the civil rights movement, King, Randolph, Wilkins, and others, were explicit in opposing reverse discrimination. They were opposed on philosophical grounds, but were also motivated by pragmatic political considerations."
Now, I think it would be convenient for my opponent in this debate if there were analogously explicit quotes of someone like Dr. King or Rustin saying, "Actually, we're for this. Like, we're for race-based policy." But I'm not sure that they actually exist.
So in 1987, a writer made the exact argument that Coleman is making now, that Bayard Rustin was a firm opponent of anything that might smack of race preferences, of anything of them, of the, of the, of the sort.
And the chairman, one of the chairmen of the A. Philip Randolph Institute wrote to the New York Times to contest this and say, in fact, that, while, uh, while Rustin was president of the institute in the 1970s, his exact time period, he was also board chairman of the recruitment and training program designed to rectify under-representation of Black and other minority groups in the construction and building trades. It placed 18,000 qualified minority group members as apprentices in the building trades nationally.
Uh, and he goes on to clarify that Rustin was not opposed to race consciousness in public policy. He was opposed to quotas, which he viewed as undemocratic. But he was not opposed to race consciousness. And I would, I would ask Coleman not to equate the two things, right? You can be opposed to quotas, not opposed to race consciousness, 'cause that can take very many different forms when it comes to making public policy there.
Yeah. I, I do want to move on to one more topic. But Coleman, you, please take your response to that.
Rustin's position, which is consistent with, I think, later description by the leader of the A. Philip Randolph Association, was that there should be aggressive outreach to minority a- and Black candidates, followed by a strict judging by the merit principle.
Now, if, if that's your position, that is a, that, that is far closer to the color blind position with respect to the merit principle than it is to the current status quo of race conscious policy.
I don't think that's the case at all. I don't think you can point to it. Quotas have been illegal in the United States for decades now. So it, you, you're making a distinction here that doesn't actually exists and sort of subsuming what is actually race conscious policy under this rubric of color blindness, in which case, yeah, I guess we, I guess we all agree.
Hold on. He said quotas and preferential treatment in the quote that I said. I would just like to point that out.
All right. I want to go to the most recent discussion of the issue of color blindness, which of course goes to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions.
And Justice Thomas wrote a 53-page concurring opinion, in which he asserted, uh, several times that the Constitution itself is color blind. He also took issue with some of the liberal justices who, who, Jamelle, were essentially arguing your position, that, uh, color blindness would be to, um, to, to make oneself blind to, to reality. And Justice Thomas responded to one of Justice Jackson's a- arguments, uh, qu-, in, in qu- qu- quite, quite sharp language.
He wrote this, "Individuals are the sum of their unique experiences, challenges, and accomplishments. What matters is not the barriers they face, but how they choose to confront them. And their race is not to blame for everything good or bad that happens in their lives. A contrary myopic worldview based on individuals' skin color to the total occlusion of their personal choices is nothing short of racial determinism."
That's Justice Thomas responding to a point made by Justice Jackson. He sort of says it's either or. Either we're in a color blind world or we're in a world where individuals' skin color is the thing that ex-, determines everything in their life.
Is that a fair dichotomy that he's presenting? And if not, where's the nuance?
I don't think it's a fair dichotomy. I think it's very much a straw man, in part because no one, no one in our conversation or in the conversation among the justices, is making the claim that race is the single most determinative thing. Everyone acknowledges, even 150 years ago, right, that exceptional individuals can make their way and find success.
The dispute, I suppose, is what do we do about group inequality? We can perceive not just individual differences in talent, but, like, group inequalities that are tied to a very well-established historical record.
And I think Justice Thomas and his colleague, Justice Jackson particular, what, what they have is a fundamental disagreement. I think Thomas would say and has said that more or less as long as exceptional individuals can get out of, can surpass, uh, group inequalities in their legacy, that we don't have to worry too much about group inequalities.
And I think Justice Jackson, who is very much an egalitarian, is saying that, no, that we need to deal with group inequalities. And race, racism, these are, this is a particular vector of inequality that we can't simply ignore. And that's different than class inequality, because the former implicates one's personhood in a way that class inequality doesn't necessarily.
And Coleman, the s-, the, the same question to you. Do you think that that's a fair dichotomy?
No, I don't think that's a fair dichotomy. I think there is a lot of gray area in between it. I wouldn't besmirch anyone who disagrees with me as, as thinking race is the only thing in life.
However, we should back up and understand the disagreement between the justices in the context of affirmative action, which is not a policy that has anything to do with deep inequality in our society, but a policy that f-, that affects, according to Princeton sociologist Thomas Epsenshade, about 1% of Black H- and Hispanic 18 year-olds in any given year. The other 99%, they either didn't graduate high school or they didn't go to a college selective enough to practice affirmative action.
The class-based policies that I'm talking about, that Dr. King advocated, they are actually getting to the core of intergenerational poverty, the real issue, rather than a race-based policy that is frankly about Black and Hispanic elites like me that, by and large, are not at the core of what we're talking about when we talk about the legacy of slavery and so forth.
We're going to wrap up our discussion there. And when we come back, we're going to bring in some more voices to move along the question further. Does color blindness perpetuate racism? That's what we're asking. We'll be right back.
Welcome back to Open to Debate. I'm John Donvan. I am joined by Jamelle Bouie and Coleman Hughes, debating this question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?"
Something we like to do is to bring in other voices, people who have been thinking and writing about the same issue that we're debating. Uh, first up, we have Candis Watts Smith, who is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Duke and a freelancer for the Washington Post. Candis, thanks so much for joining us and welcome.
Candis Watts Smith
Sure. Thanks. My question is what is a good metric of racial progress? When do we know that the time for not really considering race in public policy has come?
Jamelle, can you take that first?
Sure. I, I think my focus on group inequality and inequalities across different realms offers the right kind of metric, right? So we know right now, for example, that a Black middle class family lives in a poverty stricken neighborhood with a level of poverty that the typical white middle class family will never experience in their lives. Like, that's, that's a thing that we know.
And so we can have a metric, right? Like, one possible metric is looking at neighborhood poverty, neighborhood inequality. And socioeconomic integration, in this case, uh, has a clear racial component, because Black families are existing in a very different kind of space. It's a legacy of past policies. That is not even legacy of past policies, sort of like the direct consequences of past policies.
And so if 30 years down the road we find that there's no meaningful difference, uh, in the kinds of, uh, disadvantage faced by middle class Black and white families, then we can say, "Yeah, we've made considerable racial progress."
Now, for me, class-based policy has to also take account of this other dimension of inequality, which is actually the civil rights position. The civil rights position is we have to take account of this dimension of racial inequality in addition to doing broad-based class-based actions. The two have to happen in tandem. It's not one or the other.
Coleman, I, I, I want to give you a chance to answer the question, but I think your answer to the question is, "We're already there." So I'm not sure how, how to relate it to you in terms of the, the metrics being there.
Let me briefly respond to, to, to Jamelle's point. He's correct to point out that even when you hold race constant, there can be leftover income differences such as the statistic that he pointed to.
Let me clarify. This isn't an income difference. This is a exposure to. So it's not so much that Black middle class families have l- less money, but that-
They're in the same neighborhood. Yeah.
... but that they're in-
... much more segregated and much poorer neighborhoods.
Agreed. So just briefly to respond to that, if I were a college administrator who wanted to factor that into my calculus, which a valid point of view whether you agree with it or not, what would be the better thing to do, to use race as a second best proxy for that or actually to get the data on people's census tracks from their address and incorporate that into some sort of adversity score? I would very much say the second, and that would be consistent with my position.
I don't think that we should use race as a second or third best proxy for something else when we can actually use that thing, uh, directly.
Now, to address myself to the questioner's point, I think it is based on a false premise that color blindness depends on some era that we have reached as a society. Color blindness is a philosophy of how to fight racism that in principle makes sense no matter how much or how little racism there is. That is why the color blind philosophy was at the heart of the civil rights movement when there was far more racism than there is today.
So it's not like color blindness only makes sense when you get to a certain point. It is a method of fighting racism regardless of how much there is in society.
I now want to bring in, uh, for our next question Thomas Chatterton Williams. Thomas is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is author of Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. Um, and Thomas, you have, uh, debated with us previously, so it's good to see you back with us again. Uh, thanks for joining us, and come on in with your question.
Thomas Chatterton Williams
Hi. Thanks for having me. Um, there have long been studies in the American Journal of Education and elsewhere showing that nearly half of all so-called Black students at Ivy League universities are either foreign born or children of immigrants, who are often far more upwardly mobile than American descendants of slaves.
It seems that such color consciousness that would conflate the experiences of all so-called Black people around the world might even work contrary to American Black people's specific interests, as well as the interests, of course, of other Americans of other ethnic backgrounds who are also competing for coveted spaces in this society.
How then does such a consistently disingenuous proxy for past discrimination adequately address a system of inequality, in Jamelle's framing, in a fair and relevant way for all Americans, but specifically those who are poor or descendants of American slaves? Thank you.
Uh, Jamelle, I think the question was mostly directed to you, but Coleman, you're going to get a shot at it also.
You know, I think the relevant things when we're talking about race in public policy are group inequalities that, yes, affect the, uh, the most disadvantaged people in our society. And so in the case of actual disadvantage, not simply sort of like the particular, you know, college placement of, uh, upper income elites, right, I think color consciousness has a real role to play, whether that's in housing policy, whether that is in designing a social safety net.
And, uh, in, in a wide variety of circumstances, in addition to thinking about broad-based universal policies, we also have to think about this other dimension of inequality and ways to direct address it and directly touch it and directly affect it, the same way we think about class inequality, the same way we think about gender inequality.
Uh, Coleman mentioned the idea of an adversity score, something I, I don't disagree with whatsoever. But it does seem funny to me, right, that, like, we can think of all of these ways to create proxies for disadvantages. Instead of just saying straightforward, "The descendants of enslaved Black Americans, the descendants of people who were affected by Jim Crow," they face a particularized situation and we just need to, like, deal with that. That seems to me much more honest and, and straightforward, uh, in dealing with, uh, problems of inequality than w- what to my mind is just talking around it and finding ways to talk around it.
I feel Jamelle slightly dodged Thomas's point, his point being that race conscious policy, race as a variable runs roughshod over many of the important distinctions, such as whether you're a descendant of slaves, where you're from, your group level income. Nigerian Americans, a much higher income than, uh, Black Americans descended from slaves. And yet all of the race-based policies by definition lump them together, while at the same time claiming that they are trying to address those sub-variables that they are running roughshod over.
And that is one reason why, uh, I, I'm hardly against policies that are meant to curb disadvantage. But to use race as a proxy for it is just choosing to use a, a worse, less precise proxy when there are better, more precise ones available.
Part of the issue is, right, is that affirmative action programs happen in the context, prior to this previous Supreme Court decision, uh, Milliken v. Bradley in 1973, '74, uh, which basically ruled out the possibility of using college admissions or anything as a kind of recompense for directly touching the question of racial inequality. The Supreme Court said, "You can only consider diversity," right?
So in that context, yeah, that critique is totally right. It's a critique I have made myself, that race consciousness in that manner, under those circumstances, uh, doesn't address the direct question of inequality. It touches it, but doesn't address it directly.
The point still remains, I guess, that you, you receive the, the racial groups as the best groups to be using as metrics in public policy when-
I didn't say that. I've never, I've never said that. I've said-
Yeah. I, I don't think I've heard Jamelle say that either.
Okay. Well, fair enough. But-
I've said that when addressing racial inequality, we should direct, we should address racial inequality. That's my claim.
So how do you feel about ethnic inequality, given that the difference in income and outcomes between different white ethnic groups are vast and the differences in outcomes between Black-
Can you substantiate that?
Sure. Sure. So if you look at the difference in income between white Americans of French descent and white Americans of Russian descent, it's like 80 cents on the dollar, for example. So how do you distinguish between the, the groups that w- w-, inequality in which justifies policies that name those groups and use those groups as categories and those that don't?
The simple answer is when it comes to generalized income inequality, we have universal policies for that. When it comes to inequalities that we can tangibly trace to past decisions by the state, by private interests to specifically disadvantage a group on the basis of race, then you pay attention to that specifically.
Thank you for that. I want to invite Monica Williams, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Ottawa and a licensed clinical psychologist and freelancer for psychology today to join the conversation. Thanks, uh, Monica, for joining us.
Well, thank you so much for having me here today. First of all, targeting poverty, it is a worthy goal, but it's a mistake to think that that's going to eliminate racism. For example, most, if not all Black Americans, even those who are well off financially, still suffer from racism.
And so how can we address problems like this from a color blind perspective?
Coleman, that sounds like a challenge to your position, so I'd like you to take it first.
Well, I'd like to remind the questioner of the deep distress that is precisely caused by some of the race conscious policies that are allegedly fixing racism, such as the one I pointed out in my opening remarks about Asian students hiding their Asian-ness on their college application. Uh, this is a direct result not of color blindness, but of race conscious policies.
Now, if you're talking about people that have experienced racism, I've experienced racism. I understand racism is a deep human scourge. It exists in every society. Like hate and aggressive, it, it is part of the worst angels of our nature. To say that it, it is not gone is a, is a truism, because it's never going to go away completely anymore than murder or hatred or jealousy or envy in general.
What we can do is raise our children enshrined with the principles of the civil rights movement, namely to judge people, uh, based on the content of their character rather than their skin color, uh, to insist that they be treated that way by others, and to eliminate further race injury from our public policy.
I, I feel like I need to contest this notion that racism is some sort of timeless evil, 'cause I think it, that kind of forms the foundation of the disagreement that we have here. Now, I said in my opening statement that race is historically contingent, and that's the case. We can see in legal documents, we can see in the construction of legal codes across what's now call-, what will be called the New World, we can see the construction of racism and the construction of race as a result. It's a historically contingent phenomena that is the product of a particular set of material relations between groups, right?
And so that implies, if it's historically contingent, that implies that it's not actually some timeless thing. It's a thing that is constructed, that is r- inscribed, and it's reinscribed over time through different institutions, through different structural features of a society, through different relationships between groups. That's the vector for which w-, on which we're discussing, not so much our individual relations, which, again, people should be color blind person to person, but in terms of public policy, in terms of, uh, the shape and nature of our society.
There is a motte-and-bailey happening here, where obviously what I'm critical of are actual policies w- which discriminate against people on, on a vector that they can't control, namely their race, in the name of justice.
But what you defend is that you are just aware of the history. Of course, I'm not against being aware of the history. I'm not against being aware of the structural, uh, uh, inequalities that have obtained throughout American history.
I'm against the toxic race conscious approach to allegedly fixing them by creating more racist policy.
Uh, I want to bring in Robert George, who is an independent journalist. Uh, Robert, the floor is yours.
Um, thank you very much. My question is, um, are we, in a sense, being forced into something of a color blind position when it comes to public policy, given that the Black/white binary has, in a sense, largely collapsed? Do we need to create a new, um, language for dealing with these things?
Coleman, you can go first.
I think I understand what you're saying. I mean, I think when the nation opened up to immigration in 1965 and we got lots of people that were not, uh, white and Black in the typical way we think of that as Americans, it did create a problem, because in '65 you could make, uh, a v-, a very compelling, you know, short-term, um, recompensation argument and it would not end up hurting immigrants who just arrived here, 'cause the borders had been effectively closed for 40 years.
I do think the increase in diversity has moved us towards a more logical and long-run sound position, which is that we're not going to invite people to this country as immigrants and then start putting them into a racially rigged machine. That's not the deal that America should be about anymore.
I have been making a [inaudible
] claim for specificity when targeting inequality, and I think that applies here as much as anywhere else. It's important to say, right, that sort of like ethnicity is a socially constructed thing. These are all socially constructed.
So, you know, we are, we want to, in my view, we want to specifically target the consequences of racist public policy for those affected by racist public policy. And that means thinking specifically about that factor of inequality.
Thank you to all of the participants from the last few minutes, uh, coming in with your questions. We really appreciate it. We're going to move now into our closing round.
Um, Jamelle, you are answering yes to the question, and this is your time for your closing statement.
Thank you. My position from the start has been that you target a particular form of inequality. We actually have to be attentive to that particular form of inequality. We are attentive to class inequality by addressing the relations of domination between groups. We are attentive to gender inequality by addressing the relations (laughs) of dominations between groups. But for some reason, that when it comes to race inequality, we've decided that it is beyond the pale to attend to the domination between groups.
And I'm saying that, no, that's not the case at all. The constant recourse to individuals in this conversation, I think, is indicative of how very c- uncomfortable people are with thinking about this in terms of group inequality. That is my perspective here, and I would consider my perspective to be the perspective of Wendell Phillips, to be the perspective of A. Philip Randolph, uh, to be the per- perspective of the luminaries of civil rights movement, that we need to be both attentive to system wide inequality, but also the specific consequences of specific policies meant to immiserate or degrade particular groups of people.
It's entirely possible, and we've seen it, to have policies that address everyone, but leave those particular forms of entrenched inequality intact. And I don't think that we want that. I think we want a color blind society. We don't want that.
Thanks very much, Jamelle. And so now, Coleman, you get the final word. Your rebuttal, please tell us again why you are answering no to the question, "Does color blindness perpetuate racism?"
Yeah. So I think, like I said, there's been a very effective PR campaign against the notion of color blindness, and I've tried to undo that meme for all of you today, partly by providing quote after quote of some of the great luminaries and activists, in many cases specifically using the word color blind, and in other cases, embodying the philosophy.
Uh, I, I've heard no analogous recitation of quotes on the other side, and I think, uh, that that is, that that is telling.
Now, I, I also heard no retort to the problem created recently of Asian kids in Queens, you know, having to hide their racial identities. I think this is telling as well, because no matter how many abstract academic, uh, redefinitions and concepts one wants to use, in the end, race-based policy always come down to looking someone in the face and discriminating against them because of something that they can't control.
That is not the way to address the legacy of racism. It's not the way Martin Luther King wanted to address the legacy of racism. Ultimately, the way to fight racism cannot be to focus more on the alleged, uh, importance of race. It's to end race in policy altogether and focus on class. So thank you very much.
Thank you, uh, Coleman. And that wraps the arguing portion of the program. So, um, Jamelle and Coleman, I want to thank you so much for taking part in this debate and in particular for the way in which you argued, eh, obviously in good faith, but also with respect for one another. And that's what we try to embody here at Open to Debate. It's what we wanted to share with the TED audience as well, and we're delighted to have done that.
I also want to thank the participants who came in with questions. Thank you. And thank all of you for tuning into this episode of Open to Debate. You know, as a nonprofit, our work to combat extreme polarization through civil and respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you, by the Rosenkranz Foundation, and by supporters of Open to Debate.
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