The Political Economy of Colorblindness: Neoliberalism and the Reproduction of Racial Inequality in the United States




Hutchison, Phillip A.

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This dissertation traces the complex and contentious career of “colorblindness” from its inception to its present-day function as an ideal reproducer of racial inequality. The study closely analyzes the discursive instability inherent within colorblindness, and it begins by demonstrating that this concept originated as a radical weapon designed to upend racial antipathy and inequity at its core. Albion Tourgee, a white antiracist lawyer, first coined “color-blind justice” in the course of his judicial career. As counsel for Homer Plessy in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, Tourgee applied his colorblind metaphor as he challenged the constitutionality of Jim Crow segregation. I contend that in his famous dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan appropriated this metaphor from Tourgee, arguing that colorblindness would function to keep whites the master race “for all time.” I then discuss how, during the civil rights movement, white conservatives recovered Harlan's interpretation of colorblindness as they sought to maintain white privilege in the context of Jim Crow segregation’s demise. The bulk and remainder of the dissertation then scrutinizes this Harlan-inflected colorblindness of the post-civil rights era. I posit that contemporary race-neutrality is best named “neoliberal colorblindness”; this term signals the mutually reinforcing relationship between neoliberalism and colorblindness, asserting that race-neutrality effectively perpetuates racial inequality as it operates in a neoliberal climate stressing privatization and penality—both of which receive extended examination in this dissertation. The study concludes by returning to colorblindness’s interpretational malleability and considers how we might resurrect Tourgee's notion of color-blind justice in light of Harlan’s appropriation of him. Doing so requires that we take close stock of the myriad obstacles standing in the way—obstacles tempered by the hegemony of neoliberalism.



Race, Racism, Colorblindness, Neoliberalism, Inequality