As a child, I used to watch the educational cartoon Schoolhouse Rock. With its simplistic yet engaging visual style and catchy songs about English, math and history, I learned something new every Saturday morning. One of my favorite shorts from the show was "The Great American Melting Pot," which championed the ideal that all Americans just "melted right in" to society, regardless of skin color. This concept was reinforced by the muted beige hue shared by every character. According to Schoolhouse Rock, the United States was the epitome of a colorblind society.
Yet Schoolhouse Rock is a cartoon created for children. Its views on race are simplistic and aspirational, not literal representations of reality. Nevertheless, in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, I've been genuinely surprised by the number of white Americans who have stated they don't believe race impacts people's lives. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 60% of white respondents think that the issue of race "is getting too much attention," and a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that 54% of white Americans believe minorities are treated equally under the law.
Considering that 86% of black Americans don't believe minorities are treated equally, why do so many white Americans think that we live in a colorblind society? My hypothesis is that people see how much progress has been made over the past 50 years and feel content that things are better now than they used to be. Ever since 1965, when the Supreme Court outlawed Jim Crow laws in Brown v. Board of Education, America has been moving ever closer to a society where all persons are given the same opportunities. Consequently, more minorities hold important positions in the public and private sectors today than ever before. Oh, and we have a black president, of course.
Put another way, those who believe America is colorblind tend to focus on how far we've come, not on the inequalities that still exist. They see that (outside of statutes relating to immigration and counter-terrorism) we no longer have laws codifying discrimination. To those wearing colorblinders, how specific policies harm or benefit minority groups is not important, so long as such policies aren't explicitly racist.
While there's no denying the racial progress America has made, this type of thinking is naïve and disingenuous. By not acknowledging the personal experiences attested to by millions of Americans, including President Obama, not to mention statistics relating to wealth, education, incarceration, housing, and employment, those who believe America is colorblind are being willfully blind to the role race plays in people’s lives.
Willful blindness, also known as contrived ignorance, is a legal term used to describe when an individual intentionally puts herself in a position where she can claim ignorance of illegal activity. The delivery person who transports packages from known drug dealers without asking what such packages contain is being willfully blind, as is the Wall Street executive who overlooks the suspicious activity of a trader who brings in large profits. Similarly, those who claim race no longer matters are being willfully blind to the reality 116 million Americans experience every day.
Holding factually incorrect opinions is not a criminal offense. However, Americans who claim that we live in a colorblind society are guilty of a moral offense. Colorblindness is willful blindness. Like those who don't believe in evolution or deny global warming, people who believe race to be unimportant impede our ability to affect change. It is intellectually lazy to view the world as simplistically as a 1970s children's cartoon. To do so is a conscious decision. So long as the majority of Americans make the choice to possess an unsophisticated understanding of race, we will never have true racial equality.