When Being Colorblind is Racist: the Baltimore Riots

The Baltimore riots have sparked a lot of controversy. People have rushed to take sides – the cops versus the rioters, black versus white, peaceful protests versus violent protests. During these debates, lots of words get thrown around – lots of murky, ambiguous words. “Racism” is arguably the most popular, and it’s not exactly clear what the term means anymore.

I’ve read several articles condemning anyone who writes about the Baltimore riots without personal experience living there and/or being black. If you are white-skinned and live out of state, the argument goes, you should keep your mouth shut. A recent viral article summarized this position nicely:

“As white people, we are not victims of racial oppression… As such, we get zero say in how people who are oppressed respond to their oppression.”

A bold statement, if true. People often add: to the extent that you don’t acknowledge race – by overlooking the ethnic background that somebody comes from – then that’s racism. Colorblindness is not commendable; it’s simply blindness to one aspect of somebody’s life.The non-racist position is supposedly to recognize individuals acting in accordance with their class-identity.

To me, this takes the definition of the word “racism” and turns it on its head. It takes some linguistic shenanigans to end up arguing that “being colorblind is racist.” In my opinion, the opposite is true. Colorblindness and racism are mutually exclusive.

In fact, I’d say it’s not only inaccurate to claim that “we get zero say in how oppressed people respond to oppression”; it’s dangerous, and it’s probably an expression of actual racism.

On it’s face, the claim seems dubious. Surely, at some point, people of all ethnicities would be justified in criticizing how oppressed people respond to their oppression. If Baltimore rioters start breaking into homes, taking hostages, slitting throats, gassing neighborhoods, building bombs – at some point, even the staunchest leftist will have to say “Enough!” It takes only a little imagination to realize that proportionality is necessary for acceptable behavior.

It seems obvious that being oppressed does not give you a carte blanche to act as violently as you desire – especially when the victims of such aggression are peaceful, unrelated civilians (and often times, the rioters have looted their own neighbors, who are also facing the same oppression). What the rioters’ sympathizers are really saying is, “I think this particular degree of violence is still acceptable behavior.”

And to this, I strongly disagree, mainly for one reason: the oppressor has been misidentified. To many liberals and rioters, “white people” have been oppressing “black people” for centuries. But it’s not true. Individuals with white skin have been oppressing individuals with black skin, and often times, it’s white individuals within police departments and governments. Notice, that doesn’t mean “white people” as some monolithic entity. It doesn’t mean white-skinned neighbors. It means a very small group of people – with power – have abused their power, and it disproportionately affects people with black skin.

This distinction is paramount. Individuals of all races have reason to be outraged by the conduct of police departments – but minorities especially. If people feel the need to physically resist their oppression, it must be directed at the appropriate source. It is literally nonsensical to think, “Because I’ve been oppressed by Bob, I’ll retaliate by violently attacking the next person I see.” But this is precisely what people are saying when they claim, “We should not judge how oppressed people react to their oppression.”

Breaking into CVS and stealing bags of chips is nonsensical. It’s moronic. It should be condemned by people of all races. It’s not justified; it’s not reasonable, and it’s not an acceptable response to anything. Burning down property and puncturing the fire-hoses trying to fight the flames is cruel and criminal. Anybody, of any skin color, who uses oppression as an excuse for selfish barbarism should be condemned by all civilized people.

But here’s the real racism: holding black-skinned people to a lower standard because they are black – condescending to certain individuals because you expect less of them, entirely due to their race. I’m not sure what could be a clearer case of racism. It is literally the pre-determined expectation of inferior behavior.

When large groups of white people riot, for whatever stupid reason, they should be shunned. The same is true for all races. I am not disqualified from condemning senseless violence just because I have white skin, and I refuse to hold my black neighbors to a lower standard because of their skin.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that race doesn’t exist. I am not saying that all people are treated equally. I am not saying that black people’s lives aren’t affected by their skin color. I am not “overlooking” that many people are immediately judged by their skin color. Ignorant racism is still real, and it’s undoubtedly structured into our system of governance. In fact, I think a far higher proportion of racists are cops than almost any other demographic.

Instead, I am taking the radical individualist approach. I view every human as a peer – my human equal with different genetic characteristics. I fully realize different genetic rolls-of-the-dice result in radically different human experiences – my experience as a white-skinned male is going to be different than a black-skinned female. But that doesn’t mean we’re aliens to each other. In fact, we have a common enemy, who currently oppresses you more than he oppresses me – our political system, including the police, the courts, and the lawmakers. When an innocent black man is killed by the cops, it’s exactly as tragic as when an innocent white man is killed by the cops.

Our common enemy might target black people more often right now, but that could change in the future. No demographic is safe – it could be Jews, Italians, libertarians, tall skinny guys. In South Africa, for example, their political system is explicitly targeting white-skinned people. It’s an equal injustice.

The only way we’ll ever get to a post-racial society is if we start viewing humans as individuals. While you can recognize somebody’s background and ethnicity, it should be understood as only a fact of history and coincidence. I am sorry that my black neighbors get treated differently for their genetics, but I am not suddenly going to lower my expectations of civility for them. I am not going to expect less from Japanese humans because the US government put them in concentration camps during WWII. You might come from a difficult background, but I’m not going to disrespect you by overlooking irrational behavior. Instead, I can acknowledge your experience is different than mine, but still respect you enough to treat you as a peer.

Let’s be clear about it: Freddie Gray was not an isolated case. Police brutality happens all the time. It’s an epidemic. It’s cross-cultural, though it disproportionately affects minorities. We should all be outraged, but not at “white people” or “black people” in the abstract. We should be outraged at the entire political system, and it should be seen as the greatest vehicle for oppression.

We should also should condemn arbitrary, aimless violence, regardless of the skin color of the individuals involved. Black-skinned people should criticize white hooligans. White-skinned people should criticize black hooligans. And hopefully, black and white-skinned people can unite behind criticizing all violent expressions of anger which target the wrong people. Aimlessly destroying property solves no problems, but it creates many.