You can tell a lot about a person by how they process the racial climate of the consecutive presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. On the right, it is commonly believed that President Obama stoked racial division, and that Donald Trump is a more unifying figure. I was reminded of this Sunday when Rick Santorum said “many, many, many people saw Barack Obama being just that. Doing more to exacerbate racism in this country.”
Why do people believe this? Because they’re colorblind racists. This post is for people who already know this in a general way, but could use some more insight about how this kind of racism works. (If you’re one of the people who experienced Obama’s presidency as divisive and Trump’s as unifying, I’m afraid this post will be very offensive.) I’ll also consider some rhetorical strategies you can use to try to communicate to someone who might be persuaded to discard their racist views.
Ok, first, how does this kind of racism work? Santorum’s comments are a textbook example of colorblind racism. Colorblind racism is distinct from white supremacist racism, in part because the declared goals and self-understanding of the colorblind racist are anti-racist. Colorblind racists often sincerely want everyone to get along and are not conscious of acting against the interests of people of color.
Colorblind racists tend to feel threatened by discussion of racial discrimination. They believe the best way to solve racial problems is to not talk about them. “It’s in the past.” “It was long ago.” Move forward, focus on what we have in common. They believe that though there are certainly bad people here and there who really are racists, there aren’t significant systemic barriers or discrimination holding people back. To the extent that there is a problem with racism in the United States, it involves a small number of bigoted people, and a larger number of people who play the victim, using the accusation of racism as an excuse or a cudgel against political opponents.
Colorblind racists tend to believe that no new laws are needed to rectify racial injustice. They tend to believe that the laws of the United States are just and fairly applied. So when President Obama acknowledged that American policing is discriminatory, colorblind racists experienced his words as more divisive than the underlying problems to which the words refer. Similarly, colorblind racists experienced the NFL players’ protests against police brutality as more offensive than the brutality itself.
Colorblind racists tend to see accusations of racism as tantamount to racism. This is why they often believe white people face more discrimination than black people. White people, after all, seem to be constantly accused of racism. This is a heavy and unfair burden to bear, they believe, especially in a society such as ours where there is so much freedom and opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and grab it.
Colorblind rhetoric often sounds appealing to people because it seems to promote brotherhood and goodwill toward all. “We’re all Americans.” “Let’s be united.” “Content of character.” “We’re all the same under the skin.” Colorblind racism operates by appropriating this rhetoric to protect white advantages. It might seem reasonable and well-intentioned on its face, but it only works when all context around the rhetoric is ignored. When people say “we’re all the same” to argue against a Jim Crow segregation law, they’re using colorblindness for anti-racist ends. When people say “we’re all the same” to silence black people speaking about the reality of racial discrimination they face, they’re using colorblind rhetoric for racist ends.
This rhetorical posture is why you may see, for example, people vocally supporting Trump one day and posting a meme about unity the next day. While colorblind racists provide strong support for racist policy in a practical sense, their self-image is anti-racist. They’re not trying to fool you. They’ve already fooled themselves.
Ok, that’s a little bit about the psychology of colorblind racism. Now how do you engage someone enthralled by these beliefs and, perhaps, win them over? I’m assuming here that these are conversations among people you really have a relationship with. This is unlikely to work with random strangers!
1. Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Softball questions are good. This will give you more understanding of where the person is coming from, and it might even expose something to that person’s own consciousness. Many white people have incoherent racial views and find it difficult to talk about them. Self-aware people might begin to realize this without you pointing it out.
2. Think about your bottom lines. Conversations about race tend to splinter and go in a thousand directions. You meant to defend the humanity of black people in a conversation with your grandfather, and 15 minutes later you’re debating the finer points of the ACORN controversy from 9 years ago. Do you really need your Grandpa to agree with you about ACORN? Always bring the conversation back to your bottom line.
3. Grant points when you can. This is part of keeping the conversation on track. Do you really need them to agree with you that progressive taxation has an important role to play in reducing racial inequality? No, you don’t. Grant them that point, and return to the bottom line: racial discrimination is a real and significant problem in the United States, and we need to address it.
4. Look for empathy connections. This is easier said than done. If we say, “how would you feel if…” it can seem like a confrontational gotcha question. But in more subtle ways, you may be able to defend and promote the humanity and dignity of people of color in ways that resonate with a colorblind racist.
5. That said, don’t use appeals based on pity. You don’t want them to get the impression that charity and pity are what this whole racism conversation is about. Colorblind racists often are already inclined to think of many black people as victims. You want to counteract that impression, not reinforce it. Basic justice is the issue at hand.
6. Appeal to their stated ideals if you can. Many colorblind racists genuinely want to be accepting of all people and are profoundly hurt and threatened by the idea that they may not be. Do not get caught up in complicated discussions about cultural autonomy and the potential downsides of the colorblind ideal. Affirm what is good in the ideal, and try to point out how discrimination is undermining the very values they espouse.
7. Don’t get bogged down in evidentiary claims. This is tricky because isn’t this whole debate about evidence? Yes and no. Some people rapidly change their views in the face of evidence. But most have deep emotional, social, and economic investments in seeing things the way they do. Unfortunately, they will not be won by the weight of evidence. Yes, the evidence is on your side. The colorblind racist will be saying false things. But think about how you can move the discussion forward while offering evidentiary resources in a more useful form. “There’s a great book about that…” “I can send you the link to a study that addresses that question…” You want to be able to get back to your bottom lines while gently suggesting that the point they’ve raised has been thoroughly studied/debunked/explained.
8. Be prepared for the long haul. Most of us just don’t change very fast. In the context of friends or family, you’re not trying to win the discussion. You’re trying to give them something to think about while keeping the door open to future conversations.