“Do you feel it is intrusive on civil liberties to create such ordinances?” University of California, Santa Barbara Assistant Professor Felice Blake showed a short Youtube clip for a forum audience that was literally overflowing out of the campus Multi-Cultural Center (MCC) on Tuesday, May 14. The audience had gathered to listen to Blake speak about a racial and ethnic phenomenon described as “colorblindness.”
The video, which originally aired the day before current President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, depicts Obama answering a question about clothing ordinances being posed to him by an MTV interviewer. Obama responds, “I think passing a law about people wearing saggy pants is a waste of time…any public official who is worrying about saggy pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems out there.”
In her forum, Blake discussed the largely unacknowledged effects of these ordinances on minority groups in a lecture meant to illustrate the results of colorblindness, or indifference toward the racial impact of institutional policies because they have not referred explicitly to race. However, she also emphasized the need for “new dialogue space” within which discussions about racial inequalities could take place.
Blake cited examples such as the racial disparities prevalent in incarceration rates and in sentencing policies as well as police profiling and brutality as some of “very real, everyday-life” social inequalities that persist today. Colorblindness is not just relevant to the field of criminal justice. Blake aptly portrayed colorblindness as having “tentacles across many different areas.” The complications of racial inequality make it tempting to ignore the problem by assuming an aloof position of colorblindness, says Blake, but efforts should be made “to create the space and language to determine what ails us.”
What Blake means exactly by “what ails us” is illustrated in strikingly personal terms by the American Sociological Association. In its statement on “The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race,” the ASA asserts that “failure to gather data on this socially significant category would…hamper progress toward understanding and addressing inequalities in primary social institutions…such as schools, labor markets, neighborhoods, and health care…”
More and more voices are beginning to, as Blake puts it, “air grievances” about the inequalities experienced as a result of sometimes unconsciously biased, racial perceptions operating within a surprisingly high number of the institutions which have been governing daily American lives for decades.
In 2008, the election of Obama was one of the national institutions around which a racial dialogue naturally grew. Despite its acclaimed progressiveness, many people within an emerging grassroots movement said that this event, much like the Civil Rights Act of 1960, provided an opportunity for social conservatives to ignore the persistent, unacknowledged marginalization of minority groups by pointing out the affirmative action no one could reasonably deny was taking place. Ironically, by the end of her lecture, Blake’s forum transformed into the dialogue space which she had referred to earlier. An older woman passionately related her helplessness and outrage at having a guard of color assigned to search her belongings after being profiled and suspected of stealing a compact disc from UCSB’s Davidson Library. Citing this experience, Blake pointed out the “common patriarchal system” of using minorities “to survey and police” each other, a system leading to what she referred to as “inter-communal antagonism.”
Despite the decades-long prevalence of these issues, she says that there is still “a collective absence of knowledge.” These are the rhetorical conundrums that Blake seems to suggest arise when attempting to describe racial issues, which have existed for decades but are just now being realized and conceptualized within racial consciousness.
At the end, one audience member suggested that in an effort to counter this absence of knowledge, “what we can do is pursue an active policy of listening.” Married couple Rose and Lyndon Rochelle seemed to agree. Lyndon spoke thoughtfully as he addressed the forum audience, “We all wear our clothes the way we do for a reason…I think it’s time to start respecting each other as human beings even if we don’t share the same culture.” Rose also said, brightly, “I think it’s pretty clear that people like what makes them different.”
It was obvious from the audience members’ responses that they were thinking critically about the issues particularized in Blake’s lecture. Whether or not they would be motivated to further action by Blake’s urging that they also make a “collective effort to recognize each other” is another matter, which only time and discussion will be able to chronicle.