Racism Without Racists- an analysis

Posted on February 20, 2008


Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States is so important for understanding the new form that racism has taken, “colorblind racism”. This is the racism that I have been observing for quite some time but couldn’t put my finger on. I have heard the 4 frames that he breaks down for us used by so many whites who claim not to be racist, but could never figure out why a clarifier was needed by someone claiming not to be racist, if they were indeed not racist. I couldn’t figure out why (white) people could say its not race but class that’s a deciding factor, how (white people) making racist jokes with the clarification that they’re not racist was socially acceptable, and how so many people of all “races” (but especially white people) navigate social life without a comprehensive understanding of history and causality. I feel that Bonilla-Silva’s framework has given me invaluable tools in challenging (white) dominant group racial ideology. I would like to continue focusing on some of the major points of his book, “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States” (2nd edition), in order to learn how to utilize these tools that sociologists such as Bonilla-Silva have created for us to better understand social structure and how it shapes our lives. As a white person, I feel responsible for understanding the dominant racial group whose power and privilege is very much invested in the normalcy and invisibility of how it gained, maintains, and perpetuates white supremacy/privilege, in order to challenge racism and hierarchical oppression.

Bonilla-Silva’s analysis of colorblind racism continues with 4 central frames, the first of which I believe to be central- and this is abstract liberalism. These frames are ways in which the dominant racial group (whites in America) understand and articulate our social world as if race is no longer a factor. Bonilla-Silva states that “these ideologies of the powerful [acted out via the four central frames of colorblind racism] are central in the production and reinforcement of the status quo” (26), for the ruling group must somehow convince itself that its place in the social hierarchy is just and earned.

Informed by racial ideologies guiding the “American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, and ‘the leading American liberal thinker of this period, Thomas Jefferson'”(an unrepentant slave owner and white supremacist), the history behind American liberalism and how this ideology allowed so many atrocities to be committed in order to form our great American nation-state is obscurred (Bonilla-Silva 27). As the underlying philosophy behind what it means to be an American, a patriot, a capitalist, many Americans don’t know how deeply imbedded the principles of liberalism are and how powerful they are in justifying racism/racial inequality. Liberalism should be stripped of its glorification, for in its name terrible things were done: “And in the United States as in Europe, the exclusion of the majority of white men and all white women from the rights of citizenship and the classification of Native Americans and African Americans as sub-persons accompanied the development of the new liberal nation-state. Specifically, racially based policies such as slavery, the removal of Native Americans from their lands and their banishment to reservations [even after the genocide of many and extinction of whole tribes altogether], the super-exploitation and degrading utilization of Mexicans and various Asian groups as contract laborers, Jim Crow [and the violence and exclusion of post-Reconstruction era, from the 1890’s to the 1960’s], and many other policies were part of the United States’ ‘liberal’ history from 1776 to the 1960’s” (Bonilla-Silva 27). Thus, abstract liberalism is akin the the “bootstrap theory” where we are told that there are equal opportunities, that equality is now possible because gains made by the struggles of the Civil Rights Movements has now completely leveled out the playing field, that we are all individuals with choices, that we must be colorblind and that discrimination is just a matter of individual prejudice if it happens. Abstract liberalism obscurs the institutional/structural policies put in place by a country founded upon slavery and racialized social, political, and economic inequality as if power and privilege is not still in the hands of those generations of the white, propertied, upper-class who aren’t so far removed from our very recent past of blatant racial violence (lynchings), economic disinvestment (exclusion of Blacks from land-ownership, public accommodations, equal access to jobs, housing, education), and political and legal discrimination (lack of legal recourse, lack of political representation, criminalization, racial profiling).

Variations of abstract liberalism are: the notion of meritocracy perpetuating the myth that white privilege is earned and not granted by historical factors; laissez-faire politics seen in anti-affirmative action stances where the “invisible hand of the market” will purportedly balance out social inequality hence the government is not need in equalizing the playing field (Bonilla-Silva 34); claims of reverse discrimination where individual incidents of prejudice/discrimination experience by white people or non-minority individuals are seen as equal to institution/structural discrimination experienced on a larger, historically-rooted scale upon entire communities based on race; individualism where the false notion of choice and opportunity is used as a justification for blaming individuals for problems when the social world they reside in is not held accountable, to name a few.

Yet, when we look we can still see racial disparities. Hence, this underlying ideology of abstract liberalism works as the little voice inside our heads telling us that we all have the same opportunities, allowing whites to blame poverty on communities of color and minorities rather than looking at the structures of whiteness and white privilege that benefits. It tells white people that what they have they worked hard for and earned, and as people of color they are to blame for what they haven’t achieved. It tells us all that if we just work harder we can attain the “American Dream”. Abstract liberalism invests whites in “whiteness” for whites don’t want to lose privilege even if they are unearned.

Naturalization is the second frame which allows whites to justify/naturalize racial inequality as if it was inevitable/natural. The most common way this frame is utilized in when talking about social segregation as “self-segregation”. When whites say that people of color “segregate themselves”, the history of economic disinvestment, redlining and discriminatory and exclusionary real estate practices, and other race-based policies which made it very difficult for people of color to own homes and property where they choose is minimized (Bonilla-Silva 37, 39). Naturalization is also a way in which school segregation is explained as natural, where disproportionate funding to schools in communities of color and disparities caused by the G.W. Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, are justified and de-racialized. Hence, the connection between past and present (historical causality), where people live and how this determines where they can go to school, and the racialized policies which structure these “choices” are obscurred.

Cultural racism is the third frame, or justification by whites as to the racial (or de-racialized) social reality in which we reside. Due to a lack of analysis of the institutional effects of discrimination in the labor, housing , and educational markets and the well-documented impact that race-based discrimination has had on middle-and upper-class Blacks (Bonilla-Silva 41), whites often construe the situation of Blacks as a cultural thing, drawing from the previously mentioned “culture of poverty” arguments of the 1960’s. Since race as biology had been disproven, “racial difference” still needs to be explained, hence culture is still looked at a marker of social, political, and economic inequality. Unfortunately, scientists some of who may have been trying to do a good thing by looking at race as a social construction hence unfixed and changeable, perpetuated yet a new justification for inequality. By “blaming the victim”, whites don’t have to take responsibility for racism/racial inequality, because we don’t have to examine our own complicity in maintaining the dominant status quo/white privilege.

Minimization is the fourth frame and operates as yet another way in which the dominant racial group can explain away racism. This frame is particularly insidious for it allows whites to ignore claims of racial inequality from individuals and communities of color who are experiencing it. Otherwise known as “playing the race card”, accusations of “reverse discrimination”, accusing minorities of being too sensitive and using race as an excuse, and others obscure the real incidents of racism (not just prejudice) and race-based discrimination (Bonilla-Silva 29). Minimization also allow whites to be racist through the rhetoric of colorblind racism, by silencing the voice of the oppressed, telling those who are experiencing racism that they are being “hypersensitive”, and allowing the oppressor to analyze and mandate the terms of what is/isn’t racism/racist (Bonilla-Silva 29).

All in all, Bonilla-Silva’s extensive research among respondents from universities in the midwest, south, and westcoast as well as respondents young and old, white and Black, revealed these 4 frames are used interchangeably and with significant rhetorical incoherence (look at Data Sources- 12, 13). He describes the styles of colorblind racism as “How to talk nasty about minorities without sounding racist”, as his third chapter is titled (53). Bonilla-Silva describes the “race talk” of colorblind racism as the way in which this racial ideology allows users to legitimate themselves individually and the system of white supremacy/privilege/complicity as a whole (53). The stylistic elements include: whites’ avoidance of race talk altogether; “semantic moves” to save face; the role of projection, or “blaming the victim” instead of whites taking responsibility, being accountable for, or at least acknowledging their place in the social hierarchy; the role of diminuitives to “candy-coat” racial ideology; and finally rhetorical incoherence when asked to clarify racial beliefs (Bonilla-Silva 54).

Furthermore, dominant group’s racial ideology is legitimized/maintained and perpetuated by racial stories and testimonies. Bonilla-Silva states that story-telling is central to communication, as the way that status, biases, and beliefs about the social order are passed down through generations (75). “Stories are also important because they help us reinforce our arguments; they assist us in our attempt of persuading listeners that we are ‘right'” (Bonilla-Silva 75). Who tells the stories is also very important. As social representations, racial narratives are a very powerful tool in explaining away racism, where testimonies provide more authenticity and emotionality to what is already a very subjective interpretation of events (Bonilla-Silva 76) . Racial stories by the dominant racial group (whites), often ignore the fact that “pro-white policies in jobs, housing, elections, and access to social space have had a positive multiplier effect for all those deemed ‘white'” (Bonilla-Silva 81). What this means is that racial privilege is obscurred as it is normalized. White are deemed race-less, but not class-less therefore class not race is the determining factor in social life. Whites are culture-less not cultural appropriators, not colonizers, not imperialists, not capitalist exploiters. Whites alleviate themselves of social responsibility for the world around them, as if our actions have no effect. As if the “multiplier effect” or the “wages of whiteness” of a history in our favor has had no effect upon disproportionate wealth and ownership accumulation, political power, access to jobs, schools, education, and other resources necessary for social advancement/equality (Bonilla-Silva 81). We don’t have to see this as whites, we don’t have to acknowledge this unearned privilege. Therefore white privilege isn’t only disproportionate wealth/access/resources, but it is the privilege of not having to acknowlege where this came from, the cost to those who were denied so that we could have what we have. White privilege is unearned, it is historically rooted, it is the ability to”choose” ignorance as bliss and not be held responsible for it.

*The next essay “white habitus- an analysis” will further discuss Bonilla-Silva’s anti-racist sociological framework…