Lessons from Ferguson: racial “color-blindness” isn’t working

The battle for justice in Ferguson, Missouri is far from over. The public is awaiting the grand jury decision regarding whether white police officer Darren Wilson will be charged in the shooting of teenager Michael Brown. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday Nov. 17, meaning that the National Guard could be called at any time in case unrest would follow the decision. Ferguson activists have been protesting Brown’s death and other incidents of racist police brutality during the last several months. Nixon’s decision to call for a state of emergency is in obvious anticipation of Wilson’s return to the police department, which would represent a continued attack on black life in America. Giving this situation the attention it deserves and creating productive dialogue requires a radical change in the way racial relations are discussed in America.

Color-blindness isn’t working for America. Racial color-blindness is the idea that we are all the same regardless of race so we ought not to acknowledge race at all. This is good only in theory. In a social and historical context devoid of Jim Crow, centuries of racial discrimination and the continued perpetuation of stereotypes, racial color-blindness would work well because racial differences genuinely would not matter.

But our history of slavery is not far behind us; stereotypes and prejudices still persist. It is evident in the way the media reports events like Ferguson. White criminals are often remembered fondly, even romanticized––see Charles Manson’s cult of personality––whereas black victims are portrayed as “thugs.” When the possibility of racial bias is brought up, hasty cries of “race card” instead of giving the possibility serious consideration make racial prejudice evident.

These reactions might be a result of reluctance—or even negligence—to examine one’s own biases. But often, we are not even aware of these biases. Well-meaning people tout color-blindness as the path to equality, but ignoring race does little to further tolerance or to break down implicit biases. Implicit biases are ones that we are not aware of, yet most people possess—even those who actively reject prejudices. They must be accounted for in order to have a productive discussion regarding racism, or any –ism for that matter.

Implicit Association Tests help to uncover implicit biases so one can work to override the social desirability bias eminent in self-reporting. They work by showing our biases before they get to the point of cognitive processing. This is what separates most well-intentioned people—who are in all likelihood at least somewhat racist—from those who are explicitly racist. But because we absorb these biases, they come out in other ways; from where people sit to how doctors give medical treatment.

Experts on implicit bias suggest surrounding yourself with positive images with people from different minority groups or approaching people you might not have otherwise approached, especially when you sense the initial distaste. It’s intuitive—it essentially does the opposite of what caused the implicit bias to exist in the first place. Most importantly, it makes you more likely to be perceptive and critical of the borderline-explicit biases you see in coverage like that in Ferguson.

We are bombarded with negative associations of marginalized people, so it makes sense that doing just the opposite would correct this. There’s a reason we don’t notice it in the first place. Being “politically correct” is correcting what you have incorrectly internalized and creating a better and more egalitarian world for it. Who wouldn’t want that?