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 Abstract

Excerpted From: Taunya Lovell Banks, Race Talk: Seeing a Color-blind Future: The Paradox of Race. By Patricia J. Williams. New York: Noonday Press. 1998. Pp. 74., 20 Boston College Third World Law Journal 183 (Winter, 2000)(Book Review) (93 Footnotes) (Full Document)

TaunyaLovellBanksHow precisely does the issue of color remain so powerfully determinative of everything from life circumstances to manner of death, in a world that is, by and large, officially “color-blind”? What metaphors mark the hierarchies that make racial domination frequently seem so “natural,” so invisible, indeed so attractive? How does racism continue to evolve, post-slavery and post-equality legislation, across such geographic, temporal, and political distance?

In 1997 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) invited Patricia J. Williams, a Columbia University law professor and a columnist for The Nation, to deliver the Reith Lectures. These lectures comprise Williams' slim book, Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. The same year that Professor Williams delivered her lectures, President Clinton called on the nation to engage in a conversation about race. In making this bold move the President failed to consider that we, the people of the United States, do not know the rules for engaging in race talk. Talking about race is a difficult endeavor because it involves “negotiating real divisions, … considering boundaries, … and … pondering our differences before we can ever agree on the terms of our sameness.” In the five autobiographical essays that comprise her book, Williams engages in conversation--provoking narratives about black-white racial dynamics in the United States. Although she does not pretend to provide answers about how to achieve racial justice, her essays should provoke a lot of race talk among readers.

In the first essay, “The Emperor's New Clothes,” Williams writes about her young son's experiences with the consequences of the contemporary color-blindness model. A nursery school teacher tells Williams that her son suffers from color-blindness, a medical condition, but an ophthalmologist finds nothing wrong with the child's sight. Only then does she uncover the real cause of her son's color-blindness. The “children ha[d] been fighting about whether black people could play 'good guys,’ [and the “well-meaning” nursery school teacher tells the students that it] doesn't matter … whether you're black or white or red or green or blue.” Rather than address the racial issue raised by the fight, the teacher tells her students that race is irrelevant. As a result of this lesson, Williams' son simply refused to identify color at all.

Neil Gotanda equates the non-recognition of race with a person who pretends to be medically color-blind. This feat requires the person first to “'see’ the color, [and] then pretend that the colors could not be seen.” The process involves consciously discounting something that one knows to exist, i.e., colors. Rather than representing a progressive and moral view of a racially just society, the form of color-blindness espoused by the nursery school teacher actually privileges whiteness and “de-races” everything else.

In the nursery school setting, race color-blindness does not operate in a race-neutral way. Some children already have preconceived notions about race, thus the controversy over whether black people can play good guys. The color-blind claim operates to reinforce the clearly stated notion that only whites can be good guys and that those of other races, especially blacks, cannot be good and, thus, are implicitly bad. Saying that race does not matter in that circumstance not only allows racial discrimination to continue, but also requires that we pretend a black person, like Williams' son, is socially raceless. The individual who is “de-raced” has two options: “follow an assimilationist approach, seeking adaptation to majority society … [or] be constitutionally condemned to a marginal existence in the future society.”

This version of color-blindness “carries no vision of racial fairness or racial justice for society; it is only a prohibition upon the government use of race.” This alleged racial neutrality sometimes leads to absurd outcomes like the Fifth Circuit's decision in Hopwood v. Texas. In Hopwood, the federal appellate court announced that the Fourteenth Amendment mandated racial neutrality and applied a strict scrutiny standard of review to strike down a benign race-conscious admissions program instituted by the University of Texas Law School. The law school instituted the program to remedy past discrimination and ensure a more racially diverse student body. The court's approach in Hopwood ignores the legacy of discrimination stemming from decades of state-mandated racial segregation and allows white racial preferences to continue.

Although many progressive legal scholars agree with Gotanda and Williams that a racially just society is impossible, “absent recognition of the social significance of race,” most scholars “tend[] to align race consciousness with consciousness of blackness,” rather than whiteness. Barbara Flagg calls this phenomena “racial transparency”: the tendency of whites not to think about whiteness, or about norms, behaviors, experiences, or perspectives that are white-specific. Transparency often is the mechanism through which white decisionmakers who disavow white supremacy impose white norms on blacks. Transparency operates to require black assimilation even when pluralism is the articulated goal; it affords substantial advantages to whites over blacks even when decision-makers intend to effect substantive racial justice.

“Race” then only applies to non-whites, which explains why, according to Williams, the dominant society resents and represses “race matters,” and why “race … tends to be treated as though it were an especially delicate category of social infirmity [analogous to some] unfortunate negotiation of social difference” like a physical disability. The obstacle to racial justice posed by white racial transparency, or what Professor Williams calls the “phenomenon of closeting race,” is an ongoing theme in her essays. Color-blindness, which, in reality, is a form of white racial transparency, makes it easier for the dominant society to ignore how the history of slavery and colonialism “continue[] to scar contemporary social arrangements with the transcendent urgency of their hand-me-down grief.”

Williams argues that this legacy of race-based slavery and white colonialism should provide the context for discussing the “toll of racism and its lingering effects.” Without question, discussions of the race process, whether in the United States, the Caribbean, or other Americas, benefit from a colonial analysis that is grounded in the Atlantic slave trade, and the positionality of Africans and their descendants is crucial to any discussion of race in the Americas. However, an important, but unanswered, question is whether slavery and colonialism are the only contexts in which these discussions should take place.

Professor Williams admits, however, that conventional civil rights theories are ill-suited for the more complex world of the future where the “hybridizing of racial stereotypes with the fundamentalism of gender, class, ethnicity, and religion” are complicated further by global environmental and economic concerns. Rejecting the contemporary color-blind model, Williams argues that new ideas and approaches are needed to achieve a racially just society. Unfortunately for the reader, she provides no concrete answers, using her essays instead to show us how much groundwork needs to be done.

[. . .]

Professor Williams' final essay, “An Ordinary Brilliance: Parting the Waters, Closing the Wounds,” is a call for racial justice and an end to racial stereotyping. It is an appropriate way to end the lecture series that formed the basis of the book's essays. Nevertheless, I find the question she poses near the end of her fourth essay more relevant to the situation of black people in the United States today. Williams asks, in a question directed at both proponents and opponents of color-blindness, “How do we proceed in a world where race operates as a hidden scripting of rationalized irrationality, where myriad images of racial cliches perpetuate their unspoken subtexts of devaluation?”

This question provokes still another conversation about race. Advocates of color-blindness, in the spirit of Judge Richard Posner, might answer that courts should ignore racial differences, even though they know that race-based societal discrimination continues to flourish. Posner and others, with words sounding remarkably similar to those of Justice John Harlan, the originator of the color-blind legal language, claim that legal (as opposed to social) equality can be achieved only if law is truly color-blind. However, an uncritical color-blind rule, as Professor Williams' essays so aptly illustrate, produces undesirable outcomes or consequences in a racially unjust society. Color-blindness ignores continuing racial inequalities and implicitly condones racial discrimination. Simply ignoring race will not make it go away.

We must find ways to live with and celebrate difference in order to become a pluralistic democracy. A necessary prerequisite, as Professor Williams suggests, is learning how and being willing to engage in meaningful and honest race talk. The only question is whether this country is willing to take the first step. Those who read Seeing A Color- Blind Future: The Paradox of Race will have plenty of material for this necessary race talk.


Taunya Lovell Banks. Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence, University of Maryland.


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