Should America Be Blind to Race?

Lucas Morel

August 1, 1998

In June President Clinton received a disturbing letter from the chairman of his advisory board on race. John Hope Franklin, chairman of the advisory board and emeritus history professor at Duke University, wrote the president to suggest he pursue “a thoughtful alternative to the ’color-blind society’ concept.” This repudiation of a key civil rights theme by the elder dean of black historians marks a sea change in public discussion of how to rid the nation of racism.

Who would have thought that a leading professor of black history would conclude that cultivating a color-blind society poses “an impediment to reducing racial stereotyping?” Arguing that racial stereotypes persist because America has downplayed the significance of race, Franklin proposed that key institutions in society be more “conscious about racial differences.” But moving race more prominently into the spotlight can only backfire on those with the most at stake.

“I am an invisible man.” So begins the most important book on American race relations since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) portrays an unnamed black character as he struggles to make a name for himself in an America that refuses to “see” him as an individual. “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

The tragic irony for black Americans is that they have suffered from both visibility and invisibility. Their “high visibility” as blacks living in a predominantly white society made them the legal and social target of racism, while their individuality remained in-visible to a white society that judged them only by their color. Today an important task of American politics is to make room for black Americans to be “seen” and judged as individuals, virtues and vices in tow, without denying the freedom of others to make their mark as well.

As Ellison put it, “the obligation of making oneself seen and heard was an imperative of American democratic individualism.”

As a historian and black American, Franklin should know that the last thing minorities should clamor for is further recognition on the basis of group identity. This only reinforces the notion that individuals should be sized up like books that are judged by their “covers” and not their “content.” Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a better way when he dreamed of a day when his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He did not doubt the capacity of his children to succeed in America. He only asked that government protect their equal opportunity to pursue that success.

At the close of the Civil War, charitable groups sprang forth to assist the newly freed slaves. Reflecting on the American penchant for volunteerism and its long term effect on individual blacks, the escaped-slave-turned-abolitionist-orator Frederick Douglass remarked, “I think the American people are disposed often to be generous rather than just.” While he recognized the need for assistance, he worried that white Americans would only see their black neighbors as charity cases and not fellow, self-governing citizens. Douglass predicted that the transition from slavery to freedom would be forestalled if American whites, even those with upright intentions, viewed blacks as a permanent underclass.

Douglass therefore loathed the all too common refrain of race relations, “What shall we do with the Negro?” It implied that blacks needed something done to or for them that differed from what government ordinarily did to or for whites. “Do nothing with us!” Douglass answered. “Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.” He believed that when government treated blacks as a class, it only managed to increase its control over them. In short, it perpetuated the plantation mindset, which was degradingly paternalistic at best, and brutally oppressive at worst. So confident was Douglass in the equality of man, that he opposed any “attempt to prop up the Negro. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone!”

From this one can make out government’s proper role in removing racism from the public arena: simply ensure that the laws protect all persons without regard to race. If an individual can prove that he or she suffered racial discrimination by a company or school operating in the public sphere, then a court could order that “affirmative action” be taken by the guilty party to compensate the victim.

This was the solution offered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which originally defined “affirmative action” as a court-ordered remedy of a proven harm. This is a far cry from today’s quota regime, which rewards citizens of one race at the expense of citizens of another race, without requiring any evidence of wrongdoing by the one party against the other! I say, let “innocent until proven guilty” be the standing rule for all Americans.

The alternative proposed by Professor Franklin is for race to become a permanent fixture of American government, business, education, and the media. Regrettably, this would return us to the days of black codes and Jim Crow laws. In the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the Supreme Court voted 7 to 1 to legalize segregation by allowing states to separate citizens by race in public railway cars. Franklin’s proposal, like the majority ruling in Plessy, allows government to take account of race on a day-to-day basis. This can only reinforce racial stereotypes in the public mind — exactly the opposite of Franklin’s professed aim.

It was the lone dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan that declared, “Our Constitution is color-blind,” a premise that has yet to be adopted by even our conservative-leaning Supreme Court. Observing that “The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together,” Harlan concluded that “the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.” What could sow the seeds of race hate faster than Franklin’s proposal that America no longer “aspire to a ’color-blind’ society?”

In a recent speech to the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest organization of black lawyers and judges, Justice Clarence Thomas announced that he came “to assert my right to think for myself.” Why would a sitting Supreme Court justice find it necessary to declare his independence before a group of black lawyers?

Formed in 1925 as an alternative to the American Bar Association, which at the time discriminated against minorities, the now 18,000-member organization opposed the confirmation of Clarence Thomas (who replaced Thurgood Marshall). And due to complaints from its membership, it also tried to dis-invite him from addressing their annual convention. But faced with protests outside the convention hall, as well as from the speaker’s dais before he spoke, Justice Thomas thought it useful to remind them that the ability to think for oneself is the mark of a free person.

Ironically, Professor Franklin’s most famous book is entitled From Slavery to Freedom. Too bad his call to steer America away from a color-blind society would lead us not to greater freedom from prejudice, but further enslavement to racial mindedness. His recommendation that we use race to get rid of racism only exacerbates the problem Ellison so deftly portrayed in Invisible Man. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ellison makes it plain that as long as society makes race the hallmark of minority citizens, minorities will remain invisible to America, or be “seen” only through the very stereotypes Franklin seeks to overcome.

Lucas Morel is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and History at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas,and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.