Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Covert Racism in an Age of Color Blindness!

By Rodney D. Coates [1]

For many, the election of Barrack Obama represented hope in the dawn of a new day, in a new era where all will be able to maximize their human potential without fear of discrimination based upon race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or handicap. As we welcomed and celebrated the election of Obama, many questions emerged. I find it more than coincidental that no sooner had the dust settled from the electoral screens and even before the actual inauguration - a strange and not so subtle shift could be seen in America's racial terrain. This shift-what some allude to as a new racial narrative - has already assumed tsunamic proportions and seems destined to distort, transform, or obfuscate the racial landscape. It is characterized by what I call Covert Racism—a “hidden racism” that crouches behind the façade of politeness or “political correctness” and expediency, and exists in the coded language, symbols, and calls for “color blindness” that profess equality but continue to limit, discriminate and oppress. Covert racism underlies much of what people call our post-racial narrative.

The language we speak, while basically derived from English, is often interpreted through a racial code which holds differential meanings depending upon ones experiences within the racial matrix. Our views of social reality and how we interact with others tends to reflect these racial nuances. While some may feel that they can navigate various realities without regard to race or as if they were color blind, many others experience race daily as pain, objectification, marginalization, or minimalization. Color-blindness is a luxury afforded to racial elite, whereas colorization is the reality of the racial non-elite. Covert racism, especially, is related to how we as individuals come to perceive, evaluate and experience racial realities.

Have you ever experienced a paper or grass cut? The cut often goes unnoticed, even unfelt, until you actually take the time to observe it. All too often, it is only after we have focused upon this wound, that we experience pain. Covert racism, experienced psychologically, is much like the paper cut that often goes unnoticed until the sweat of struggle or tears of indignity flow through them and burn. These wounds, experienced as micro-aggressions, are

suspected to lie at the heart of the consistent physical ailments and psychic trauma, which plague many targeted racial non-elites. Plausible deniability, an intrinsic component of covert racism, benefits perpetrators by allowing them to deny responsibility and culpability while simultaneously undermining its victim’s ability to claim damage(s).

In some cases individuals or groups may not realize or be aware that they are guilty of covert racism until it is pointed out to them. [2] This often happens when one grows up in a society with a history of racism. It has become so embedded within the national culture that many seem impervious to its existence or impact. In the past, the codes of the racial matrix were much more visible, objective, and identifiable. These codes - lodged in the laws, customs, and practices of a segregated America - helped define the racial matrix. The success of civil rights activism, laws, and judicial decrees not only served to decode but also to nullify the more obvious forms of the racial matrix. But today’s racial codes are more subtle, more hidden, and less obvious. These subtle, hidden and less obvious racial codes have served to create a new racial matrix which we characterize as covert racism.

Covert racism, subtle in application, often appears hidden by norms of association, affiliation, group membership and/or identity. As such, covert racism is often excused or confused with mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, ritual and ceremony, acceptance and rejection. For example, hanging the Confederate flag “isn’t meant to be racist, it’s about tradition,” say some Southern advocates. But the “tradition” while perhaps not wholly subsumed by is inherently saturated by slavery and Jim Crow. Covert racism operates as a boundary keeping mechanism whose primary purpose is to maintain social distance between racial majorities and racial minorities. Such boundary mechanisms work best when they are assumed natural, legitimate, and normal. Yet, research on such tools like high stakes testing, for example, continues to demonstrate how such mechanisms are racially and ethnically discriminatory. We believe these tools discriminate simply on natural intelligence and effort but they don’t.

Covert racism obscures the realities experienced by racial non-elites. These realities, experienced within institutional structures, are often confounded or confused with personal or group attributes. Covert racism, as implied above, produces specific outcomes typically confused with or legitimated as economic inertia and decline, catastrophic institutional failure, and the resulting political and social morass, fatalism, and nihilism. All too often these systemic failures are presumed to reflect personal choices or group failure. Misdiagnosed, covert racism, results in blaming the victim, defining the debilitating plight as a culture of poverty, or a poverty of will. In such situations we often speak of cultural deficits, deficient human capital, and the like. These situations, made worse by the presumption that racism is a thing of the past, posits that any failure to achieve parity is a failure of the individual or group. Unfortunately, this view is not only naive, but dangerous as well. Rather than looking toward the racialized structure for remedies, we turn to trying to reform and transform the victim. Racism, stripped of its more overt racial components, yet remains systemically within the institutional structures of society.

Covert Racism is evident both in the U.S. and Globally. Systemically, covert racism operates across several societal institutions, structures and societies. Globally, since 9/11, increasing fears of the racial others has fueled anti-immigrant hostilities, racial profiling and intimidation. Xenophobic fears have surfaced in Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, England, France, and Italy, to name but a few. Covert racism –evidenced in racial codes, profiling, and colorblindness –is not however new. Covert racism, born out of the imperialist needs to maximize profit at the expense of racialized others, stands shielded by institutions, cultures, stereotypical assumptions, and tradition. Whereas overt racism assumed blatant and insidious forms, covert racism hides behind the façade of ‘politeness’, political correctness and expediency. Racially coded words and calls for racial blindness obfuscate the reality of this subtle, subversive, and often hidden form of racism. Covert racism, just like its twin overt racism, is neither innocent nor harmless. The scars of covert racism -often seen in terms of increased levels of disease, negative sanctions, inadequate information, and lost opportunities –serve to continually victimize racial non-elites.

[1] Note: These are excerpts from my recently published edited volume on Covert Racism: Theories, Institutions, and Experiences published by Brill. You may view the volume here.

[2] Much like the sexist jokes of the past, many individuals claimed innocence until we learned that they were indeed sexist.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the comparison of a paper cut to the concept of covert racism. Most people are not aware of it until they take the time to notice, and only then do they suffer the pain. This article definitely made me reflect on my own community and realizing that there were, in fact, some forms of covert racism that I had not even realized. In my opinion, covert racism is much worse than overt racism. Not that one hurts more than the other, but that covert racism is much more difficult to counteract, when one side simply claims in defense that they are doing nothing wrong.
    Allie Smith, Intro to Soc

  2. I find this article to be very interesting, I guess, because I have never really realized or thought about the idea of covert racism. After reading the article I realized how often I see inadvertent racism day in and day out. We see it most, as stated above in the article, with individuals who look like they are of Middle-Easter decent. We as Americans do not openly discriminate against these people, rather we shy away from them. If we were put into a group of ten people, they might in fact be the last individual we start talking with. It is like we internally decide that they are somehow related to terrorism or that they are bad people because their ethnicity may be the same. It is also seen on campus. Being on the football team there are many jokes made, about Caucasians and about African-Americans. Though I personally don't find harm in them, they are evident. I come from a lower-middle class town in the South Shore of Massachusetts, and because of the reputation of the town I am (jokingly) stereotyped in a bit of a derogatory demeanor. Though I find little to no harm in these jokes, they are in fact there and they are attacking the "typical" caucasian male from my town. This article opened my eyes to the jokes I see as harmless along with the actions of the people around me, meant to be discrete but are more than evident.

  3. I completely agree with this article; yes I’m not proud to say it, but I do believe that this country, and this world, still discriminates against the “minority”. Although racism and discrimination has decreased over the years, I think it is something that will exist for a while because it is “embedded in our culture”. No I do not think it is at ALL right to judge someone based on their appearance, religion or race, but some people still say hurtful words to others in order to belittle them. I do believe that racism has decreased since my parents were children, however it has not been eliminated; we still need to spread the word and keep working to eliminate all hateful terms that belittle anyone in any way.

  4. This article brings about the view that although racism is not as obvious and open as it was during the Civil Rights movement it is still seen within society today through what the author Coates defines as convert racism. Coates defined covert racism as a “hidden racism”, something that is hidden behind norms of association, affiliation, group membership and/or identity. I believe this to be true because of many examples of this covert racism that I have seen in my own life, especially during the election for president. I remember many people saying that “Obama only won because he is black” or “all the black people finally came out to vote and that’s why he won”. These are the types of things that many people do not see as being directly racist because there is no act involved with the saying, however, these types of remarks are the ones that are the “hidden racism.” Colorblindness as Coates had mentioned is something that is a luxury to those that are not a minority. People with colorblindness do not know and don’t take the time to think about what is would be like to experience life through a minorities shoes and the daily struggles that a minority goes through in order to get through their day. I believe that racial profiling, especially after 9/11, is a very large part of people’s prejudices and is something in which many people have to overcome and eventually look past in order to erase this globally seen covert racism issue.

    Brittney Brady
    Introduction to Sociology

  5. It's a sad but true fact that racism is still alive and thriving, covertly or overtly. While overt actions are the ones that people are aware of, the covert ones could almost be seen as more detrimental to our society. Acts such as shying away from people of other races, putting down other races or cultures, or assuming that everyone has the same experiences, we automatically close ourselves off towards learning. We develop a fear of what we don’t know. Then again, there could be the opposite effect where we become curious. Yet, in general, you see in the world around you, a disjointed world. People judge off of first appearances. Even if you say that you do not, it’s something that cannot be helped. You see someone and you automatically form hypotheses about them in your head, based off of their appearances. These may be good judgments or bad ones. It’s something that we all do. Unfortunately, race is something that’s often evident in one’s appearance and therefore that may be factored into the judgments. I do not agree that this is correct, but it is human nature. Whether people act on these judgments is the bigger issue, and sadly, people often do.

  6. In terms of racism, when one begins to analyze America's historical timeline one would be apt to be satisfied at where the country lies today. Yes, the country no longer allows slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregated education and businesses and yes, the country is now headed by the first African American President in history but, there is still much more growth to be made. Satisfaction and a stalemate in progress must not be accepted. Covert and overt racism still blatantly exists within society. Although both types are the sad, negative reality of America, covert racism may be most dangerous of all. People judge others based off of physical appearance, the most obvious form is skin color. Although overt racism is not present; due to this fact, many unequally treat others and rarely anything is done. Society must ban together to recognize such forms of racism and stop the problems or at least continue progress toward success in a world without racism.

  7. I found this article to be interesting and quite eye opening. While our country is trying to make racial advancements in everyday society it becomes almost inevitable for it to still exist. While our President is an African American and most of the older customs of racism are not as pronounced as before, still today exits a "hidden racism". Hidden racism is shown in small forms by subtle actions, words and gestures in everyday life. Sometimes, these are the actions that can be the cruelest and can offend a large majority of people. No person knows what it is like to be a certain race or ethnicity nor do they know what is like to walk around in their shoes. This comes into play with what is said in this article about color blindness. Much color blindness is experienced along with racial profiling ever since the events of 9/11. The common belief is that every Middle Eastern person is the same as those who caused the horrible incidents of 9/11. As a country, although we may be making some progress, we need to try and shy away from judging a people like we would a book by its cover. Sadly, judging, color blindness and racism in all fashions will still exist if we cannot come together and realize that the individual is more important than where they came from. Coates does a great job of raising racial awareness that may have been already known about, but is not discussed often and "hidden" for many reasons.
    Pat Jenkins Intro to Sociology

  8. Although it is hard for many Americans to admit it, covert racism does exist. Just because we elected our first African American president does not mean America is completely free of racism. Many people think of examples such as the KKK when they think of racism. However, racism has become much more subtle yet still has a very large impact on society. I think a lot of people are ignorant to the fact that racism still very much exists just because it isn’t as obvious as slavery. I do not believe that racism will ever completely go away. In fact, I think racism in a way has become a part of our culture. Our country has made great strides in racial equality; however, I think we have hit a plateau. Covert racism, unfortunately, will probably always exist in our society.

  9. I agree with this article, discrimination is still a very predominant aspect to our society. Yes we have come a long way in the process but it’s still a very large problem, and it’s something that I think will continue for a long time. It’s not fair to judge people based on what they look like or where they come form, and yet people do it everyday. I think that our society has been working on eliminating discrimination and prejudice but its still not one hundred percent gone, and we need to keep our efforts to some day be rid of these pointless actions. The problem starts by how people are raised and what they are exposed to. I think people that are brought up like that makes it harder for them to change and that’s where the base of the problem lies.