Do we want a colorblind society?

In the wake of the new or renewed (or is it just unending?) conversation about race in America that heated up again over Barack Obama’s past pastor’s words from past sermons, we are faced with the question again.

Until recent times – and perhaps this indicates some change for the better – white people were the most resistant to colorblindness with respect to race. Racial segregation required seeing in full color. One had to know who was white and who was black in order to keep restrooms and classrooms and boardrooms pure. But that was then. Nowadays white people more often argue for colorblindness, while some blacks want to affirm their blackness more.

What’s going on? What’s at stake?

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he included these words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

King was pleading for colorblindness. And now, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that led to desegregation lawsuits, school busing, and Affirmative Action programs, blacks have made significant gains in education and employment. The gap between whites and blacks in achievement is still unacceptably large, but now the tables are turning: The colorblind and “color bright” sides have switched.

White Americans have long celebrated their European countries of origin with St. Patrick’s Day parades, Italian-American clubs or, like my mother, Norwegian societies. They bristle, though, when blacks call themselves African-Americans. (Because of slavery, blacks don’t know whether they came from Ghana or the Congo; so they simply claim Africa as country rather than continent.) Whites don’t appreciate the hyphen when blacks employ it. They don’t understand why blacks can’t just be Americans. Black Americans see this as a double standard, another example of how the standard shifts when applied to them.

Colorblindness in race relations is a goal to be aimed for with respect to school applications, job interviews, country club memberships, mortgage loan consideration and countless other things subtle (and not so) that plague black Americans and go unnoticed by whites. These slights erode the dignity of black Americans and send them searching for ways to affirm their own noble heritage without reference to white judgment.

When blacks pull the race card at every chance to excuse bad behavior or failing performance, whites rightly object. But when whites seem ignorant of the facts on the ground of daily prejudice that continues to exist, blacks rightly object.

A rabbi friend once told me that Jews distrust Christians sometimes because we don’t take time to know Jews as they are; we only know them as we have stereotyped them.

“You don’t truly know me unless you know what causes me pain,” he said.

The same holds in race relations, whether applied to African-Americans, or to Mexican-Americans who wave flags from south of the border while living on American soil, or to those with Middle-Eastern looks that make some fear they harbor terrorist longings. Getting to know our neighbors, becoming friends outside our ethnic groups, and trying to find experiences of alienation in ourselves that others may feel in themselves are just a few ways forward.

Forty years after the assassination of Dr. King, we ought to be able to join his dream of a society that celebrates people of many colors without judging their human value by it.

St. Paul says that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” They are all one in Christ. He certainly didn’t mean to deny all distinctions; he meant to affirm equal worth.

Whether you are a Christian or not, that’s a distinction that makes a good difference.