I’ve met many people who describe themselves as “colorblind.” One thing all these describers had in common was this: they were white. They were able to choose to discard a significant, visible facet of other people’s lives as irrelevant to them, personally.
Even before I began learning to speak Politics, then, I’d witnessed colorblindness used as a way to deny other people’s realities. Once I began studying, I saw threads of historical fact indicating that colorblindness itself had been cultivated as a (highly effective) political strategy.
Now, I hear people say their silence on race and racism means they are neutral. I wish they’d consider the possibility that, to the contrary, their silence upholds carefully crafted, destructive systems.
One paragraph in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Revolution introduces this strategy especially succinctly:
In 1969, Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips wrote a book titled The Emerging Republican Majority, which essentially argued that elections are won by focusing to people’s resentments. Nixon, once in office, mapped out a strategy to do just that, transforming ordinary whites’ anxieties, brought on by growing economic insecurity, into resentment against Blacks. Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, said as much in his diary of daily events in the White House. He wrote that Nixon had “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
Wanting to share that paragraph but lacking time to expand on it myself, I searched for articles I could recommend here. I landed on Salon’s “How conservatives hijacked ‘colorblindness’ and set civil rights back decades.” It packs a lot of history into a brief article, which means it’s both illuminating and a little dry. TL;DR version: Politicians mostly didn’t even bother hiding the ways they manipulated visions of race for their benefit, all across the United States.
I ended up buying its author’s book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.” I was willing to take a little dryness for the history I hoped I’d find, but I was surprised. It’s one of the warmest, most eloquent political books I’ve (begun to) read so far, delving into difficult matters with sensitivity and nuance. I especially love how Haney-Lopez emphasizes, clear and early, that racism is not a sign of corrupted, evil character:
Like most, I had been conditioned to think of racism as hatred, and racists as pathologically disturbed individuals. To be sure, sadistic racists exist, and racism is frequently bound up with the emotional heat of fear and hatred. But as I began to intuit while hitchhiking through the landscape of apartheid, most racists are good people.
Understanding this is critical to understanding and overcoming (what I’d describe as) the evils worked by colorblindness concealing coded racist, politically advantageous dog whistles.
What exactly is a dog whistle? Haney-Lopez describes it as “a metaphor that pushes us to recognize that modern racial pandering always operates on two levels: inaudible and easily denied in one range, yet stimulating strong reactions in another.”
Why dog whistles? Why, as long as folks can be persuaded to view the powerless as The Threat, they’ll be distracted from the real threat that has long menaced members of the 99% of all skin tones: policies crafted to enrich the few by starving the many.
I hope you’ll check out Haney-Lopez’s book to explore this more deeply. Short of that, I encourage you to read his article and take a few minutes to consider what grim, destructive truths can be–and have been–concealed behind evocative euphemisms.