Five Takeaways From Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Essay on the ‘Colorblindness’ Trap

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action in college admissions was not constitutional. After the decision, much of the discussion was about its impact on the complexions of college campuses. But in an essay in The Times Magazine, I argue that we were missing the much bigger and more frightening story: that the death of affirmative action marks the culmination of a radical 50-year strategy to subvert the goal of colorblindness put forth by civil rights activists, by transforming it into a means of undermining racial justice efforts in a way that will threaten our multiracial democracy.

What do I mean by this? Here are the basic points of my essay:

The affirmative-action ruling could bring about sweeping changes across American society.

Conservatives are interpreting the court’s ruling broadly, and since last summer, they have used it to attack racial-justice programs outside the field of higher education. Since the decision, conservative groups have filed and threatened lawsuits against a range of programs that consider race, from diversity fellowships at law firms to maternal-health programs. One such group has even challenged the medical school of Howard University, one of the nation’s pre-eminent historically Black universities. Founded to educate people who had been enslaved, Howard’s mission has been to serve Black Americans who had for generations been systematically excluded from American higher education. These challenges to racial-justice programs will have a lasting impact on the nation’s ability to address the vast disparities that Black people experience.

Conservatives have co-opted the civil rights language of ‘colorblindness.’

In my essay, I demonstrate that these challenges to racial-justice programs often deploy the logic of “colorblindness,” the idea that the Constitution prohibits the use of race to distinguish citizens and that the goal of a diverse, democratic nation should be a society in which race does not determine outcomes for anyone. Civil rights leaders used the idea of colorblindness to challenge racial apartheid laws and policies, but over the last 50 years, conservatives have successfully co-opted both the rhetoric and the legal legacy of the civil rights era not to advance racial progress, but to stall it. And, I’d argue, reverse it.

Though the civil rights movement is celebrated and commemorated as a proud period in American history, it faced an immediate backlash. The progressive activists who advanced civil rights for Black Americans argued that in a society that used race against Black Americans for most of our history, colorblindness is a goal. They believed that achieving colorblindness requires race-conscious policies, such as affirmative action, that worked specifically to help Black people overcome their disadvantages in order to get to a point where race no longer hindered them. Conservatives, however, invoke the idea of colorblindness to make the case that race-conscious programs, even to help those whose race had been used against them for generations, are antithetical to the Constitution. In the affirmative-action decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, embraced this idea of colorblindness, saying: “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”

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