Color-Blind or Color-Bind?

Lucas Morel

July 1, 1998

Recently President Clinton received a disturbing letter from the chairman of his advisory board on race. John Hope Franklin wrote the president to suggest he present "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 striking change in public discussion of how to rid the nation of racism.

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 racial minorities 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 non-whites made them the legal and social target of racism, while their individuality remained invisible to a white society that judged them only by their color. Today the task of American politics is to fulfill what Ellison called "the imperative of American democratic individualism." In short, to enable black Americans to be "seen" as individuals without denying the freedom of others to make their mark as well.

Contrary to Franklin’s recent epiphany, the last thing minorities should clamor for is further recognition on the basis of their skin color. This only reinforces the notion that individuals can 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, or children of any ethnicity, to succeed in America. He only asked that government protect their equal opportunity to pursue that success.

As for diversity, the late Ralph Ellison wrote that it can and should be embraced by Americans. But his was a diversity not of ethnic groups but of individuals, who in their pursuit of happiness need not assert their blackness (or whiteness or whatever) but rather their unique personality, talents, and abilities.

From this it should be clear what government’s role should be in eradicating racism from the public arena. Franklin wants race to become an abiding mandate for government and other public institutions. But affirmative action programs reward certain citizens for alleged discrimination by other citizens that never has to be proven. Instead, the government should ensure that its laws and courts remain open to all for the protection of their rights without reference to race. If a citizen can prove that he or she has been discriminated against by an identifiable employer or college, then the government should take "affirmative action" to compensate the victim and punish the offender. Otherwise, let "innocent until proven guilty" be the standing rule.

Franklin’s desire to see race become a permanent fixture of American government, business, education, and the media regrettably turns the clock back to the days of black codes and Jim Crow laws. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court voted 7 to 1 to legalize segregation by permitting states to separate citizens by race in public railway cars. It was the lone dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan that declared, "Our Constitution is color-blind."

Unfortunately Franklin’s proposal, like Plessy v. Ferguson, allows government to take account of race on a day-to-day basis. Americans then learn that rights doled out according to race must reflect an inability on the part of minorities to flourish in a free society without special help from the government. This can only reinforce racial stereotypes in the public mind—exactly the opposite of Franklin’s professed aim.

"The destinies of the two races, in this country," Justice Harlan observed, "are indissolubly linked together." He therefore argued 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." This is precisely what Franklin’s proposal would accomplish. Ironically, Franklin’s most famous book is entitled "From Slavery to Freedom." What a shame his proposal leads America not to greater freedom from prejudice, but to further enslavement to racial mindedness.

Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.