How Hollywood Shaped Colorblind Ideology and Undermined Civil Rights

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Following the lead of Martin Luther King, Jr., Black civil rights activists dismantled Jim Crow legislation with colorblind logic. Yet, in the post-civil rights era, many white Americans co-opted colorblindness to communicate anti-affirmative action sentiment and other perceived forms of “reverse discrimination.” A key element to this transformation, Justin Gomer argues, is “the central role of Hollywood in the articulation and hegemonic rise… of colorblindness.” Gomer’s White Balance: How Hollywood Shaped Colorblind Ideology and Undermined Civil Rights contextualizes several films from the early 1970s to the 1990s by surveying the social and political currents in which colorblindness operates. However, Gomer’s study of the relationship between colorblindness and film avoids easy targets. While the author examines the “friend of color” and “white savior” tropes, White Balance offers a deeper look into race-neutral perspectives by arguing that “colorblindness is the racial project of neoliberalism.” In this study, Gomer defines neoliberalism as a “notion of individual colorblind freedom,” which promotes racial equality in principle without sacrificing individual rights in practice.

Beginning with films such as Dirty Harry (1970), Coffy (1973), and Claudine (1974), which represent the “ideological diversity in the deployment of colorblind rhetoric,” Gomer places the origins of post-civil rights era colorblindness in anti-statist movies. According to Gomer, each film depicts distrust in the federal government’s role in solving racial conflict, yet each picture did so from different viewpoints. Starring Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry follows a San Francisco Police Department Inspector with a not-so-subtle history of racism couched in cynicism. Eastwood’s character makes no effort to conceal his anti-government outlook, which reflects his belief that federal intervention is responsible for much of America’s racial and non-race-related conflicts. Both Coffy and Claudine are films that depict Black life, but from two different perspectives. The former is an example of Blaxploitation productions in the early 1970s, while the latter is a portrayal of Black Americans’ relationship to the welfare state. In the first two chapters, Gomer argues that, in the early 1970s, a coherent ideology of colorblindness had yet to form, but was evident in the makeup of the characters and the structure of these films. By the latter half of the 1970s, that would change when colorblindness entered mainstream sociopolitical discourse.

Next, Gomer analyzes the role of colorblindness in Rocky (1976), written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, and Blue Collar (1978), featuring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto. Essentially, Rocky is an allegorical tale of “reverse discrimination”: a down-on-his-luck white boxer, Rocky Balboa, gets the opportunity to fight an undeserving, spoiled Black fighter – Apollo Creed. Two years after the release of Rocky, the plot of the film moved to the reality of a Supreme Court ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In this case, a white medical school applicant argued that he was denied entry to the university due to a special admissions program that reserved sixteen slots for students from underrepresented groups. Gomer goes on to use Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom (1962) to describe the colorblind free market, in which discrimination would eliminate itself once consumers found that it was in their best interests to avoid racialized decision-making. Friedman’s conception of race and economics are applied to Blue Collar, a film about three Detroit autoworkers that reveals “the relationship between the neoliberal destruction of interracial collective action and racial violence.” Gomer explains that Blue Collar is a cautionary tale of neoliberalism’s reproduction of white supremacy, a film for Americans that oppose Friedman’s view of and solution to racism.

Chapters four and five detail the Reagan Administration’s implementation of colorblind logic to employ “neoliberal governance.” First, Gomer uses Rocky III (1983) to describe the racialization of Reagan’s War on Drugs. The third installment of the Rocky franchise places the hero, Balboa, against a violent young fighter from the southside of Chicago, Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T). According to Gomer, the fight against Lang represents the struggles between the crack epidemic and law and order in America’s inner-city, a colorblind interpretation of the state-sanctioned violence against Black communities in the early 1980s. In the late 1980s, films depicting enslavement coincided with Reagan’s second term – a period in which the historical memory of the civil rights movement was placed within the context of the longer Black freedom struggle. The 1989 film Glory, which takes place during the Civil War, is an example of “colorblind heroism,” shifting the focus – and praise – from Massachusetts’ all-Black 54th Regiment to the units’ white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. By the end of the 1980s, Gomer explains that colorblindness became a political weapon and self-congratulatory tool for many white Americans that engaged in paternalistic, white savior attitudes and actions toward people of color.

In chapter six, Gomer blends education reform in the 1990s with “teacher films” – or “movies in which a (typically) white suburban woman accepts a job teaching students of color in low-income urban neighborhoods.” According to the author, the rise of colorblind neoliberalism pushed race-neutral narratives in movies such as Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007). At this time, teacher films explained87 the merits of neoliberal education by portraying “white saviors” as the only possible solution for disobedient students of color and crumbling inner-city schools. More than any other movie sub-genre, teacher films attempt to emphasize the virtues of racial colorblindness while inadvertently exposing the insidious nature of this racial ideology.

Situating Hollywood films within the political philosophy of neoliberalism, Gomer uses film theory to differentiate between colorblind rhetoric and the ideology of colorblindness. This important distinction allows Gomer to provide a deeper analysis of colorblindness by moving past verbal references to race-neutrality and emphasizing the cultural and political impact of race. Therefore, the ideology of colorblindness is not simply a principle that many Americans claim to live by, but a practice that informs day-to-day life. Rhetorical allusions often sound aspirational, while the ideology of colorblindness is evident in personal relationships, political views, and broader philosophies on American society.

As the title indicates, film is the primary vehicle for articulating colorblind perspectives. Yet, in some ways, film plays a secondary role to other major events and ideas that shaped racial ideologies at this time. Starting in chapter three, Gomer expands his analysis by integrating anti-busing protests and free market principles. By the end of chapter six, film is no longer the main focus for explaining the development of colorblindness, as George H.W. Bush’s “soft” record on civil rights, California’s Proposition 209, and neoliberal education reform take over the narrative. In many ways, White Balance reads as two books collapsed into a single monograph – one that explores the sociopolitical manifestations of colorblindness while the other captures the cultural element of race-neutral philosophies through film. Through clear writing, however, Gomer makes thoughtful connections to support a compelling argument that Hollywood played an influential role in the popularization of racial colorblindness. In fact, while some readers may view the declining role of film as straying from the author’s thesis, others may interpret the structure of the book as Gomer reinforcing his argument.

Overall, Gomer’s White Balance is a well-written and much-needed study of colorblindness – one of the few book-length sources that explores the role of race-neutral perspectives in American society and culture. This book contains a considerable amount of information as it seeks to explain the conditions that result in and are produced by racial colorblindness. Neoliberal race-neutrality provides a connecting thread between film, protest, economic policy, and politics that, for the most part, provides a thoughtful portrait of colorblindness in the final quarter of the twentieth century – a description of the dominant racial ideology in American life on and off the silver screen.

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Brandon James Render

Brandon James Render is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Texas-Austin. He completed his B.A. in History and Social Studies at Western Kentucky University in 2011 and M.A. at Eastern Kentucky University in 2015. His dissertation, "Color-Blind University: Race and Higher Education in the Twentieth-Century," traces the development and evolution of racial color-blindness through admissions processes, institution-building, and curriculum design. Follow him on Twitter @brandonjrender.

Comments on “How Hollywood Shaped Colorblind Ideology and Undermined Civil Rights

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    Great article. I am a screenplay writer who has been in programs for minority writers that were just for show. I continue to write and solicit agents to no avail. I will never give up because writing is what I do and enjoy ! A break through is eminent ?

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