For the past half millennium, racial and ethnic forms of economic oppression were normalized and legitimatized in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Euroamericans, an entrenched understanding that found legal (eugenics was constitutional upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) and religious justification.
With the coming of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s in the United States (and other antiracist, anticolonial and democratizing movements throughout the world) the way nonwhites were seen was radically challenged and changed.
Nevertheless, a racial hegemony was preserved by advancing a new racial project that repackaged white supremacy and secured structural inequalities and injustices under the concept of “color-blindness.” In spite of the omnipresence of racism within every aspect of U.S. life, the dominant culture insists on the construct of color blindness and the rhetoric of reverse discrimination.
When I taught undergraduates at a predominant Euroamerican college, I would have them write a socio-political autobiography. Among the many questions I wanted them to answer, one was to describe the racial and ethnic composition of their neighborhood, their school and their church.
Another question asked later was to describe the lessons learned from their parents concerning people of different races and ethnicities. The overwhelming vast majority of my white students usually wrote that they lived, worshiped and learned in an environment void of people of color.
Of course they said the politically correct thing about how they felt cheated by not experiencing diversity, and how they truly wish to interact with those who are their Others. A few paragraphs later, when they were suppose to share the lessons learned from their parents about people of color, they usually made comments like: “My parents taught me to treat everyone the same;” “I was taught to be color blind, just like God;” or “I was taught that we are all God’s children and we should therefore love each other.”
What my students failed to notice is the link that exists between the color-blindness their parents taught them and the segregated life their parents carved out for them. Obviously their parents saw color. Thanks to claiming color-blindness, they didn’t need to be bigots, in fact they could be very PC. Unmercifully, they stigmatized, with righteous indignation, those who utter bigoted comments. They didn’t have to believe in white supremacy because the social structures were racist for them, protecting their white privilege even while they lamented the lack of diversity in their lives.
Sociologist Howard Winant in his latest book, The New Politics of Race, argues that the construction of color blindness has moved the discourse from addressing institutionalized racism to creating a political correctness that attempts to expunge individual bigotry.
Racial injury is reduced to the individual, not the group. Racial injustice is rationalized as an expected outcome of individuals competing on a level playing field. And of course, a face of color is usually placed on a pedestal to prove that minorities who work hard enough can be as successful as white people. The Civil Rights movement is hailed as a success for eliminating most of our racist past as we speak about living in a postracial world.
But somehow racism and ethnic discrimination persist. Why? Because the radicalness of the Civil Rights movement was toned down in order to obtain some significant and important concessions from the dominant culture.
Unfortunately, these compromises simply replaced racial domination with a racial hegemony that poses questions concerning the struggle for justice on a universal rather than on a corporate plane by integrating the opposition so as to nullify their more radical demands.
Even Martin Luther King’s dream that his children be judged by the “content of their character,” and not “the color of their skin” was co-opted to insist that affirmative action violates the spirit of King’s “dream,” and that true followers of King would advocate color-blindness.
The reconciliation forged and advocated was a color-blind reconciliation which enacted anti-racist laws while failing to fundamentally change or transform the social structures that maintain and sustain racism. The more radical demands of the Civil Rights movement (i.e. equitable distribution of wealth, resources, and opportunities) were sacrificed in favor of limited economic, political and cultural access to some power and privilege for a minority of middle-class people of color.
Shortly after the passage of Civil Rights legislation, working-class incomes experienced deep declines. By the close of the 1970s, median family income remained at 1973 levels as unemployment rose to 7.5 percent by 1980.
The 1980s witnessed the income gap widened dramatically, while the middle class shrunk, thanks in great measure to the Reagan administration entrenching neoliberal economic policies within the U.S. which radically changed the distribution of wealth.
During the 1980s, the top 10 percent increased their family income by 16 percent, the top 5 percent increased theirs by 23 percent, while the top 1 percent increased their income by 50 percent.
Meanwhile, the bottom 80 percent all lost money with the bottom 10 percent losing 15 percent of their income. Reagan’s moving the nation to a supply-side philosophy so as to dismantle the New Deal is mainly responsible for increasing the income of the top 1 percent from 65 times greater than the bottom 10 percent at the start of his term to 115 times greater by the end of his term.
The results of this combination, according to figures published by the Census Bureau, led to the richest among us seeing their inflation-adjusted income rise by 30 percent from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, while the poorest among us saw their income decrease by 21 percent. While from 1947 through 1979, real income rose for all segments of society, since 1980 income has only risen for the most affluent families.
The average working white American does not blame upward toward those who benefited from the full implementation of neoliberalism, corporate leaders.
In 1975 these corporate leaders made 44 times as much as the average factory worker. By 1985, the average CEO salary rose to 70 times that of the average worker. A 2001 report published by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that corporate leaders were make 531 times as much as the average factory worker, a 571 percent increase (before adjusting for inflation) since 1990, outpacing worker pay, which grew at 37 percent–barely outpacing inflation at 32 percent (Anderson, et al., 2001:1-6).
Corporate greed which leads to outsourcing and downsizing are not examined to explain a declining living standard. Instead, resentment among the white working-class is modified by blaming downward, people of color.
The domestic economic disparity caused by neoliberalism was racialized so as to blame affirmative action which, in the minds of many among the white working-class, gives blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans an unfair advantage. Welfare queens and those who “do not play by the rules” were conjured up to serve as scapegoats.
Reverse discrimination is created so as to explain why whites get a raw deal. And while reverse discrimination is an illusion for which no empirical data exists, it provides “the answer” for why whites are disadvantaged by neoliberalism.
Although the U.S. cannot return to its white supremacy pass, nor can it challenge neoliberalism, it can advocate color-blindness to address the downwardly mobile white middle class.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.