The Role of Color-Blindness in Rationalizing and Reinforcing Racial Inequity

Color-blindness in multiracial societies often creates a racial democracy where inequities in access and opportunities are rationalized and reinforced. 

Reviewed by Daniel Estupinan


In response to a gap in the existing literature, scholars are beginning to study how race shapes organizational practices and how those institutional policies contribute to racialization. This study specifically seeks to understand the role that color-blind racial ideology, when prevalent in multi-racial societies, plays in producing and justifying racialization in organizations.

In societies where racial color blindness is prevalent, racial stratification exists without the explicit recognition of race. The author of this study proposes that color blindness is deeply entrenched in “Iberian America” and has contributed to the creation of a racial democracy. In racial democracies like Brazil, centuries of racial subjugation are downplayed through alternative narratives that romanticize paternalism and miscegenation, ultimately producing a unified Brazilian people. Similar to the United States, color-blind racial ideology in Brazil promotes “nonracial” justifications for inequities in access, outcomes, and opportunity that ultimately reinforce these dynamics. This research leverages the racial hierarchies of sugar-ethanol mills in Brazil to assess the impacts of color-blind racial ideology on racial inequity in organizations.

This work was completed by Dr. Ian Carrillo, who serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. Much of his research uses qualitative and ethnographic methods to study the roles that race and racism play in shaping environmental practices and policies in multi-racial societies.

Methods and Findings

Dr. Carillo first conducted interviews with “elites” in the sugar-ethanol industry, including mill owners and managers, scientists, consultants, professional association leadership, and planters, most of whom were white men. He specifically chose this group because they wield substantial influence in Brazil’s political and business spheres. Interviewees were probed on their perceptions of the ongoing transitions in the industry, including statutory changes and industry responses to market trends. To complement these interviews, Dr. Carrillo also recorded ethnographic observations at several mills and plantations, where he focused on observing daily agricultural and industrial processes.

Interviews and observations afforded Dr. Carrillo substantial insight into the organizational practices that perpetuate racial inequality in Brazil’s sugar-ethanol industry. These inequalities are often rationalized and reproduced through four nonracial discursive frames: cultural racism, naturalization, victimization, and politicized markets. 

  • Cultural Racism – As one of the most prevalent forms of racism in Brazil, this frame involves activating negative stereotypes to disparage the work ethic of non-white and rural inhabitants. For example, elites interviewed by Dr. Carrillo justified labor exploitation as a means to inhibit nonwhite rural workers’ inherent criminal tendencies.
  • Naturalization – With much of northern Brazil lacking the flat land needed for mechanization, many producers in the region rely on manual harvesting and straw burning. Both methods are economically inefficient and yield worse socio-environmental outcomes for the non-white and rural inhabitants employed in the industry. By attributing the difficult conditions and environmentally destructive processes to these topographical features, elites reinforce the colorblind narrative that nature, not race, is responsible for the chronic poverty that many of their non-white rural laborers experience.
  • Victimization –  Conscious of the sugarcane industry’s history of slavery and sharecropping, elites advance a color-blind narrative that racism ended with abolition and see themselves as rightful and legitimate “owners of power” in the industry. Based on this narrative, these elites re-frame themselves as victims of attempts to regulate the industry and prosecute bad actors, obscuring their true position in the industry’s racial power dynamics.
  • Politicized Markets – Sugar-ethanol industry elites successfully lobbied politicians for favorable economic and regulatory provisions, including deterrence from alternative industrial development in the northeast of Brazil. Those provisions sustain the industries’ demand for labor while limiting alternative sources of employment to reinforce the industries’ control over the employment opportunities and choices of non-white and rural workers. 

These nonracial discursive frames are used to rationalize inequities in access and outcomes and reinforce the norms and structures that compel non-white communities to continue their employment in the mill industry.


This study shows how color-blind ideologies reproduce and legitimize racial inequities in
organizations. In the Brazilian sugar mill example, industry stakeholders actively work to ensure
their survival and the survival of the racial order while advancing narratives that rely on non-
racial rationalizations for the hierarchies in place.

This case study demonstrates the capacity of private entities and their elite ranks to embed racial
inequities without relying on explicitly racial justifications or means. Furthermore, it illustrates how social structures can reinforce discriminatory practices in organizations and how color-blind
racial ideology contributes to inequities in labor and environmental policies.

A wide range of opportunities remain to study how race shapes organizational preparedness and
response to social, political, and environmental threats. These studies could evaluate how white
elites leverage their disproportionate access to resources and political influence to shape
institutional practices and legitimize narratives that rationalize inequity. Further research can also
contribute to this study’s findings on the ability of private entities and powerful social groups to
employ and amplify prevalent racial ideologies to amass and protect power.

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