What are some real world, everyday consequences of colorblindness? A 2011 study focused on how colorblindness bears directly upon the life chances of poor black women in a specific circumstance.

The author focused on Section 8 voucher termination hearings. Low income tenants receive Federal housing assistance from HUD, which funds the Section 8 voucher program. From time to time, program participants are accused of violating program rules, and depending on the outcome of an informal administrative hearing, their program rights may be terminated. Those who lose their voucher rights, along with their household, can and often do end up homeless.

The author interviewed a number of program participants in termination hearings, as well as 3 hearing officers — one white, one black, and one Hispanic. Drawing upon her own conversations and current behavioral science research, she assembled a picture of colorblindness in operation.

HUD administers Section 8 benefits through local public housing agencies (PHAs). Program participants are expected to comply with an array of regulations, some from HUD and others specific to each PHA. Termination hearings are initiated and controlled by the PHAs, which select the hearing officer who is often from within their own agency. Hearing officers have little or no training in legal procedure. Program participants are entitled to an attorney, but financial and other conditions place the acquisition of legal representation out of reach of even highly motivated participants, who then must defend themselves.

The author then reviews societal stereotypes — the “welfare queen,” the irresponsible mother, and the black criminal — which fall with particular weight on black women.

She describes the tendency for programs directed to low income participants to engage in hyper-surveillance, over-enforcement, and moralizing. Participants are often “required to complete lengthy applications each year, submit to biometrics, and take drug tests.” They are, by HUD regulation, required to “supply any information that the PHA or HUD determines is necessary.” Not uncommonly, hearing officers assume a moralistic stance in which they look for “bad actors” and “suspects.” Hearing officers are also subject to distancing responses, a broad cultural tendency in which the poor are devalued and dismissed.

Where does colorblindness come in? The author argues that racialized stereotypes are rampant in our society, and are of particular importance in the specific setting of the termination hearing. Yet colorblindness posits that “race has no relevance to a person’s behavior or decisions and that individuals should not and perhaps do not notice each other’s race.” Furthermore, hearing officers were clearly imbued with societal norms of colorblindness. Talking about race is considered “taboo” in public settings where public norms of colorblindness operate. The author found that “hearing officers frequently perceive race as an irrelevant and perhaps inappropriate subject in informal hearings.” She cites an attorney who noted that “many hearing officers and lawyers alike, ‘don’t think they’re allowed’ to bring up race in the context of Section 8 termination hearings.” One hearing officer, upon learning the author wished to talk about “culture” (which correlates closely with race in this instance), called the request “a bit strange” and inappropriate, and refused to be interviewed.

With this background a story might help, and the author give us one.

Jane Jones is a young Black single mother who received a Section 8 Voucher while living in a California suburb. Ms. Jones attended a community college over two hours away from her home in another city and relied on her mother and mother’s friends for transportation to and from her home. During an annual inspection of her home, a PHA inspector determined that Ms. Jones didn’t have enough furniture. According to Ms. Jones, he suspected Ms. Jones was not living in her home because she didn’t have enough furniture. He also noted that there did not seem to be any food in the home. Ms. Jones admitted that her home was sparsely furnished and complained that the inspector never looked in her refrigerator for food. However, according to her, “I couldn’t afford furniture but there was a bed and T.V…. clothes, [and] shoes.” Based on the inspector’s report, the PHA proposed terminating Ms. Jones’ Section 8 voucher. Although Ms. Jones explained that she relied on her mother and mother’s friends for transportation to and from her home, seeking rides and frequently borrowing their cars, the PHA found this incredulous. As Ms. Jones recounted, her hearing officer “just didn’t think it was possible,” for Ms. Jones to travel two hours to and from school everyday. According to Ms. Jones, the hearing officer said that she found Ms. Jones’ story more unbelievable in light of her “income.”

At the hearing, the notion of Ms. Jones “trying to get over” became the primary narrative. Drawing upon the work of Isabelle Gunning, the author explains “the first story told in informal proceedings becomes the ‘primary narrative’ and subsequent speakers generally adopt this narrative, employing the same interpretive framework and moral code.” In Section 8 voucher termination hearings, the PHA sets the primary narrative. The voucher participant’s only option is to argue on the ground of that narrative, trying to refute the accusations.

In the case of Ms. Jones, the author affirms that Ms. Jones was indeed being truthful about her situation, including especially her relying on her family for support. Many people familiar with African American culture understand the culture upholds a norm by which extended family members are expected to give mutual aid to one another, above and beyond that experienced in white mainstream culture. The author cautions that no person should be judged strictly a product of cultural norms, but that on other hand, to ignore cultural norms can be equally misleading. She cites several studies that document this normative element of mutual aid among African Americans.

Ms. Jones, rather than trying to get over, was aspiring to better herself along traditional path of hard work. While she was suspected of trying to maintain two separate living sites so as to acquire sufficient program enrollment time to transfer her voucher to the distant city, Ms. Jones simply aspired to complete her education.

The author notes,

…while it seemed somewhat implausible that Ms. Jones would be able to commute two hours to school several days a week, it also seemed somewhat implausible that, on a limited income, she maintained two separate households for a year for the sole purpose of defrauding the Section 8 program.

And then adds

Because race was ostensibly ignored, an alternative, culture-based explanation for the perceived “incredulity” in Ms. Jones’ testimony with respect to how she managed to commute—the role of family and extended family in some Black communities—was also ignored.

Hence colorblindness, the unnamed but forthright set of beliefs that race should not be discussed, held sway over the hearing. One need not look for “bad actors” on the part of the PHA hearing officers. Despite their professed biases it’s entirely possible that, given a careful review of all the evidence and the introduction of alternative and positive narratives, they might have been moved to decide in Ms. Jones’ favor. But the impact of the prevailing norms of colorblindness was all encompassing, including at least the following considerations cited by the author:


  • Allows stereotypes to shape narratives without interrogation
  • Conceals racial and cultural bias
  • Discourages officers from examining their cultural assumptions and identifying and considering alternatives.
  • Renders invisible positive race/culture based explanations for participant behavior.
  • Marginalizes poor communities, especially in their efforts to maintain social services
  • Negatively impacts the perceived legitimacy of informal hearings in minority communities

The latter two impacts operate on communities, and not just on the participants of a single hearing. The author points out that informal administrative hearings are the main form of legal process in the life of the poor. To the extent these hearings are unjust and allow for the entry of error, the credibility of the entire system becomes suspect.

The author reports that Ms. Jones…

…and her five-year old son were forced to move in with her mother. In spite of losing her home, Ms. Jones still completed her educational program at the local community college and received her associate’s degree. Looking back, Ms. Jones just wishes the Housing Authority had realized, “I was sacrificing a lot. I had less than a year to go in school.”

The author recounts another case study to similar effect, though length does not permit us to include it here. She also recommends that hearing officers, and the executive directors who review their decisions, receive training regarding the role of cultural assumptions. Although the author does not state it directly, this training would certainly benefit from consideration of how white American culture operates, how colorblind norms function, and how alternative cultural perspectives might be considered.

Turner, A. (2011). The Elephant in the Hearing Room: Colorblindness in Section 8 Voucher Termination Hearings. Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, 13(1). https:/doi.org/10.15779/Z38R62Q