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The Failure of Colorblind Civility

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nina Frola Joyner
July 14, 2015

Public administrators who dismiss the events in Ferguson, Missouri; North Charleston; South Carolina and Baltimore, Maryland as isolated examples of police brutality neglect the broader implications that explain the failure of public institutions and public servants to confront the issue of racial bias. Public administration practice is challenged by the fact that the very people who are uniquely positioned to solve social problems are often part of the problem by participating in routine discriminatory practices.

Photo of Emancipation Oak by Nina Joyner

Photo of Emancipation Oak by Nina Joyner

In the grim aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Camilla Stivers asked her peers “Does racism ever shape the way public administrators make decisions?” Her essay, published in a 2007 special issue of Public Administration Review urged public administrators to explore the significance of race in both policy and practice. Eight years later, we have not made much headway in eliminating racial bias from decision-making. Perhaps this is because we participate in colorblind civility where open dialogue about racial bias is viewed as impolite or in poor taste. Yet how can we hope to solve a problem that we cannot discuss?

The post-civil rights, affirmative action era adopted colorblind civility as the institutionalized practice of not seeing race. Over the past 50 years, public administrators have colluded in denying our racialized history, residual discriminatory practices have developed and  we have adopted colorblind attitudes. People will say, “I don’t see color.” “I treat all people the same.” Civility requires good manners. Claiming to be colorblind is certainly rife with well- intentioned good manners.

We so rarely talk about race. When we do, we stumble awkwardly over the words to label each other. Black or African-American. White or Caucasian. Few are sure of the language to use and ultimately choose not to engage in conversations that are uncomfortable. We do not acknowledge the discrepancies in policy and practice along racial lines that produce situations like Ferguson and Baltimore. Although we seek congruence and consonance between our beliefs and experiences, many of us engaged in public service find neither.

Instead, there is a growing sense of incongruence and dissonance. The colorblind illusion of social equity in our public institutions crumbles under evidence from nearly every public institution that people are not treated the same and that different treatment produces different social outcomes. If the field is ever going to tackle successfully the issue of racial bias, we need to move past asking if racial bias is a factor in decision making to what are we going to do about it.

Productive and meaningful dialogue is required before we can successfully problem solve. This would involve engaging in a different type of dialogue and asking a different set of questions than in the mandated, race relations training sessions. The majority of race-relations training sessions fall into two equally ineffective camps: artificial love fests seeking to establish common ground or blaming sessions. Whether people hold hands and sing We Shall Overcome or angrily confront each other, they generally leave without a change in attitude and without a map for how to change thinking and behavior patterns that have become unconscious and normalized. For many institutions, racially biased practices have become institutionalized as professional norms.

The failure of colorblind civility is that it has left us voiceless, inarticulate and powerless. We can’t solve a problem that is a taboo subject or left undefined because we lack the language skills to articulate a problem statement. Successful problem definitions and strategies for solving them requires normalizing the dialogue and asking questions about how assumptions and practices might be racially biased. Discourse about racial bias should be solution focused and tolerant of the verbal stumbling that will occur along the way.

Jennifer Alexander and Camilla Stivers in a 2010 Public Administration Theory and Praxis article suggested a different set of questions need to be asked including: “…how such demonstrable patterns are rooted in shared but not discussed and often unconscious assumptions and interpretations of race on the part of the public administrator.” The little discussed aspects of our policies and practices need to be discussed.

The broader and deeper tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and more recently of Ferguson, North Charleston and Baltimore is in our silence and failure to talk openly about the real problem of systemic racial bias. We are all part of public organizations that perpetuate and normalize racial bias. We need leaders in the public administration field who recognize the unique and historical opportunity to rethink, retool and govern differently. We must rethink the ways that racial bias have become a normal routinized part of social policies and retool by learning to dialogue about how those biases are manifested. We have the opportunity to problem solve and do governance without racial bias. Will we seize the opportunity or maintain our colorblind civility?


Author: Nina Frola Joyner works for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and has her own consulting and training company specializing in social research and facilitating solution focused dialogues about systemic racial bias. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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