Color-Blind Racism

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva & Michelle Christian. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Editor: John Hartwell Moore. Volume 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.

Polls on racial attitudes in the United States consistently find that whites are more racially tolerant than ever. Respondents indicate they do not care if minorities live in their neighborhoods or if people marry across the color line, and they express support for the principles of integration. However, the same polls also find that whites object to government policies developed to ameliorate the effects of discrimination, such as affirmative action and busing. Furthermore, the data also shows that whites believe racism is no longer a major problem in the United States and that existing racial inequality is the product of the culture and behavior of minorities. The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has argued that all this means is that the nature of racial discourse has changed and that there is a new way of expressing prejudicial attitudes, which he calls “color-blind racism.” Colorblind racism is the dominant racial ideology in post-civil rights America, and unlike its predecessor (Jim Crow racism), it is subtle, apparently nonracial, and avoids traditional racist discourse.

White Racial Attitudes in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Scholars differ in their interpretation and analysis of whites’ racial attitudes in the post-civil rights era. Their explanations can be grouped into four categories: (1) racial optimism, (2) racial pesoptimism, (3) symbolic racism, and (4) group position. Racial optimists, such as Seymour Lipset and Paul Sniderman, believe whites have, in fact, become more racially tolerant, and that their objections to programs such as affirmative action are not racially motivated. Although the views of these scholars are no longer dominant in academia, they are popular among the masses because they resonate with whites’ racial common sense. Racial pesoptimists, best represented by the work of Howard Schuman and his colleagues, believe that the change in whites’ racial attitudes is best understood as a combination of progress and resistance. Although scholars in this tradition acknowledge the resistance of whites to racial change, they are still wedded to the old perspective elaborated by Gunnar Myrdal in his An American Dilemma (1944). Myrdal put forward the idea that whites will overcome their prejudice as soon as they reconcile the facts and realize that discrimination has no place in a truly democratic society.

Symbolic racism scholars, such as David Sears and Donald Kinder, argue instead that whites are still prejudiced, but in a new way that combines a moralistic discourse with antiblack affect. For example, these scholars interpret whites’ opposition to programs such as affirmative action as a symbolic expression of their prejudice. Lastly, scholars advocating the idea of group position, such as Lawrence Bobo and James Kluegel, believe whites’ prejudice is a way to defend white privilege. The defense of group status is done nowadays, according to Bobo, through a “laissez-faire racism” that blames minorities for their inability to improve their economic and social standing. All these approaches, however, share three limitations: (1) They are all fundamentally anchored in the prejudice problematique, (2) they derive their data from surveys and thus cannot fully capture contemporary white discourse, and (3) they are ultimately bounded by their methodological individualism (i.e., their unit of analysis is the individual). Problemátique is a French structuralist term that refers to the limits or boundaries of a concept. Analysts trapped in the “prejudice problematique,” for example, cannot “see” or accept the structural nature of racial dynamics.

An explanation of whites’ apparently paradoxical attitudes that has gained support is that developed by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. He argues that whites’ racial views in the post-civil rights era represent a new racial ideology: color-blind racism. Unlike Jim Crow racism, colorblind racism articulates whites’ defense of the racial order in a subtle, apparently nonracial way. It provides tools to talk about race without appearing to be “racist”—a very important matter, given that the normative climate that has crystallized in the United States since the 1960s disavows the open expression of racial views.

A Color-Blind Ideology

Bonilla-Silva argues that whites’ views constitute an ideology rather than mere prejudice. This means that whites’ views should be understood within the context of how power relations between whites and nonwhites are maintained in the racial arena. Thus, because the civil rights movement forced changes in the way racial inequality is reproduced in the United States, new explanations, accounts, and vocabulary emerged to justify the racial status quo.

For analytical purposes, racial ideology can be conceived as comprising the following three elements: frames, styles, and racial stories. The central frames or themes of this ideology are set paths for interpreting information. There are four principal frames: (1) abstract liberalism, (2) naturalization of race-related matters, (3) cultural racism, and (4) minimization of racism. The style element refers to the linguistic strategies used to convey the components of this ideology, which have become slippery, subtle, and indirect. Finally, racial stories are the narratives whites use to articulate and bolster their racial accounts. They take the form of story lines (generic stories without much personal content) and testimonies (stories that are seemingly personal).

The frame of abstract liberalism uses ideas typically associated with liberalism, such as “equal opportunity,” “meritocracy,” and “individual effort,” in an abstract and decontextualized way to account for inequality. For example, a young, white, female college student stated the following when asked about whether minorities should be afforded unique opportunities to attend college:

I don’t think they should be provided with unique opportunities. I think that they should have the same opportunities as everyone else … I don’t think that just because they’re a minority that they should, you know, not meet the requirements, you know. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

This student’s response ignores the effects of past and contemporary discrimination on the social, economic, and educational status of minorities. Therefore, by saying “they should have the same opportunities as everyone else,” this student is defending racial inequality in the educational realm while maintaining her non-racist image.

The naturalization frame explains racial matters, such as residential segregation or whites’ preferences for whites as partners and friends, as natural outcomes. Although this frame does not employ a “color-blind” logic to explain racial differences, it is part of the larger ideology because it reinforces the myth of nonracialism. An example of how whites use this frame is a middle-age, male manufacturing manager who stated:

I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. Because people tend to group with their own people. Whether it’s white or black or upper-middle class or lower class or, you know, upper class, you know, Asians. People tend to group with their own…. You know, people group together for lots of different reasons: social, religious. You can’t force that. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

By suggesting that segregation is natural, this respondent ignores the legacy of legalized Jim Crow segregation and the structural dynamics that exist in the early twenty-first century to keep racial groups apart. His account also betrays a profound belief in differences between racial groups, for he likens the segregation between whites and nonwhites to the separate lives of two different species.

The cultural racism frame relies on arguments based on culture to explain the position of racial groups in society. In essence, whites “blame the victim” by suggesting that the position of minorities is due to their family disorganization, lack of effort, or laziness. A young female college student, for instance, in response to a question that explained the overall situation of blacks in this country as the result of them lacking motivation, having a deficient work ethic, or because they are lazy, stated:

If they worked hard, they could make it just as high as anyone else could. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

Believing that blacks live in the projects because they do not work hard, as this student suggests, shows whites’ amnesia about past and contemporary discrimination in the labor and housing markets.

The minimization of racism frame suggests discrimination is no longer a real problem because civil rights legislation eradicated all racial ills and people are now “beyond race.” For example, in response to a question trying to assess the significance of discrimination, a female retail salesperson in her early forties stated the following:

I think sometimes it’s an excuse because people felt they deserved a job, whatever! I think if things didn’t go their way I know a lot of people have tendency to use prejudice or racism as whatever, as an excuse. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

By minimizing the significance of discrimination, whites can deflect minorities’ claims of discrimination and bounce them back to them as “excuses,” or as playing the infamous “race card.”

The Style of Color-Blindness

The “style” of a racial ideology refers to its particular linguistic manners and rhetorical strategies. These are the tools that allow users to articulate the frames and stories of an ideology. Because overt racist talk in public venues is no longer tolerated, contemporary racial discussions must be done in code or with shields that allow actors to express their views in a way that preserve their image of race neutrality. Color-blind racism has five components: avoidance of racist speech, semantic moves, projection, diminutives, and rhetorical incoherence.

Semantic moves, or strategically managed propositions, are phrases that are interjected into speech when an actor is about to state a position that is seemingly racist. Two classic examples of semantic moves are “I’m not prejudiced, but” and “Some of my best friends are black.” A woman in her sixties used the former move in her explanation of why blacks are worse off than whites in the United States:

Well, I’m gonna be, you understand, I’m not prejudice or racial or whatever. They’re always given the smut jobs because they would do it. Then they stopped, they stopped doing [them]. The welfare system got to be very, very easy. Why work if the government’s gonna take care of you? (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

This is a classic example of how these moves are used. After the respondent stated “I’m not prejudice or racial or whatever,” she proceeded to state her belief that blacks are lazy and welfare-dependent. The ideological value of the disclaimer is clear, as it allowed this respondent to justify racial inequality in a nasty way without opening herself to the charge of racism.

Another stylistic element of color-blind racism is projection. Whites project racism or racial motivations onto blacks and other minorities as a way of avoiding responsibility for racial inequalities and feeling good about themselves. A female college student, discussing the so-called problem of self-segregation, stated the following about African Americans:

I think they segregate themselves. Or, I mean, I don’t know how everybody else is, but I would have no problem talking with or being friends with a black person or any other type of minority. I think they’ve just got into their heads that they are different and, as a result, they’re pulling themselves away. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

By claiming that segregation in college campuses is a black problem, this student can ignore white tables, white fraternities, white friendship networks, and white bars. More significantly, this projection allows the student to cover the fact that white students dominate the social scene in historically white colleges, and are thus the ones who have the onus of working hard to integrate people of color.

Yet, another stylistic tool whites can use in speech is diminutives, which are used to soften racial blows. For instance, if a person wishes to say something that is racially problematic (such as their outright opposition to interracial marriages or affirmative action), the person can use diminutives to cushion the statement. An example of this is a young male college student who used diminutives to express his “concerns” about interracial dating:

I would say I have a little bit of the same concern about the children just because it’s more, I mean more difficult on them. But, I mean, I definitely [nervous laugh] have no problem with any form of interracial marriage. That’s just an extra hurdle that they would have to over, overcome with the children, but I—(it) wouldn’t be a detriment to the kids, I don’t think. That just makes it a little more difficult for them. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

By using diminutives twice (“I have a little bit of the same concern” and “That just makes it a little more difficult to them”), this respondent was able to voice his concerns about interracial marriage in a safe way.

Lastly, when whites discuss racially sensitive matters, they use rhetorical incoherence, which means they often become incomprehensible. Although not properly a stylistic tool of color blindness, rhetorical incoherence is included under this rubric because it is part and parcel of contemporary race talk. An example of this is Ray, a very articulate student who could hardly finish his sentences when discussing whether he has ever been attracted to women of color:

Um, so to answer that question, no. But I would not, I mean, I would not ever precludea black woman from being my girl friend on the basis that she was black. It just seems to me like I’m not as attracted to black women as I am to white women…for whatever reason. It’s not about prejudice, it’s just sort of like, ya’ know, whatever. Just sort of the way, way like I see white women as compared to black women, ya’ know? (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

The Racial Stories of Color-Blind Racism

The racial stories associated with color-blind racism assist whites in making sense of their world in ways that reinforce the racial order. Racial storytelling is ideological because the stories are collectively produced and circulated, and they are told as if there is only one way of telling them, or only one way of understanding what is happening in the world. Racial stories are, therefore, extremely powerful tools because they seem to lie in the realm of the matter-of-fact world.

There are two types of racial stories: story lines and testimonies. Story lines are socially shared tales that are fable-like and incorporate a common scheme or wording. They are fable-like because they are often based on impersonal, generic arguments with little narrative or personal knowledge of the facts in the story. The dominant story lines of the post-civil rights era are “The past is the past,” “I didn’t own any slaves,” “I did not get a job, or was not admitted to college, because of a minority,” and “If Jews, Irish, and Italians made it, how come blacks have not?” Roland, an electrical engineer in his forties, used the first two story lines when expressing his extreme displeasure about the idea of reparations:

I can’t help what happened in the 1400s, the 1500s, or the 1600s, when the blacks were brought over here and put into slavery. I mean, I had no control over that, neither did you, so I don’t think we should do anything as far as reparations are concerned. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

Roland, like most whites, assumes that discrimination means slavery, and that it is thus something in America’s remote past. By missing 150 years of racial history, Roland can voice anger over the idea of reparations.

Racial testimonies are also powerful ideological tools that whites use to justify their racial beliefs. Testimonies are accounts in which the narrator is a central participant in the story or is close to the characters in the story. Thus, the aura of authenticity help narrators gain sympathy from listeners. These testimonies can be categorized into three groups: (1) stories of interactions with blacks (negative and positive), (2) stories of disclosure of knowledge of someone close who is racist, and (3) a residual category of sui generis testimonies.

A young, female college student who claimed to have liberal values regarding multiculturalism stated the following about the consequences of “busing” black kids to white schools:

When I was in the P.E. locker room and I set my bag down just to go to the bathroom and … I was gone maybe a minute and I come back and I see a really big woman [with other black students] stealing money out of my bag. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

This student’s negative experience with a few blacks allowed her to generalize bad behavior to all blacks, and this justifies her opposition to busing. Personal negative experiences can thus provide a convenient rationale for stereotyping minorities and justifying white privilege.

Testimonies about positive experiences with blacks allow whites to protect their color-blind sense of self. Often, a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a black person is used as evidence of racial purity on the part of the narrator. For example, a female college student, after attesting that her family is racist, attempted to signify that she was not with the following testimony:

My floor actually, the year I had a black roommate, happened to be predominantly African American and so those became some of my best friends, the people I was around. And we would actually sit around and talk about stereotypes and prejudices and I learned so much just about the hair texture, you know? (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

Although this respondent speaks highly of her interaction with African-American women, she uses the term “those” and claims she “learned” from this interaction, but she then points out superficial things such as hair texture and does not even mention the name of her “best friends,” with whom she does not have currently a meaningful relationship.

Color-Blind Racism in Twenty-First Century America

Color-blind racism has crystallized as the dominant racial ideology of the United States. Whites no longer need to utter the ugly racial epithets of the past, claim God made whites superior, or argue that minorities are inferior biological beings in order to keep them in a subordinated position. Instead, whites chastise minorities in a color-blind way and, by default, defend their racial privilege in a “now you see it, now you don’t fashion.” Color-blind racism is thus a formidable weapon to maintain white privilege.

Will color-blind racism increase in significance in the twenty-first century, or will Americans realize the continuing impact of racial stratification in their country? The trends, unfortunately, suggest that, if anything, color-blind racism is bound to become even more salient. For one thing, the Supreme Court may eliminate all forms of race-based policies (e.g., Affirmative Action, busing) as “discriminatory in reverse.” Such an outcome will underscore whites’ “we are beyond race” racial common sense. In addition, Congress may stop gathering racial statistics, because gathering them presumably racializes Americans. This will make it all but impossible to document racial gaps in income, education, occupations, and other areas. This would only eliminate racial inequality artificially. Finally, the United States is developing a plural racial order, a development that will further diffuse the salience of race. In the emerging racial order, a middle group of “honorary whites” will buffer racial conflict and become arduous defenders of color-blindness.

Hence, the United States may be on its way to becoming a land of racism without racists, where people formerly known as blacks, Latinos, and Asians will still lag well behind the people formerly known as whites. Yet this inequality, formerly known as racial, will no longer be interpreted as such because Americans will believe, like the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s novel Candide, that they live in the best of all possible worlds.