Members Only | February 6, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Purposeful and pernicious centuries-deep racial discrimination is real and we can’t wish it away
Issac J. Bailey explains why he gave up on colorblindness
I realized I had to give up my quest for colorblindness when I stood slack-jawed as a Black school board member asked how we would know if racist policies and practices had been curtailed if we didn’t track disciplinary records, graduation rates and other statistics by race. I had no answer for him—there was no good answer. That was several years ago when I was a young journalist and new father and husband in Myrtle Beach, S.C. There still isn’t. You can’t solve a problem without acknowledging it.
I desperately wanted there to be a good answer. I had committed myself to transforming my life into one infused with the concept of colorblindness, of no longer giving into the social construct of race, which for such a long time has been used to abuse Black bodies and Black minds. I was serious.
In a perfect world, maybe colorblindness would have led to unity across supposed difference. But in the real world—in this world—colorblindness just as often, or maybe more so, blinds us to solutions to the problems we must confront.
I joined a mostly-white evangelical church, because the pastor had promised to make equality a priority of his teachings but with Jesus—not race—as the centerpiece of his philosophy, a Jesus and his followers who taught there was no Jew nor gentile, male nor female. I convinced my wife to join. Our kids were baptized there. We spent nearly two decades in that space, hoping to craft a colorblind existence, or at least I was hoping to defang racism by ridding the world of race.
All the while, I was trying to do the same in my professional life as a journalist. My first piece about race for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach 21 years ago included my admitting a latent fear of Black men I harbored even though I was a Black man. I eventually became lead local columnist for that paper after serving as business editor, feature writer and government reporting, spending much of that time calibrating my words and thinking during perpetual outreach to white people, to illustrate our commonalities. I hoped being that transparent would help me connect with my largely white-conservative audience and pave the way for improved discussions across differences. It would increase empathy, I thought, helping us better understand an issue that vexed us all. Later, during the Obama era, I turned over an entire column to a member of the area Tea Party to double down on that effort. I stopped checking the box for “black” on official documents for myself and kids. I wrote pieces questioning the logic of Black History Month. I even got a few kind messages from Ward Connerly from the other side of the country. (He’s a Black former University of California Regent best known for his vehement opposition to race-based affirmative action.)
My voting record further illustrates my commitment. I routinely voted for Republicans and third-party candidates as much as I did for Democrats.
I’m not sure why, but I had become thoroughly convinced that race was fueling racism. If we could wean ourselves off it, relations between supposed races would improve, I assumed. Besides, I was deep into books explaining that race was just a social construct with no real biological foundation but was used nevertheless by slave owners and the like to do great harm to those with dark skin. Studies examining “stereotype threat” also moved me. Racism was a persistent problem only because we kept clinging to an outdated understanding of race. That’s what I believed—until I got questions like the one I got from that school board member.
In a perfect world, maybe racial categories wouldn’t exist, particularly the ones that affect nearly everything in the US. But this world isn’t perfect. The damage left in the wake of purposeful and pernicious centuries-deep racial discrimination is real. We can’t wave it away, can’t wish it out of existence. We have to deal with and account for it. In a perfect world, maybe colorblindness would have led to unity across supposed difference. But in the real world—in this world—colorblindness just as often, or maybe more so, blinds us to solutions to the problems we must confront. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing race. It’s what we do with that knowledge that matters.
—Issac J. Bailey
Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s been published by The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico Magazine, Time, among many other publications. He recently released his third book, Why Didn’t We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He's been published by The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico Magazine, Time, among many other publications. He recently released his third book, Why Didn't We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.