The Good Fight
Coleman Hughes on Colorblindness

Coleman Hughes on Colorblindness

Yascha Mounk and Coleman Hughes discuss the difference between race blindness and racism blindness.

Coleman Hughes is a writer and the host of Conversations with Coleman. His new book is The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Coleman Hughes discuss why race is a poor proxy for setting public policy; why being colorblind doesn’t mean disregarding one’s own cultural affinities; and how we can continue to make progress against racial discrimination without making the concept of race ever more central to our culture and politics.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: I've now read your book and it's really excellent, and you kindly agreed to come back on the podcast. 

We know each other pretty well. But one of the things I didn't know about was your grandfather, whose story you use to illustrate how well-intentioned advice from white people about the extent of racism in society can potentially backfire. What is your grandfather's story?

Coleman Hughes: I think there's a lot of people that might agree with some points I make about the prevalence of racism, the decline of racism, but they might think, “Well, what's the harm in exaggerating racism a little bit? I can see the harm in under-exaggerating racism, but shouldn't we err on the side of assuming that there's more racism and white supremacy out there so that we're really facing the problem?” And I wanted to highlight the fact that there is a potential harm, including to black people, but people of color in general, to exaggerating racism.

My grandfather wrote a short memoir of his life. He just turned 90 last year. And in this memoir, he writes of a time in the 1950s where he was one of the few black Americans in those days to have an engineering degree from Ohio State. He grew up in segregated D.C., and he started working at General Electric in the 1950s. And at that time there were basically two paths: You could be an engineer or you could be a manager. And the manager's path had upward mobility. But he was warned by a well-meaning white colleague that the white engineers at GE would not work for a black manager. And he took that seriously and believed it. And so he just stayed in his humble engineering spot for many years. But then, something changed. The managing spot opened up, and he had been there for a long time, and he decided to go for it. And his boss was surprised, saying “I didn't know you had any interest in this. You never displayed any interest.” He got the job, and lo and behold, it turned out his white colleagues had no problem working for a black manager. 

The parable is that he spent years not pursuing something greater than his station because he was worried. He was made to worry by a well-intentioned colleague that there was more racism in his environment than there actually was. And he had ample reason: His priors as someone that grew up under Jim Crow would have led him to believe that. So that was just one example of the fact that exaggerating racism, being misled about the extent of racism, can actually prevent you from reaching higher. There are costs to error in both directions.

Mounk: I think that's an important point, that we need to be realistic and accurate in how we perceive the world. There's certainly a cost to underestimating how much racism and discrimination there is, because that would stop us from being able to take the relevant remedies to ensure that we stop discriminating in those ways. But there can also absolutely be costs in underestimating how much progress we've made.

How did you come to think about these issues? When you were in school, starting to understand your own racial identity and starting to understand the realities of the United States, what was your trajectory in thinking about whether race played a big role in your life? 

Hughes: I grew up in a diverse and liberal town, had friends of every race, but didn't think of them as belonging to a race. We had Martin Luther King Day every year in school and we would listen to his famous speech, and I got goosebumps, and lived as close to Martin Luther King's dream as one can, I think.

And then when I was around 16, I went to something called the People of Color Conference, which was a kind of elite conference for private school kids. And that was the first time I encountered a totally different attitude towards race. Growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, the attitude was that race is only skin deep, race doesn't matter. You judge people by the content of their character, period. At this conference, I got the idea that my race (my “blackness,” as it was called) was kind of a magical quality. It was like a slice of God inside my soul. Later, I would learn that all these ideas have names like intersectionality, critical race theory. When I was 16, I didn't know any of that. I just knew that this was a very new philosophy and a very strange one.

I didn't expect to ever encounter it again, until I went to Columbia University two or three years later and it was now the dominant philosophy. At orientation, they did this exercise where they had the black kids go in one corner, the white kids in another, Asian, Hispanic kids, etc. And my feeling that whatever the intention of this policy, the effect was to be kind of hyper-aware of my classmates seeing me as a black person and as a victim as a result. So the genesis of my interest in race was not that I was interested in race. The genesis was that I was interested in the sharp difference between the philosophy of race I grew up with, which I considered to be the default liberal philosophy of race and the new philosophy of race I encountered at the POC conference and Columbia, which hyper-focused on the importance of racial essence. That difference bothered me a lot and it was my entry point into thinking and writing about race.

Mounk: How do you think we should deal with the problems that arise even among broadly well-intentioned people? I believe you're 12 or 13 when you move from a public school that is very diverse to a private school that is somewhat less diverse, and in which people treat you, as you describe it, very positively and nicely. But a bunch of people do things like touch your hair because you have a huge Afro at the time. Not that any one of these people was particularly obnoxious, they didn't tease you or bully you for it, but it did sort of take on this psychic harm. It was a burden, right? It was annoying. You're pissed off with it, very understandably. And I think it's sort of interesting to reflect on how our culture teaches us to deal with these things. 

I have to admit that I have a personal motivation in asking because I grew up—and there's many disanalogies there, but there's also some important analogies—as a Jew in Germany, as the representative of a very salient victim group in the German context. And I experienced various forms of, whether they're microaggressions, or micro-cuddlings (and the sort of creepy philo-Semitic element of this). And for a while it really did shape my attitude towards Germany, because it always felt like it was creating this kind of distance. And I think I fell into a trap of over-indexing on that for a little while.

What's the right attitude we should teach people towards those kinds of experiences where we take this seriously, where we don't completely trivialize it, but we also don't encourage people to lean into an identity of victimhood on the basis of those kinds of things when they're not ill-intentioned?

Hughes: Just to put more color on it, the experience you're talking about in my case was that I went from a school where having an Afro was normal (maybe 30% black, all the white kids there saw kids with Afros all the time) to a school where now it was notable, because the white and Asian kids just didn't know anyone with an Afro. So they would just touch it all the time. And the intention was totally benign, but it was just so fucking annoying and it built up and up, and I felt like I would have to be in the position of a dick to tell them to stop. So it just became this problem for me. And the POC conference taught me to view this as a microaggression and, actually, as on the continuum of racism with slavery and lynching on one end and this kind of thing on the other. Framing it that way is very powerful and it imputes an ill motive on the people doing it which just, in fact, wasn't there. You asked what is the right approach to take to these kinds of situations. Well, the wrong approach is to impugn the motives of people doing things that actually have benign motives. 

The wrong approach is to ignore intentions because intentions matter. On the other hand, how I dealt with it by simply just ignoring it until it built up and I got upset enough to cry to my parents about it—well, that's not really good either, right? I think a wise adult in that situation, or a wiser child, would have said, “I've got to set boundaries with these kids. I've got to tell them, ‘I know you want to touch my hair, but it's not cool to do that. It makes me feel like shit. It ruins the preparation I've done. And I know you don't mean anything by it, but I'm asking you to stop.’” And if they persist after that point, well, then you get into a situation where maybe it's bullying. But the way to walk the line is to respect the concept of intention.

Mounk: This is why it's so important not to place incidents like this on a false continuum, right? You talk about how you were taught at this conference to think of this kind of act as a much more mild version of something like racial segregation or slavery. And that, of course, means that you are pushed towards a zero tolerance attitude, right? You can't have any of those kinds of incidents in a decent community. I think you have a more reasonable read of this, which is that the intentions matter. But there is a problem and an injustice, right? It's unfair that as a 12 or 13 year old you had to deal with that shit, but it's not the end of the world. It's not going to destroy your life. It's not going to traumatize you forever.

And then we can lean into the attitude that, in a deeply diverse society, sometimes people are going to annoy each other and act in inconsiderate ways. And we should certainly be careful about that. We should certainly be attentive to that, but we don't have to over-dramatize it when it happens.

You have a really interesting account of the nature of race. I have to say that I have struggled with how to formulate this myself. And the puzzle to me is that, clearly, if we are skeptical about the role that race should play in a decent society, we should be very skeptical about claims that naturalize race, claims that make it appear like a straightforward biological reality; this is something that straight-up racists do. You argue, and we'll get to this, that some forms of neo-racists on the left also naturalize race in that kind of way. And we know that there's all kinds of arbitrary distinctions we make about race, that somebody who's half white and half black counts as black in the United States, but not necessarily elsewhere; that the concept of Latino is a really complicated one that was deeply influenced by various social influences. Now, that means that the temptation is to say that race is just a social construct. It's just something humans have invented. But you don't quite buy that either. You sort of give a third account.

Hughes: The way this debate is typically framed is that race is either a natural concept or a social construct. I argue that it's something in between. I argue that it's a social construct inspired by a biological reality. 

I think it's best explained by analogy. In the book, I give the example of time constructs. So on the one hand, you have the concept of a day. A day is not a social construct: The sun really rises and sets, and a day almost perfectly matches the rising and setting of the sun. So if we all forgot what a day was and our minds were wiped, we would invent the concept of a day exactly the same way from scratch, because it matches reality. On the other hand, a social construct is something like a seven-day week. There have been societies with eight-day weeks and ten-day weeks, and we could have a six-day week if we wanted to. It's really arbitrary. Nothing in the universe rotates or revolves every seven days. And if we got rid of that concept, we might not reinvent it the same way. So that's really a social construct. A month is a social construct in the sense that nothing begins when February does and ends when March does; we distribute the number of days somewhat randomly throughout these months and it doesn't track anything closely. But the month was inspired by the concept of the lunar cycle. And it's not an accident that month and moon come from the same Latin root, and that months are fairly close to the length of the lunar cycle, which is something like 29 days. 

So a month is a social construct that's inspired by a natural reality—I think that's what race is. You ask what is the natural reality that race is inspired by? Well, it's the fact that there were major migrations out of Africa of populations that remained separated for tens of thousands of years, separated by oceans and by mountains, and as a result evolved in divergent ways. And the legacy of that divergent evolution is still visible today. It's why we have skin color differences, why we have facial shape differences. And once you could sequence the genome, you could ask the question that you can ask of any data set, which is: Is this variation randomly dispersed and equidistant, or are there clusters of variation? And then you can ask how strong the clustering is. So in the case of something like gender, you have extremely strong near perfect clustering, which is to say almost everyone with a Y chromosome also has testes, almost everyone with two X chromosomes has ovaries—you just get two non-overlapping sets with almost no crossover. 

Race is not like that. When you sequence people's genomes and look at variation, you do get clustering, which is why you can't say that there's no “there” in studying population genetics. You get clusters with lots of overlap, lots of bleeding into each other, messy borders, and so the clustering is real. But it's not sharp. And I think I tried my best to convey that in the book.

The important thing to realize is that everything I've just talked about is under the heading of population genetics and the way those researchers think about population and race. When we're talking about race as normal everyday people, we're not talking about that subheading in the dictionary definition of race. We're really talking about something else. We're talking about categories that are constructed, that have evolved in a political context somewhat arbitrarily over the past 50 years. 

Mounk: So race is some hybrid, it's closer to the month than the week—is it a useful social construct or is it a harmful social construct? And if, as I believe, you think that in broad terms, we should be much more wary of racial talk, that we should talk about race in fewer contexts and very rarely use it as a criterion for how to treat people, why is it that race is a harmful rather than a useful social construct? And how far should we go in moving away from it? 

Hughes: Addressing the first question first, is race a useful social construct? I argue in the book that it isn't when we're talking about public policy aimed at helping the poor, the disadvantaged, the unlucky. Some of us are born on third base thinking we hit a triple, others are born with every possible disadvantage, and public policy has some role in helping narrow the gap between those two kinds of people. People talk about “privilege” as a general concept. Elon Musk's kids have privilege that my mom, who grew up in the South Bronx in the 1960s, did not—we want to use public policy to pick out those sets of people, distinguish them, and determine who the government has an interest in helping and who doesn't really need the help. The question then becomes, is race the most useful proxy for that? And my argument in the book is that it's not. 

Any socioeconomic measure, really, that you can think of is automatically a better proxy, whether we're talking about income or wealth or some more sophisticated combination measure that takes into account the level of crime where you grew up. Those already are better proxies for what we mean when we distinguish between someone that has had advantages in life and someone that hasn’t. 

Yascha: Your basic point, which I think is pretty persuasive, is of course we should not be race blind in the sense of pretending we don't see race, in the sense of not being able to study racial discrimination. But we should be race blind in the sense of not making how we treat each other, or how the state treats all of us, turn on a membership in some kind of racial demographic or category, right? 

We want to be able to study racial discrimination, as you yourself argue. For example, when researchers send out CVs, and they alter the names on the CV, and we see that the person who is black is called for fewer first-round interviews than the person who is white. This is a very established research program. Interestingly, it's less the case today than it was a number of decades ago, I believe, but it’s still the case. That's a useful use of race, insofar as we're trying to understand our society today. I think you would agree with me that it’s a perfectly sensible thing to study. 

Now, you might think that could be abolished in the ideal society, right? In an ideal society, we would no longer have racial discrimination. But even then you might say, “Well, look, it's a fact about the United States, that these people from quite disparate cultures and various parts of sub-Saharan Africa were brought to these shores forcibly against their will. But over time, they have come to form an ethnocultural group that has a strong sense of identity and belonging. And so that is something that, as long as its members want it to persist, and many of its members do, we have reason to value and to respect that.” In that sense, at least, America will probably always have races, will always have cultures that will hopefully intermingle in all kinds of ways. 

So how far on the spectrum towards race abolitionism would you go?

Hughes: I definitely don't go as far as some people I know would go in response to these two questions. So, for instance, I have no problem with people doing callback studies. Even if we got to a point in society where there just was no racism, I would still have no problem with people sending out CVs and so forth. The reason I talk about public policy is because my concern is specifically around treating people differently as a result of how they racially identify or are racially identified. That's the center of the bullseye of what I care about.

Secondly, to this point about culture, I agree with you, I think there's no doubt that in America, cultural differences are a real thing. There's such a thing as African-American culture, in vernacular, in music and cuisine, customs, and so on and so forth. There is such a thing as a difference between Southern culture and Northern American culture. I'm not against recognizing cultural differences. I'm actually not even against people who identify more with the culture they were born into. I think that's inevitable for many people. And it can be benign. What I would argue for is a firewall between saying, “I like the music and the food and the customs I was born into, and I'm attached to them more than I am to other other cultures,” and saying, “My people should be treated differently or better as a matter of public policy.” This may be too much to ask of some people, but in my mind, there's really a big distinction between those two things. So given the reality of cultural differences being real, I have no quarrel with the person that says “I prefer to live my life in a Chinese neighborhood, eating Chinese food, surrounded by Chinese culture.” I don't have any problem with that. But I draw a really strict firewall between that as an attitude which can be benign and saying to the state “My people ought to be treated better. You ought to discriminate in favor of my racial group.” I think you can say you can have all of that cultural affinity without crossing over into racial discrimination. 

Mounk: Let me push you on the public policy piece of this. How do you respond to the argument that, in an ideal country, no public policy would turn on racial characteristics or ethnic designations; but that the extent of injustice that has been visited, in particular on African-Americans, in the past, is so extensive that we need certain forms of special treatment that would be temporary in order to remedy those injustices and ensure that people can actually live up to their talents?

Hughes: My view is very close to what Martin Luther King expressed in Why We Can't Wait. In that book, he says, yes, we have to address the legacy of slavery, yes, we have to address racial inequality. He recommended something he called the “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” which was a broad anti-poverty, class-based program that would have been targeted towards the white poor and black poor alike, and would have disproportionately been targeted towards black people only as a result of black people being disproportionately poor, but would not have been targeted on the basis of race as such. 

As a country, we may never agree on to what extent current black poverty and disadvantage and incarceration is directly traceable to slavery as opposed to other factors. Let's just table that debate; the way we should address it is by focusing on the people that are currently disadvantaged. The fact that I'm a descendant of slaves no longer matters, except for symbolically and maybe psychologically. But as someone who grew up upper-middle class, I'm not the problem we're talking about when we're talking about the legacy of slavery. The black kids I went to Columbia with are not the problem when we're talking about the legacy of slavery, racial inequality, etc. The policies we use to tackle it ought to track the problem. And the way to track the problem is to look at class rather than to look at race. 

Mounk: In a way, everything we've been talking about is an argument against a new school of thought that you and I are both preoccupied with in various ways, which is most personified perhaps by Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. 

Why is it that you call them “neo-racists,” and what is the problem, according to you, of neo-racism?

Hughes: There's been a fairly successful attempt to redefine racism as prejudice plus power combined with the proposition that people of color, black people and Hispanic people, don't have power and  therefore can't be racist. I mean, in many domains, this is simply accepted as the definition of racism. It's not the definition of racism that was held by civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin, Dr. King, or A. Philip Randolph, who took it for granted that all groups of people, including black people, can be racist, and that all groups of people can be victims of racism, in principle, but were, in fact, facing a world where the problem of racism was a thousand to one in the direction of black people suffering it. 

I adopt that philosophy and that definition of racism as my own. And so when I encounter public intellectuals and writers, someone like DiAngelo who just, frankly, stereotypes white people wantonly, says that she strives to be less white, and when asked what she means says it means to be less ignorant, be less defensive, and then on and on with this list of invidious stereotypes and generalizations.

I don't know what else to call that other than racism. And I don't think we need a new word. So I use the old word with neo- attached to it. I could have just used racism, but to use neo-racism is simply to highlight an emergent strand of it that is as racist as anything, at least in principle, and to call a spade a spade.

Mounk: You characterize neo-racism in part by the use of a number of key fallacies. They include the disparity fallacy, the myth of undoing the past, the myth of no progress, the myth of inherited trauma, the myth of superior knowledge, the racial ad hominem, and then the myth of black weakness. Take us through some of those. 

Hughes: The most important one is the disparity fallacy, this is something that Thomas Sowell has probably dedicated literally ten or more books to dismantling, but, simply put, it's the idea that whenever you see a disparity, that is evidence of discrimination, systemic or overt. The problem with that belief is that the set of disparities it would predict are starkly different from the set of disparities that actually exist. So if it were true that disparities are in general caused by racism of some kind, it wouldn't be the case that ethnic groups of the same race are distributed all along the continuum on every outcome of import. And I quote many examples from comparing Indian Americans to Bengali Americans, Chinese Americans to Hmong Americans, Nigerians to Haitians and so forth, who face the same amount of discrimination and yet have wildly different outcomes. If discrimination were the main variable in the equation of success, then it wouldn't be possible to vary that much in success while the main variable stayed constant. 

I say that disparities are like tumors. They seem very scary and indicative, but actually the majority of them are benign. There's a concept of benign disparity. What we need is to be evidence-based, and the evidence suggests that there is lots of racism against minorities. There is lots of racial discrimination against minorities. I cite what was the largest to date meta-analysis of callback studies, which found significant levels of racial discrimination against black Americans, Arab Americans, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans—that's all true and evidence-based, but it seems to be far less important as a determinant of outcomes than many people would assume. What we should try to do is, wherever possible, eliminate racial discrimination. Try to make society more and more like a blind audition. Obviously, that's totally impractical in many domains. But wherever it is possible, blind yourself to the data that might bias you. Grade your students' papers without knowing who you're grading. Audition people behind a veil. 

Point two is that we really ought to raise our children in as colorblind a way as possible, which is to say, children, by default, tend not to be racist. They tend to have a lot of flaws like selfishness (they need to be taught to share) but most human beings don't come out of the womb ascribing meaning to racial characteristics. And that ought to be nurtured and extended as long as possible so that we raise colorblindness as a cultural norm.

Mounk: I think this question of progress is a really important one in this debate. Pinker talks about this, I talk about it in my book, you alluded to it in your book: If the underlying assumption is that we haven't made any progress—if, like Derrick Bell, one of the founders of critical race theory, you believe that America in the year 2000 is as racist as it was in 1950 or 1850, then I think the answers you just gave are going to appear radically unsatisfactory.

So what is the evidence of progress? You talk about one of the myths of neo-racism being that we never make any progress on race, particularly for African-Americans in the United States. What is the evidence that things are getting better?

Hughes: I guess there's two broad lines of evidence that racial progress has happened. One is the decrease in racism, and one is the increase in good outcomes for black Americans. Those are logically distinct sets. Racism has decreased precipitously over the past hundred years, over the past fifty years. You can see all the Gallup polls asking people “How would you feel if your child married a black person?” and vice versa. Those used to be terrible numbers in 1960 and they've come steadily down. And at the behavioral level, intermarriage rates have gone up. If you look, in a big picture sense, at the phenomenon of “passing”—which is black people, if light-skinned enough, trying to pass as white so as to avoid the penalty of being considered black—in 19th or early 20th centuries something like 16 or 17% of black people passed as white at some point in their life, according to a study I cited in the book, which is a huge percentage. The color line was so sharp and so punishing. 

Nobody passes for white anymore. Nobody even tries. So broadly speaking, that's a huge achievement and indicator of progress. Not to mention the black President, black Vice President, multiple black Supreme Court justices and on and on. You have major cities going on their sixth or seventh black mayor in a row, black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. There's no position of power which black people haven’t occupied.

That's all evidence that racism has declined. And on the actual socioeconomic outcomes, I have an essay on this from a few years ago called “The Case for Black Optimism” in Quillette, where I go through all of the data showing how outcomes have gotten better for black Americans over the past 50 years and over the past 30 years—incarceration rates cut in half for black men in their 20s from 2001 to 2019, more than half, actually, for younger black men. Not a widely-publicized fact, but a very important one. Socioeconomic indicators up, disease down, life expectancy up, and so on and so forth. All of these things have been going in the right direction, broadly speaking, since my father's generation. And all of that is meaningful.

Mounk: I broadly share that optimism and I wrote about it in The Great Experiment, in particular that there's a kind of weird alliance between certain forms of progressives or, if you wish, certain forms of neo-racists on one side, and actually Donald Trump and some of his rhetoric on the other side, right? I mean, Trump famously said in 2016, trying to win African-American voters, “What do you have to lose?” Sort of implying that the average African-American was leading a terrible life. 

And actually when you look at the median African-American, they have middle-class jobs, they live in pretty nice suburbs, they have employer-sponsored health insurance (which is a good sort of metric for a relatively high quality job) and so on and so forth. I think the strongest argument against that position is that there is a significant percentage of the black population that does live in very severe intergenerational poverty as a result of these historical injustices and their long-term impacts; even as obstacles to advancement into the highest level of society have crumbled, even as the state of the average African American is pretty good, that kind of intergenerational underclass doesn't appear to be diminishing at a rapid pace. 

What do you say to that part of the black experience and what kind of response it calls for?

Hughes: It's definitely a problem. I would say we should address it on a nonracial basis, given that there is a white underclass. There's a Hispanic intergenerational underclass. There are mostly white counties in America whose life expectancy is at Third World levels. There are pockets of the country that are absolutely exhibiting all kinds of really deep problems from drug abuse to crime. And more of those pockets are black than are white, it’s true. But the problem is the pockets themselves. We need to direct resources, the best research, and the best public policy towards addressing these issues. And race is not an inherent part of the issue. If the issue is drugs in a community, the issue is drugs. If the issue is violence, then the issue is violence. And all of this ought to be addressed in nonracial terms. It's not because people on the South Side of Chicago are black that the state has an interest in ameliorating those problems. It's because they're American. 

Nor is it the problem in a county in Mississippi that's white that has a life expectancy of 71 because of fentanyl. Doesn't matter that they're white—if they're suffering, the state has an interest in doing something to help. So that's how I think about it. And I don't think that refutes the overall trend in progress for black Americans as a group.

Mounk: Final question, Coleman: How optimistic are you that we can make progress towards a more colorblind America? And for those listeners who are persuaded by your case, what can they do concretely to help bring it about?

Hughes: Well, you can buy my book and give it to all your friends that disagree with you. 

I try not to make predictions because they're always wrong. Rather than predict whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic, I would just like to myself be an example and be part of the solution, part of the healthy path forward, and hopefully give people the inspiration and the arguments and so forth to also be part of the solution.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.