by Daniel Clements
In the summer of 2009, I was banned from stocking sodas at my job at a Shell station. I had unintentionally integrated the Code Red Mountain Dew and the regular Mountain Dew, the Orange Fanta, and the Pineapple Fanta. Over the weekend, I was delighted to (belatedly) discover EnChroma had developed glasses to correct colorblindness — yet I was disheartened Monday when so many of my friends expressed to desire for a pair of societal EnChroma glasses.
These friends repeated an argument that is gaining strength on the left: that “colorblindness” is a subtle form of racism. It should go without saying that we can agree on colorblindness as an ideal and still debate policies like affirmative action — yet these friends were flat out decrying colorblindness even as a goal. This is because white Americans apparently can never genuinely understand what it’s like to be a black American. I was dismayed that this was how Martin Luther King was being remembered.
Our country was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with the same rights. The modern idea of equality is based on the notion that people should be treated as persons first, not primarily as lord or serf, Catholic or Protestant, Roman or barbarian; that no one is “more human” and deserves special treatment. Aristotle claimed that what makes us humans is the ability to speak — but specifically, to give reasons for what is just and unjust. We each have our own unique experiences, but reason can bridge this gap and allow us to form societies based on justice. This was at the heart of Martin Luther King’s project. I’ll let him speak for himself:
“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
The Civil Rights movement only came to be because of the solid reasoning that segregation was unjust — reasoning that any person, no matter their color, can understand. It only succeeded because it managed to persuade people who hadn’t experienced the horrors of Jim Crow. Martin Luther King fought so that black Americans would be treated like everybody else. Abandoning colorblindness is unavoidably to ask us to judge people by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.
Depreciating reason in the name of experience or history has been used to justify horrific things. Slavery itself was frequently defended by the claim that the Declaration of Independence didn’t express timeless truths and doesn’t have any relevance to the present. Lincoln cleverly rephrased this interpretation as: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all British subjects who were on this continent eighty-one years ago, were created equal to all British subjects born and then residing in Great Britain.” He argued against this:
“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in affecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.”
To claim that experience creates an unbridgeable gap is to argue that some of us really aren’t fundamentally equal after all. The logical conclusion would be some form of segregation, or a caste system with different classes of citizens. We should not back away from the ideal of colorblindness any more than religion-blindness or wealth-blindness. Of course, we should open our hearts and minds to those who have experienced injustice and who are suffering — but we should not let it deter us from our goal of equality.
Ed. Note: A big welcome to Daniel Clements, who will be joining us as a regular contributor, along with Penn Bullock. Read about them both on the Our Writers page.