Beyond Conflict

Exploring perspectives and relations across groups

Wouldn't It Be Nice If Race Didn't Matter? But It Does

Race conscious programs in an era of color blindness.

Recently, I have found myself thinking back to the early 1990s, around the time that I graduated from college, and how we talked about race relations and racial differences in those days. Our minds were swirling with discussions of Rodney King and debates about political correctness. Many of us were eager to talk about race at the same time as we feared that we might say the wrong thing or perhaps be misunderstood. Perusing my bookshelf, I pulled my dog-eared copy of Cornel West’s 1993 book, Race Matters[1], and flipped through the pages; I noticed extra markings and exclamation points in the margins next to this statement:

How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues.

West’s insight seems as relevant today as it did 20 years ago. This week, the Supreme Court offered its decision on Fisher v. University of Texas, a case in which a white student sought to challenge the university’s policy of using race – along with many other factors – to determine undergraduate admission. Many critics contend that university admissions policies should be completely blind to race, and therefore, such race-conscious policies ought to be eliminated. But, due to patterns of segregation and socio-economic inequalities, others argue that race is inherently involved in university admission decisions even when attempts are made to devise race-neutral policies. Consistent with this view, in her dissenting opinion from the Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicates that “only an ostrich could regard the supposedly [race-]neutral alternatives as race unconscious.”[2]

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The truth is, whether we like it or not, we tend to notice other people’s race [3]. Yet, rather than addressing racial differences directly, we often go to great lengths to avoid talking about race. For example, in a study by Michael Norton, Samuel Sommers, Evan Apfelbaum and their colleagues [4], White participants were presented with photos of other people—some of whom were Black and some of whom were White—and they were asked to guess which of the photos a partner held in their hand. Although asking about the race of the person would have helped participants to identify the target photo more quickly, many participants avoided asking about race and took more time to complete the task; this tendency was especially pronounced when their partner was Black.

Due to concerns about appearing racist, it may be that we don’t want to talk about race or think about people in terms of racial differences, even though we know that racial differences exist. For many well-intentioned people who adopt color-blind views (perhaps thinking “I don’t see race”), they might mean to say that they visually recognize racial differences but don’t believe those differences should matter.

The problem is, racial differences still do matter. Black Americans often encounter racial prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives [5, 6], and regular exposure to racial prejudice and discrimination can contribute to poorer health outcomes [7]. Prevailing negative stereotypes can also undermine the standardized test performance of African Americans and other negatively stereotyped groups, which have real implications for university admissions [8]. In employment settings, African American job candidates are often less likely to receive interviews or job offers relative to equally qualified European American candidates [9].

In light of these trends, we need to distinguish more clearly between how we wish things were and how things actually are. As stated eloquently by Justice Anthony Kennedy in a prior ruling [10], “the enduring hope is that race should not matter; the reality is that too often it does.” Given the reality that racial differences can often present distinct and detrimental barriers to achievement for members of racial minority groups, we must ask ourselves why it should be considered inappropriate to use race conscious programs as one means of remedying such negative effects. Avoiding the issue of race doesn’t make racial issues go away. Rather, we need to have the courage to talk more openly about racial issues and address the real challenges associated with racial differences in our society today.



[1] West, C. (1993). Race matters. Boston: Beacon Press.

[2] Fisher v. University of Texas, 570 U.S. ___ (2013)

[3] Bar Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., & Hodes, R. M. (2006). Nature and nurture in own-race face processing. Psychological Science, 17, 159-163.

[4] Norton, M. I., Sommers, S. R., Apfelbaum, E. P., Pura, N., & Ariely, D. (2006). Color blindness and interracial interaction: Playing the “political correctness game.” Psychological Science, 17, 949-953.

[5] Swim, J. K., Hyers, L. L., Cohen, L. L., Fitzgerald, D. C., & Bylsma, W. H. (2003). African American college students’ experiences with everyday racism: Characteristics of and responses to these incidents. Journal of Black Psychology, 29, 38-67.

[6] Feagin, J.R. (1991). The continuing significance of race: Anti-Black discrimination in public places. American Sociological Review, 56(1), 101-116.

[7] Clark, R., Anderson, N.B., & Clark, V.R. (1999). Racism as a stressor for African Americans: A biopsychosocial model. American Psychologist, 54, 805-816.

[8] Steele, C.M. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

[9] Pager, D., & Western, B. (2012). Identifying discrimination at work: The use of field experiments. Journal of Social Issues, 68, 221-237.

[10] Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

Linda R. Tropp, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


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