Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Myrtle Beach and Motorcycles: A Natural Experiment on Colorblind Racism

By Cheryl McLaughlin, Research Assistant

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina provides an opportunity each May for researchers to explore the presence of colorblind racism through a natural experiment. The city hosts two separate week-long motorcycle festivals during the month, attracting over 400,000 bikers for the events that include cruises and other fanfare. What makes these two festivals intriguing is that, despite their many similarities, individuals who attend Harley Week are primarily white, and those who visit for Black Bike Week are predominantly black. The two groups, coming to the same area at nearly the same time, allow researchers to explore the issue of colorblind racism by considering whether the local community, which professes to be colorblind, treats the two groups differently.

In the past, researchers noted obvious distinctions between experiences of the whites and blacks. The community openly embraced the white bikers who were in town for Harley Week with welcome signs and other indicators of appreciation. In contrast, Black Bike Week, while nearly identical in content and character, was not well received; the city tripled the number of police on duty and distributed tickets for trivial violations. Moreover, the hospitality that local businesses had extended to the white bikers was visibly absent during Black Bike Week, including over 20 restaurants that closed their doors during that weekend.

When the NAACP brought forth claims of civil rights violations due to differential treatment by race, the city asserted that reasons other than race caused the distinctions between the two events. For example, the city attempted to attribute the increased police presence during Black Bike Week to the fact that criminal activity was more probable because the black bikers were younger than the white ones, making the likelihood of crime greater. The city also noted how the police had distributed a greater number of tickets during Black Bike Week. Assertions such as these were systematically negated; the mean age for both groups of bikers was higher than what is typically considered the prime years for delinquency, and the greater quantity of tickets could be attributed to the higher volume of police on duty. Similarly, other arguments made by the city to justify the differential treatment ultimately were found to lack substance, leaving racism the only explanation. The NAACP ultimately implemented an “Operation Bike Week Justice” campaign to actively monitor for signs of potential discrimination during the annual event.

Reflecting on this natural experiment provides an opportunity for us to contemplate the use of a colorblind ideology in our society. Many white Americans falsely believe that racial minorities are no longer subject to discrimination and consequently, in their perspective, race should not be a factor when judging people. Colorblindness is a comfortable lens for many whites, allowing them to think that if race is no longer a consideration, then a person’s own choices control his/her destiny. Thus, this perspective reinforces the cherished American ideal individuality; however, it fails to recognize the structural impediments that make the classic notion of a “level playing field” unrealistic.

As the Kirwan Institute works to reframe the ways in which people talk about, think about, and act on race, we must continue to challenge the colorblind ideology that is so prevalent in our society. We need to fight all forms of racism, including those that are subtle. The events in Myrtle Beach provide a disturbing reminder that racial discrimination can persist under the guise of a colorblind outlook.



  2. Are you kidding me!!!! Lets see more crime more crime more crime!!! Murder,rape,fights,ect...Thats why more cops are needed.White people are more law bidind people. We act the propper why and still have a great time doing it.Racism HA! You people bring it on yourselves,and then blame us. Now lets talk about the trash thrown on the streets,th looting of stores,the drugs,350 pound women in thongs. You people are pathetic. No wonder this country is at a rapid decline

  3. for the bigot who made comments, black people are here to stay and if you don't like it you can go back to england! white bikers act a fool too during their bike week...