Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Against Colorblindness

According to the principle of colorblindness, it is always wrong to treat a person differently than you would have treated them in the same circumstances had they been of a different race. Many people take the principle of colorblindness to be obviously true, suggest that racism consists in the violation of this principle, and believe that the key to harmonious race relations comes from strict adherence to it. Certainly this is what I was raised to believe. Yet upon reflection, it seems to me that colorblindness – at least when considered as an ethical principle – does not have much going for it.

To begin with, the principle is subject to a number of compelling counter-examples. For example, suppose that you are a movie producer, casting a film about the life of Martin Luther King. According to the principle of colorblindness, it would be immoral to deny an actor the title roll in the film on the grounds that he was white. But that is absurd. Likewise, medical science has found that certain diseases and maladies afflict certain racial or ethnic groups at a higher rate than others, and that certain racial groups respond differently to certain medications and treatments than others. According to the principle of colorblindness, it would be immoral to treat patients of different races differently on account of these facts. Yet this, also, is absurd.

On the other hand, the fact someone follows the principle of colorblindness is no guarantee that they are not racist. To see why this is so, consider a parallel example. In Book Five of the Republic, Socrates considers whether women should be legally barred from holding important positions, such as that of a guardian, in his ideal polity. He answers no; just as whether a man is fit to be a guardian is to be determined based on his individual merits rather than on his sex, so a woman’s fitness for any particular position should be judge on her individual merits, and not on her sex. Discrimination on the basis of sex should therefore not be allowed. It is a ringing endorsement of equal treatment based on sex, but Socrates’ proto-feminism in the passage is undercut when he adds as an aside that, since women are “inferior” to men in just about everything, we shouldn’t expect this principle of non-discrimination to result in there being a lot of female guardians.

One might imagine saying something similar about racial discrimination: “People are to be judged as individuals, and so one should never treat someone differently than you otherwise would on account of his race. Of course, members of group x tend to be less intelligent, lazier, more prone to criminality, etc., than other groups, so we shouldn’t be surprised when most members of that group end up getting treated differently than most members of other groups, but this won’t be because we have been discriminating against them based on their race, but only because of their inferiority.”

However repugnant we may find this line of thought, we cannot fault it on the ground that it violates the principle of colorblindness. In fact, exactly this sentiment has been uttered by some of the chief defenders of colorblindness. For example, if we look at the classic exposition of colorblindness as a principle embedded in the Constitution, Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, we find Justice Harlan making exactly this argument:

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

We could no doubt try and modify the colorblindness principle to take account of these difficulties, but how do to so is not at all clear. We cannot make it stronger without increasing the absurd results noted above regarding medicine and film casting. Nor will making it weaker do, as the principle is already weak enough to be perfectly consistent with a variety of racist views. We must therefore conclude, I think, that whatever its initial plausibility, the principle of colorblindness cannot serve as a basis for defining racism.


June 5, 2008 - Posted by | Morality, Race

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