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    HomePoliticsWhy the ‘colorblindness’ movement is peaking now

    Why the ‘colorblindness’ movement is peaking now

    It is very much worth reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay for the New York Times Magazine exploring the emergence of what she calls “the colorblindness trap.” It’s a reference to an increasingly common — and effective — rejoinder to programs meant to combat racial discrimination: Why aren’t we, instead, enforcing a colorblind society? Often, this argument has as its central component the Martin Luther King Jr. quote about people being judged by the content of their character — a quote that, as Hannah-Jones notes, plucks one particularly palatable cherry from King’s orchard of advocacy for addressing discrimination and discriminatory systems.

    Hannah-Jones tracks the half-century during which this counterargument’s potency has grown, from the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke to the political rhetoric of the moment. Or, really, how the argument is a continuation of an eternal tension in the United States.

    At times, often following “violent upheavals,” she writes, “enough white people in power embraced the idea that racial subordination is antidemocratic and so the United States must counter its legacy of racial caste not with a mandated racial neutrality or colorblindness but with sweeping race-specific laws and policies to help bring about Black equality. Yet any attempt to manufacture equality by the same means that this society manufactured inequality has faced fierce and powerful resistance.”

    So it’s worth asking: Why, besides the fact that there’s been a concerted effort over decades to unwind programs meant to address historic discrimination, has the trap Hannah-Jones identifies been sprung now?

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    Hannah-Jones’s presentation depends on the reader accepting the existence of ingrained patterns that for centuries have disadvantaged Black Americans — more specifically, those whose ancestors were enslaved. That is: the existence of systemic racism. She describes how racism survived direct efforts to combat it during the Civil Rights era.

    “Systems constructed and enforced over centuries to subjugate enslaved people and their descendants based on race no longer needed race-based laws to sustain them,” Hannah-Jones writes. “Racial caste was so entrenched, so intertwined with American institutions, that without race-based counteraction, it would inevitably self-replicate.”

    Here we see one of the reasons that the question of addressing historic discrimination is so aggressively contested in the moment: Acceptance of this idea is now polarized on partisan lines.

    The General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans since the 1970s whether they believed that the differences in economic status between Black and White Americans were mostly due to discrimination. Before 2000, at which point the GSS adopted a more expansive way to record race, White Democrats were slightly more likely to attribute the differences to discrimination than were White Republicans. (Both groups were less likely to believe it than Black Americans.) Then, after 2014, belief that social differences were due to discrimination soared — particularly among White Democrats.

    Why? Almost certainly because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which brought enormous attention to the issue of systemic racism. But that movement — which itself quickly became polarized on partisan linesdid not have the same observable effect on White Republicans. In fact, they are less likely to say they think Black Americans are primarily disadvantaged by discrimination than they were in the 1980s.

    This is a central issue for the question of affirmative action programs, of course. Hannah-Jones notes that the intent of such programs was to address long-standing discriminatory practices. Her essay includes the famous Lyndon B. Johnson quote: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” But those efforts have been reframed as being centrally about race, not historic disadvantages, because race was for so long a useful proxy for those disadvantages.

    I looked at historic Census Bureau data on race as I was writing my 2023 book and summarized the shift in the non-White population of the United States like so:

    “In 1960, before immigration laws were loosened, more than 94 percent of non-White U.S. residents were Black — though this was also before Hispanic ethnicity was separated from the overall White category. In 1970, 2 in 3 non-Whites (a group now including Hispanics) were Black (including Black Hispanics). By 2010, though, when Obama was president, only about a third of non-White residents were Black. By 2020, that density had fallen under 3 in 10.”

    This is a reason the GSS changed how it records race: Its old process for categorizing race as White/Black/Other was no longer sufficient.

    This evolution in America’s demographic composition is a central aspect of the movement Hannah-Jones describes. In part, that’s because, as she puts it, “institutions have treated affirmative-action programs as a means of achieving visual diversity,” emphasis added. The programs often drifted from being centered on addressing discrimination and injustice to more broadly focusing on representation. The disadvantages that are downstream from enslavement were submerged. Experiences with discrimination lost some differentiation.

    The demographic evolution is also central, though, because it overlaps with a strong sense among White Americans that the country is changing away from them. The country is growing more diverse, and more quickly among younger generations. Older White Americans — who are more likely to be Republican than other populations — see the country changing literally as they read about it changing demographically. “Make America great again” is, in part, an unsubtle response to that change.

    So we see that Republicans (the vast majority of whom are White) generally agree that racism against Black Americans used to be a problem — but that more of them now think racism against White Americans is a problem.

    More Republicans think racism against White people is a problem than think that racism against Black, Latino or Asian Americans is.

    This is a manifestation of the success of the movement Hannah-Jones is talking about. White Republicans think that systems are arrayed against them more than against historically disadvantaged groups. The effort by Black Lives Matter to elevate systemic racism heightened this sense of aggrievement rather than easing it, thanks largely to the utility for Republican leaders of casting BLM as a political foil.

    A decade ago, the Republican Party arrived at a crossroads. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 and, more so, his reelection four years later seemed to augur the arrival of a new, diverse, Democratic coalition. In considering how the GOP failed to regain the White House in 2012, the party compiled a report of recommendations. Among them: better outreach to Black, Hispanic and Asian voters. When the party fared unexpectedly poorly in the 2022 midterms, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel assembled an advisory council tasked, among other things, with the same desired outcome.

    But that was just one path. Donald Trump chose the other path, elevating White grievance and concerns about “reverse racism,” a more rhetorically pointed version of the “colorblindness” argument. A sense that Whites were being left behind was a better predictor of primary support for Trump in 2016 than economic insecurity. And that approach from Trump continues. After he recently triggered the ouster of McDaniel, the party spiked its minority outreach program. In recent years, the argument seems to be, the GOP is faring better with Black and Hispanic voters regardless.

    Hannah-Jones quotes University of California at Berkeley professor Ian Haney López.

    “This rhetoric is a massive fraud, because it claims colorblindness toward race but is actually designed to stimulate hyper-race-consciousness among white people,” Haney López said. “That strategy has worked.”

    Trump’s ascent seems like obvious evidence of that effect. His rise, in fact, is inextricable from the patterns to which Hannah-Jones points, including the backlash against programs meant to address historic injustice and changing demography. The trend existed before 2016, as she writes. But it’s not a coincidence that both he and the backlash are seeing success at the same

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