Last night Ivanka Trump, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump’s daughter and political partner-in-chief, was warm and poised, portraying her father as all that at least some would want him, as a presidential candidate, to be: A fighter, but generous. Tough, but caring. Strong, but empathetic. And in the middle of this performance of increasing superlatives, she slipped in a most remarkable comment: Donald Trump, she said, is “colorblind and gender-neutral.”
Now, Ivanka is the perfect person to deliver that carefully calibrated message, all choices—and there aren’t many in the Trump campaign—considered. But let’s unpack those words a little, since they deserve a closer look.
Many commentators will undoubtedly note that Donald Trump, he of Mexicans-are-rapists fame, is hardly the paragon of racial equanimity. Like the claim that Donald Trump will champion equal pay and better childcare for working parents, the promise of color-blind and gender neutral hiring is backed up by nothing but Trump’s own alleged benevolence. This is, to put it mildly, not a foundation for robust policy proposals. Moreover, Trump’s supposedly objective hiring criteria seem to amount to mostly filling out both his company and his campaign staff with his own family members.
But beyond these criticisms, which in some ways are easy targets, are two larger questions: First, are any of us really “colorblind” or “gender-neutral”? And second, should we want to be?
Plenty of recent social psychology has shown that all of us are biased with respect to race and gender. These biases are implicit. We don’t recognize them on the surface, and thus they play out in unexpected ways. As experiments have shown, people whose names sound African-American end up with fewer job interviews than otherwise-identical peers; black clients are offered fewer loans and mortgages; black patients get less time with health professionals at the doctors’ office. One challenge for all of us is to recognize these biases and to overcome them. It is very hard to believe that Donald Trump, that exemplar of introspection, is better than the rest of humanity on this score, and is in fact able, as Ivanka claimed, to “hire the best person for the job” in a completely unbiased way.
On the second question: What would it mean, in our society today, if we suddenly actually succeeded in becoming colorblind and gender-neutral? As my colleagues Andrea Flynn, Dorian Warren, and Susan Holmberg and I have argued in our recently published Rewrite the Racial Rules, the fantasy of race-neutrality, which has dominated our politics and our social consciousness for at least 30 years, has not led to better outcomes for women, people of color, or even the majority of white Americans. Instead, the fantasy of race-neutrality has seen us create and reinforce a very uneven playing field. Since race-neutrality—rather than an active commitment to end centuries of racial isolation, as enshrined in 1954’s Brown v Board of Education decision—has become our dominant policy frame, our schools have become more segregated by race and poverty. Despite real progress on this front in the mid-20th century under the now-disdained but very successful civil rights ideas of desegregation and affirmative action, African Americans continue to suffer double the rate of unemployment as whites. At the same education level, blacks have less income than whites; at the same income level, they have less wealth, health, and safety.
This is all the result of not recognizing the importance of race and gender discrimination historically. This, in turn, leads to a failure to combat discriminatory structures actively and thoughtfully by crafting targeted policies to help African Americans and other people of color find good jobs, own homes and build wealth, and attend schools that help them achieve their potential. As a country, we can do this, and we can afford to do this, in ways that will increase the general welfare, general safety, and the common good. I would argue, in fact, that we cannot afford not to do it.
So, of all the fantasies that are being peddled by the Trump Organization, let’s not allow the most pleasant-sounding one—the idea that Donald Trump is colorblind and gender-neutral, and by extension he would lead us, through policies that follow such noble ideals, to a more just and more fair America—to go unchallenged. Even if Trump were, in fact, so noble—and all available evidence suggests that he is not—living in a race-neutral world would do us little good unless we first address, fairly and honestly and clearly, the racial rules that are holding us back.