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In sociology, a color blind society is one where racial classification does not limit a person's opportunities. Such societies are free from differential legal or social treatment based on their race or color. A color blind society has race-neutral governmental policies that reject discrimination in any form in order to promote the goal of racial equality. This ideal was important to the Civil Rights Movement and international anti-discrimination movements of the 1950s and 1960s.[1]

The goal of 1964 civil rights act in the United States was intended to make all people equal under the law of no matter what people's race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s central hope was that people would someday be judged by "the content of their character rather than the color of their skin".[2] Whether this process has truly resulted in a color-blind U.S. society, or whether color-blind policies provide the best means of achieving racial equality, remains controversial.[1]

Colour blindness

Racial or color blindness reflects an ideal in the society in which skin color is insignificant. The ideal was most forcefully articulated in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and International Anti-racist movements of the 1950s and 1960s.[3] Advocates for color blindness argue that persons should be judged not by their skin color but rather by "the content of their character", in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.[3] Color-blind ideology is based on tenets of non-discrimination, due process of law, equal protection under the law, and equal opportunities regardless of race, ideas which have strongly influenced Western liberalism in the post-World War II period.[4]

Proponents of "color-blind" practices believe that treating people equally inherently leads to a more equal society or that racism and race privilege no longer exercise the power they once did, rendering policies such as race-based affirmative action obsolete. As articulated by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."[5]

In Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society, Christopher Doob writes that "color-blind racism" represents "whites' assertion that they are living in a world where racial privilege no longer exists, but their behavior supports racialized structures and practices".[6]

The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has described four "frames" that he says guide color-blind thinking. According to Bonilla-Silva, abstract liberalism is the most important of these frames and forms the foundation of color-blind ideology.[7] This involves invoking abstract ideas such as "equal opportunity" and "individual choice" while opposing concrete proposals to reduce inequality. This perspective tends to ignore the under-representation of people of color in prestigious jobs and schools, along with institutional practices that encourage segregation. Naturalization is used by whites to explain racial segregation (including self-segregation) as "natural" and "just the way things are". Cultural racism relies on cultural, rather than biological, explanations such as "blacks have too many babies" to account for racial inequality. A fourth frame is minimization of racism.[8]


Professor William Julius Wilson of Harvard University has argued that "class was becoming more important than race" in determining life prospects within the black community.[9] Wilson has published several works including The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and The Truly Dis-advantaged (1987) explaining his views on black poverty and racial inequality. He believes that affirmative action primarily benefits the most privileged individuals within the black community. This is because strictly race-based programs disregard a candidate's socioeconomic background and therefore fail to help the poorer portion of the black community that actually needs the assistance.[9] In a society where millions of blacks live in the middle and upper classes and millions of whites live in poverty, race is no longer an accurate indication of privilege. Recognizing someone's social class is more important than recognizing someone's race, indicating that society should be class-conscious, not race-conscious.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the only current black Justice, supports color-blind policies. He believes the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids consideration of race, such as race-based affirmative action or preferential treatment. He believes that race-oriented programs create "a cult of victimization" and imply blacks require "special treatment in order to succeed".[10][11]


In 1997 Leslie G. Carr published Color-Blind Racism which reviewed the history of racist ideologies in America. She saw "color-blindness" as an ideology that undercuts the legal and political foundation of integration and affirmative action. Stephanie M. Wildman, in her book Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America, writes that many Americans who advocate a merit-based, race-free worldview do not acknowledge the systems of privilege which benefit them. For example, many Americans rely on a social and sometimes even financial inheritance from previous generations. She argues that this inheritance is unlikely to be forthcoming if one's ancestors were slaves, and privileges whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality.[12]

There are concerns that majority groups use color-blindness as a means of avoiding the discussion of racism and discrimination.[13] Color-blindness can be seen as a way to undermine the hardships of minority groups, as it used to argue that the United States is a meritocracy, in which people that succeed because they work hard not because of their privilege.[14] Critics of this are fast to point to statistics that contradict this notion of meritocracy, for example, the average black or Hispanic household earning more than $75,000 still live in a less affluent, resource-rich neighborhood than a white household that earns less than $40,000.[15] In addition to this systematic racial oppression, minority groups are further pushed down financially. As Glenn Ellis, a health advocacy communication specialist and author, said children that live in poverty have scary numbers to face: “25 percent more likely to drop out of school; 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent; 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education; 60 percent more likely never to attend college; 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime; and 30 percent of poor children score very low on early reading skills, compared to only 7 percent of children from moderate- or high-income families.[16]"

Academic writers are often critics of color-blindness. For example, Amy Ansell of Bard College argues that color-blindness operates under the assumption that we are living in a world that is "post-race", where race no longer matters.[17] While the ideal that race should not "matter", critics say, is certainly not a bad thing, the problem lies in asserting that race should not be taken into consideration even when trying to address inequality or remedy past wrongs.[18]

Abstract liberalism "abstracts and decontextualizes" themes from political and economic liberalism, such as meritocracy and the free market, to argue against the strong presence of racism.[19] It is also often used in discussions of affirmative action. The principle of laissez-faire emphasizes a "hands off" policy in terms of the government's involvement with economic activity. When applied to issues of race, it results in people being for equality in principle but against government action to implement equality, a policy often called laissez-faire racism.

The "biologization of culture" explains the inequality among race today in terms of cultural difference. Where disparities were once explained in terms of biology, they are now being discussed in terms of culture. "Culture" in this framework is seen as something fixed and hard to change.[20] One example form of rhetoric used in this framework is the argument, "if Irish, Jews (or other ethnic groups) have 'made it', how come blacks have not?"[21] Such rhetoric blames blacks and other minority groups for their own situations because other previously disadvantaged groups have managed to 'make it' in American society.

Similarly, certain frameworks "naturalize" aspects of racism, used commonly in discussions of residential and school segregation. For example, using this framework one would say it is simply natural that people of the same race would tend to live together, that it's "just the way it is". This viewpoint, however, critics argue ignores the possibility of other factors underlying residential segregation such as the attitude of realtors, bankers, and sellers.[20]

Finally, as color-blindness may rest on the idea that racism is no longer a prevalent issue today, a fourth framework seeks to minimize racism. Thus, modern occurrences of racism are seen as rare aberrations committed by the last few racists in society. Because racism is viewed as no longer a problem under this belief, people who ascribe to color-blindness see government programs targeting race as "illegitimate" and no longer necessary.

Robert D. Reason and Nancy J. Evans outline a similar description of color-blindness by Professor T.A. Forman of Emory University, which is based on four beliefs: 1. racial groups receive merit-based privileges, 2. most people do not notice nor are they concerned about race, 3. social inequality today is due to "cultural deficits" of individual people or racial or ethnic groups, and 4. given the previous three assumptions, there is no need to pay "systematic attention" to any current inequities. They argue the prevalence of color-blindness is partially attributed to lack of knowledge or lack of exposure. Due to segregation that exists in housing and education, many Americans may not have direct contact with the discrimination that still exists.[22]


Fryer et al. showed that color-blind affirmative action is about as efficient as race-conscious affirmative action in the short run, but is less profitable in the long term.[23]

In 2010, Apfelbaum et al. exposed elementary school students to color-blind ideology and found that those students were less likely to detect or report instances of overt racial discrimination. The authors concluded "Color-blind messages may thus appear to function effectively on the surface even as they allow explicit forms of bias to persist."[24]

Amy Ansell, a sociologist at Bard College, has compared and contrasted the development of the color-blindness in the United States and South Africa. Given that whites are a minority population in South Africa and a majority population in the United States, Ansell expected to see a significant difference in the manifestation of color-blindness in both countries. The thirty-year time difference between the departure from Jim Crow and cessation of apartheid and differences in racial stratification and levels of poverty also led Ansell to expect a clear difference between the colorblindness ideology in the United States and South Africa. However, she concludes that while color-blindness stems from two very different origins in the two countries, the current structure of color-blindness in the two countries is nearly identical.[17]

Vorauer, Gagnon, and Sasaki, examined the effect that messages with a color-blind ideology had on white Canadians entering one-on-one interactions with Aboriginal Canadians. White Canadians who heard messages emphasizing color-blind ideology were much more likely to be concerned with ensuring the subsequent interaction did not go badly and were more likely to be hostile, uncomfortable, nervous, self-critical, and uncertain.[25] White participants who heard messages emphasizing multicultural ideology, or the valuing of people's differences, asked more positive questions focused on the other person and did not display significant concern for how the interaction would go.[25]


Researchers also offer alternatives to the color-blindness discourse. Reason and Evans call for people to become "racially cognizant", that is they need to acknowledge the role that race plays in their everyday lives. Being racially cognizant also demands a continuous examination and reinterpretation of race and how it affects our lives. It is also important to balance looking at a person as an individual and acknowledging the role their membership to a social group plays in their daily lives.[22]

Researcher Jennifer Simpson proposed that "in setting aside color blindness, Whites must learn to see, accept, and experience their lives as raced and to explore the possibility that some of the good, ease, or rewards they have experienced have not been solely the result of hard work and just effort but of a system biased in their favor." This conscious exploration of whiteness as a racial and social identity and the acknowledgment of the role of whiteness is connected to modern whiteness studies.[26] However, the field of whiteness studies has been criticized for its focus on reprimanding the white population, whereas similar fields such as Black studies, Women's studies, and Chicano Studies celebrate the contributions of the eponymous group.[27]

In a recent publication of the academic journal Communication Theory, Jennifer Simpson proposed a "more productive dialogue about race". New dialogue must take a more complex look at race, openly looking at all different perspectives on race. As dialogue is a means of empowerment, it should take into account how all experiences contribute to our understanding, particularly those experiences very different from our own. Simpson believes that whites must be willing to openly engage with people of color in discussing the ongoing effects of racism today. However, this requires white people to participate in "communicative behavior that may threaten simultaneously their sense of self and their material power in the social order".[26]

In education

A multisite case study of Atlantic State University, a primarily white institution, and Mid-Atlantic State University, a historically black college, explored color-blind ideologies among the institutions’ white faculty members at the undergraduate and graduate level.[28] In interviews with white faculty members at both institutions, researchers found the faculty often engaged with students from a color-blind perspective. Use of color-blind language by avoiding racial terms but instead implying them “allowed white faculty members to describe their students [of color] as academically inferior, less prepared, and less interested in pursuing research and graduate studies while potentially ignoring structural causes” of inequity.[28] The study concludes that color-blind ideology held by school faculty can reduce a student of color's perception of their academic abilities and potential to achieve success in STEM disciplines and in graduate school.

A case study of a suburban, mixed-race high school examined the trend toward color-blind ideology in schools among white faculty.[29] The study's implications included that white school faculty's color-blind ideology often masks their fears of being accused of racism and prevents a deeper examination of race.

Case studies of three large school districts, (Boston, Massachusetts; Wake County, North Carolina; and Jefferson County, Louisville) found that the districts’ race-neutral, or color-blind, policies to combat school segregation may actually be associated with an increase in segregation in schools, due to the policies’ tendency to “reframe privilege as common sense” while ignoring the structural inequalities of students outside that privileged framework.[30]

See also

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