Coleman Hughes on How America Racializes its Citizens
Yascha Mounk and Coleman Hughes discuss whether the future should be “colorblind.”
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Coleman Hughes is the host of Conversations with Coleman. Racialized, his first book, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Coleman Hughes discuss how we can remain vigilant about racial injustice without treating others differently on account of their race; whether reparations for slavery are justified in theory and workable in practice; and how we should measure progress on race.
This conversation was recorded live during the 2022 Persuasion Festival for members. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Let's begin by talking about the book that you're writing at the moment, Racialized. You say that it is a defense of “colorblindness,” both in the law and in our social norms.
How would you characterize the move away from colorblindness over the last decades, and what has that change actually entailed?
Coleman Hughes: In the 1960s and ‘70s, the conversation about race was substantially similar to what it is today, in the sense that you had Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement on the one hand, and on the other hand you had more radical folks like the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, and you had an ideological conflict between them. But even then, you would see radical anti-racists such as the Black Power movement admit that in the long run, our goal as a country should be to move towards a colorblind society—a society in which race matters less and less over time, in which you can go for longer and longer periods of time without thinking about race, whether that's your race or the race of your friends; where it's not a big deal to go on a date or to marry someone of a different race, and you almost don't even think of it as a thing; and where we don't use race in our public policy. Now what has changed is that today, prominent anti-racists such as Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo and others at the forefront of the modern anti-racism movement—it would be difficult to find a single one that would even admit that the long-term goal for our country is to move towards a colorblind society.
That shining star, that North Star, has been abandoned entirely, which marks a very big difference from even yesterday's brand of radical anti-racism. If you look up colorblindness and just put the caveat “race” in Google, you will get 10 articles in a row about why colorblindness is wrong. Some will say it's actually racist. And yet, when you poll Republicans and Democrats, you find a remarkably high level of support for race-neutral policies in general. On the whole people do not like when race is considered as a factor in things like college admissions, or who gets hired and who gets promoted. By and large, most people of every race believe that the merit principle is basically the best way to go. We have this elite consensus that colorblindness is horrible, that it's basically white supremacy. At the same time, we have among people at large a general sense that race-neutral treatment is actually the best option. And so I'm trying to give a defense of race neutrality and colorblindness.
Mounk: I want to hear your critiques of those attacks, and your defense of a colorblind ideal. But before we get there, I would like to understand why people say, “Actually, to be colorblind is racist. If you're serious about getting rid of racism, then you must discriminate by race, but in positive rather than negative ways.”
Why is this necessary in order to be a true anti-racist, according to the advocates of this ideology?
Hughes: The critique of colorblindness is that you need to see race and pay very close attention to race and to our racial identities, if you are going to identify racism. You need to see me as black. How can you see racism without seeing race? That applies to everyday interactions, to your social life, and everything else. When it comes to public policy, the idea is that America has been littered with a history of racialized and race-based harm starting with slavery and the aftermath of slavery, convict leasing, the rise of Jim Crow, redlining, and in all kinds of ways large and small in which black people specifically, as a race group, were targeted with policies that were detrimental. And so one idea is that we need to put race into our current laws in order to essentially pay black people back for that history, to restore at least some part of what was lost with all of those harmful policies and to bring black people where they might have been if not for the history of white supremacist policies. Then, there's another argument which is that the amount of systemic racism in our society today, forgetting history, justifies policies of racial preference that fight that racism.
Mounk: One way of framing this is to sort of run together “race-blindness” and “racism-blindness,” as if not considering race is the same as choosing to ignore when people are discriminated against. What is your response?
Hughes: I love that distinction. The critics of colorblindness are, in a sense, narrowly right about the fact that actually we all do see race. We do. Most people who say that are speaking metaphorically. What they really are saying is, “I try my very best to treat people without regard to race.” Critics of colorblindness often seize on that phrase, “I don't see race,” because it sounds ridiculous on its face, and they say all of these people are pretending to be noble and virtuous in a way that almost nobody but children are. And so they seem like they have a legitimate point of view there. What is true is that, yes, we all see race, but we really should strive to treat people without regard to their race, and we should celebrate that virtue. And the thing about colorblindness is that it's actually only by reference to a race-neutral or colorblind standard that anyone is ever able to identify racism. It's not true that people who advocate colorblindness, like myself, don't see racism. In fact, people who reject colorblindness often end up blind to many kinds of racism.
I'll give one example of this. The best way I know of to study whether the cops are racial profiling when they pull people over is called “the veil of darkness.” The first such study was done in 2006. And basically, they use the fact that cops can't see you at nighttime. When the sun goes down the cop doesn't really know the race of the person he's about to pull over. So you look for whether there's a big difference in the profile of who gets pulled over right before the sun goes down compared with who gets pulled over when it's dark. It's a natural experiment. And that can serve as a really good scientific measure for whether the cops are racial profiling. What does the design of that study say? It says, there's this condition of actual race blindness when we can't see anyone's race. And it's only against that benchmark that we are able to measure racial discrimination in any direction, whether it's against black people, white people, Asians, Hispanics, etc. That's true across the board. So to abandon the goal of of being neutral to race is actually to become blind to lots of kinds of racial discrimination.
Mounk: There is another objection that people are likely to make, which is that due to implicit forms of racial domination in the United States that continued even after legal forms of discrimination were abolished, ethnic minorities and African Americans in particular are now disadvantaged—they often live in neighborhoods which have less good schools and less access to education, have parents that are less well off, and the only way to overcome the kind of racial disparities that this history has led to is to discriminate on the basis of race, to engage in affirmative action in universities, and perhaps even to have specific entitlements when it comes to educational grants or small business loans which favor applicants on the basis of their belonging to a historically disadvantaged group.
If we insist on race-blindness, do we, as the critics claim, condemn ourselves to living in a society in which the outcomes for different groups are going to continue to be rigorously unequal for a very long time?
Hughes: There are dozens of inequalities that we all happily live with all the time. In fact, there are more inequalities than there are equalities between ethnic groups. For example, if you look at income by ethnic group, you will get a list of 100 different ethnic groups, with Indian Americans making the most money. If you talked about ethnic groups rather than races, you would see that inequality of outcome is the norm, not the exception. People have different median ages, come from different parts of the world, different cultures, different specializations, different levels of education—all of these things guarantee that unequal outcomes will be with us forever. That's a fact. We've moved from talking about equality of opportunity to equality of outcome, which is something we could never achieve anywhere, and have never had anywhere.
First, people need a reorientation of what they think is a normal circumstance. The clichéd example is the NBA, which is three-quarters black, whereas baseball is a much wider sport in terms of composition. I would argue that probably has something to do with culture, and the sports that different people grew up playing, but that's an inequality that no one thinks of as an injustice, because we are fairly sure that sports are a fair game. They are a true meritocracy. What does that reveal? It reveals that people actually don't care about unequal outcomes. Inherently, what we care about is when we feel that unequal outcomes are the result of a rigged system. If we knew the system was fair, if we knew for sure it was perfectly meritocratic, no one would care about the resulting unequal outcomes between individuals or between groups. I think our sense of justice is more process-oriented. So we should really focus on making sure that our current systems in America are fair in a process-oriented way, not in an outcome-oriented way.
Here’s an example. In Chicago, they instituted cameras on traffic lights that would give out tickets, simply based on taking a picture of your license plate if you run the red light. One way to get rid of racial bias would be to move to a truly colorblind system where a camera is giving out tickets instead of a cop. A camera can't be racist, right? ProPublica found that even in this new condition, the cameras were disproportionately giving out tickets to black drivers, because it so happened that in Chicago, black drivers were somewhat more likely to run a red than a white driver. But I think we have to become comfortable with making our systems colorblind regardless of what the result is. Because that's actually what fairness consists in—not inequality of outcome.
You always have to be sensitive to the fact that when you use policies that include racial preferences, it is a zero-sum game. You are creating a new class of aggrieved victims, who may never forget that you put them at the back of the line. You create, in essence, a never-ending cycle of victimhood and aggrievement—just like tit-for-tat violence never actually ends when the tat corrects the tit. “You killed my brother, I killed your cousin.” Have you ever heard of a spat that just ended there? We're increasingly creating a white working class that notices the policies coming out of the Biden administration that put white people at the back of the line: pandemic aid for restaurants, aid to farmers. They noticed that their race is a detriment to getting into elite colleges. Business owners notice that their race is a detriment to them getting a government contract, and it creates competing victim classes which remember the injustices against them vividly. That creates a very toxic long-term situation for race relations in this country.
Mounk: Affirmative action is complicated in the United States because its official justification concerns diversity, rather than about the injustices done to African Americans over the last 400 years of American history. But a lot of the support for it stems from the sense that there is a deep injustice that was done there, and that that makes it all the worse if top universities today don't have a certain percentage of black students and so on. But the way this actually works in practice is that many students in the Ivy League are the children of very recent immigrants from Kenya and Nigeria who are often doctors and engineers and so on. There is this weird mismatch between the group that really has some prima facie historical claim to special treatment and the group that actually ends up benefiting.
Do you think that part of the solution here is to tailor these programs more specifically, because we're admitting the kids of Kenyan and Nigerian engineers—I've taught many of them, they are, in fact, wonderful and very talented people—when it should really be reserved more specifically for descendants of slaves? What's your objection to that kind of line?
Hughes: It makes perfect sense at first blush: if all of this stuff is intended to repair historical harm, why are we lumping together descendants of slavery with recent immigrants who happen to be of the same skin color? Let's accept that line of argumentation. Where that argument is pointing to is that we ought not be misled by the superficial category of race. If we're already admitting that we're being misled by this category of race, let's actually talk about the meat of the conversation, which isn't even historical injustice, but the fact that a human being like me grew up with what you might call a lot of privilege—not just money, but in a safe neighborhood, where I never had to worry about getting shot or getting mugged on the way to school or having to act tough in order to prevent that; I had two parents in the home that were encouraging me to do my homework; I had an expectation that I should go to college and that I wouldn't commit crime. And that entire incubator of good habits and prosocial behavior is an enormous privilege over somebody born into poverty—of any race. What we really care about in these conversations isn’t race. It's not my six generations of removal from slavery. It's doing something so as to acknowledge in our policy the difference between someone who grew up like me and someone who grew up with much less advantage. So it's actually not about race.
And then the next question becomes, what is the next best proxy? Is the best way to actually get at that to just put all the black people on this side and put the white people on this side and treat them differently? Well, no, because race is actually too crude a proxy for that thing. The proxy of income and class is much closer to that core of what we care about than anything else, but it's rarely talked about as if that were true.
Mounk: Let's come to the second point on reparations, where we may have the strongest disagreement actually. At least on the theoretical level, it seems to me that there's a very straightforward argument to be made here. When you look even at somebody like Robert Nozick, a libertarian philosopher, he says, “There's justice in acquisition, of coming to own property, and justice in transfer, or ways of exchanging property.” According to him, this licenses great inequalities: if you are a great basketball player, and everyone comes to see you play, and through a series of free transactions you end up much richer than everybody else—that's perfectly fine. But even someone like Nozick says that there's also rectificatory justice. If the fruits of your own labor were stolen from you, there should be some rectificatory principle which helps to make you whole. Isn't there at least, at that level, a pretty good prima facie justification for reparations?
Hughes: It's an interesting point. Many people who lived through Jim Crow are still alive, such as my grandparents, and could and should be given reparations for having lived through a system that we all look back on with horror. But I think we would all admit that there's a certain number of generations removed from the original crime where logic of generational wealth transfer becomes ridiculous. We would all say, after 100 generations, you're just too removed from the thing. We're basically just haggling over the boundary line: how many generations is too many?
All of the examples of reparations that we have, from internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two to victims of the Holocaust, were overwhelmingly paid to the victims themselves or their children. And I think that reflects common sense. It's just not the case that your great-great-great-grandchildren are necessarily harmed by what you went through in a way that is obvious, or intelligible, or that we're able to comprehend. It just begins to boggle the mind. It's like this butterfly effect thing. After a certain while, you just have no idea how your life would have been different if your distant ancestors went through something else.
I think we're waiting for a kind of closure that's never going to be given from the outside. For example, the Senate and the House of Representatives have both issued formal apologies for slavery and Jim Crow. And, as recently as a year or two ago, I read an article saying that the government has never apologized for slavery. And I thought to myself, “How could it be possible after so many official apologies from the federal government, from state governments, that a major news organization could get it so fantastically wrong, and say there have been zero apologies?” I think there's an attitude that nothing could possibly actually be enough. And I'm certain if reparations were paid today—no matter how large the check—tomorrow, we'd be reading Times editorials asking, “How dare you think that reparations represents the end of repayment to black people for slavery?” It would be very similar, actually, to what happened pre-and post the election of Obama. In like 2006 or 2007, what many black people in America would’ve said, and frankly, what I think what most white liberal Democrats and maybe white Republicans would have said, is: “the country's not ready for a black man to be president. We're still too racist. We're not even close.” Then we did it, and right after, everyone said, “Well, actually, this doesn't mean anything.”
We're on a very dishonest treadmill with ourselves as a country as we run towards this goal of closure with our history. With every step, the ground moves beneath us. Maybe we should get off the treadmill.
Mounk: I think we agree that there's some strong theoretical justification for reparations, but that on a practical level, it's going to be incredibly hard to trace people who are alive today back to specific wrongs that were done to their ancestors. The link is going to be less individualized than it is with something like Japanese internment or something like the Holocaust, because there are people still alive, or people whose parents are alive, who can show specific documents and so on. Certainly, it will take a lot of attention to design a system that's not wholly irrational. But if making sure that people whose ancestors suffered this terrible form of wrong get recompense requires that some whose ancestors did not suffer the same forms of wrong also benefit from it, that doesn't seem like the end of a world.
Tell me a little bit about your positive vision. I think we've had a great detailed discussion of the criticisms of the colorblind ideal and your responses to those criticisms. What would a society that is not racialized in the ways we have discussed look like, and what substantively should public policy do to ensure that people drawn from any demographic group have real opportunities to flourish in the United States and other democracies around the world?
Hughes: I think we should foolproof our systems against bigotry as much as possible. So I gave the example of cameras on traffic lights handing out tickets instead of cops. If racist cops are the problem, take the cop out of the equation, have it be automated. If you're a teacher, grade your students blind, so that racial bias could never possibly be a problem. There was a news organization that did a careful sting operation on the housing market, where they sent trained actors of different races into a real estate office and saw how they were treated differently. We should fund and do more things like that. Make society more and more like a blind audition in order to take racial bias out of the equation.
Education is one of the only ways in which the state gets to intervene in a person's odds of success at a very early age. One of my critiques of those I would call elite woke writers and thinkers is that many of their policies and solutions take people from the age of 18 and rig their life racially after that, in the name of helping them—things like affirmative action and diversity inclusion initiatives for adults. But you actually have far more influence over a person's life trajectory from the ages of zero to 15. Those are the most crucial years of intervention, as a person's brain is forming. Of the $23 million in New York that was earmarked for putting teachers through “anti bias” training, every cent of that wasted money should have been put towards early childhood initiatives, cognitively rich universal pre-K programs, and experiments in schooling like charter schools, towards making the environment for poor kids from ages zero to 15 and 18 as safe and as cognitively rich as possible. That word “safety” is another crucial one. Nothing in life matters if you feel unsafe, if you live in a neighborhood with lots of crime, and everything else is secondary and tertiary. It is one of the biggest disparities between the poor and the wealthy. In fact, what the wealthy use a lot of their money to buy a premium for is to live in safe neighborhoods.
Mounk: We've talked about public policy a lot. What about the culture more broadly, and interpersonal relations? I'm struck by the fact that there are many disanalogies between Jews in Germany and African Americans in the United States. There are many ways in which their situations and their history is very, very different. But I do feel a certain kind of similarity in parts of the culture, where growing up Jewish in Germany, I was in some ways the representative of a class of victims, and many people tried to prove to me how sorry and apologetic they were and tried to treat me with kid gloves and—
Hughes: —Is there a German equivalent of, “I voted for Obama twice”?
Mounk: For a very long time, it was, “You know, I love Woody Allen so much.” I always found it to be deeply alienating. But one of my experiences coming to the United States is that I simply read as a white man, so I've gone from being a member of a group of victims to a member of a group of perpetrators, in some kind of sense. But I felt when I was growing up that people weren't treating me as a real equal, and I don't want to treat others in ways that mean they do not feel like real equals.
What can listeners do in their own lives to avoid treating people like that, and how can they help to create a culture in which we're able to connect deeply as human beings without stereotyping each other?
Hughes: That's an incredibly difficult question. While writing my book somebody asked me, “Are you just giving people a reason to say, ‘Oh, I'm fine. I don't need to examine myself’?” I thought about that, and that's really not what I'm doing. I do feel that you should question yourself, you should say, “am I treating this person differently because of his or her race?” And you should try to really answer that honestly. And check in with yourself and understand that we're all capable of being biased, and it's something we should actually be reflecting on in critical moments.
But I think, at the end of the day, the people you're around, the people you talk to—you have to like them for who they are as individuals, and for reasons that go deeper than race or skin color. And I guess the way to live a colorblind life is to be honest and to be vulnerable, and to go a little further in saying what is honest and true, and what you really believe, than you would normally be tempted to do.
So, I assume Persuasion readers are folks that are more or less tapped in “the discourse,” you know, the online, the chattering class. One side-effect of being too tapped into this world is that the toxic ideas that you find on Twitter can seep into your consciousness in your real life. And they can make you paranoid about saying the wrong thing in ways that you actually don't need to be. And so one recommendation is to just get in touch with your real life, to get off cable news, off Twitter, off The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other major media. Get in touch with your real life, your passions and your hobbies, and connect with people doing those things. And be honest and vulnerable. And if you do that, you can't help but make connections that transcend race.
Mounk: I have a final question for you. How do you assess where we are in terms of the influence of these ideas which are in radical opposition to yours, and how hopeful are you that your vision of American society might succeed over the next 25 to 50 years?
Hughes: I don't know. It could just keep going the same direction. Some days, I have the sense that Gen Z is so absorbed by its race obsession and its gender identity obsession that all these things are just going to represent new norms for society by the time I'm older or middle aged. But other days, I feel that so much of the race and gender obsessed-ideas run counter to what people actually want; that they don't have much staying power; that in this day and age, racial segregation doesn't have much staying power, because I think people like each other too much. You know, the idea that you can't hit on someone in the workplace and go on a date with them may not have much staying power. Sometimes, there are trends that run so counter to what people want that you can safely bet against their long-term prospects. The truth is, I don't know how everything is going to shake out. But rather than passively watching, I would like to be an advocate for the idea of a colorblind society and a society where you can go for weeks or months at a time without thinking of your race.
Several people from Jamaica, for instance, have told me, “I just never thought of race before I came to America. I never thought of myself, or anyone else, as black.” Of course, you're coming from a country where almost everyone's black. But they never view thinking about race as an improvement over the prior status quo. I don't think that we want to be thinking about race more. We want to be thinking about it less. I think that's also what Gen Z wants and I think that’s reflected in the actual TV shows they consume. So I would be tempted to short sell woke race obsession in the long run, when it's no longer trendy and people feel less pressure to agree with it. A lot of it is unsustainable.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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