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COLUMN

A Look at Color-Blindness

Philip Burrowes

Most of us have been taught that, ideally, all institutions should be “color-blind.” Otherwise, they would be perpetrators of racism, attaching significance where there should be none. It seems a worthy hope at first glance, and appeals especially well to the notion of opportunity which this nation has somehow come to represent.

Yet no doubt most of us have also heard requests for extreme sensitivity to race. Without such vigilance, the special needs of disadvantaged groups may be too easily overlooked. Considering how much we overlook domestic and international problems, this desire may seem understandable, but doesn’t it preclude us from attaining “color-blindness”? Does the inherently idealistic nature of the former make the practicality of latter more obvious, or should we always strive for the best?

You might care more right now about why “color-blind” is in quotes (in wish case you’re way too into this article but that’s forgivable). Okay, it’s a setup; the hope for “color-blindness” is demonstrably foolish. As with any physical characteristic, skin tone elicits a response from the viewer. Even if preconceptions of intellectual capacity, morality, etc. were not linked to complexion, there would remain the simple superficial preferences that all humans possess.

While the obsession with lightness which seems to appear in every culture (every one that sends women to international beauty pageants, anyway) may become merely a matter of individual perception, the perceptions would still exist. Hair color, for example, becomes less important to life every day, but there will always be those gentlemen that -- for whatever reason -- prefer blondes.

Color and race are not the same thing, however, as the billions of people with various shades of brown skin can attest to. The point of that digression was to illustrate an incorrect assumption both sides are prone to make; some things cannot be ignored and some matters do not any extra attention. In other words, the philosophies are not mutually exclusive.

For example, they support each other on the issue of racial profiling. Whether for the purpose of identifying a specific individual or targeting a group with a high proportion of suspects, searching for criminals on the basis of race will turn up law-abiding citizens as well. Those who espouse racial sensitivity can oppose this because it will make individuals feel mistrusted. Proactively racially-blind individuals -- those who make a concerted effort to overlook it -- would oppose the race-basedprocess of profiling. One side is afraid of the ends, the other can never justify the means.

Being at an institution of higher learning, our first question could concern how either side reacts to affirmative action. Immigrants may wonder how this meshes (or conflicts) with U.S. immigration policy. Let’s not be so selfish here, though; how about a topic which affects everyone (and is less dependent on individual characteristics -- like one’s own race -- that may easily skew the issue)?

Race-based hate crimes are something which, when most egregious, cannot be ignored but at the same time may be paradoxically exacerbated by increased attention. Perpetrators can easily gain an impact from increased media exposure, yet to treat them as any other criminal ignores the natural effect they have on others. The question is, does giving them stiffer penalties depending on their intent (assuming that we can determine intent beyond a reasonable doubt) aid either the cause of the race-blind or the race-sensitive?

Here it seems relatively obvious that there is a split between the two. Race-blind individuals would seek to mitigate the fear a crime can create by overlooking the racial characteristics of culprits and victims; the fewer people that know who did what, the less cause a person has to feel especially threatened. If this approach seems unprecedentedly foolhardy, realize that it is indeed practiced within some foreign news media, as well as domestically at times of war (both for purposes of secrecy and to keep support of military action high).

Sensitivity proponents, however, are all for increased penalties for hate crimes. Like the rationale for capital punishment, not only does a hate crime demand harsher punishment, but there must be a deterrent from letting such events happen again. Unlike capital punishment, it seems reasonable that someone who believes he can “get away” with targeting certain races would think twice given a stifferpenalty, at least for crimes that would otherwise be misdemeanors (such as theft or simple assault).

Then again, what if the race-blind want to preserve their ideal by prosecuting on the basis of intent, thereby using someone’s already preconceived notions against him? Or what if, in an effort to counteract the effects jury biases can create, the race-sensitive seek to censor all mentions of race in court cases? It is not clear which way either side will go, despite their clear fundamental objectives.

Even if you accept either philosophy in general terms, may have overriding concerns during specific events. We haven’t delved considerably into the constitutionality of either conception, for example, which is often the principle argument used by detractors of de jure race-sensitivity. In any case, not everybody falls into either category, as many lack personal reasons to ever consciously consider race. Maybe we all should, maybe not, but it must be realized that the options are neither obvious nor always distinguishable.