Consider the setting: a racially diverse urban neighborhood where organizers and most residents take a tremendous amount of pride in their community’s racial diversity. But many still think the black kids in their community don’t learn the “right values” and avoid the parts of the community they code as “ghetto.” Or how about a rural community in Illinois, where some Tea Party organizers feel that Obama’s election was a step forward for race relations, support the Dream Act, and grew up taking pride in attending a black congregation. Those realities, taken from my own research, run counter to our expectations—the liberal, pro-diversity community should be racially conscious and committed to sustaining the diversity that they so happily embrace. And the Tea Party should be filled with seething racists who hate the president because he’s black. But neither is quite accurate.

Such is the state of race and race relations in the contemporary United States. Racial diversity makes many people both proud and anxious. This ambivalence is no accident. We live in a society with deep racial inequalities and pervasive color-blind ideals. If we do not claim a critical racial consciousness—one that provides few easy answers but still has the clarity and focus to ask the difficult questions, especially those with a sharp focus on inequalities and privilege—the situation will only worsen.

Colorblind Ideals, Deep Racial Inequities

In my research, I find that one of the biggest barriers to racial clarity and change is color-blind ideology—ways of talking and thinking that affirm our belief in individualism without recognizing the many remaining barriers to equality. While these are noble goals, ignoring the barriers is of little help in achieving the ideals. For example, in our K–12 curriculum, few learn about the legacies of racial inequality, and even fewer learn about the myriad forms of contemporary racism, often subtle and coded, that perpetuate inequity. We learn instead about the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, and we gain what is often a surface-level multiculturalism, celebrating and affirming difference while avoiding acknowledgments of privilege and racism. We enact laws that formally guarantee a platform of equality and consider any “real” problems fixed. Granted, most of us can look around and see stark racial inequalities—deeply segregated neighborhoods, wealth patterned by race, unequal schools—but when all we know are the successes of the past and the grit of our own hard work, the playing field still looks level.

Color-blind ideologies are problematic because they specifically remove racism, past or present, as explanatory factors for disparities. If we believe that the problem is not institutional racism, and that racism is something that only bad people harbor in their hearts and beliefs, then we can shake our heads at the fact of inequality and still uphold the system as-is. Inequality stands outside us, while we go about our day merely trying to do the right thing: valuing diversity in the abstract, claiming our own cultural heritages in ways that make us feel good, and tacitly avoiding blame or responsibility for persistent racial rifts.

A screenshot from the W.W. Norton/Dalton Conley video (click to view; art by @kissmeimpolish on Twitter)
A screenshot from the W.W. Norton/Dalton Conley video (click to view; art by @kissmeimpolish on Twitter)

My own research, conducted in the two communities alluded to in the opening, reveals not only this ambivalence, but also the identity work and social action that gets attached to it. In racially diverse urban Chicago communities, key players (block club presidents, community organizers, and other actively involved folks) proudly extol the virtues of living in a diverse community, but tend to uphold color-blind ideologies in their understanding of racial dynamics. They take pains to make clear that they are enlightened and progressive, but often make their own housing choices based on opportunity and investment. Their appreciation of diversity largely takes place through consumption—enjoying “ethnic” foods, feeling good about seeing a Pantone array of strangers’ faces on the sidewalks, crafting an identity that resists the homogenous suburbs from which many of them came. They are mostly liberal and work hard to distinguish themselves from their racist parents, relatives, coworkers, and friends. No doubt they are sincere, but their community efforts are still essentially pro-gentrification. This is not the social justice effort that is needed to eliminate racial inequalities or to sustain meaningful diversity.

The Tea Party, on the other end of the political spectrum, is not much different. My new research on organizers throughout Illinois indicates that most proudly claim color-blind stances and work hard to convey their appreciation of both diversity and fairness. They believe in the positive message that a black family in the White House sends to generations of Americans. They strongly support immigrants who came in through the “right” channels, still proudly believing this is the land of opportunity. Herman Cain, an African American Republican presidential candidate, was the strong favorite in the straw poll at the Illinois Tea Party’s regional convention in 2011, and they fear that this is becoming a country where opportunity and upward mobility is being lost. At the same time, they make use of coded racism in their lack of support for welfare and their concerns about undocumented immigration and national security—my new book is deeply critical of this racism. But, as I claim in my research, the Tea Partiers don’t show any significant break from the color-blind and coded racism that I also found in the liberal racially diverse community. That kind of racism is mainstream; Tea Party racism is American racism.

Digging Deeper into Ambivalence

This racial ambivalence has a long history in the United States. It traces not only from the disconnect between racial realities and color-blind ideals but also from the pluralism of an immigrant society. In 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan published Beyond the Melting Pot. It spoke of the reality that race and ethnicity remained salient for generations of immigrants and other marginalized populations, but overlooked the dynamics of race that had made such ethnicities optional for most whites and restrictive for most people of color. Subsequent research (notably Bob Blauner’s 1972 Racial Oppression in America) carefully traced the institutional dynamics of racism. Soon came lasting debates about the nature of racial inequalities in the United States, most pronounced in our collective conversations about diversity and affirmative action. Study after study has now found that most Americans support the notion of equal opportunity and diversity in the abstract, but are less willing to support actual programs and initiatives (like affirmative action, as recently addressed by the Supreme Court) and the genuine, deep engagement necessary to support multiculturalism.

Mine is not the only contemporary work to begin to unravel racial ambivalence as it unfolds into the twenty-first century. Joyce Bell and Douglas Hartmann coined the term happy talk in 2007 to describe the glowingly positive ways that most people talk about diversity. This positivity, they found, breaks down when respondents seek to explain how diversity operates in their everyday lives. Their interviews and analyses revealed how explicitly race-centered the discourse of diversity actually is, and how at odds it can be with Americans’ beliefs in and hopes for meritocracy. Ellen Berrey has found, in one of the same communities I later studied, that a discourse focused on diversity can actually downplay efforts around social justice. Even scholars like Elijah Anderson can fall into the same way of thinking: In his most recent book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Anderson celebrates how diverse spaces will bring “tolerance,” as though tolerance is equivalent to justice or will help sustain diversity. But who likes being merely “tolerated”?

Putting Privilege Front and Center

In 1999, sociologist Margaret Anderson wrote “What is at issue is not so much whether the United States is a diverse society, but how to think about diversity and, fundamentally, how to conceptualize the different group experiences that comprise contemporary society.” Anderson cautions against a framework that reduces race to culture—or, as she calls it, “diversity without oppression”—and goes on to explain how “losing a focus on racial inequality may be especially likely in institutional settings where there is some inclusion of diverse groups, but where the institutions remain structured on the needs and experiences of dominant groups.” These days, which institutions don’t meet that criteria? Politics, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. They all strive for diversity, but without the corresponding and necessary work of confronting the dynamics of white privilege. So the problem persists.

Photo of students in Maryland by Maryland GovPics via
Racial inequalities play out in social institutions, including schools. Photo by Maryland GovPics via

For that reason, recognizing and challenging privilege must be at the core of any serious discussion of diversity and inclusion. With regard to race, this means a sharp focus not only on racial inequality, but also on whiteness and white privilege. Whiteness is the cultural sensibility and collective assumptions that come to be associated with being marked as white in this society. Those categories and assumptions, like others, have a history and are constructed socially rather than biologically. Historically, being white—a category that expands and contracts with our political will—has meant the ability to be a citizen and own property, access to immigration, owning or renting in the most desirable and profitable neighborhoods, access to the best schools, and a whole host of other legal, political, and financial benefits.

Whiteness also provides individuals the “benefit of the doubt.” I often tell my students that a key dynamic of white privilege in everyday life is the ability to be seen as an individual, supposedly unmarked by race, even though my own whiteness structures my day and my opportunities to the very same degree as race does for people of color. Whiteness just tends to do so in ways that benefit me. These “everyday” associations have enormous benefits for me as a white person, and they disguise the costs for people of color. Michelle Alexander, in her recent book The New Jim Crow, details the benefit of the doubt given to whites at every stage of the criminal justice system, with devastating consequences for people of color committing the same or lesser crimes.

Race-Conscious, Not Color-Blind

If we do not talk about race and diversity in ways that account for privilege, so that we can see the often-invisible workings of whiteness and be race-conscious rather than color-blind, racial disparities will worsen. Our current ambivalence will likely deteriorate into outright confusion, denial, or despair.

This may sound abstract, but small institutional steps are always possible. My own university has begun an innovative pre-orientation program to bring interested white students to campus at the same time as students of color and international students. Such orientations help white students focus on how they can meaningfully build community with students of different backgrounds and races on our campus and in our community. The programs also help to foster an environment in which all students can build early and honest relationships across the color line. An understanding of white privilege (owning the realities of racism in our contemporary society and taking responsibility for them) is crucial to this process. Many of the students who go through the pre-orientation shed their color-blind ideology and express gratitude for the tools that finally allow them to talk about race and privilege with confidence and competence. They go on to become leaders on campus, in their classrooms and residence halls, and in our community. It’s one small step, but it works. This can and must happen in other institutions and communities.

If diversity discourse and efforts at inclusion do not include a serious and open discussion of colorblindness, racism, and white privilege, including the many ways those realities intersect with other identities and oppressions, our racial ambivalence will continue. It is time to shed the ambivalence, own our racial past and present, and begin to engage the equal opportunity that so many of us in this country claim we are vested in.

Recommended Reading

Margaret L. Andersen. 1999. The Fiction of “Diversity without Oppression.” In Robert H. Tai and Mary L. Kenyatta (eds.), Critical Ethnicity: Countering the Waves of Identity Politics (Lanham, PA: Rowman & Littlefield). Critiques the politics of multiculturalism that do not include power and privilege.

Joyce M. Bell and Douglas Hartmann. 2007. “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘Happy Talk’,” American Sociological Review 72(6): 895-914. Demonstrates how broadly shared support for diversity dissipates in concrete settings.

Ellen C. Berrey. 2005. “Divided Over Diversity: Political Discourse in a Chicago Neighborhood,” City & Community 4(2): 143-170. Demonstrates the unintended negative consequences of a diversity-focused discourse.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. 2003. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (Lanham, PA: Rowman & Littlefield). Explores the patterned ways that we uphold color-blind ideology in everyday discussions about race.

Meghan A. Burke is in the department of sociology at Illinois Wesleyan University. The author of Racial Ambivalence in Diverse Communities: Whiteness and the Power of Color-Blind Ideologies, she studies the dynamics of race, class, and gender in social movements. She’s recently published a book about these dimensions in the Tea Party.