Respect, Individualism, and Colorblindness
73 Pages Posted: 29 Oct 2019 Last revised: 7 Nov 2019
Date Written: October 22, 2019
What principle underlies the Supreme Court’s “colorblind” or “anticlassification” approach to race and equal protection? According to the Court and many commentators, the answer lies in a kind of individualism—a conviction that people should be treated as individuals, not as instances of racial types. Yet the Court has said almost nothing about what it means to treat someone “as an individual.” This Article excavates the philosophical foundations of that idea. And in so doing, it offers a framework for understanding, and then evaluating, the Court’s assertions that the government fails to treat people as individuals when it classifies them by race.
Rightly understood, the Article argues, treating people as individuals means showing respect for their individuality—a central facet of their moral standing as persons. To evaluate the claimed linkage between individualism and colorblindness, then, one first has to consider what respect for a person’s individuality involves. Drawing on the philosophical literatures on respect and autonomy, the Article offers an answer to that question: Treating someone as an individual requires taking due account of the information conveyed by her self-defining choices. But that answer entails that respect for a person’s individuality does not inherently require, or even favor, disregard of information carried by her race. The Article thus offers an internal critique of the Supreme Court’s avowedly “individualistic” approach to race and equal protection; it shows that the central moral argument for colorblindness rests on too shallow an account of what individualism itself demands.
Building on that conclusion, the Article then turns to suggestions that racial distinctions—whatever their intrinsic moral status—are nonetheless stamped with social meanings that render them disrespectful of a person’s individuality. Even if such a symbolic norm might justify limiting integrative race-based state action, the Article contends, the recognition that no more basic moral wrong is at work should transform how the colorblindness project is carried out. Most fundamentally, that recognition should prompt the Court to enforce colorblindness, if it does, with regret rather than indignation. And most concretely, it should lead the Court to decide cases and write opinions in ways that avoid further entrenching respect conventions that operate as obstacles to valuable means of racial repair. In sum, with the Court poised to double-down on colorblindness in the years ahead, this Article surfaces the internal challenges that an intellectually serious form of the doctrine would need to address and charts the course that a more reflective colorblindness doctrine might take.
Keywords: equal protection, race, philosophy, individualism
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