Action, Inaction, and “Color-blindness”

By Kim Ebert

The killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman offers valuable insight into the operations of color-blind racial ideology and the way color-blindness sustains white privilege even in the absence of any formal, organized movements openly dedicated to maintaining whites’ status as the dominant group. Indeed, while the events surrounding the Martin shooting sparked outrage and mobilized protests among the African-American community, it is telling that they did not inspire any sort of meaningful collective action among those (primarily non-blacks) who were sympathetic to Zimmerman’s cause. This is not to say the events were greeted entirely with indifference among Zimmerman’s supporters, but they mostly did not see the shooting and trial as occasions around which to organize and rally. Instead, many viewed the entire episode as a legal process centering on fundamental individual rights—in this case, the right to defend oneself and the right to bear arms—rather than issues of race.

Color-blind ideology rests on the view that, with the decline of overt racism and discriminatory laws, America has achieved its meritocratic ideal, and thus any disparities in outcomes that fall along racial lines are the result of individual- or group-specific shortcomings rather than discrimination (see Bonilla-Silva 2014). By focusing solely on the formal obstacles to equality, color-blind ideology encourages whites (and perhaps non-blacks more generally; e.g., see Marrow 2011 for evidence of the shifting color line) to forget the historical practices and attitudes that perfected racial domination and their role in entrenching racial structural inequalities that persist even today. Color-blindness offers a way for whites to ignore current ethnoracial discrimination and, in some ways, provides whites with a claim to victimhood.

These features of color-blind ideology provide a broader context for understanding the collective action and inaction involved in the Martin case. The asymmetry between the African-American and non-black communities in their respective organized responses (or lack thereof) to the shooting betrays the extent of the underlying power asymmetries and the mechanisms by which those power disparities are obscured. In principle, the justice system more than any other institution of government gives everyone equal access and voice. In the Martin case, however, the victims of the shooting had no voice in the sense that neither Martin (for obvious reasons) nor his family participated in the trial. But they lacked voice in an even deeper, if less obvious, sense: the prosecutors tasked with seeking justice on their behalf were constrained to ignore the racial dimension of the case. In fact, the prosecution often acted as defense, as Zimmerman’s attorneys freely painted a picture of the menacing threat Zimmerman faced that fateful evening, thus using the race of the victim (without having to explicitly raise it) against a prosecution team that could not or would not respond in kind.

In a very real sense, then, the only way for Martin’s claim to justice to be heard was through mobilization and action by the African-American community. Zimmerman’s supporters, however, did not have to publicly and visibly mobilize to achieve a “successful” verdict. This is not to say that no one mobilized in support of Zimmerman or that the relatively few who did had no influence on the course of events. Rather, the point is they did not have to mobilize. Inaction is a luxury afforded them by institutions and processes that carefully ignore racial dimensions of conflict in order to satisfy the ideal of color-blindness. Zimmerman’s supporters did not even need to be aware of, let alone acknowledge, the structural inequalities that underlie and facilitate such conflicts. Again, I do not suggest they completely ignored the racial implications of the case, but they often insisted that others—the media, President Obama, etc.—made the confrontation and killing about race rather than what it truly was about, cherished rights to which all American citizens are entitled. Just as Zimmerman’s defense team was able to use Martin’s race to reverse roles—Martin as aggressor, Zimmerman as victim—Zimmerman’s supporters could blame the predominately African-American protests for interjecting race into the tragedy, and thus use the one-sided nature of the public outcry as evidence of their own victimhood.

How did we arrive at this era of “color-blindness”? In my research, I trace the rise of color-blind ideology to the activities of racial-political organizations – including racially conservative, civil rights, and white supremacist groups – in the second half of the twentieth century. Racially conservative organizations are of particular interest here, as they are the institutional representations of color-blind racial ideology. They are advocacy organizations representing collective, institutional voices that advocate “color-blind” principles and policies such as eliminating affirmative action plans, passing English-only provisions, abolishing busing programs, limiting immigrant rights, and criminalizing immigration. During the latter part of the twentieth century, racially conservative organizations were better able to promote their agenda as compared to white supremacist and civil rights organizations. Most notably, they had more money, supporters, and stability at their disposal.

But they were also successful due to their strategic and politically expedient framing of racial-political issues. Prior to the 1960s, most racially conservative organizations were devoted to promoting confederate or Southern culture. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, they drew on “reverse discrimination” frames (notably racial frames) in their resistance to civil rights policies and minority group organizing. From the late 1990s onward, they solidified their position by shifting their framing strategies slightly, from “reverse discrimination” to color-blindness, or toward non-racial frames. While civil rights organizations originally used color-blindness as a way to challenge de jure racial discrimination, racially conservative organizations appropriated this rhetoric and turned it on its head. In essence, they presented a package that resonated with many white Americans.

This shift away from “reverse discrimination” is key here – it meant that instead of arguing that whites were the victims of civil rights policies, racially conservative organizations began to argue that these policies violated American principles like individual rights. These tactics in turn served to de-legitimize other racial frames, particularly from minority civil rights groups but also from white supremacist groups, by casting them as “un-American.”

Color-blind ideology thus is both the result of white collective action and an ideology that justifies and legitimates ongoing ethnoracial inequalities without requiring action. The processes that help to reproduce ethnoracial inequality have been transformed in the current century, but ethnoracial inequality and discrimination have persisted. People of color, particularly the African American community, have to confront this persistent inequality and discrimination daily. In contrast, many white people don’t want to think about issues of inequality, and frankly, most don’t have to. As members of the social movement community, we can attempt to keep Trayvon Martin’s memory alive, and use this case as a concrete reminder of the destructiveness of the ostensibly innocuous ideology of “color-blindness.”

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Racist and Racial Justice Movements

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