On Friday, President Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, delivered an unexpected and incredibly personal addition to the national conversation surrounding Trayvon Martin and race/racism in an American context. Yet, despite numerous statements of praise and appreciation (even from some Republicans), President Obama's personal statement was cruelly dismissed by some on the right as "race-baiting" and shamefully mocked by those who cling to the ignorant notion that racism no longer exists. Ironically, it is that very mockery and dismissal of this important speech that makes clear the perniciousness of "colorblind racism."
Racism is a multi-faceted, complex framework, simultaneously covert and overt, both individual and systemic. It can be both an isolated incident and a structural fabric. And yet, by and large, Americans cling to the narrow idea that racism died along with the political correctness of "n" word and the mass lynchings of blacks by white terrorists in the 20th century. Racism, they say, is a problem of the past. We have a black president. You are the racist ones, they say, because you keep talking about race. We don't see race. We don't have a race problem, they say.
We don't have a race problem, unless you count the school-to-prison pipeline in Mississippi that arrested and sentenced black students for infractions as small as wearing the wrong color socks.
We don't have a race problem, unless you count New York City's Stop and Frisk program that has led to 400,000 NYPD encounters with innocent black and Latino New Yorkers.
We don't have a race problem, unless you count the fact that a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.
We don't have a race problem, unless you count the scores of white conservative leaders continually demanding our first black president prove his legitimacy and forcing him to release his birth certificate.
We don't have a race problem, unless you count the white conservative leaders like Sean Hannity, who mocked and belittled President Obama by stating that his similarity to Trayvon Martin was because "he was part of the Choom Gang and he smoked pot and he did a little blow."
We don't have a race problem, unless you count the innocent, unarmed 17-year-old black boy who was seemingly racially profiled, followed, shot, and killed, whose killer raised over $300,000 in online donations and then walked free with his life.
We don't have a race problem, unless you count the desperate lengths to which white people go to dismiss claims of racism from people of color and minimize the validity of their experiences.
We don't have a race problem, except that, of course, we do.
To dismiss the voices, experiences, and perspectives of black people with such callous disregard is not only itself racist, but is precisely the type of contextual erasure to which President Obama was speaking on Friday.
Look around; those who claim that race had nothing to do with the Zimmerman trial, that President Obama's remarks were "race-baiting," that racism is not a problem in the United States anymore, are almost always white. White people, who will probably never experience racial discrimination in America and are all too often the purveyors of that discrimination, feel all too comfortable declaring, over the overwhelmingly dissenting voices of people of color, that racism has ended. What a perfect encapsulation of white privilege and the entitlement that goes along with it.
"Colorblindness" sounds like a just and harmonious idea in theory, except that when put into practice, it discounts and erases the racial discrimination and oppression that people of color continually experience. It has become a tool to reify white supremacy and perpetuate the oppression of people of color by dismissing racial justice efforts and invalidating their experiences and perspectives. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a day where people were judged on not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character, yes, but he also knew that we had to do the work to get to that point. Colorblindness cannot work in a society that has not truly reconciled the racism upon which our country was built. We are applying colorblindness as a bandage before we even attempt to cleanse our painfully deep racist wound.
President Obama's remarks were a candid reminder that racism continues to thrive, and in large part, due to our reluctance and inability to grapple with it. Too many white Americans, both conservative and liberal, circle around and around, up and down, rarely if ever pausing to reflect, to assess, to truly listen to and engage with the voices of people of color. All too often, white Americans are all too comfortable plugging their ears and blinding their eyes, convincing themselves that what they refuse to see isn't there.
It's time to take off the blindfold, get off the merry-go-round, and tackle our racist past and present head on. President Obama's remarks on Friday were an important start.