Oct. 21, 2013

Legal theorist Crenshaw '81 criticizes colorblind policies

Kimberle Crenshaw
Robert Barker/University Photography
Kimberlé Crenshaw speaks at the Schwartz Center Oct. 17.
Kimberle Crenshaw
Robert Barker/University Photography
Crenshaw meets with students Oct. 17 at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue.

Some Americans find issues of race difficult to talk about. But Kimberlé Crenshaw ’81, who holds law faculty appointments at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Columbia University and a leading authority on civil rights and race and the law, argued on campus Oct. 17 that acknowledging racial disparities is necessary to deliver justice and equal opportunity for all.

Proponents of colorblind policies argue that attentiveness to race perpetuates racial discrimination, which Crenshaw called a “discourse of denial” that refuses to recognize the contextual realities of existing racial disparities.

Crenshaw advocates “a color-conscious, race-conscious approach to thinking about the continued significance of race disparity.” Addressing racial inequality in the United States is undermined by the misconception that existing societal structures and conditions produce equal conditions, she said.

Crenshaw pointed to the June 25, 2013, Supreme Court decision on Shelby County v. Holder, which ruled section 4(b), of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 unconstitutional. In the 1960s, Congress foresaw efforts to suppress individuals of color, so they passed the VRA to stop racial discrimination in voting practices. The VRA was crafted to prevent measures that could pass as race neutral but are actually discriminatory, such as poll taxes and literacy clauses.

Despite 14,000 pages documenting contemporary instances of voting discrimination, advocates of colorblind approaches cite President Obama’s election as proof of victory over voting discrepancies, Crenshaw said. She illustrated this line of thinking with the metaphor: “Because an umbrella keeps you from getting wet, you decide you don’t need the umbrella anymore. [Meanwhile] you are not paying attention to the fact that it’s still raining.”

Another recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of a colorblind approach was Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, a white female, sued the University of Texas for its affirmative action policies, arguing they were reverse discrimination. Crenshaw pointed out that race is one of many non-merit-based criteria institutions consider in admissions offices. Additionally she highlights the existing racial biases favoring white individuals, such as policies that are advantageous to students who are legacies or come from elite high schools.

While Fisher argues for race-neutral admission policies, she ignores the deeply rooted biases disadvantaging African-American students in the college admissions process, Crenshaw said. “Colorblindness neutralizes non-neutral baselines. It makes it seem like race is introduced when we think about racial disparity, as if race is not already there,” she said.

Crenshaw said she hopes, “we can shift the nature of the conversation around affirmative action, by bringing forward information we already have about the nature of our society.” By doing this, she believes people will understand that policies promoting racial equality are not preferential, but rather corrective ones, promoting equal opportunity.

Crenshaw was on campus Oct. 16-21, where she stayed in Becker House. She spoke Oct. 17 at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and attended the Latino Unity Dinner Oct. 18. Her visit was sponsored by 20 Cornell organizations and offices.

Abigail Warren '15 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.