When "Colorblind" is Just Convenient

Tim Burns replied recently to an essay I wrote on the misuse of the term “identity politics.” Tim argued that any identity-conscious policy process constituted a presumption that those who bear the legacy of discrimination and mistreatment are in need of saving.  I disagree.

Tim’s argument culminates in the assertion that the sort of affirmative identity conscious policies that I advocate have failed, but he’s mistaken in his assumption that they’ve come to pass at all, let alone had the opportunity to fail.  He cites the persistence of segregated housing and concentrated poverty of evidence of that failure, when, in reality, that phenomenon is perhaps the most obvious sign that those sorts of solutions are needed.  

Housing segregation and concentrated poverty are the result of nearly four decades of explicit racial discrimination in the distribution of loans, subsidies, and insurance by individuals and by the federal government itself.  Those policies created areas of concentrated poverty that were then abhorrently policed to the disproportionate detriment of people of color according to the racially disparate tough on crime policies of the very Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations during which tax rates were slashed and much of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society was dismantled.  But more than arguing their ineffectiveness, the general conservative criticism of the consideration of the impact of identity itself falls short.

First, there is a misunderstanding of the position many progressives occupy with respect to the role of identity in policy making.  Tim states that this consideration amounts to a “systematic belief that black people are inferior and in need of saving, or that blackness needs to be compensated for’ in order for blacks to achieve at the highest levels.”  He also argues that equity is achieved when “insignificant and irrelevant innate characteristics are finally seen as insignificant and irrelevant to someone’s personal achievements and merit.”  

In both of these statements, Tim seems to equate the progressive recognition that centuries of the most brutal discrimination on the basis of skin color may have a material legacy, with the regressive belief that people who bear the consequences of that legacy may be unequal because of their skin.  This is a poor comparison.  Black Americans (and other people of color and women and others) were discriminated against because of who they are.  They find themselves often at a disadvantage, not because of who they are, but because of that discrimination.  Inequalities are not the result of “innate characteristics” like a person’s skin or gender, but rather they are often the result of discrimination and unequal treatment based on those innate characteristics.

To this end, Tim cites Chief Justice John Roberts’s (in)famous assertion that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  That statement serves as a fine summary of the narrow lens in which the court has chosen to view bias in the last thirty-five years, but as a commentary on the social implications of legal discrimination, it is reductive, bordering on useless.  

In her dissent in a subsequent case, his colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor countered that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”  She adds that, in attempting to guarantee equal protection under the law, it is counterproductive to “sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society."  When he states that “equity and equality are not achieved by ignoring or rewriting history, but confronting it, studying it, and overcoming it together, united as one country,” Tim seems to agree with Justice Sotomayor, but his articulation of the (well-founded) conservative faith in the free market shows where he begins to diverge.

The conservative attitude toward colorblind policy is hamstrung not by faith in the free market but rather in the related belief in the inherent neutrality of economic forces.  Tim argues that “economics is not only colorblind, but blind to gender, sexual-orientation, and any other identity.  It is cold, objective numbers.”  He is not wrong, per se.  But while laws of economics may be “objective,” markets are not.  Markets move minutely according to the laws of economics, but also according to the irrationality of people.  They are made up of people, governed by legislation written by people who were voted into office by other people.  Academics like Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman have won Nobel Prizes for their work illustrating the biases and irrationality of these complex systems and networks of human beings.

The power of materially discriminatory policy and the effects of those policies not only on how an imperfect and corruptible market distributes opportunity, but on building unequal access to that market cut against the conservative dismissal of identity-conscious affirmative policy making.  People are not inherently or innately unequal.  They are not made unequal by characteristics with which they were born and over which they have no control.  But for four hundred years women and people of color (in particular, but not by any stretch exclusively) were discriminated against on that basis.  It is not their gender or skin but discrimination on the basis of their gender or skin which made them, not inherently unequal, but materially unequal.  Simply removing legal barriers does not erase the lasting material damage done by decades (centuries) of government policy or suddenly present them with the same access to opportunity as those who benefited from that policy at their expense.  I argue that the government that enshrined that discrimination in law is bound by an obligation to correct.

Markets are governed by a legal and administrative framework built by human beings and are subject to all of their prejudices and biases.  For example, it’s important to note that slavery and the Jim Crow that came in its wake were not just crimes against the dignity of Black Americans (though of course they were that as well), but were also systematic and legal “plunder” (as Ta-Nehisi Coates would refer to it) alternately ignored, supported, sanctioned, and even encouraged by a federal government.  While the tax revenue that supported that government was color blind, the effects of its policies were anything but.

The Federal Housing Authority freely encouraged home loans and built a culture of homeownership in white suburbs while explicitly denying the same opportunity to black families.  The Social Security Act and the dozens of social welfare programs of the Depression Era lifted millions of white families out of poverty while excluding most of the black workforce from its benefits.  The GI Bill gave millions of white veterans the opportunities they had earned through military service while allowing administration in the South to fall to state governments dominated by Jim Crow and leaving even those black veterans who could obtain benefits struggling against systematic discrimination in colleges, the FHA, and countless other institutions.

The enduring legacy of Jim Crow is more than lunch counter discrimination and back seats on the bus (though they constitute an intolerable indignity in their own right).  The enduring legacy of Jim Crow and a hundred and fifty years of state and federal policy that stripped wealth from black families and used it to fuel a white middle class revolution, is a wealth gap that approaches 16 to 1.  That is to say that the typical white family has $16 of accumulated wealth for every $1 in the typical black family.  To argue that simply ending discrimination and smiling proudly provides anything resembling the “equality of opportunity, but no more” on which conservatives pin the “universal good of open markets” is simply wrong.  Tim sets for conservatives the standard of confronting, studying, and overcoming history, but I would argue they’ve fallen short.