Stanford Law Books, Stanford University Press, 2014, 269 pp.
Osagie Obasogie’s Blinded by Sight is driven by a seemingly straightforward question: how do blind people understand race? To answer this, he divides his analysis into two parts. In the first half of the book, Obasogie interrogates how blindness and race operate on sociological and interpersonal levels. In the second, he traces the ways these understandings are subsequently translated into legal and institutional practices. Using over 100 interviews with individuals who have been blind since birth, Obasogie shows that their racial frameworks rely on “physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and other visual characteristics” (3). To understand this counterintuitive finding and analyze its implications for a larger project of racial justice, Obasogie combines qualitative research with insight from Critical Race Theory and historical-legal analysis to posit a constitutive theory of race. He goes beyond a conventional understanding of “social construction,” which suggests that “the social” is overlaid over a preexisting, or objective “visual”. Instead, Obasogie argues that using blind people’s perspective on race demonstrates that the act of seeing is inherently racialized. There is no two-step process – the visual and the social are mutually and simultaneously constructed.
To address the social mechanisms of racial thinking, Obasogie presents personal narratives and interviews throughout the monograph. This qualitative data highlights two important points. First, blind and sighted individuals share a social fabric, and as such, their understandings of race are comparable. One of Obasogie’s informants comically explains, “people always come up with some kind of way to [touch our heads]…they’ll go for the hair” (101). Hair becomes a proxy for race and the result of the touch-test determines the extent and nature of the interaction. Secondly, the experiences of the blind interviewees reflect the investments of sighted people in ensuring racial boundaries are clearly delineated for the blind. A notable example of this is segregated schooling for blind children during the mid-twentieth century. A more recent example shared by a respondent involved a young Black girl being told by her guardians that her Blackness would rub off on White people. This fear of rubbing off was supposed to reinforce physical distance and boundaries between her Black body and other White children. Tragic stories like these fill the pages of the text and bolster Obasogie’s argument regarding the importance of dissecting social practices that reinforce the ability to see race in particular ways.
Obasogie deploys his training as a lawyer and legal scholar to dissect the deficiencies in Equal Protection jurisprudence. He argues that this framework is insufficient to create conditions for racial justice because it treats race as a “visually obvious and self-evidently knowable trait” (5). The law fails to take into account the enduring social and cultural factors that produce our ability to see difference in the first place and is thereby complicit in reproducing inequality. Obasogie focuses on the legal and linguistic history of colorblindness, or the ideology of racial non-recognition, and shows how this dangerous concept infiltrated and continues to thrive in social and legal spheres. The first legal assertion of the term “colorblind” is located in the dissenting opinion of Justice John Marshall Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In his dissent, Harlan argued the Equal Protection amendment mandated formal legal equality, and accordingly, civil rights should be blind to color. However, Harlan’s colorblindness was strictly legal and unconcerned with the real mechanisms necessary to bring about equality. Obasogie explains that inherent in Harlan’s dissent was a distinction between legal and social worlds, with educational issues confined to the social and thus under the exclusive purview of the states. Rather than understanding the dissent as a moral clarion call for equality, as is often suggested, at issue was the boundary between the legal and the social (119).
Harlan’s reductionist theory of colorblindness still permeates contemporary interpretive legal frames (160). Obasogie highlights how recent “reverse racism” cases such as Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle (2007) exemplify the lingering effects of this definition of colorblindness. In this case, parents were unhappy with the way the school district used race to place students in the name of diversity. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with Parents Involved and echoed Harlan’s call for colorblindness, stating, “the best way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” (137). The visual salience of race, or what Obasogie calls race ipsa loquitur, “allows equal protection moral sensibilities to shift from using law to remedy past injustices to using law to mandate non-recognition of difference” (154). The dangerous consequences of legal inattention to the social underpinnings of race are apparent in the growing racial disparities in nearly every realm of society, from health outcomes to educational performance.
In Blinded by Sight, Obasogie focuses primarily on the White/Black binary to understand “racialized vision.” While this has historically been the most salient historical racial divide in the United States, contemporary demographic changes have resulted in a more complicated racial landscape. Obasogie briefly recognizes this transition and refers to the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist who theorizes a changing racial hierarchy in America that has come into being through a “new racism.” Multiculturalism – the valiant side of colorblindness – is one of the ways that the “new racism” operates to distract from a direct engagement with issues of race. Further investigation may help reveal the micro-mechanisms of this “new racism” by asking: under what conditions do ethnicity, culture, or diversity serves as proxies for race? How do blind respondents understand ethnicity, culture, and diversity and how is this “new racism” communicated to blind individuals so as to ensure the maintenance of racial boundaries?
Ultimately, in Obasogie’s account, the delineation of racial boundaries is most prominent when it comes to issues of dating, reproduction, and family formation. He provides a strong foundational account of the biological racism and eugenics debates of the early twentieth century. These historical accounts, coupled with the present-day personal narratives in the book, highlight the persistent fear of intimate interracial unions in American society. Obasogie’s analysis could be enriched with closer attention to the gendered nature of these narratives, particularly with respect to questions of racial accountability and family formation. Is the color line drawn more starkly for women than it is for men? Do blind women feel a stronger sense of responsibility when choosing their mate? How does the invisibility of Whiteness become visible through conversations about interracial intimacy and progeny?
Blinded by Sight operates on multiple registers. It is simultaneously a legal history, a sociological study, and a theoretical contribution to Critical Race scholarship. In combining these perspectives, Obasogie calls for a new approach to research, an empirical Critical Race methodology, one that seriously engages with the materiality and lived experience of racial injustice. He suggests that linking the theoretical commitments of a Critical Race perspective with an empirical, social scientific strategy will allow scholars to connect the macro and micro ways by which race operates in society. This call to bridge the theoretical-empirical divide is an insightful and crucial observation that has the potential to reinvigorate scholarship aimed at fighting racial inequality. It is especially germane to young scholars who are looking for novel methodological strategies to uncover racism in America with the hopes of creating a more just and equitable society.
Eram Alam is a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science program at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working on a history of Foreign Medical Graduates to the US post-1965.