Racism Without Racists

(Photo: Pew Research Center)

“But regardless of whites’ ‘‘sincere fictions,’’[5] racial considerations shade almost everything in America. Blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life; they are about three times more likely to be poor than whites, earn about 40 percent less than whites, and have about an eighth of the net worth that whites have.[6] They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions.[7] In terms of housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less.[8] Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods.[9] Blacks receive impolite treatment in stores, in restaurants, and in a host of other commercial transactions.[10] Researchers have also documented that blacks pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites.[11] Finally, blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the police that, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, and if charged for a capital crime, executed.[12] Racial profiling on the highways has become such a prevalent phenomenon that a term has emerged to describe it: driving while black.[13] In short, blacks and most minorities are, “at the bottom of the well.”[14]

(Photo credit: Stephanie Keith)

How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality? […] I contend that whites have developed powerful explanations–which have ultimately become justifications–for contemporary racial inequality that exculpate them from any responsibility for the status of people of color. These explanations emanate from a new racial ideology that I label color-blind racism. This ideology, which acquired cohesiveness and dominance in the late 1960s,[15] explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics. Whereas Jim Crow racism explained blacks’ social standing as the result of their biological and moral inferiority, color-blind racism avoids such facile arguments. Instead, whites rationalize minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations.[16] For instance, whites can attribute Latinos’ high poverty rate to a relaxed work ethic (“the Hispanics are manana, manana, manana–tomorrow, tomorrow tomorrow”)[17] or residential segregation as the result of natural tendencies among groups (“Does a cat and a dog mix? I can’t see it. You can’t drink milk and scotch. Certain mixes don’t mix”).[18]

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Color-blind racism became the dominant racial ideology as the mechanisms and practices for keeping blacks and other racial minorities “at the bottom of the well” changed. I have argued elsewhere that contemporary racial inequality is reproduced through “New Racism” practices that are subtle, institutional, and apparently nonracial.[19] In contrast to the Jim Crow era, where racial inequality was enforced through overt means (e.g., signs saying “No Niggers Welcomed Here” or shotgun diplomacy at the voting booth), today racial practices operate in “now you see it, now you don’t” fashion. For example, residential segregation, which is almost as high today as it was in the past, is no longer accomplished through overtly discriminatory practices. Image result for racism without racistsInstead, covert behaviors such as not  showing all the available units, steering minorities and whites into certain neighborhoods, quoting higher rents of prices to minority applicants, or not advertising units at all are the weapons of choice to maintain separate communities.[20] In the economic field, “smiling face” discrimination (“We don’t have jobs now, but please check later”), advertising job openings in mostly white networks and ethnic newspapers, and steering highly educated people of color into poorly remunerated jobs or jobs with limited opportunities for mobility are the new ways of keeping minorities in a secondary position.[21] Politically, although the Civil rights struggles have helped remove many of the obstacles for the electoral participation of people of color, “racial gerrymandering, multimember legislative districts, election runoffs, annexation of predominantly white areas, at-large district elections, and anti-single-shot devices (disallowing concentrating of votes in one or two candidates in cities using at-large elections) have become standard practices to disenfranchise” people of color.[22] Whether in banks, restaurants, school admissions, or housing transactions, the maintenance of white privilege is done in a way that defies facile racial readings. Hence, the contours of color-blind racism fit America’s new racism quite well.

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Compared to Jim Crow racism, the ideology of color blindness seems like “racism lite.” Instead of relying on name calling (niggers, Spics, Chinks), color-blind racism otherizes softly (“these people are human, too”); instead of proclaiming God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests they are behind because they do not work hard enough; instead of viewing interracial marriage as wrong on a straight racial basis, it regards it as “problematic” because of concerns over the children, location, or the extra burden it places on couples. Yet this new ideology has become a formidable political tool for the maintenance of the racial order. Much as Jim Crow racism served as the glue for defending a brutal and overt system of racial oppression in the pre-Civil Rights era, color-blind racism serves today as the ideological armor for a covert and institutionalized system in the post-Civil Rights era. And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards. It allows a president to state things such as, “I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education,” yet, at the same time, to characterize the University of Michigan’s affirmation action program as “flawed” and “discriminatory” against whites.[23] Thus whites enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding “racist.” Shielding by color blindness, whites can express resentment toward minorities; criticize their morality, values, and work ethic; and even claim to be the victims of “reverse racism.” This is the thesis [. . .] to explain the curious enigma of “racism without racists.”[24]”

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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[Pp. 1-4. These references are Bonilla-Silvia’s, written as they appear in the “NOTES” section of chapter 1 (see pp. 17-19). Also, see my other post regarding Bonilla-Silva’s journal article that appeared in Critical Sociology, “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding “Racist”,”, here. As always, pictures and URLs do not appear in the source unless stated otherwise.]

  1. This term was coined in Joe R. Feagin and Hernan Vera, White Racism: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 1995) to refer to whites’ myths about race in contemporary America, particularly their self-delusions. 
  2. See Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth (New York: Routledge, 1995). See also Juliane Malveaux, “Black Dollar Power: Economics in the Black Community,” Essence 10 (October 1999), 88-92; John Goering (ed.), Fragile Rights in Cities (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, Forthcoming), and Thomas M. Shapiro, The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality (London: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  3. For a vivid description of the educational inequalities between blacks and whites, see Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: Crown, 1992). For a discussion of resegregation and its consequences, see Gary Orfield, Susan Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (New York: New York Press, 1996). For a discussion of racial matters in “integrated” campuses, see Joe R. Feagin, Hernan Vera, and Nikitah Imani, The Agony of Education: Black Students at White Colleges and Universities (New York: Routledge, 1996); and chapter 2 in Roy Brooks, Integration or Separation? A Strategy for Racial Inequality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996). 
  4. William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo, “Race and the Value of Owner-Occupied Housing, 1940-1990,” Working Paper Series (Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Bard College, Levy Economics Institute, August 2000). 
  5. Douglas Massey and Nancy E. Denton, American Apartheid (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); John Yinger, Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost: The Continuing Costs of Housing Discrimination (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1995); Judith N. Desena, “Local Gatekeeping Practices and Residential Segregation,” Sociological Inquiry 64, no. 3 (1994): 307-21. 
  6. Joe R. Feagin and Melvin Sikes, Living with Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience (Boston: Beacon, 1994); Peter Siegelman, “Racial Discrimination in ‘Everyday’ Commercial Transactions: What Do We Know . . . ,” in A National Report Card on Discrimination in America: The Role of Testing, edited by Michael Fix and Margery Austin Turner, chapter 4 (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, March 1999). 
  7. Oliver and Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth; Siegelman, “Racial Discrimination.” 
  8. Katheryn K. Russell, The Color of Crime (New York: New York University Press, 1998). 
  9. David A. Harris, Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on Our Nation’s Highways, Special Report (New York: American Civil Liberties Union, June 1999). 
  10. Derrick Bell, Race, Racism and American Law (Boston: Little, Brown, 1992). 
  1. The work of William A. Ryan and Joel Kovel represent early efforts to understand the parameters of post-Civil Rights racial ideology. See William A. Ryan, Blaming the Victim (New York: Random House, 1976); Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). 
  2. Melvin Thomas has found that this perspective deeply affects social science research on racial matters. Melvin Thomas, “Anything but Race: The Social Science Retreat from Racism,” African American Research Perspectives (Winter 2000): 79-96. 
  3. This statement is from the top officer of a cart transport company in Chicago. William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears (New York: Norton, 1996), 112. 
  4. These comments are from a resident of Canarsie, New York. Jonathan Rieder, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), 58. 
  5. See my chapter with Amanda E. Lewis, “The ‘New Racism’: Toward an Analysis of the U.S. Racial Structure, 1960-1990s,” in Race, Nation, and Citizenship, edited by Paul Wong, 100-150 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1999). For a more recent, updated version, see chapter 3 in my White Supremacy and Racism in the Post Civil Rights Era (Boulder, Colo.: Rienner, 2001). 
  6. For general findings on housing matters, see John Yinger, Closed Doors. For gatekeeping practices, see Judith A. Desena, “Local Gatekeeping Practices and Residential Segregation,” Sociological Inquiry 64, no. 3 (1994): 307-21. 
  7. Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy, 11-117. 
  8. Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy, 100-101. 
  1. CBS, “Bush Enters Affirmative Action Fray,” CBS.com, January 16, 2003. For a discussion of the contradiction between President Bush opposing affirmative action and his own affirmative action-like admission to Phillips Academy and Yale, see Ellis Henican, “When It Comes to Hypocrisy, He’s Brilliant!Newsday.com, January 17, 2003. In Grutter v. Bollinger et al., the Supreme Court decided that Michigan could use race as one factor among many in its admissions policy. However, as I finish this second edition, the composition of the Court has changed and observers believe that if a new case on affirmative action reaches them, they are likely to vote in the opposite direction. 
  2. I must caution, however, that at no point in history have dominant groups, whether capitalists, men, or whites, proclaimed their domination is rooted in unfairness and oppression or characterized their behavior as abominable. Hence, whether in slavery, Jim Crow, or post-Civil Rights eras, whites have never acknowledged any wrongdoing. From a social-psychological standpoint, this makes perfect sense since, as William Ryan stated in his famous book, Blaming the Victim, “no one [wants to think] of himself as a son of a bitch” (20). 


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