Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Moving Forward On A Colorblindness Thesis

As I consider what I am going to do for my master's thesis I'm thinking about the related themes of continuity and colorblindness in American racial conflict. I'm interested in the ways white supremacy has been created, formed, changed, perpetuated, and protected over time, such that right down to the present day being "white" carries some very specific meanings and privileges. I'm also interested in how Americans identified as "white" have viewed themselves, the minorities in their midst, and the opportunities offered by American society.

My basic thoughts are utterly pedestrian in academia, but remain controversial among the broader public. My challenge is that I don't want to just write a serviceable thesis that corrects popular misconceptions while covering ground that has already been more competently explored by other scholars. I want to find a niche in the historiography where I can really contribute, while still speaking to the broader public (not that a thesis is for the broader public; I guess I'm speaking more of long term goals here).

It is far from original to point out that colorblindness -- a highly individualized sense of which is the dominant frame most Americans have for understanding race today -- is not the sharp break from our past that many assume but is rather the latest in a series of racial ideologies that have significant commonalities with one another. For example, though racial oppression has greatly decreased over time, all the dominant racial frames of American history, including colorblindness, serve the interests of the white majority better than minority interests. As such, colorblindness, far from being a frontal attack on our segregationist past, in fact naturally grew out of it. Rather than being a self-evidently good way of eradicating racism, it actually has at least as much potential to perpetuate white privilege.

This is boilerplate in dozens of books. But much of the public still finds it rather shocking. Similarly, the popular perception is of an enormous disjunction between pre- and post-civil rights America (or, even worse, between pre- and post-slavery America) in which the bad old racist America was defeated and we've arrived in the sunlit lands of racial egalitarianism. Americans, especially those hillbilly southerners, used to be racists, but suddenly around 1964 or so we set things right; the past is now dead and buried. Almost no one, of course, thinks quite this simplistically, but I believe this gets close to the assumptions many people have.

I argue that such a view is so simplistic and unbalanced that it is basically false. There is much that ties the America of the 1950s and before with the America of 2013. Indeed, it is not out of the question that future historians may periodize the civil rights era as extending right into the present day. How meaningful is it, for example, for North Lawndale and Garfield Park on the West Side of Chicago, to make a big distinction between a 1960s civil rights era and a 21st century post-civil rights era? In many ways, so little has changed that the distinction feels absurd. The remaining inequalities and discrimination are such that, after all, there may be more movements ahead.

I see colorblindness as a useful way of exploring this theme of continuity. I argue that during the time of a given dominant racial ideology we can discern the vestiges of the previous frame and locate the seeds of the next one. What does it mean for American society that the ideology of white supremacy gave way to the ideology of colorblindness? How, precisely, did this change occur, and over what period of time? Do we see hints of colorblindness in the 19th century (yes, I believe we do) and white supremacy in the 21st? (yes). What are the implications?

These are extremely broad themes. Moving forward, I will need to find a vehicle to employ them. A place, an event, a limited time period, a particular kind of source. Any thoughts or suggestions?

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