Colorblindness is Racism

I started with a provocative headline, but I have come to believe that this is a necessary approach if we want to design policies and systems that bend the arc of our moral universe towards justice.

Let me start with a thought experiment. Say you have a large building which, for some weird historical reason, needs its electrical system updated on the eastern half of the building. This will be a long and inconvenient process for many of the building’s denizens. One of the unfortunate consequences of this update will be that even though it is winter, all of the bathrooms in the eastern half of the building will be without heat for weeks at a time.  Bummer! As a manager in such a building, you would of course apologize and ask for people’s understanding. It is still possible to use the bathrooms, they will just be quite cold. All of us building citizens are in this together, and this completely arbitrary east-west distinction means some of us are unlucky. Our eastern colleagues can exit the building and use the bathrooms in the portable trailer (taking about 15 minutes), or they can also walk across the building to use the bathrooms on the western half of the building (taking about 10 minutes). Ok, so far so good. But out of the blue, some troublemaker calls this poor building manager sexist! How could this be? As it turns out, again, through some sort of weird historical accident, (maybe back in the 50s the secretarial pool was on the eastern half and the manager’s offices were on the western half, not such a strange thing) all of the women’s bathrooms are on the eastern half of the building and the men’s bathrooms on the western half. Through no ill intent on behalf of the manager (who could in fact be a woman herself) this perfectly normal maintenance procedure is all of a sudden bogged down in controversy.

Hopefully you would stop me and say, “Cedar, no competent building manager would be ignorant of that last fact, that the women’s bathroom are all on the eastern half. Their intent might be good, but they would know which bathrooms are which and act accordingly. For example, they wouldn’t suggest walking across the building if all of the restrooms on the other half were mens’ bathrooms.”

And I would agree. But it doesn’t affect the big message of my story.

Let’s recap just to make the dimensions of my metaphor clear: The building manager has no sexist intent, indeed, has good intentions, just wants to update the building. The building is designed (as every building is) incorporating seemingly weird historical accidents. But, despite this good intent, the outcome of this update (based on the weird historical accident, not the building manager’s intent) will be extreme inconvenience (40 degree toilet seats or a 15 minute walk) for a specific subpopulation of the building (women) who also just happened to have historically struggled for equal consideration, both in this very building as well as society at large.

Moral: When the discriminatory outcomes of our policies are known or even knowable, we should pay attention to the outcomes, and make particular efforts to address these outcomes.

So, to return to my provocative title, I see no benefit in restricting the incendiary term “racist” to the unknowable intentions and motivations of leaders and great benefit to identifying racism (and discrimination) in knowable outcomes and effects. We need to recognize identity politics because we have always had it.

When the discriminatory effects of what we now treat as weird historical accidents are knowable, taking an approach which ignores those outcomes and ignores that history is worthy of being labeled as discrimination and addressed as such.

Because in fact, our history is not as full of accidents as a colorblind approach would lead us to believe. Huh, all the black people just happen to live on the side of town with fewer municipal services, weird. Huh, the school that the black children go to has a crumbling building and doesn’t have money for books, weird. The white leaders of 100 years ago, of 80 years ago, of 60 years ago designed this society. The white male executives of those buildings approved those plans and even changed them. Our society, like that building, did not just happen but had choices and architects.

Returning to our unrealistically ignorant building manager, you would no doubt agree that being unaware of which bathrooms were men’s and which were women’s would not qualify as simple even-handed naivete: “I don’t see gender.” No, that would be willful ignorance. But the same is now true for many of our policies. We know that raising the retirement age to 69 would have a disparate impact. We know our schools are separate and unequal. With a President who avoids intelligence briefings, denies science, and appoints Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy, we are entering an age of willful ignorance.

It is time we recognized that colorblindness is not a form of fairness, but a form of ignorance. The opposite of colorblindness is not “special treatment” but awareness of history and awareness of the outcomes of our rules and policies. I am not sure what consequences this awareness will have. Is that 15-minute walk to the outside trailer an acceptable and adequate step? Should men’s bathrooms be temporarily reclassified? But the first step is acknowledging that the burdens of these changes will be borne unequally. Just as this history wasn’t blind to this, if we want to make our future more just, we need to design policies that counteract racism (and other forms of discrimination), not those that ignore it.

In other words, if we want justice, we need identity politics. If we want liberty, we need identity politics, because limits to liberty have never been colorblind. For a thorough extension of this point with regards to the causes and outcomes of the current election, read this great post by Jacob T. Levy.  Levy is no Bernie Sanders liberal, but a libertarian who was a vocal Gary Johnson supporter before the election. I’d love to quote more, but here is a good paragraph:

If you think—as I think any liberal who cares about liberty, whether classical, market, neo-, welfarist, Rawlsian, or whatever, must—that the combination of mass incarceration and aggressive policing amounts to a grave injustice, then you need to be able to think in race-conscious terms. What brought about this crisis? The war on drugs and police militarization, some readers will say. Okay, but what brought about the war on drugs and police militarization? The answer isn’t some simple intellectual mistake. The answer is deeply tied up in American racial politics.

This is not a partisan issue, if we want to design good policy with fair and positive outcomes, we need to acknowledge that to a country with our history, colorblindness is racism.