Colorblind? Or blind to injustice?

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the cause of racial equality, ruling 7-1 in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was the law of the land. The lone dissenter in that landmark case was Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner, who bitterly predicted an era of inequality and racial intolerance in America. History proved Harlan right, and we now know what followed as the Jim Crow era. Indeed it took almost 60 more years for the court to begin setting things right by discarding the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Some legal scholars consider Harlan’s dissent to be the intellectual wellspring of “color blindness” — the idea that race should simply not figure in any way into consideration of rights and opportunities. But color blindness is itself a controversial concept: Some hold it as the highest ideal of true racial equality in a post-racial society, while others cynically dismiss it as a strategy for ignoring evidence of persistent racial discrimination.

A team of psychological scientists decided to take this complex and contentious social issue into the lab, to measure the consequences of a colorblind strategy in the lives of young children. Headed by Evan Apfelbaum of Northwestern University, the scientists designed an experiment that mirrors the way racial policies are actually implemented in the real world, and then measured how these policies shape kids’ sensitivity to real incidents of discrimination. Here are the details.

The scientists recruited elementary school children, 8 to 11 years old, from a well-to-do Boston suburb. One at a time, the students were asked to review a storybook for possible use with younger children. This was in fact a ruse. The kids were actually reading two different narratives: All the students read about a teacher championing racial justice in the classroom, but only some read a colorblind version of the story, in which the teacher minimized the importance of all racial distinctions and considerations. The remaining kids read a version of the story that celebrated diversity, emphasizing how racial differences make each child “special.” The kids were instructed to ponder the “main message” of the story.

So the kids were schooled in color blindness or in the value of racial differences. Then the real experiment began. An adult read the students different scenarios from a nearby school, each depicting inequality but in varying degrees. So, for example, one scenario described a white child excluding a black classmate from his birthday party; this was considered an ambiguous story of racial bias, since there are many reasons for inviting or not inviting classmates to a party. They also heard a more explicit tale of racial bias — one in which a white soccer player makes an unprovoked assault on a black opponent during a game, remarking to a teammate that black kids play rough. They idea was to see which of the students saw racial discrimination in which incident, and whether those judgments were influenced by their earlier schooling in race relations.

The results were dramatic and sobering. As reported in the online version of the journal Psychological Science, almost half the kids who were taught to value diversity subsequently detected racial bias in the ambiguous birthday party story, and fully three-quarters saw bias in the soccer story. These findings are consistent with what’s seen in the general population of elementary school kids with no training in race relations, suggesting that the diversity training did not make the students hyper-sensitive to racial bias.

But here’s the really interesting part: Among the kids schooled in color blindness, only one in 10 saw any evidence of racism in the ambiguous story. That is, they were significantly less sensitive to evidence of bias than were those trained to value diversity. And even more remarkably, only half the colorblind kids perceived racism even in the soccer scenario, where it was overt and aggressive.

There’s more. The scientists wondered if this diminished sensitivity also affects how kids report incidents of racism, which in turn determines how adults might intervene. To find out, they asked two experienced elementary school teachers — teachers with no knowledge of the study’s purpose — to rate the students’ videotaped descriptions of both the birthday party and the soccer game. They rated them for seriousness and for urgency to intervene. And again, the colorblind strategy seemed to blind kids to real problems. Their descriptions of events — compared to those of the kids trained in diversity — were much less likely to set off alarms for experienced school teachers.

So is color blindness going too far? The scientists believe so. It appears that well-intentioned efforts to promote egalitarianism may have the opposite effect, allowing even overt acts of racism to go undetected and unreported. This diminished outcry may in turn lead to a false impression that color blindness is working, reinforcing support for a dubious race relations strategy.

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