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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion

Racial Justice: The Superficial Morality of Colour-Blindness in the United States

In this essay Glenn C. Loury outlines a theory of “race” applicable to the social and historical circumstances of the United States and sketches an account of why racial inequality is so stubbornly persistent. He offers a conceptual framework for the practice of social criticism on race-related issues that might encourage reflection among political and intellectual elites, and in this way promote social reform. Any theory of “race” must explain the fact that people take note of, and assign significance to, superficial markings on the bodies of other human beings—their skin colour, hair texture, facial bone structure and so forth. This practice is virtually universal in human societies and is the point of departure for his analysis. Loury refers to a society as being “raced” when its members routinely partition the field of human subjects whom they encounter in that society into groups, and when this sorting convention is based on the subjects’ possession of some cluster of observable bodily marks. This leads to his claim that, at bottom, “race” is all about “embodied social signification”.

Loury argues that “race” emerges as a social phenomenon in the following way: a field of human subjects characterized by morphological variability comes through concrete historical experience to be partitioned into subgroups defined by some cluster of physical markers. In-formation-hungry agents hang expectations around these markers, and such beliefs can, in ways discussed in the essay in some detail, become self-confirming. Meaning-hungry agents invest these markers with social, psychological and even spiritual significance. Race-markers come to form the core of personal and social identities. Narrative accounts of descent are con-structed around them. And so groups of subjects, identifying with one another, sharing feelings of pride, (dis)honour, shame, loyalty and hope—and defined in some measure by their holding these race-markers in common—come into existence. This vesting of reasonable expectation and ineffable meaning in objectively arbitrary markings on human bodies comes to be reproduced over the generations, takes on a social life of its own, seems natural and not merely conven-tional, and ends up having profound consequences for social relations among individuals in the raced society.

Loury goes on to argue that it is crucially important to distinguish between racial discrimination and racial stigma in the study of this problem. Racial discrimination has to do with how blacks are treated, while racial stigma is concerned with how black people are perceived. He claims that reward bias (unfair treatment of people in formal economic transactions based on racial identity) is now a less significant barrier to the full participation by African-Americans in US society than is development bias (blocked access to resources critical for personal development but available only via non-market-mediated social transactions). While Loury makes these points in the specific cultural and historical context of the black experience in US society, he nevertheless contributes to a deeper conceptualization of the worldwide problem of race and economic marginality.

The racial stigma paradigm advanced by the author builds on the observation that, due to the history and culture peculiar to a given society, powerful negative connotations may become associated with particular bodily marks borne by some people in that society. Loury claims that this is decidedly the case with respect to the marks that connote “blackness” in US society. With his core concept—biased social cognition—he attempts to move from the fact that people make use of racial classifications in the course of their interactions, to some understanding of how this alters the causal accounts they settle upon for what they observe in the social world. Loury’s fundamental question is: when does the “race” of those subject to a difficult social circumstance affect whether powerful observers see the disadvantages experienced by such people as con-stituting a societal problem?

The author argues, based on the concept of biased social cognition, that durable racial in-equality in the United States can be understood as a result of a lack of political support for policy reforms benefiting blacks; and such political support is lacking because blacks are perceived to be a stigmatized racial group, which “colours” the causal explanations that ordinary people are inclined to offer for observed racial disparities. The tacit association of “blackness” in the public imagination with “unworthiness” distorts cognitive processes and promotes essentialist causal misattributions. Observers have difficulty identifying with the plight of people whom they (mistakenly) see to be simply “reaping what they have sown”. In turn, this tendency to see racial disparities as a communal rather than a societal problem encourages the reproduction of inequality through time because, absent some reformist interventions, the low social conditions of many blacks persist, the negative social meanings ascribed to blackness are then reinforced, and so the racially biased social-cognitive processes are reproduced, completing the circle.

Based on this social analysis, Loury argues that the philosophical position of “colour-blindness” —which holds that public policies ought to disregard the racial identities of citizens, thereby being “blind” to their colour—is morally untenable.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 May 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD