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Perhaps the best-known quote from Martin Luther King Jr. is: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The kind of society that King dreams of in this sentence is often called “colour-blind” – in a meaning referring not literally to the disability, but to skin colour being irrelevant to people’s lives and the way society judges them. Prince Ea’s wonderful “I am not black, you are not white” video, which I cited as an exemplar of qualitative individualism, further expresses the ideal of colour-blindness: race is just a label that diminishes who we really are. For my own qualitative individualist reasons, it is an ideal I endorse.

In recent years, though, the concept of racial colour-blindness has come under attack. And I do believe that one strand of this attack is entirely justified.

King’s words, in particular, are often willfully distorted and twisted out of context by right-wingers, who object to measures such as affirmative action that discriminate in favour of underprivileged racial groups. Probably the most prominent and egregious example of this distortion was Ronald Reagan, who tried to argue for his opposition to affirmative-action “quotas” in part by proclaiming, “We want a colour-blind society. A society, that in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

King was not around to object to Reagan’s twisting of his words, and I think Reagan would have been unlikely to have made this speech if he had been. For it is clear that King would have objected to it. It does not take much research to find out that King was vocal in his support of affirmative action. King travelled to India and observed its policy of “reservations” in government jobs for members of the lowest castes, and he advocated that the same system be applied for black people in the United States. His writing on the subject is worth quoting at length to raise awareness of what he actually thought:

Among the many vital jobs to be done, the nation must not only radically readjust its attitude toward the Negro in the compelling present, but must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past. It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years. How then can he be absorbed into American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis?
Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.
Several years ago, Prime Minister Nehru was telling me how his nation is handling the difficult problem of the untouchables, a problem not unrelated to the American Negro dilemma…. The Indian government spends millions of rupees annually developing housing and job opportunities in villages heavily inhabited by untouchables. Moreover, the prime minister said, if two applicants compete for entrance into a college or university, one of the applicants being an untouchable and the other of a high caste, the school is required to accept the untouchable.
Professor Lawrence Reddick, who was with me during the interview, asked: “But isn’t that discrimination?”
“Well, it may be,” the Prime Minister answered. “But this is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.” (Why We Can’t Wait, pp. 178-9)

The crucial thing to note: King’s advocacy of “preferential treatment for the Negro” is not only in line with his dream of his children being judged by the “content of their character”, it supports that dream. King and Reagan do not disagree that we want a colour-blind society. But what Reagan refused to admit is that measures must be taken to get us there! Indeed, Reagan’s opposition to affirmative action likely moved us further away from it. For, it is important to remind ourselves, King’s dream, as stated, did not come true. The eldest of those four little children he dreamed about, Yolanda King, is already dead – but she spent her whole life, just as her father did, in a society that judged her by the colour of her skin.

Let’s review the current state of black people in the United States. The net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a typical black family. The median black household earns 61 cents for every dollar the median white household earns. All this after segregation has been abolished for decades. Simple equal or colour-blind treatment, in the current environment, is likely to allow these inequities to persist in perpetuity. King knew that, and that is why he – rightly, in my view – advocated preferential treatment.

The past few years have further focused the spotlight on the differential treatment that black people undergo at the hands of the American criminal justice system. One in every 15 adult black men is in prison, compared to only one in every 106 white men. And this is not primarily a matter of the aforementioned economic inequalities leading black men to commit crimes at higher rates. Black people and white people smoke marijuana at roughly the same rates, and yet black people are four times more likely to be arrested for it. (Police racism is a different problem from police brutality, though a related one; American cops far too regularly use horrific excesses of force against both black people and white people.)

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) does an excellent job of demonstrating how most of us do not live up to a colour-blind ideal, even when we think we do. (I recommend trying the race IAT yourself if you have not already.) It is less clear what the test implies about our behaviours, but the test remains an eye-opening reminder that one may very well “see colour” even when one believes that one does not. It provides one plausible explanation for a jarring finding: that not only do résumés for equally qualified people with white-sounding names get 36% more callbacks than those for African-American names (a statistic that has not improved since 1989), but in an experiment, identical résumés for white-sounding names got more callbacks than for African-American names. I suspect that if you asked the hirers in these cases “Do you think African-Americans are generally less qualified than white people?” they would be shocked at what you were insinuating. Yet the behaviour remains there.

It is in the latter point that the ideal of colour-blindness faces its biggest problem: often when we think we are being colour-blind, we are not. Here it is quite relevant how Buddhism and contemporary psychology converge on the point that a great deal of our thought is not only unconscious but erroneous.
Jay Garfield, in Gold and Duckworth’s excellent edited volume on Śāntideva, explicitly applies that insight to unconscious racial biases – not claiming that Śāntideva himself would have applied it in that way (for he didn’t even have the concept of race), but that racial biases are an example of the kind of mental phenomena that Śāntideva was discussing. It is another example of the ways we can be our own worst enemies.

So, to take a position on colour-blindness like Reagan’s is naïve at best. Lyndon Johnson put King’s case for preferential treatment in stronger terms: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” To get to a colour-blind society, an unequal society like the United States needs to take active steps that are aware of colour distinctions. And those active steps include a searching examination of our individual thoughts and actions that are not as colour-blind as we think they are.