Race or Erase is the Question?

Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones engaged on the first day of March on CNN in a passionate exchange over Trump’s response to the news that former KKK leader David Duke endorsed him.  The exchange highlighted differences between the two men and exposes a much deeper divide.

The exchange began with Van Jones claiming that Trump failed to swiftly and passionately reject the support of the KKK with the same passion with which he stands in opposition to other terrorist organizations. He concluded by asking that Donald Trump be as passionate about what’s happening in Jones’ community as anybody else’s if Trump is going to lead this nation.

If you do not know who Van Jones is the request to Trump is not at all clear. Which community? And here is where the entire exchange between Lord and Jones ultimately centers – their conception of race. Because Jones is African American, he is asking that Trump have as much passionate opposition to terrorist organizations like the KKK that target African American communities as he exhibits for Muslim terrorists. Jones’ request only makes sense if we understand the racial group to which Van Jones identifies.

Talking about Americans and attaching a racial designation, according to Jeffrey Lord, is exactly how Democrats are dividing the nation. He asserts that we are all simply Americans and naming race in these conversations violates the principle of colorblindness. Race, according to Lord has no place in American life or law.

And here you have it. One view seeks to erase racial designations in conversation and from consideration because, the reasoning goes, to identify race violates colorblindness. The other view considers and names racial categories to show how the organization and structure of society is anything but colorblind and instead impacts certain racial groups more favorably and others much less so.

There is a problem in our midst and it is rooted deep in the human brain. The problem is with colorblindness as an ideal. Colorblindness is premised upon the belief that a human within the context of the United States can choose to not see human difference designated by race. Such a belief is contrary to science on the human brain.

Research shows that the human brain identifies differences and that these observations are used to judge others based on skin color as early as six months of age. See, Bronson, P. and A. Merryman, A. (2009). See baby discriminate: Kids as young as 6 months judge others based on skin color. What’s a parent to do?
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Furthermore, the colorblind approach has been exposed for its erasure of people who are not white and for the roadblocks it presents to racial justice efforts. For example, religious leader, Inez Torres Davis in the article, “How to Erase a Person” explores how being told, “when I see you I don’t see color” however well intentioned is as a negation of her, a person of color (See Full Article).

The call to erase race from discourse because it divides Americans is as problematic as the ideal of racial colorblindness. In this case, it is problematic not because the workings of the human brain tell us otherwise, but because such a rhetorical strategy hides very real differences in Americans’ lives.

In the book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (Purchase Book Here) reveals the dramatic difference that policies pursued in the War of Drugs have had for various groups of Americans. Let’s give context. Most of those swept up in the incarceration explosion brought about by the War on Drugs are nonviolent drug offenders. More white Americans use drugs than any other racial group in the country. Yet, Alexander reveals that by the year 2000, African Americans had twenty-six times and Hispanics twenty-two times more prison admissions than in 1983 while whites had eight times more prison admissions in 2000 than in 1983.

Do these differences matter? Ought these differences guide U.S. policy? Are they relevant to criminal justice reform?

One view of America relies upon a myth called color blindness as an ideal and seeks to erase differences in America that arise along the fault lines of race. Another view rejects colorblindness as contrary to scientific research and seeks to approach America’s challenges with the benefit of the information, insight and problems that capturing race helps reveal.

It is worth noting that with the Jeffrey Lord version, the fact that slavery in the U.S. was designated exclusively for black people would completely be lost to a version of history that captures merely that some Americans were enslaved.