Innovative research led UC Hastings Professor Osagie K. Obasogie to win the Law and Society Association’s inaugural John Hope Franklin prize for outstanding scholarship in 2011 and to write Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, available from Stanford University Press in November.
Professor Obasogie, who has a PhD in sociology as well as a JD, does research that attempts to bridge the gaps between empirical and doctrinal scholarship on race. In the following interview, he discusses his findings along with some of the broader implications of his cross-disciplinary work.
[Q] What inspired you to pursue this line of research?
[A] It started around 2005, after I saw Ray, a feature film on the life of Ray Charles. Even though Charles became blind very early in life, I was struck by how he had a strong understanding of race—what race is, how it affected his life and other people’s lives.
After seeing the movie, I did research to see what was in the published literature about blind people’s understanding of race. I assumed that people had already written on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. However, I didn’t find anything. I wasn’t able to find anyone who had simply asked blind people: What is race? What are your experiences with race? How do you think about race? This oversight reflects the deep assumption we have in society that race is a visual phenomenon that blind people aren’t able to understand and that race is not a significant part of their lives.
[Q] Based on your research, how do blind people “see” race?
[A] Just like everybody else. More often than not, blind respondents talked about race in terms of skin color, facial features, and other visual cues—just like sighted people. To be clear, my research focused on people who have been totally blind since birth. These were people who hadn’t seen anything, let alone the visual cues that sighted people associate with race.
Some blind people wouldn’t date outside their race while others didn’t want to live in neighborhoods that were deemed to be different from where a person of their race should live. One blind respondent said “Most black people look pretty much the same;” another said blacks’ skin “wasn’t as smooth” as whites; others said blacks and Hispanics “had a distinctive odor.” Still others recalled how family members acquainted them with racial slurs and to whom, exactly, they apply. But the common theme among the blind respondents is that they understood race visually.
[Q] Don’t blind people use nonvisual characteristics as a proxy for what they can’t see—like differences in voice and vocal inflection?
[A] Yes and no. The research showed that blind people often distrust these nonvisual cues. A number of blind respondents said they have been wrong enough times by mistakenly relying on voice that they no longer use vocal differences as a key indicator of racial difference. Voice can play a secondary role, but race is primarily understood in terms of visual differences.
Moreover, several respondents said they appreciated my research because they had experiences where sighted people assumed that because they were blind that they were also color-blind—in a sense, that race was not important to them. Some sighted people even thought that blind people were fortunate because they didn’t have to deal with the messy world of race.
[Q] Can you delve further into this “messy world of race” and colorblindness—from a legal perspective?
[A] Our courts, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, are moving toward colorblindness, which is the idea that government should not take race into consideration in any type of decision making—whether it is for benign, beneficial, or harmful purposes. Especially in equal protection jurisprudence, the court is beginning to conflate the government’s use of race for remedial purposes—such as affirmative action to make up for past harms that have been perpetuated against a group—with the invidious use of racial categories to subordinate a group.
The basic idea behind colorblindness is that any consideration of race by the government is bad and that we will only have a fair, just, and equitable society once we get beyond race. But for me, the question is, what does it mean to get beyond it? Do we get beyond it by, in a sense, having the court limit the government’s ability to use racial categories to address persisting inequalities? Or does government need to acknowledge race to level the playing field? Which still leaves open the question that, given our country’s long and pathetic history with race, is getting beyond race even possible? Doing research with blind people about race is a way to take the colorblind metaphor seriously in terms of understanding whether its underlying assumption—that blindness produces a diminished understanding of race and inhibits racial antagonisms—is accurate as an empirical matter.
[Q] And what’s your view?
[A] I think colorblindness is a noble idea, but so are unicorns and tooth fairies. The data show that it is simply a misleading and, indeed, harmful way to frame how race plays out in today’s society. As evidenced in my book and research, race isn’t important just because it’s visually obvious, the sum of mere physical traits. Rather, it’s important because we’re socialized to experience race in a particular way, to give significance to certain cues, to orient our lives around certain features and react to those differences. And this social aspect is so strong that even blind people “see” race. My hope is that these research findings can help inform and change the conversation about race and lead to more thoughtful laws and policies that focus on the social dynamics of racial subordination rather than assuming that racial difference is natural or self-evident.
[Q] How would this play out in the courts?
[A] I hope my work will help give the courts pause before using colorblindness as an interpretive tool. Before we give up on the idea of the government using racial categories to atone for past and ongoing harms done to minorities, we must appreciate the extent to which society is still reproducing racial ideologies and entrenching racial hierarchies in ways that can have harmful effects on these groups. A deeper understanding of these complexities may lead the court to think twice before giving up on affirmative action or other similar initiatives. Otherwise, it is complicit in maintaining inequality.
Put differently, if blind folks are still seeing race and acting on it in a manner that is problematic, you can be sure sighted folks are as well. Race is still a central problem in our society, and we’re not going to get beyond it by simply sticking our head in the sand and acting like it no longer exists.
About Science and Race
Osagie K. Obasogie’s scholarship also looks at the role of science in constructing racial meanings and explaining racial disparities. His second book is under contract with the University of California Press: Beyond Bioethics: Towards a New Biopolitics (with Marcy Darnovsky).
From “Do Blind People See Race? Social, Legal, and Theoretical Considerations”
“When the assumptions and intuitions that shape legal theory, policy preferences, or judicial review are not empirically accurate, there is a significant disjunction or mismatch between the way law understands how society operates and the way it actually does. This can lead to injustice, particularly for vulnerable communities. Without seriously considering how social practices constitute visual understandings of race, law’s emphasis on visual cues can obscure the extent to which people are socialized to think racially, which may very well be at the heart of many discriminatory actions that may go without a remedy due to the current emphasis on what plaintiffs look like.”—Osagie K. Obasogie, Law and Society Review, 2010.