"I Did Not Get That Job Because of a Black Man

"I Did Not Get That Job Because of a Black Man...": The Story Lines and Testimonies of ColorBlind Racism
Author(s): Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Amanda Lewis, David G. Embrick
Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 19, No. 4, (Dec., 2004), pp. 555-581
Published by: Springer
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Sociological Forum, Vol. 19, No. 4, December 2004 (? 2004)
DOI: 10.1007/s11206-004-0696-3
"I Did Not Get that Job Because of a Black
Man...": The Story Lines and Testimonies
of Color-BlindRacism
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva,1,4 Amanda Lewis,2,3and David G. Embrick'
In this paper we discuss the dominant racial stories that accompany colorblind racism, the dominant post-civil rights racial ideology, and asses their
ideological role. Using interviewdatafrom the 1997Survey of College Students
Social Attitudes and the 1998 Detroit Area Study, we document theprevalence
of four story lines and two types of testimonies among whites. We also provide data on ideological dissidence among some whites (we label them racial
progressives) and blacks. We show that although these stories, and the racial
ideology they reinforce, have become dominant, neither goes uncontested.
KEY WORDS: stories; color-blind; rhetorical; narrative; ideology; racism.
Storytelling is central to communication. According to Barthes
(1977:79), "Narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is nor
has been a people without a narrative." To a large degree, communication
is about telling stories. We tell stories to our spouses, children, friends, and
coworkers. Through stories we present and represent ourselves to the world.
In short, we tell stories and these stories, in turn, make us (Somers, 1994).
Stories have been defined as "social events that instruct us about social processes, social structures, and social situations" (Aguirre, 2000:3). We
1Department of Sociology, Texas A & M University, College Station, Texas.
2Departments of Sociology and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago,
Chicago, Illinois.
3Present address: Department of Sociology (MC 312), 1007 W. Harrison Street, Chicago, Illinois
60607-7140.
4To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of Sociology, Texas A & M
University, 311 Academic Building, College Station, Texas 77843-4351.
555
0884-8971/04/1200-0555/0 ? 2004 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.
556
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
literally narrate our status ("When we were at the Gold Golf Club,..."), biases ("This black man, who is not qualified to be a member of the Club,..."),
and beliefs about the social order ("They have a very nice public golf course
and I do not understand why he even wanted to join our Club"). Stories
are not only central to narrating our individual lives but to social relations.
As Kenneth Plummer (1995:5) has stated, "Society itself maybe seen as a
textured but seamless web of stories emerging everywhere through interaction: holding people together, pulling people apart, making societies work."
The stories we tell are in many ways collective property, and they are not
random-; certain kinds of stories are told at certain historical moments for
specific reasons-, as we draw upon available discourses and chains of meaning (Hall, 1984, 1990; Moscovici, 2001). Storytelling most often reproduces
power relations,5 as the specific stories we tell tend to reinforce the social
order (for oppositional stories, see Jackson, 2002).
In this article we examine the dominant racial stories of the post-civil
rights era. Because all stories are told within particular ideological formations, it is important to highlight their relationship to ideologies. We define
racial ideology as the broad racial frameworks, or "grids,"that racial groups
use to make sense of the world, to decide what is right or wrong, true or
false, important or unimportant. And given that all societies are structured in
dominance, the frameworks of the rulers (whether men, the bourgeoisie, or
whites) are more likely to crystallize as "common sense" (van Dijk, 1999).
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003a,b) has operationalized the notion of racial
ideology as an interpretive repertoire consisting of frames, style, and racial
stories.6 One sign that an ideology has gained dominance is that its central
logic has come to be perceived as "common sense," so that actors in different positions and in different contexts deploy similar kinds of narratives to
explain social reality. Such racial stories can then be understood as part of
the contemporary, dominant racial ideology as it is manifested in everyday
life (Lewis, 2003).
Our analysis focuses on two types of racial stories, namely, story lines
and testimonies (Bonilla-Silva, 2003a,b). We define story lines as the socially shared tales that incorporate a common scheme and wording. These
racial story lines resemble legends or fables because, unlike testimonies (see
below), they are most often based on impersonal, generic arguments with
little narrative content-they are readily available, ideological, "of course"
5Although stories that are part of the dominant ideological field are narrated to reproduce social
relations of domination, they are never perfect (they always have contradictions or fractures)
and are always challenged. Hence, our analysis of racial stories is not functionalist in either
the Parsonian or Althusserian sense of the concept.
6We borrow the idea of ideology as an "interpretive repertoire" from Wetherell and Potter
(1992).
The StoryLinesandTestimoniesof Color-BlindRacism
557
narratives that actors draw on in explaining personal or collective social
realities. In story lines, characters are likely to be underdeveloped and are
usually social types (e.g., the "black man" in statements such as "My best
friend lost a job to a black man" or the "welfare queen" in "Poor black
women are welfare queens").7 The ideological nature of such story lines is
revealed by the similar schemata and wording used in their telling (e.g., "the
past is the past"), and by their use in a range of locations by a wide variety
of actors for similar ends.
Testimonies, on the other hand, are accounts in which the narrator is
a central participant or is close to the characters (see Denzin, 1989). Testimonies provide the aura of authenticity that only "firsthand"narratives can
furnish ("I know this for a fact since I have worked all my life with blacks").
Such stories help narrators to gain sympathy from listeners or to persuade
them about points they wish to convey. Although testimonies involve more
detail, personal investment, and randomness than story lines, they are not
just "plain" stories.8 They serve rhetorical functions with regard to racial
issues, such as saving face, signifying nonracialism, or bolstering arguments
on controversial racial matters. Moreover, they are often tightly linked to
the story lines, as these personal experiences are understood and framed
through the lens of more general racial narratives and understandings about
the world.
We are not alone in our effort to study the meaning and role of contemporary racial stories. Other authors have discussed some of the stories we
highlight in this article (Blauner, 1989; Frankenberg, 1993; Wellman, 1993)
or studied whites' race-talk (Eliasoph, 1997; Scott, 2000). Although their
efforts are useful, we depart from them in several important ways. First, our
analytical effort sheds light on storytelling itself and the possible functions
(and limitations) of these stories in the racial order. Specifically, we contend
these stories are part of the dominant post-civil rights racial ideology, and as
such, potentially help sustain the contemporary racial order. Second, some
of these studies focus on only one issue (for example, Fraser and Kick, 2000,
on race-targeted policies) and thus fail to account for the way these stories
fit in the larger racial drama of the United States. Finally, most of these studies have serious methodological or interpretive limitations. (For instance,
many are based on small or unsystematic samples; others make no attempt
to connect the stories to changes in the racial order; and, finally, some of
these analysts interpret their findings in a very incomplete and racially naive
7In this paper we address the dominant story lines of the post-civil rights era. Therefore, the
four story lines we highlight do not exhaust all the stories in the field as there may be secondary
stories or stories that are corollaries to the dominant ones.
81n truth, there are no "plain" stories, as all stories are imbued with ideology (see Tambling,
1991).
558
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
manner.9)Hence, our main analyticalgoals in this article are to (1) document in a more rigorousmannerthe masterracialstories of the post-civil
rightsera, (2) assessthe rhetoricaland ideologicalfunctionsof these stories,
and (3) provideevidence of fracturesin whites' dominantracialnarratives
by includingdata from whites who do not use these stories (we label them
"racial progressives") as well as from blacks.
We proceedas follows.First,we describethe theoryand the racialcontext behind our analysis.Then we describethe data and methods for this
study. Next we analyze the dominant story lines of color-blindracism,10
andthe most frequentandstructuredtestimoniesthatrespondentsinvoked.
Then, for comparativepurposes,we brieflydiscusshow these stories affect
white racial progressives and blacks. We conclude with a discussion of the
ideologicalrole of racialstories.
THEORY AND RACIAL CONTEXT FOR THE ANALYSIS
OF RACIAL STORIES
Although racismoften involves prejudice,antipathy,and irrationality,
most researchersnow concede that it has a materialand,therefore,rational
foundation (Bonilla-Silva, 1997; Feagin, 2000; Fredrickson, 2002). Racism
springsnot from the hearts of "racists,"but from the fact that dominant
actors in a racialized social system receive benefits at all levels (political,
economic,social,andeven psychological),whereassubordinateactorsdo not
(Bonilla-Silva,1997).Racialoutcomesthen arenot the productof individual
"racists"but of the crystallization of racial domination into a racial structure:
a networkof racializedpracticesandrelationsthatshapesthe life chancesof
the variousracesat all levels.Hence, dominationin hegemonicracialorders
such as ours is produced by the collective normal actions of all actors rather
9Eliasoph (1997), an important documentation of everyday conversations among whites in
two settings, is particularly riddled with racially naive interpretations. When her respondents
utter a racist joke, she argues that this ought to be seen as their effort to burst "through polite
constraints" (p. 488) or just as a way of "violating norms" (p. 489). Or when a respondent
offers a mild, backstage challenge to the person who uttered the racist joke but later reveals
her own deeply racialized thinking, Eliasoph interprets this as a matter of breaking with the
"structuresof expression." Thus, not surprisingly,she concludes that the "beliefs that mattered
most were beliefs about talk itself' (emphasis in original, p. 496).
1oWe are aware that other authors have developed somewhat similar arguments on post-civil
rights racial discourse (e.g., Bobo's "laissez-faire racism,"Jackman's "muted hostility,"Kinder
and Sanders "symbolic racism," etc.). However, we use the term color-blind racism because
it fits better how whites talk about race in the post-civil rights era. More important, this concept is anchored in different theoretical and methodological traditions. Rather than basing
this perspective on whites' "attitudes," we argue this viewpoint represents a new ideological formation and use textual (rather than survey) data to document it (see Bonilla-Silva,
2003b).
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
559
than by the behavior of a few "racists" (on hegemonic domination, see Omi
and Winant, 1994).
The implications of this understanding of racism for our analysis are that
the frameworks, affective dispositions (which range from sympathy to apathy
and animosity), and stories that actors use or exhibit tend to correspond to
their systemic location-actors at the top of a racial order tend to display
views, attitudes, and stories that help maintain their privilege, whereas actors
at the bottom are more likely to exhibit oppositional views, attitudes, and
counternarratives.
But racialized social systems are not fixed, and neither are the ideologies
that accompany them. For instance, the racial structure of the United States
underwent a tremendous transformation in the 1960s and 1970s (Bloom,
1987). Demographic (urbanization of blacks), political (development of minority organizations), and economic factors (industrialization) in combination with organized (civil rights movement) and "spontaneous" challenges
(race riots) to the Jim Crow order led to the development of what various authors label the "new racism" (Brooks, 1990; Smith, 1995). According
to Bonilla-Silva and Lewis (1999:56), the elements that make up this new
racial structure are "(1) the increasingly covert nature of racial discourse
and practices; (2) the avoidance of racial terminology and the ever growing
claim by whites that they experience 'reverse racism'; the elaboration of a
racial agenda over political matters that eschews direct racial references;
(4) the invisibility of most mechanisms to reproduce racial inequality; and
finally, (5) the rearticulation of a number of racial practices characteristic of
the Jim Crow period of race relations."
Examples of how the "new racism" operates abound. For instance, residential segregation, which is almost as high today as it was in the past (Massey
and Denton, 1993), is no longer accomplished through overtly discriminatory practices. Instead, covert behaviors such as not showing all the available
units, steering minorities and whites into certain neighborhoods, quoting
higher rents or prices to minority applicants, or not advertising the units at
all are the weapons of choice to maintain separate communities (Desena,
1994; Yinger, 1995). In the economic field, "smiling face" discrimination
("We don't have jobs now, but please check later"), advertising job openings in mostly white networks and ethnic newspapers, and steering people
of color into poorly paid jobs or jobs with limited opportunities for mobility
are the new ways of keeping minorities with different educational backgrounds in a secondary position (Ayres, 2001; Braddock and McPartland,
1987; Collins, 1997). Politically, although the civil rights struggles helped
to remove many of the obstacles for the electoral participation of people
of color, "racial gerrymandering, multimember legislative districts, election
runoffs, annexation of predominantly white areas, at-large district elections,
560
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
and anti-single-shot devices (disallowing the concentration of votes for one
or two candidates in cities using at-large elections) have become standard
practices to disenfranchise" people of color (Bonilla-Silva, 2001:100-101).
Whether in banks, restaurants, school admissions, or housing transactions,
white privilege is maintained in ways that defy facile racial readings.
The advent of this racial structure produced a new set of justifications for the racial status quo. With the emergence of a new normative
climate on racial matters, old-fashioned racial views substantially receded
(Schuman, 1997). Hence today few whites subscribe to the classical ideas of
Jim Crowism, and the vast majority agrees with the principles of racial equality and equal opportunity (Schuman, 1997). However, except for a small
and decreasing number of scholars (Lipset, 1996; Sniderman and Carmines,
1997), most analysts argue that these changes do not signify the "end of
racism" (D'Souza, 1995). Instead, the new consensus among survey researchers is that racial prejudice has gone underground or is expressed
in a "subtle" (Pettigrew and Martin, 1994), "modern" (McConahay, 1986),
or "symbolic" way (Kinder and Sanders, 1996) or as "laissez-faire racism"
(Bobo et al., 1997). Kinder and Sanders' (1996:106) capture the essence of
the new prejudice in the following passage:
A new form of prejudice has come to prominence, one that is preoccupied with
matters of moral character, informed by the virtues associated with the traditions of
individualism. At its center are the contentions that blacks do not try hard enough
to overcome the difficulties they face and that they take what they have not earned.
Today, we say, prejudice is expressed in the language of American individualism.
Elsewhere Bonilla-Silva (2003a) has labeled the racial ideology that
glues the post-civil rights racial structure as "color-blind racism" (BonillaSilva, 2003a). He contends that the main frames of this ideology are the
denial of the centrality of discrimination ("Discrimination ended in the sixties!"), the abstract extension of liberal principles to racial matters ("I am all
for equal opportunity; that's why I oppose affirmative action"), the naturalization of racial matters ("Residential segregation is natural..."), and the
cultural explanation of minorities' standing ("Mexicans are poorer because
they lack the motivation to succeed"). But ideologies are not just about ideas
(see above). To have salience and currency, ideologies must produce narratives that explain the world in ways that make sense to people, that convey
its major frames; these stories are then the conveyor belts that transport the
new racial frames.
Our analysis of contemporary white discourse is not much different
from the new consensus among survey researchers (Dawson, 2000), particularly the work of Lawrence Bobo and his associates (Bobo et al., 1997;
see also Essed, 1996). However, unlike most survey researchers (but see
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
561
Jackman, 1994), we interpret whites' racial discourse as the racial ideology
of the dominant race rather than as "prejudice" (individuals' affective dispositions). Therefore, for us, the issue is not to identify the proportion of
"racist" individuals in the population who subscribe to prejudiced views.
Instead, we attempt to analyze the social representations (Moscovici, 2001)
that whites have developed to explain and justify how the (racial) world is or
ought to be. This new ideology, we argue, fits the "new racism." The subtle,
"now you see it, now you don't" character of contemporary racial practices
is matched by the apparent nonracialism of color-blind racism. And, as we
will try to demonstrate, racial stories fit color-blind racism, as they do not
rely on traditional racist discourse to support the racial status quo.
DATA AND METHODS
The data for the analysis comes from two projects on racial attitudes: the
1997 Survey of College Students Social Attitudes and the 1998 Detroit Area
Study (DAS). The first is a convenient sample of college students at three
universities (referred to generically as West, Midwest, and South University)
enrolled in social science courses. The size of the target group (whites) was
410. Although this sample is not representative, the bias, if any, is toward
racial tolerance, since researchers have documented that tolerance increases
with education (Bobo and Licari, 1989; Schuman, 1997), particularly among
those in liberal arts (Quillian, 1996). The second data set is a systematic
sample of black and white Detroit metropolitan area residents (n = 400,
whites = 323). Both surveys included post-survey, in-depth interviews with
a random sample of the participants. In the former survey, interviews were
carried out with a 10% sample (n = 41) and, in the latter, with a 21% sample
(n = 83: 66 whites and 17 blacks). Thus we include data from more than 100
interviews with whites of various social backgrounds in various geographic
locations.
Since our goal is to examine the dominant racial stories, we rely almost
exclusively on the interview data. The stories we draw upon emerged mostly
spontaneously in discussions on race-related issues such as affirmative action, residential and school segregation, interracial friendship, and interracial marriage. Respondents inserted them to reinforce points, underscore
the salience of an issue, or as digressions in the middle of racially sensitive
discussions.
The interviews for these two studies were race-matched, followed a
structured interview protocol, were conducted in respondents' homes or in
neutral sites, and lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours. After the interviews were completed, project assistants transcribed the recorded material
562
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
verbatim (i.e., included nonlexicals, pauses, etc.). However, to improve the
readability of the quotations, we have edited them in this paper. When all the
material was transcribed, one of the authors read all the interviews to extract
common themes and patterns. At that stage, the same author and project assistants performed a basic content analysis to locate all the instances where
respondents inserted these racial stories.
Although all samples have limitations (ours, for example, are not "natural" samples of "speech acts" and do not include as many blacks as we would
have liked), ours have advantages over most of those used by qualitative
researchers on racial matters. First, our samples are systematic (randomly
selected subjects from those who participated in surveys). Second, one of
the survey samples has a bias toward racial tolerance (the students' sample), but the other is a random sample. Third, the age, gender, and regional
representation in these samples allow us to be confident that the findings
are not peculiar to one subpopulation. Lastly, our subsamples for the interviews (representing 10% of students in the survey and 21% of the DAS
respondents) as well as the 134 total respondents interviewed are large by
qualitative standards. Therefore, we believe that the data for this study allows us to gain insight into the kind of dominant stories that whites deploy
while talking about racial matters.11
THE STORY LINES OF COLOR-BLIND RACISM
If racial stories were immutable, they would not be useful tools to defend
the racial order (Jackman, 1994). Thus, racial stories are intricately connected
to specific historical moments and hence change accordingly (Hall, 1990;
Omi and Winant, 1994). For example, during the Jim Crow era, the myth of
the black rapist became a powerful story line that could be invoked to keep
blacks, particularly black men, "in their place" (Clinton, 1982; Hill-Collins,
1990). Today new story lines have emerged to keep blacks in their new (but
still subordinate) place (Crenshaw, 1997). The most common story lines we
identified were "The past is the past"; "I did not own slaves"; "If (other
ethnic groups such as Italians or Jews) made it, how come blacks have not?"
and "I did not get a (job or promotion) because of a black man." Although
some of these story lines are interrelated (e.g., "The past is the past" and
"I didn't own any slaves" appeared often together), we discuss each one
separately.
11No one has systematic data on private, nonnormative interactions on race among whites or
nonwhites. The available (unsystematic) data suggest that whites' private race-talk is much
more racial in tone and content (see Graham, 1995 and, particularly, Myers, 2003).
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
563
"The Past Is the Past"
The core of this story line is the idea that we must put our racistpast
behind us and that affirmativeaction programsdo exactly the opposite by
keeping the racialflame alive. Moreover,as the story line goes, these policies areparticularlyproblematicbecausethey attemptto addressa pastharm
done againstminoritiesby harmingwhitestoday.Thisstoryline was used by
more than 50% of college students(21/41) and by most DAS respondents,
usuallyin discussionsof race-targetedprogramsfor blacks.A perfectexample of how respondentsused this story line is providedby Emily,a student
at South University(SU), who told the story line in an exchangewith the
interviewerover the meaningof affirmativeaction.
I have, I just have a problem with the discrimination, you're gonna discriminate
against a group and what happened in the past is horrible and it should never happen
again, but I also think that to move forward you have to let go of the past and let
go of what happened um, you know? And it should really start equaling out 'cause
I feel that some of, some of it will go too far and it's swing the other way. One group
is going to be discriminated against, I don't, I don't believe in that. I don't think one
group should have an advantage over another regardless of what happened in the
past.
Clearin Emily'slogic is the idea that "twowrongsdon't make a right."
Thus,to compensateblacksfor a historyof white advantageor blackoppression would involve unjustified,unfairadvantagetoday.Note this view does
not involvea denialof pastinjustice.Instead,it regardsthe pastas unrelated
or irrelevantto currentrealities.Hence, programsdesigned to redressthe
"horrible"past are constructedas "reversediscrimination."
Almost all DAS respondentsresortedto a version of this story line to
express their displeasurewith programsthey believe benefit blacks solely
becauseof theirrace.However,these olderrespondentswere more likelyto
use the storyline while ventinglots of anger.John II, for instance,a retired
architectand homebuilderin his late sixties,used a versionof the storyline
in his responseto the questionon reparations.
Not a nickel, not a nickel! I think that's ridiculous. I think that's a great way to go
for the black vote. But I think that's a ridiculous assumption, because those that say
we should pay them because they were slaves back in the past and yet, how often
do you hear about the people who were whites that were slaves and the white that
were, ah? Boy, we should get reparations, the Irish should get reparations from the
English...
John'sstatementsuggestsnot only that it is "ridiculous"to give blackseven
"a nickel"in compensationfor a historyof slavery,but that blackshave no
specialclaimwithregardto poortreatment("theIrishshouldget reparations
from the English").
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Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
But what is ideological about this story? Is it not true that "the past is the
past"? First, whether whites inserted this story line or not, most interpreted
the past as slavery even when in some questions we left it open (e.g., questions
regarding the "history of oppression") or specified that we were referring
to "slavery and Jim Crow." Since Jim Crow died slowly in the country (and
lasted well into the 1960s to 1970s), the reference to a remote past ignores
the relatively recent overt forms of racial oppression that have impeded
black progress. Second, such stories effectively "erase" the limiting effects of
historic discrimination on the ability of minorities' and blacks' to accumulate
wealth at the same rate as whites. According to Oliver and Shapiro (1995),
the "accumulation of disadvantages" has "sedimented" blacks economically
so that even if all forms of economic discrimination that blacks face ended
today, they would not catch up with whites for several 100 years. Third, the
"reverse discrimination" element in this story line is central to whites as
a rationale for their opposition to all race-based compensatory programs.
This story line then does not reflect whites' ignorance of racial history and
racial facts. More than anything else, it provides a positive and even moral
standpoint for them to explain why certain social programs are unnecessary
and problematic.
"I Didn't Own any Slaves"
This story line appeared often in conjunction with the story line of "The
past is the past," although it was deployed somewhat less frequently-it was
used by about a quarter of the college students (9/41) and a third of DAS
respondents. As with the previous story line, this one usually appeared in
discussions of affirmative action (see Wellman, 1997). The core of this story
line is the notion that present generations are not responsible for the ills of
slavery. For instance, Lynn, a Midwest University (MU) student, used this
story line to explain her opposition to the idea of a hypothetical company
hiring a black rather than a white job applicant because the company had
discriminated against blacks in the past.
I think I would, I would, I'd' disagree, I think. I mean, yeah, I think I'd disagree
because, I mean, even though it's kinda what affirmative action-well, it's not really,
because I don't think like my generation should have to be punished real harshly for
the things that our ancestors did...
The story line allowed Lynn to state safely (albeit quite hesitantly)
her concerns about affirmative action, even though she had stated before
that she supported the program. Again we can see the ideological connection between racial story lines when Lynn responds to evidence of past
discrimination manifested in a company's current racial profile (described
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
565
as 97% white) by suggesting she should not be punished for the actions
of her ancestors-essentially saying, "The past is the past." Even though
the question here does not refer to slavery but suggests concrete evidence
for discriminatory practices by the company in the not-too-distant
past, the story line provides a readily available justification for lack of
action.
Some DAS respondents deployed this story line to answer a question on
whether the government should spend money on blacks' behalf to compensate for past discrimination. For example, Dina, an employment manager
for an advertising agency in her early thirties, said,
No, and I have to say that I'm pretty supportive of anything to help people, but I don't
know why that slavery thing has a-I've got a chip on my shoulder about that. It's
like it happened so long ago, and you've got these sixteen-year-old kids saying "Well,
I deserve [reparations] because my great, great, granddaddy was a slave." Well, you
know what, it doesn't affect you. Me, as [a] white person, I had nothing to do with
slavery. You, as a black person, you never experienced it. It was so long ago I just
don't see how that pertains to what's happening to the race today, so that's one thing
that I'm just like "God, shut up!"
As exemplified in Dina's statement, this story line involves more than a
denial of personal responsibility for historical discrimination. The claim is
in fact much broader: that historical discrimination does not disadvantage
blacks today. Therefore, this story conveys the notion that the current social order is race-neutral and based on individual merit and effort. This
story line then ignores the long history of pro-white racial policies and
practices in jobs, housing, access to social space ("No blacks and Mexicans allowed here!"), and so forth, and their multiplier effect for all those
deemed "white."Thus, not surprisingly, "suspect" European groups such as
the Irish, Italians, and Jews (Brodkin, 1998; Ignatiev, 1995) struggled to become "white" because by doing so they could receive the manifold benefits of
whiteness.
"If Jews, Italians, and Irish Have Made It, How Come blacks Have Not?"
Another popular story line of the post-civil rights era is "If Jews, Italians,
and Irish (or other ethnic groups) have made it, how come blacks have not?"
This story is used to suggest that because other groups who experienced
discrimination are doing well today, the predicament of blacks' must be
their own doing. Although fewer respondents explicitly deployed this story
in the interviews, a significant percentage agreed with a survey question on
this matter (60% of DAS respondents and 35% of college students). An
example of how whites used this story is provided by Kim, a student at SU,
who used it to explain why she does not favor government intervention on
566
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
minorities' behalf.
No. I think that a lot of bad things happened to a lot of people, but you can't sit there
and dwell on that. I mean, like the Jewish people, look what happened to them. Do
you hear them sitting around complaining about it and attributing anything bad that
happens to them? I've never heard anyone say, "Oh, it's because I'm Jewish." And
I know it's a little different because a black, I mean, you can't really, a lot of--you
can't really tell on the outside a lot of times, but they don't wallow in what happened
to them a long time ago. It was a horrible thing I admit, but I think that you need to
move on and try to put that behind you.
Here, this story line is used to question blacks' claims to harm. It also presents
a moral racial tale: the way to deal with hard times is to work hard and not to
"wallow" in what happened "a long time ago" which, according to the story,
is presumably what other racial and ethnic groups have done to move up in
this country.
An example of how DAS respondents used this story line comes from
Henrietta, a transvestite schoolteacher in his fifties, who inserted the story
to answer a question on compensatory government spending on blacks'
behalf.
As a person who was once reversed discriminated against, I would have to say no.
Because the government does not need programs if they, if people would be motivated to bring themselves out of the poverty level. Ah... when we talk about certain
programs, when the Irish came over, when the Italians, the Polish, and the East European Jews, they all were immigrants who lived in terrible conditions, who worked
in terrible conditions too. But they had one thing in common; they all knew that
education was the way out of that poverty. And they did it. I'm not saying the blacks
were brought over here maybe not willingly, but if they realize education's the key,
that's it. And that's based on individuality.
What is ideological about this story? Have not Jews, Irish, and other
ethnic groups moved up and even assimilated in America? The problem
is that this story line equates the experiences of immigrant groups with
those of involuntary "immigrants" (enslaved Africans, etc.). But as Stephen
Steinberg pointed out some time ago, most immigrant groups were able
to get a foothold in certain economic niches or used resources such as an
education or small amounts of capital to achieve social mobility. "In contrast, racial minorities were for the most part relegated to the preindustrial
sectors of the national economy and, until the flow of immigration was cut
off by the First World War, were denied access to the industrial jobs that
lured tens of millions of immigrants. All groups started at the bottom, but
as Blauner points out, "the bottom" has by no means been the same for all
groups" (Steinberg, 1989:101). Thus, the comparison in this story line is not
appropriate, as the historical experiences and opportunities of the groups in
question are vastly different.
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
567
"I Did Not Get a Job (or a Promotion or Was Admitted
to a College) Because of a black Man"
The core of this story is the idea that less qualified minorities (mostly re-
ferringto blacks,althoughoccasionallyto women)aregettinginto college or
takingjobs thatmorequalifiedwhitesdeserve.However,as we willillustrate,
this story does not involve concreteexperienceor knowledgeand requires
little evidence;the merepresenceof a minoritypersonin a particularsetting
allows whites to ignore the possibility that they are not qualified for a job, a
promotion,or admissionto a college (for a similarpoint,see Goldfield,1997
and Bobo and Suh, 2000). And this story line, although narrated as personal
experience,is quite often aboutdistantlyremovedfriends,friendsof friends,
or neighbors and lacks the spontaneity and vividness of a testimony.
Thisstoryline was most often used in discussionsabout affirmativeaction or race-basedpolicies. Almost a quarterof the students (10/41) and
more than a third of DAS respondents used the story line, "I did not get
that job because of a black man." For instance, Bob, a student at SU, op-
posed providingunique opportunitiesto minorities to be admitted into
Universities:
I had a friend, he wasn't-I don't like him that much, I think it's my brother's friend,
a good friend of my brother's, who didn't get into law school here, and he knows
for a fact that other students less qualified than him did. And that really-and he
was considering a lawsuit against the school. But for some reason, he didn't. He
had better grades, better LSAT, better everything, and he.... Other people got in up
above him, I don't care who it is, if it's Eskimo, or Australian, or what it is, you should
have the best person there.
This is a classic example of this story line. Bob's brother has a friend
who knows "for a fact" that less qualified minority applicants were admitted
into a law school insteadof him. For Bob, this is a matterof principle:"the
best person (shouldbe) there"whether"it'sEskimo,or Australian."
Darren,a bus driverin his late forties(andotherDAS respondentslike
him), vented lots of animositytowardblacksin his answerto a questionon
affirmativeaction. In this context, he inserted the story line to affirmhis
belief that he had been the victim of reverse discrimination12:
No, other than I have applied at jobs and been turned down because I was white.
Now, I have nothing against the black person [if he] was qualified better than I was.
But when the guy comes into the interview, and I'm off on the side and I can hear
them talking, and he can't even speak English, he doesn't know how to read a map,
and they're gonna make him a bus driver and hire him over me. I've been doing bus
12Despite the regularity with which this story line is deployed, the number of actual cases filed
by whites as "reverse discrimination" before EEOC is quite small, and the great majority of
them are dismissed as bogus (Wicker, 1996).
568
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
driving off and on since 1973, and I know the guy well enough that [I know] he's a
lousy driver. I know why he got the job, and I don't think that's fair.
Although Darren's story seems like a testimony, it has the scheme of this story
line. He believes he was passed over for a job by a bus company (presumably
the one he currently works for) because he is white. His facts come from
what he overheard from an interview with a black applicant. Darren does
not provide data on his driving record or the record of the black bus driver.
Complex processes involving multiple applicants are simplified in such
stories so that two individuals abstracted from their social context are depicted as going head-to-head in a competition of merit (Wise, 2004). According to the story, race triumphs over merit, and a specific black candidate is
imagined as the beneficiary who displaced a specific, deserving white candidate. Collectively this story line is important because it makes the case that
whites are the real victims of racial discrimination (Feagin and Vera, 1995;
Fine and Weis, 1998) and supports the argument that color-blind decisionmaking is the only fair way to proceed.
TESTIMONIES AND COLOR-BLIND RACISM
The story lines discussed above were used to explain beliefs about public policy issues (e.g., government intervention, affirmative action, busing,
etc.). Yet, in the interviews respondents also told more personal stories that,
although connected to these story lines, were different enough in style, content, and function to warrant analytical distinction as testimonies (for example, testimonies were extremely valuable for image restoration or for
self-presentation). In what follows we examine the two testimonies that
appeared most frequently.
Testimonies Disclosing Knowledge of Someone
Close Who Is Racist
Twelve students disclosed information about someone close (usually a
parent or grandparent) who was racist. The narrative form used to reveal this
information resembles confession in church;by disclosing this sensitive information, respondents seem to be attempting to absolve themselves from the
possibility of being regarded as racist. By identifying a "bad" white individual, respondents could situate themselves among those who are "nonracist."
For example, Mike, an MU student, replied as follows to the question, "Do
you ever talk about racial issues at home?"
Yeah we do. I mean, my dad came from a pretty racist background, I mean, not, you
know, like-well, actually, his grandfather, I think, was in the Ku Klux Klan until he
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
569
got married. And my great-grandmother, who I knew-she died, but I knew her-was
completely the opposite. And basically when they got married, she said "no way."
So that ended, but I mean, there was still a certain, you know, racism that pervaded.
In his family they were pretty racist, so you'll still hear, you know, racial slurs slip
out every once in a while, but I think he makes a conscious effort not to, I mean,
he certainly didn't ever try to teach me things like that, you know. For one thing,
my dad was in the Navy for a long time, so I grew up with my mom for the first five
years or so, and then he worked and my mom stayed at home with me. So my dad's
influence was not nearly as much as my mom's to begin with, and even when it was,
I wouldn't say that influenced me a lot, but there were definitely, I mean, racist ideas
in his family. And I see that with my grandparents, you know, his parents.
In all twelve cases, this testimony had a similar narrative structure. First,
the respondent reveals that a relative is "racist" and then gives an example
to illustrate this point. Finally, the respondent ends by explaining why she
or he is "not racist." Mike reveals that his dad comes from a "pretty racist
background." Then he mentions that his father's grandfather was in the
KKK-evidence of direct racist lineage. And finally, he concludes the story
by showing that he was not substantially influenced by these ideas because
his father "didn't try to teach me things like that" and because his mother
raised him.
DAS respondents used this testimony, too. For example, Jenny, a public
school administrator in her fifties, while describing the neighborhood she
grew up in as full of "Archie Bunkers," characterized her own grandmother
as follows:
My grandmother, who was-she was Scandinavian-used to make fun of blacks.
And when we would drive through a black neighborhood, she would say things
like, "Look at all the little chocolate drops." And I can remember being a young
child-maybe five, six, or seven years old-and being offended by her remarks. My
parents never, ever said anything like that. My parents were very open-minded and
broad-minded.
Jenny's narrative structure is similar to Mike's. First, she disclosed in
an almost confessional tone that her grandmother harbored racist views.
Then, she supplied the example of her grandmother's mocking remarks
about blacks. Finally, she distanced herself from her grandmother by pointing out that even at a young age she was "offended by her [grandmothers']
remarks" and that her parents were "very open-minded" and never said such
things.
Why do we regard these stories as racial? Are not they just stories?
We contend these testimonies are part of a larger narrative about race in
contemporary America because they all have a similar structure, emerge
often in response to similar questions, and seem to fulfill similar rhetorical
and ideological functions. Furthermore, as we discuss below, when white
racial progressives or blacks narrated stories about racist family members,
their stories were different in structure and function. Our point about these
570
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
testimonies is that they serve strategic purposes: They are deployed to convey
a message about self (as color-blind) through a discussion of others (the bad
racist whites).
Testimonies of Interactions With blacks
Other testimonies involved stories of interactions (negative or positive)
with blacks. In the first type, respondents narrated a negative incident with
blacks in order to justify a position taken against blacks on some issue. In
the other type, respondents narrated a positive incident or relationship with
blacks as a way to signify their own good racial character (positive selfpresentation). About a third of the students and DAS respondents inserted
one of these stories.
Positive Interactions With blacks
These stories function much like the stories about a racist relative-all
are used for the goal of representing oneself as color-blind. For instance,
John II, a semiretired house designer in his sixties, inserted a positive story
of interaction with blacks in WWII in response to the question on whether
blacks are hard to approach or are not made to feel welcome by whites. After
stating he had no experiences to offer on this matter, John II narrated the
following story:
[So] the Filipino scouts stood farther away from me, and they got the cover, and I got
behind the curb. It wasn't quite enough curb to hide me, and the fellow was shooting
a full automatic... A jeep came in out of one of the roads and slid to a stop, and,
about the time he said, "Get in!," they said "Let's go!," because I was in laying across
the back seat, and he took off. When we got down the road, I climbed out of the
back seat into the front seat, and it was a colored captain. He wouldn't give me his
name or anything. He said, "That's all right," but I've always remembered that. He
put himself at risk and under fire to pick up a man and take him out of a line of fire.
John's story served as a vehicle to state his view that blacks and whites can
be civil to each other. His story resembles those told by many veterans of
interracial solidarity during war. However, for John II, as for so many white
veterans, these experiences do not seem to have penetrated very deeply, as
he did not have an interracial lifestyle after he returned to the United States
or altered his racial views in any meaningful way. The telling of this story
thus signifies acceptance or tolerance of blacks rather than as evidence of
real racial "openness." For example, John II, who used the term "colored"
to refer to the black man who saved his life, opposed interracial marriage
and said he was "more comfortable around whites because I've grown up
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
571
with them." He also had no qualms about neighborhoods or schools being
almost completely white. John II's stance amounts to a modern version of
the separate but equal policy: blacks and whites can be civil to each other,
but they should not live near each other or marry each other.
Negative Interactions With blacks
Mickey, a student at MU, acknowledged that his family talked about
racial matters often because of the area they lived in (Benton Harbor, an
area that has become predominantly black). After Mickey pointed out that
Benton Harbor has "one of the highest crime rates in, like, the country"
and that "now it's, it's a really dirtiest [sic] place," the interviewer asked
him if people ever worried about violence and crime spreading into their
community. After acknowledging that he thought "about that [possibility] a
lot," he added,
but I mean, nothing really happened horribly. Actually, a neighbor of mine [laughs],
kind of a grim story. I have a younger brother who's friends with one of my neighbors
just down the street who hangs out with him sometimes. And he was drivin' downtown
in Benton Harbor, about a couple of months ago, and I think he was trying to get
some marijuana or somethin' stupid like that, and he got beat over the head with
a baseball bat, got some black eyes, and he had brain damage. He's okay now, but
he was in a coma for a little bit. And he's like, I think he's got minor brain damage,
irreversible. But nothing that's affecting him, like, too bad, but that was just one
incident that happened a couple of months [ago] that made me think about stuff like
this.
Mikey told this story as he was expressing ambivalence about whether the
problems of Benton Harbor were rooted in economics or morality. This testimony allowed him to validate his belief that blacks are "more aggressive"
than whites.
DAS respondents also told negative stories of interaction with blacks.
Bill, a retired schoolteacher in his eighties, offered testimony to explain why
he thinks blacks and whites are different. After saying that blacks had bought
a church in his neighborhood, he claimed they forced a restaurant in the area
out of business. He gave the following testimony to explain this situation:
They like to eat. They pile their dishes just loaded with that stuff and, I actually didn't
see it, but I saw one lady come in with a full plate of chicken. I didn't pay much
attention, but the next thing I know, they are leaving. Now I know she didn't eat all
that chicken. She probably put it in her purse and walked out with it. I didn't see
that. Lot of them are doing that. How can they make any money? And seeing that
they are all heavy people, it seems like they do a lot of eating, and so I don't know
what to say about something like that.
Here there is no question that Bill's facts are fuzzy (and racist in the traditional sense of the term). That an all-you-can-eat restaurant would go out of
572
Bonilla-Silva,Lewis,and Embrick
business because of customers eating too much is unlikely. Nevertheless, the
ideological importance of this testimony, as well as of all the racial stories
we have discussed, does not depend on whether the facts are right or wrong
but on the way they are deployed-that is, as evidence to validate whites'
beliefs about minorities or about themselves.
COUNTERNARRATIVES: EXAMPLES OF WHITE RACIAL
PROGRESSIVES AND BLACKS
Are all whites immersed in color-blind racism? Do they all buy into
the racial stories we documented here? Do blacks rely on this ideology
and its stories, too? Analysis of the interviews revealed that although most
whites are "color-blind," 15% of the college students and 12% of the DAS
respondents were "racial progressives" who were significantly less likely to
invoke these stories.13The analysis also revealed that color-blind racism and
its stories had a relatively small impact on blacks (but see below). Instead,
white racial progressives and blacks were more likely to provide arguments
and narratives against the dominant frames and racial stories of color-blind
racism.
For example, Beth, a student at WU, said in reference to a white male
who opposed affirmative action, "Being a white male I guess you don't realize
[sic] ... [shit] unless it's shoved in your face." She also told the following story
about her interaction with this student:
I said, "Well, if you think it's a quota system, well you're wrong" and that maybe it's
hard to see what these people go through all their life and, I mean-Me too, being
female, what you go through, just the slight discrimination here and there, this like
common slur, you don't understand that. You just think it's a harmless joke, but it's
not. It builds up. He was just not getting it.
Beth understood that discrimination affects the life chances of minorities
and even expressed support for programs that compensate minorities for
past discrimination because, she said, "It's hard to start when you have hit
rock bottom, it's hard to climb back up."
Judy, a college professor of nursing in her forties, realized discrimination is still important and described various examples of the old and new
styles of discrimination. For example, she said that a black man told her
13Weclassified as racial progressives respondents who supported affirmative action, interracial
marriage, and recognized the significance of discrimination in the United States. When respondents exhibited reservations on one of these issues, we searched for other elements disclosed
in the interview to help us classify these respondents (e.g., whether they had meaningful relationships with minorities or the degree of racial progressiveness on other race-related issues
discussed in the interviews).
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
573
that he was not served at a local hospital because he was black. She also
mentionedthat manyblacksare used as guineapigs becausethey are black
and poor. Finally, she said that a black woman told her that when she shops
in the suburbs, "she notices that people won't give her change in her hand"
becausethey are "fearfulof her,andthatbugsher to death."Judy,like many
racialprogressives,used her experienceas a woman to understandblacks'
plight.14For instance,while explaininghow the few blacksthat move up in
society "feel always on display,"she connected it to her experiencesas a
woman:
It's kind of like women, you know, I have to be that much better just because of various
conditions and practices that occur. So in that way I can understand it, because it's
difficult being a woman in this society. It is planned, it's organized by men. It's set up
for them, and we've had to struggle to become equal. It's just that way for people of
color.
Last is Kay, an MU student, who said that her parents were displeased
that she had a black boyfriend:"Not between us, but my parents at first
didn't approve of it really. Like my parents always told me that I could be
friends with black people, but I couldn't date them. But after a while, they
just learnedthat they were gonnahave to acceptit."Kay'sstorydoes not fit
the testimoniesdiscussedabove that we classifiedas dealingwith someone
close who is racist. For example, she did not use this story to exonerate
herself or her parentsfrom the influenceof racism("theyjust learnedthey
were gonna have to acceptit").
An exampleof the counterargumentsprovidedby blackscomes from
Edward,an unemployedman in his fifties, who said the following about
affirmativeaction:
I'd say that I would have to be for affirmative action simply because you still have
ignorant people. Some of these ignorant people are in control and have a little more
power than I'd like to think they should have ... to prevent other people from having
opportunities [so] that ... they can't have growth and development. Affirmative
Action is a means and [a] method. Then it's like a key when you got a locked door.
You've got to have it.
When asked, "What would you say to those who say affirmative action is
unfair to whites?" he responded: "I tell them that "What do you call fair?"
If you got everything, it's kind of like saying you are upset because you got
ice cream and you don't have a cone. Then put it in a bowl, you already got
everything. Don't worry about it."
Blacks also believed that discrimination is an important reason for their
present status and provided oppositional testimonies as evidence. For example, Tyrone, an unemployed man in his forties, gave the following testimony
140ur analysis revealed that white racial progressives were significantly more likely to be
working-class women. For a discussion, see Bonilla-Silva (2003b:chap. 6).
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Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
in his answer to a question on discrimination:
I think sometimes you do. 'Cause I used to work in Sterling Heights [a neighborhood
in Detroit]. I used to be out there waiting on the bus, somebody would drive by and
call me a "black ass nigger" at least three times out of the week and I'm just trying
to work and come home.
However, color-blind racism would not be a dominant racial ideology if it
had not affected at some level even those who oppose it. For an ideology
to become dominant, whether based on class, gender, or race, it must have
some salience for those on all rungs of the social ladder; it must muddle in
some fashion the ideological waters of the dominated and constrain their
resistance (van Dijk, 1999). Thus it was not surprising to find that even white
racial progressives and blacks were affected by the dominant racial stories.
One example of this phenomenon is provided by Carla, a black woman
in her forties who works as an executive secretary. Although the vast majority
of blacks supported affirmative action and reparations, she answered the
question on reparations as did most whites.
That became [a] topic in school. I don't remember what I said, but right now I feel
that was so long ago that the people who are here now didn't have anything to do
with it. So I don't feel it would, I mean, you can say you're sorry but it's not going to
take back what happened. Therefore, I don't think it's necessary.
DISCUSSION
In this article we have examined the dominant racial stories of the
post-civil rights era. These stories "make" whites, but also help them navigate the turbulent waters of public discussions on race. However, before
accepting the accuracy of our analysis of whites' contemporary race-talk, we
must address a few plausible alternative explanations.
The first one is the always present possibility of researcher bias. Did we
the
answers we got because we framed questions in a particular way?
get
We believe this is unlikely, since the original purpose of these two studies
was to assess if whites' racial attitudes were different in interviews than
in surveys (Bonilla-Silva and Forman, 2000) rather than to examine whites'
racial stories. Therefore, the questions we asked in the interviews were based
on the same issues and questions we included in the survey, and the bulk of
the questions in the survey were exactly the same questions that other survey
researchers have used in the past.'" The racial stories we found among these
respondents were thus not the products of a fishing expedition for "racists"
15The instruments for the 1998 DAS survey are available from the Detroit Area Study at the
University of Michigan. The instruments for the other survey can be obtained from Eduardo
Bonilla-Silva.
The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism
575
or of tendentious questions intended to make our respondents answer in a
particular way.
Second, some analysts disagree about our interpretation of the ideological function of these stories.16 However, such disagreement does not
challenge our claim about the salience of these stories in whites' contemporary imaginary. The fact that the racial stories we identified occurred so
regularly in our diverse sample suggests that such stories are being repeated
throughout society. Such widespread repetition is unlikely unless those who
tell them believe that they reflect some truth about the way the social world
works. The fact that old and young alike, working-class and middle-class, and
male and female respondents all told these stories and told them so similarly
is evidence that they are collective narratives.
Third, some analysts may believe that our goal is to label all whites racist.
We went to great lengths to show that although most whites accept these
stories as the "truth"about racial matters in America, a segment of the white
community (and most blacks) do not accept these stories and have developed
incipient counternarratives. Theoretically and substantively speaking, as we
have argued in previous work (Bonilla-Silva, 1997, 2001, 2003a), the issue
is not one of "good" versus "bad" or "educated" versus "ignorant" whites,
but one of documenting the growth of a new racial logic that helps preserve
racial inequality. Therefore, our data and analysis suggest not that there are
more (or less) "racists" or more or less "racism" than in the past, but that a
set of racial stories has emerged and is being deployed by whites from a wide
range of social backgrounds and from a variety of geographic locations.
Finally, some may argue that we are presenting white respondents in
a monolithic fashion. To this potential charge we say that our respondents,
like all humans, exhibit contradictions. Thus, some of the respondents who
told the dominant racial stories also had progressive views on specific issues
(for example, they supported school integration or busing, or approved of
interracial marriage). Similarly, although racial progressives and blacks exhibited radically different views from the majority of whites, a few used some
of the dominant racial stories. This fact should not surprise students of racial
attitudes in the United States (e.g., Schuman, 1997) who have documented
the ambivalent views of whites on racial matters, or students of ideology in
general, who have pointed out the contested and always unfinished nature of
ideology (Billig, 1988). Yet, contradictions in attitudes, ideological positions,
as well as behavior do not detract from the fact that all actors end up stating
and taking positions on social issues (in our case, racial issues). And these
16Charles Murray (1984), Herrnstein and Murray (1994), D'Souza (1995) and others have
concluded that whites' "common sense" on minorities (the idea that minorities are lazy, not
too smart, see racism in everything, etc.) is fundamentally right. Liberal social analysts have
read whites' contemporary views as expressions of racial ambivalence (Schuman, 1997).
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Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
contradictions allow us too, as analysts and policymakers, to think about ways
to devise political arguments, policies, and politics for effecting social change.
CONCLUSION
The four story lines we analyzed in this article are powerful tools that
help most whites maintain a color-blind sense of self and, at the same time,
to reinforce views that help reproduce the current racial order. For example,
if whites oppose affirmative action or reparations, they can use the "The
past of the past" or "I did not own any slaves" story line to bolster the
apparent reasonableness of their argument. If the issue involves accounting
for blacks' secondary status in this country, whites can use the story line
"If (other ethnic groups such as Italians or Jews) made it, how come blacks
have not?" Finally, because the story line "I did not get a (job or promotion)
because of a black man" seems personal-even though the facts in such
stories tend to be second-hand and remote-it can offer powerful support
to those opposing government programs for minorities.
These story lines also allow many whites to vent deep-seated feelings
about racial matters (on racism and emotions, see Feagin, 2000). In case after case, whites evinced anger about what they interpret as blacks' whining
("I didn't own any slaves, and I do not understand why they keep asking for
things when slavery ended 200 hundred goddamned years ago!") or about
not getting into certain jobs or universities ("A friend of mine was not admitted into SU Law School, but many unqualified blacks students were,
and that's wrong"). The story lines then serve whites as legitimate conduits
for expressing animosity and resentment toward minorities. Together, these
story lines offer a specific interpretation of contemporary racial matters that
favors whites and the current racial order: "The past is the past, we never
benefited from the past, everyone had it bad and, in fact, and we are the real
victims of discrimination today" (Doane, 1997; Gallagher, 1995).
Testimonies, although more loose and unstructured than story lines, are
as important in the rhetorical arsenal of color-blind racism. Many respondents relied on them at some point in the interviews. Generally speaking,
whites seemed to use testimonies for self-presentation goals such as saving face when discussing sensitive matters, signifying nonracism, or bolstering some specific claim about race (e.g., "Blacks are violent"). Although
these stories were, compared to story lines, more unique, we analyzed two
of the most structured and frequently used kind: stories disclosing knowledge of someone close who is racist and stories of interactions with blacks
(negative and positive). The stories of disclosure seem to serve positive selfpresentation (e.g., "I am not a racist like my dad, uncle, or friend"). Stories
of positive interactions with blacks had a similar goal. For example, if a
The StoryLinesandTestimoniesof Color-BlindRacism
577
respondent had a "good experience" with a black a long time ago, that story
can be used to cover up for a present in which blacks are not part of the respondent's life. Stories of "bad experiences" with blacks were mostly used to
give credence to respondents' negative views about blacks ("I know blacks
are lazy because my friend Tyrone never does anything on time").
These racial stories are "ideological" because they are part of the post
-civil rights color-blind "common sense." They represent the world in an "of
course" manner-as if these stories are self-evident. Although such stories,
as we have noted, are thin on hard data, misrepresent the importance of discrimination (both old and new), and can be classified as the "sincere fictions"
of whites (Feagin and Vera, 1995), they are not experienced as such by whites.
Instead, these stories are real in the imaginary of whites who subscribe to
the dominant racial ideology and shape how they come to understand their
lives as well as those of blacks. They are factual to them because both storytellers and (white) listeners share a representational community. Hence, the
telling and retelling of these stories, strengthens their understanding about
how and why the world is the way it is.17
Racial narratives, however, potentially do far more than help whites to
understand the world in particular ways: they also justify current racial inequality. For example, when trying to explain why blacks are at the bottom of
society, these stories are used to suggest that people's station in life depends
on ability and hard work, which explains blacks' status as a result of their
own shortcomings (Hoschchild, 1995; Wetherell and Potter, 1992). These
racial narratives not only attempt to explain larger racial realities but also
have the capacity to shape everyday behavior and interactions. For example,
recent work on the behavior of whites toward students of color on college
campuses (who often are imagined to be the recipients of unfair advantage)
demonstrates the pernicious impact of such stories (Feagin et al., 1996; Lewis
et al., 2000; Solorzano et al., 2000).
It is the job of social analysts and activists alike to break the conventionality and commonsense character of these stories. We have provided
evidence for a way out of the ideological web of color-blind racism and
of these stories through our examples of the way white racial progressives
and most blacks are challenging these racial narratives. As discussed here,
many of these "ideological dissidents" (van Dijk, 1999) and "race traitors"
have even developed oppositional narratives (albeit less coherent than the
dominant racial narratives). Thus, our tasks are to recognize the origins and
17We are trying to convey here the positive role of ideology. As Althusser suggested long
time ago, the content of an ideology may be false (misrepresent real social relations), but
that ideology shapes the actions and behavior of people and is thus real, because ideology
"interpellates" individuals as subjects (in our case, as "racial subjects") from the day they are
born (Althusser, 1977. On the notion of "racial subjects," see Goldberg, 1993).
578
Bonilla-Silva, Lewis, and Embrick
strategicfunctionsof these racialstories and help popularizecounternarratives (Delgado, 1999) so we can challengetheir role in the maintenanceof
contemporary"whitesupremacy"(Mills,1997).
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