Colorblindness and Individualism

Americans celebrate individualism. We love feeling that we are special, and we love feeling that we have value based on our accomplishments and achievements. We even love when we have support from those around us to give us nudges toward our goals and help us with both the small and the large daunting steps along our journey. What we don’t love, however, is acknowledging how much we truly rely on others and on luck for our success. We are often quick to find excuses for mistakes and failures, pushing the negative off to someone else, but when it comes to the good things, we have no problem claiming personal responsibility and demonstrating our individual achievement.

 

This spirit of individualism that hypes up our personal responsibility for success and downplays our role in our failures is dangerous. it stems from and further builds an ego inflation that puts us at the center of the universe, and denies our true relationships to society and those around us. This individualism and ego inflation shifts the way we see the world, as Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy, “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

 

When we talk about personal responsibility in society we must be careful, because our individualism places incredible value on who we areas a single person and misses our role within the collective society. We begin to forget how much we need other people for our success, how much other people depend on us to maintain their lifestyle, and how connected all of us are.

 

An area where we see individualism as particularly damaging within society is criminal justice. Colorblindness is the overwhelming doctrine of criminal justice and race in the United States, but the problem is that colorblindness is an individual approach to the society, and it is subject to the dangers of ego that Ryan Holiday explained above. Our sense of ourselves is inaccurate, and our unrealistically positive view of who we are changes the way we interpret and understand the world and our place in it. When we begin to focus purely on individuals in criminal justice policy, we don’t recognize the structural realities that shape the world for so many, and we act purely in our own self interest.

 

Michelle Alexander describes what happens when we allow colorblindness to take over and are guided by a sense of individualism and ego in her book The New Jim Crow, “For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves.” This view of race and individual responsibility is distorted. It is consistent with a view that places the individual at the center of the universe, but it is inconsistent with the reality that we depend on each other and need to engage with others to succeed. Individualism is easily hijacked by ego, and colorblindness is a defense mechanism to prop up our ego and highlight our individual advantages.

What Racial Indifference and Blindness Create

It has become common and popular today to say that you don’t see race and that your actions and behaviors are colorblind. Our politicians, celebrities, friends, and neighbors will all say they are colorblind, trying to convey the idea that they do not act like a racist and that they love all people, regardless of race or skin color.

 

In her book, The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that colorblindness and our focus on outward racism is actually what has allowed racial attitudes and racially disparate outcomes to survive in the United States. The type of racism we have to be aware of is not an outward racism perpetuated by individuals, but rather an invisible racism built into our structures, ideologies, and communities. We claim to be colorblind and we tell ourselves and others that we are fair to all races because we have diverse friends, but at the same time we often support policies that impact the lives of black and brown people unequally relative to white people. The New Jim Crow demonstrates the ways in which our colorblind society has not done a good job of preventing racism from influencing our criminal justice system and goes further to show that racism is a consistent factor in the policies and politics that we support.

 

What colorblindness creates is racial indifference. It creates an atmosphere where we assume that if we are not explicitly mean and don’t act in deliberately malicious ways towards others, then those others will be fine and will succeed. Colorblindness does not really mean that we are not racist, but that the concerns, values, and lives of people of color do not matter to us. We cannot see the suffering, the disparate impacts, and the inequalities of society because we are indifferent to the lives of minorities. This is what we are truly saying by calling ourselves colorblind, even if we don’t recognize it.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.” Humans evolved in relatively small groups, working, hunting, and growing together, but our world today demands that we work as a single global people. Our minds did not evolve to truly understand and connect with billions or even just millions of people across the globe, and along the way we have developed stories to tell us who we associate with. These made up stories of race, nation, and sports give us a sense of community and help us understand who is part of our tribe. The problem, however, is that these stories are fictions and operating based on our tribal instincts hurts the lives of real people. When we cannot move beyond our tribal nature, we create inequities that create social tension and conflict. In the United States we have chosen to ignore our tribal attitudes and have chosen to believe that indifference to other groups is the same thing as supportive inclusion. Unfortunately, this allows racial biases to operate in the background as we favor our tribe over others and push others down in invisible ways. As Alexander writes in the book, “Racial indifference and blindness—far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems.”

Colorblind

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander is critical of our criminal justice system and the ways in which mass incarceration has impacted the lives of people of color throughout our country. Alexander argues that racial discrimination never truly faded away in our country after the end of the Civil War and after Jim Crow segregation. She points to disparities between white people and black people in regards to outcomes such as wealth accumulation, incarceration rates, and employment rates, arguing that institutions and systematic thought in our country have created a new form of racial discrimination that is as damaging as a racial caste system. However, this new racial caste system as described by Alexander is largely unnoticed in our country since outwardly racist displays of white superiority are scorned and an idea of colorblindness is emphasized. In her book she writes,

 

“The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today – i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters — has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.”

 

Our colorblind society is unable to see the dangers of racial disparities and inequities today. We see successful black people in entertainment, sports, and increasingly in politics and assume that racial barriers have been overcome and that we no longer live in a country defined by race and exploitation, but when we take a step back and look at the actual outcomes that people of color are likely to experience relative to white people, we can see that race still plays an important role in determining how society relates to individuals and how individuals experience their society. Because we all claim to be colorblind, and because we equate racism with individuals and their beliefs and actions, black people today cannot discuss racial resentment or discrimination. Their complaints against an unequal system fall on deaf ears, because no individual sees themselves as being guilty of racial bias, even if they operate within and support a system that was originally designed or unintentionally functions as a way to suppress minority populations and people of color.

 

Ultimately colorblindness leaves us in a position where we tell everyone that all people are equal on the surface, but then criticize some groups for not achieving the same level of success despite not having the same advantages and opportunities. We look at President Obama and see a black man who rose to the presidency by overcoming obstacles and assume that racial parity exists. When black people try to raise objections to the way that they are treated and when they try to point out the challenges that black people in this country have faced since our founding, their arguments are discredited by the same group that claims to be colorblind.

 

More than being neutral and meritorious, being colorblind means that we choose not to see the advantages white people have relative to black people. It means that we choose not to acknowledge the ways in which recent history limited the opportunities and possibilities for minority populations. Colorblindness also means that we ignore the realities that black people face in terms of systematic discrimination that dates back to times when discrimination was legal. Ultimately, it is a way to discredit claims of racial discrimination and the existence of disparate impacts from our policies and systems.