Can we be colorblind about the de Blasio NYC mayoral campaign?

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I am not angry with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for his recent statements that Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio is running a “racist” campaign and promoting “class warfare.”

In fact, I can’t even really say I’m disappointed.

No, after reading his remarks, I find myself curious about whether now – finally – we will acknowledge that two of the biggest myths plaguing our conversations about race are that “colorblindness” is possible and that we’re now somehow a post-racial country.

Let me be clear. I do not agree with Mr. Bloomberg’s statements at all.  But, I do, in some small way, understand their origin.

For Mr. Bloomberg and people who ascribe to the utopian ideal of color-blindness, Mr. de Blasio bringing attention to his family – and their race – appears racist because it is directly contrary to the idea that we can live “colorblind” lives where race is invisible.

Colorblindness is an idea that holds that considering and discussing race perpetuates any racial issues that arise.  It is a bar set very successfully by the Right by which anyone who talks about how race matters is “playing the race card” and a racist ripping apart the very fabric of our country.

The reality is that 21st century Americans are far from “colorblind.”  In fact, neuroscience and social psychology show empirically that it is literally and physiologically impossible to be colorblind.

Instead, we all have deeply embedded stereotypical associations that affect our behavior and decisions and cause us to act according to these implicit biases rather than our explicit values.

Our actions don’t have to be automatic, however.  We have the ability to override these biases and consciously act according to our values – but only if we are aware that we do see race and that race can affect who we invite for a job interview, how quickly we fire a gun, and how respond to images of a multiracial family in a political race.

Mr. Bloomberg’s remarks present us all with an invaluable opportunity to address head-on the challenge we have in conducting open, honest conversations about race in this nation.

Yes, our president is black.  And yes, our country has made great strides since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, but the truth remains that we are not a post-racial society.  Although we want to be able to trust that we and our children are safe from harm and that we can interact with people of other races without worrying that they will judge us and make assumptions about us because our race, the fact is that we aren’t there yet.

In fact, according to a recent report published by the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of all Americans say the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality and about the same number say that “a lot more” remains to be done.

Look, I am not a glass-perpetually-half-empty kind of person.  I believe that most people of all races desire a way forward and I know that talking about race allows us to overcome racial stereotyping and fears by dispelling many of them.

So, I guess in a sense, I’d like to thank Mr. Bloomberg for sharing his uninformed opinion.  Had he not, we might all still be content to believe that, save a Zimmerman verdict here or a Voting Rights Act repeal there, our nation had achieved the coveted gold star of human progress called color-blindness.

But here is what I hope we all take away from Mr. Bloomberg’s remarks: failure to discuss race— even out of a well meaning desire to foster a color-blind society—only makes it more likely that people will unwittingly allow the devils of racial stereotyping to triumph over their consciously held beliefs in fairness and equality.

And that, my friends, is one genie no amount of strategic apologizing or explaining can rebottle.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Bloomberg is like you and me in that he too wants to live in a world in which discrimination no longer exists.  And I hope that his recent comments are only indicative of a person who wants this so badly that he mistakenly believes we’re already there.

But for those of us not yet sold, now is the time to reject the prevalent claim that talking about race makes us racist because it is very clear that only frank conversation will remedy the myths about race that continue to persist.

Alexis McGill Johnson is the Executive Director of American Values Institute (AVI), a consortium of researchers, educators, and social justice advocates whose work analyzes the role of bias and racial anxiety in our society.