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A COLOR-BLIND IDEOLOGY

racial whites people discrimination

Bonilla-Silva argues that whites’ views constitute an ideology rather than mere prejudice. This means that whites’ views should be understood within the context of how power relations between whites and nonwhites are maintained in the racial arena. Thus, because the civil rights movement forced changes in the way racial inequality is reproduced in the United States, new explanations, accounts, and vocabulary emerged to justify the racial status quo.

For analytical purposes, racial ideology can be conceived as comprising the following three elements: frames, styles, and racial stories. The central frames or themes of this ideology are set paths for interpreting information. There are four principal frames: (1) abstract liberalism, (2) naturalization of race-related matters, (3) cultural racism, and (4) minimization of racism. The style element refers to the linguistic strategies used to convey the components of this ideology, which have become slippery, subtle, and indirect. Finally, racial stories are the narratives whites use to articulate and bolster their racial accounts. They take the form of story lines (generic stories without much personal content) and testimonies (stories that are seemingly personal).

The frame of abstract liberalism uses ideas typically associated with liberalism, such as “equal opportunity,” “meritocracy,” and “individual effort,” in an abstract and decontextualized way to account for inequality. For example, a young, white, female college student stated the following when asked about whether minorities should be afforded unique opportunities to attend college:

I don’t think they should be provided with unique opportunities. I think that they should have the same opportunities as everyone else … I don’t think that just because they’re a minority that they should, you know, not meet the requirements, you know. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

This student’s response ignores the effects of past and contemporary discrimination on the social, economic, and educational status of minorities. Therefore, by saying “they should have the same opportunities as everyone else,” this student is defending racial inequality in the educational realm while maintaining her non-racist image.

The naturalization frame explains racial matters, such as residential segregation or whites’ preferences for whites as partners and friends, as natural outcomes. Although this frame does not employ a “color-blind” logic to explain racial differences, it is part of the larger ideology because it reinforces the myth of nonracialism. An example of how whites use this frame is a middle-age, male manufacturing manager who stated:

I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. Because people tend to group with their own people. Whether it’s white or black or upper-middle class or lower class or, you know, upper class, you know, Asians. People tend to group with their own…. You know, people group together for lots of different reasons: social, religious. You can’t force that. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

By suggesting that segregation is natural, this respondent ignores the legacy of legalized Jim Crow segregation and the structural dynamics that exist in the early twenty-first century to keep racial groups apart. His account also betrays a profound belief in differences between racial groups, for he likens the segregation between whites and nonwhites to the separate lives of two different species.

The cultural racism frame relies on arguments based on culture to explain the position of racial groups in society. In essence, whites “blame the victim” by suggesting that the position of minorities is due to their family disorganization, lack of effort, or laziness. A young female college student, for instance, in response to a question that explained the overall situation of blacks in this country as the result of them lacking motivation, having a deficient work ethic, or because they are lazy, stated:

If they worked hard, they could make it just as high as anyone else could. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

Believing that blacks live in the projects because they do not work hard, as this student suggests, shows whites’ amnesia about past and contemporary discrimination in the labor and housing markets.

The minimization of racism frame suggests discrimination is no longer a real problem because civil rights legislation eradicated all racial ills and people are now “beyond race.” For example, in response to a question trying to assess the significance of discrimination, a female retail salesperson in her early forties stated the following:

I think sometimes it’s an excuse because people felt they deserved a job, whatever! I think if things didn’t go their way I know a lot of people have tendency to use prejudice or racism as whatever, as an excuse. (Bonilla-Silva 2003)

By minimizing the significance of discrimination, whites can deflect minorities’ claims of discrimination and bounce them back to them as “excuses,” or as playing the infamous “race card.”

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