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Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper 5: Racial Justice: The Superficial Morality of Colour-Blindness in the United States

22 Jul 2004

  • Author(s): Glenn C. Loury


The author’s concerns are normative (seeking to evaluate the public morality of alternative policy responses to the scourge of racial inequality) and conceptual (seeking to clarify our understanding of the subtle processes that create and sustain durable racial inequality). He delves into the overarching philosophical commitments that inform and structure thinking about this problem. Specifically, Loury questions the adequacy of liberal individualism as a philosophical paradigm for addressing questions of racial justice.

Loury attempts to show that the philosophical foundations of liberal individualism are strained to the breaking point by the intractable problem of racial injustice. That is, the animating ideals of Western liberalism prove inadequate as a guide to achieving moral public action in the face of large and durable differences in life chances across racial groups in the United States. One implication of liberal individualism with which he takes particular issue is the idea that the appropriate response to a history of racism and oppression is to establish a contemporary policy of 'colour-blindness'—that is, inattention to the racial identity of citizens.

Loury also argues that it has become crucially important to distinguish between racial discrimination and racial stigma when discussing the problem of continuing social exclusion and economic disadvantage among African-Americans. Racial discrimination has to do with how blacks are treated, while racial stigma is concerned with how black people are perceived. His view is that what he calls reward bias (unfair treatment of persons 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 what he calls development bias (blocked access to resources critical for personal development but available only via non-market-mediated social transactions). By making these points in the specific cultural and historical context of the black experience in US society, Loury hopes to contribute to a deeper conceptualization of the worldwide problem of race and economic marginality.

How should we treat individuals? How should we choose the goals to be pursued through our policies? And how much awareness ought we to have of the ways in which the conduct of public business can perpetuate into yet another generation the inherited stigma of race? These questions are at the heart of this essay.

Glenn C. Loury is University Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University, United States.

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