There is an epidemic in our country. Other epidemics like obesity and AIDS create injustice in the body, but this one creates injustice in our society and the ways in which we relate to one another. We have a name for this disease: colorblindness.
What are the symptoms of colorblindness? The most notable is the refusal to admit that the color of a person’s skin affects that person’s opportunities in America. Other symptoms include a callous rationalization of racial violence, a denial of one’s own racial prejudices, a minimization of ubiquitous bigotry, and, in extreme cases, a belief that race is a personal choice.
Let’s take a look at some recent cases of this rampant disease. Several weeks ago, Tahera Ahmad ordered a can of soda on a United Airlines flight. For sanitary reasons, she requested an unopened can, but she was denied. “Big deal,” you might think. “It’s probably just some obscure airline regulation about canned drinks, right?” Unfortunately, no. This was a symptom of America’s insidious disease.
This isn’t about me and a soda can. It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.
That systemic injustice is influenced in part by color-blindness, which allows the privileged to overlook or even to justify their most horrific prejudices. On this United Airlines flight, nobody stood up for Ahmad when another passenger told her to “f… off” and said that Ahmad “would use [the unopened can] as a weapon.” How can anyone claim that racist institutions can be relegated to a “dark chapter in America’s history” when blatant discrimination like this occurs on a major American airline? The answer is simple: the narrative of colorblindness states that color doesn’t matter anymore, that minorities have won the battle for equal treatment, and that they no longer have any reason to think they are oppressed.
It appears that United Airlines has a bad case of colorblindness. It is an institution and its top priority is not social progress; it is self-preservation. In their apology to Tahera Ahmad, representatives of United did not mention anything about discrimination. They did not mention racism or Islamophobia. For them, it was a matter of rudeness and bad customer service. They simply did not see that being non-White and Muslim has a painful effect on American citizens.
Another incident of colorblindness was highlighted in some of the responses to the recent shooting in South Carolina. The culprit, a young White man named Dylann Roof, shot and killed nine Black worshippers during Bible study. To give you some background, by Roof’s own account, he was not raised in a racist home or educated in a racist school; he was a racist by choice. After reading racist texts about the “Jewish problem” in 1940s Europe, Roof accepted a racist ideology and wrote his own racist manifesto, in which he systematically described the unique failings of everyone who was not White. This racism and nothing else motivated his murder of nine Blacks in a historically Black church.
The reality is clear, but America’s severe case of colorblindness produced an incomplete and distorted response from its politicians. Lindsey Graham (SC-R) claimed that Roof was just “one of these whacked out kids” and “obviously twisted.” Jeb Bush called it “tragic,” and Rick Perry called it “unspeakable.” Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee sent their heartfelt prayers via tweet, and Rick Santorum called the event “an attack on religious liberty.” Ben Carson called it an act of “hate” and “intolerance.” To Donald Trump, it was “incomprehensible.” To Hillary Clinton, just “heartbreaking.”
But what is truly tragic, unspeakable, whacked out, twisted, incomprehensible, and heartbreaking is the fact that only one presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), responded to this undeniably racial attack by bringing up race. He had the sense to describe the incident as a “reminder of the ugly stain of racism on our country” and of the fact that we are “far from eradicating racism.” Thank you, Bernie.
As for the other future leaders of our country, it appears that they, too, have been infected and debilitated by a resistant strain of color-blindness. They refuse to admit that the color of a person’s skin still affects that person’s opportunities in America. They rationalize racial violence as religious intolerance, mental disturbance, or unexplainable hatred. They deny the terrifying strength of racial prejudices. They minimize the role of bigotry. It seems they are blind to the racial realities of our times, and they are of no help to the non-Whites who still struggle, on a daily basis, for equality, freedom, and justice.
In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Oberlin College. He said:
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through…tireless efforts and persistent work… [and] without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.
The more the Civil Rights movement sinks into the background of our minds as an event in “history,” the more the epidemic of colorblindness incapacitates us. So long as our government and corporations deny their daily institutional complicity in the racial violence we see nearly every day in America, we will remain trapped in a cycle of oppression and denial.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. King. Colorblindness is like any other epidemic. It will not eradicate itself over time. It needs treatment, and it needs it now. Every day that we spend waiting for a cure is another day that the disease of color-blindness has triumphed. What should you do? A better question might be, What can you do? Because you should do everything you can.
First, it is essential to write your representatives and demand that they publicly admit the persistent problem of racism in America. Demand that they serve the diverse body of voters who elected them—not just the interests of Whites or otherwise privileged people. Demand that they open the political discussion to include race and that they address the shambles in which America’s current racial understanding lies.
Second, talk about race. Have earnest discussions, and follow them up with action. Remember that a thousand mile march begins with a single step. Let’s take a step today.