Racial Metaphors: Between 'Colorblindness' and 'Racism in our DNA'Roundup
tags: historiography, racism
Nikhil Pal Singh is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His most recent book is Race and America’s Long War (2017).
Barack Obama sought the middle of the road. “It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly in my lifetime,” he told an interviewer in 2015. But, he added, “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution in our lives . . . that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones is not so optimistic. “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” she wrote in the lead essay for the 1619 Project. The bequest of slavery, conjoined at the founding with America’s vaunted claims to freedom and self-government, yielded a racial inheritance that we have not yet, and maybe never will, overcome.
Saying “racism is in our DNA” is to speak metaphorically. The argument is not that racism is literally programmed in the genes. At the same time, the reference is curious, given the long, invidious association of genetics with the idea of “race” as embodied differences in moral character and cognitive ability. It is arguable that every instance of modern racism depends upon and returns to this intellectual source code. One might ask, then, why would anti-racists go there?
To answer this question, we need a better account of the racial policy regimes and conflicts of the post–civil rights era. By the 1990s, three competing approaches with different conceptual vocabularies and legal arguments had emerged: one embraced the language of colorblindness, another emphasized the persistence of explicit racial bias, and a third focused on both more subtle and expansive notions of institutional or systemic racism.
Until quite recently, colorblindness had won the law and policy argument. A curious metaphor in its own right, colorblindness suggests that the best way to address the stubborn and unpleasant fact of racial difference is by not seeing it with our full-spectrum capacities, if at all. Such a tortured conception belies an aggressive political project, inverting applications of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to restrict anti-discrimination law, limit affirmative action and proactive school desegregation, and provide race-neutral justifications for mass incarceration and voting rights restrictions.
In the Obama years, whatever political truce had been forged among U.S. elites over colorblindness unraveled, particularly once states moved to limit voting after the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder released them from federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, the persistent problem of racial disparities in police violence and criminal punishment erupted with a new intensity. The rise of Black Lives Matter protests gave decisive impetus to longstanding criticisms of the colorblind legal and policy regime, reinforcing the perception of racial stalemate during the post–civil rights era, with America’s penal complex, according to a popular title, described as tantamount to a “new Jim Crow.”