Our “national conversation” about race is a nesting doll of clichés. Each time a racially charged incident makes news in America, we are reminded of the “conversation” we must have, often as an end in itself, to atone for America’s history of racism. Then come the clichés of the experts (demagogues, diversity consultants, and intellectuals) who boil down the trickiest social problem of the era to glib demands. The standard diagnosis—that every racial incident and racial disparities in general are due to America’s white-supremacy problem—is as predictable as it is useless. And the prescription is sheer posturing: Elites genuflect to ideals like diversity and equity while fighting like hell to ensure that marginally more black students go to top colleges. As Coleman Hughes points out in The End of Race Politics, the black Americans who most need meaningful interventions are left to languish where progressive elites dare not turn their attention—the quicksand of disordered neighborhoods.

Such unserious treatment belittles the problem of racial tension and pushes Americans to be flippant about solutions. That is a massive mistake, even for those who do not believe we live in a society shot through with racism. Bad race relations are the American people’s mark of Cain, threatening our nation’s self-confidence, our shared sense of destiny, and thus our investment in our future. The very belief that America is failing in its experiment in multiracial democracy is a social, economic, and security risk, because left unchecked, it is self-fulfilling. This is most apparent in the rise of Critical Race Theory. CRT has now convinced many young people that America is not worth fighting for—and may even be worth fighting against. Our challenge is therefore twofold: to make progress in working toward racial harmony, and to get Americans to believe that we are genuinely committed to that progress.

Hughes, the prodigious young podcaster and writer, provides a compelling guide to doing so. His “arguments for a colorblind America” cut past buzzwords and tropes and address debates over race with unapologetic polemics. It is an important thing to explode persistent myths, such as the assertion that there is a racist-violence epidemic plaguing black Americans. Hughes dismantles those in due course, but doing so is not his focus. Rather, his main aim is to state and then dismantle the best arguments for “anti-racism,” the movement that promotes favoring black Americans until equal outcomes between racial groups show up across statistical measures. In our polarized era, nearly all social critics tend to caricature opponents they do not understand well. Yet Hughes succeeds in conjuring capable interlocutors on every issue he addresses, only to reveal the errors that lurk beneath their ideas. After exposing the popular tenets of anti-racism as vacuous and self-serving, Hughes offers a commonsense alternative so simple it just might work: not being racist.

The central insight here is that statistical disparities do not imply a license, or even a need, for differential individual treatment. In other words, anti-racists commit a category error when they infer from disparities in group-based statistics any principle about how we should treat any given member of those groups. Because, as Hughes articulates, people are not statistical averages.

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Consider anti-racism’s ongoing project to redefine racism as “prejudice plus power.” Because white people have “power” in America, the argument goes, black people cannot be racist. Black people can be prejudiced against white people (which, by implication, is barely shameful), but only white people can commit the cardinal sin of racism. In fact, they commit it all the time by not revolting against a white-supremacist system. But an interaction between two people does not at all reflect who “holds the power” in our culture in some abstract sense. Unless all white people have “power” and no black people do, extrapolating from an average to understand a data point is just a non sequitur. And when progressives base their treatment of group members on averages, as they do in the context of affirmative action, “decarceration” activism, and DEI struggle sessions, they commit a logical and moral mistake.

Using reason to discriminate between bad and good is an essential part of being human, but engaging in illogical discrimination against our fellow humans denies them their humanity, and that is evil. Indeed, making assumptions about one person based on his belonging to a particular racial group is a classic form of racism. Hughes calls those who have rehabilitated it in the name of social justice “neo-racists” but acknowledges that the prefix is superfluous. Recognizing, however, that our racial wounds have not healed, he advocates colorblindness.

Such an anodyne notion, so deeply rooted in our nation’s law and ideals, has no business being controversial. Yet, in the Ivy League schools that educated Hughes and still provide the conceptual scaffolding for elite opinion, it is. Anti-racist theorists maintain that no one can be colorblind in light of deep-seated “unconscious bias,” and no one should want to be colorblind, because it amounts to willful blindness to the power dynamic that best explains our white-supremacist society.

Hughes persuasively argues that this controversy is the result of historical revisionism and a semantic dodge. He demonstrates beyond any doubt that America’s most ardent abolitionists and civil-rights activists advocated not neo-racism but race-neutrality. And, of course, colorblindness does not mean that one literally cannot tell an individual’s race or has closed eyes to the relevance of race to America. Before it was reduced to cliché, colorblindness stood for the ideal of doing everything in one’s power to treat race as the moral irrelevancy it is. Hughes implores Americans not to give up on that.

Colorblindness is, as Hughes admits, imperfect. And shrinking racial disparities takes time. But Hughes is fundamentally on the mark in presenting Americans with the choice they ultimately have to make. Colorblindness or color-consciousness—which strategy is more likely to bring us closer to our aspiration of racial harmony?

“Reifying” race, or working to make Americans think about race more often, is the current sophisticated position in academia and media. Adherents to this view see it as a continuation of the civil-rights movement, only it digs deeper to uproot the institutions and norms that entrench racial hierarchy. Without being dismissive, Hughes shifts such critics’ attention to the tragedy their success is producing.

A rise in race-based decision-making, since it’s a logical and moral error, regardless of who would benefit in the short run, is more likely to drive Americans apart in the long run. It does not merely stir resentment among white people, it tears at our social fabric by forcing Americans to consider themselves competitors in a zero-sum game of race-based favoritism. Even if it doesn’t cause white Americans to feel that they are being punished for a crime they did not commit while others are compensated for injuries they did not endure, it will cause each racial group to prioritize electing leadership that promises them preferential treatment. It is bad enough when politicians do this with nonracial interest groups. It would be catastrophic for a nation with our history to go down a path of racial partisanship. It gets worse, still. Academic neo-racists contend that American ideals are just fig leaves for a culture defined by competition for power between races. And somehow this is supposed to end well for groups that constitute 13 percent of the population.

One begins to suspect that deepening our most sensitive divisions is a feature of the movement, not a bug.

Hughes, a black man whose teachers at Columbia thought he would embrace their cynical view, displays unusual forethought in rejecting it and positing an alternative. His positive vision of a pluralistic, liberal, colorblind America reflects a profound commitment to principle and pragmatism. Following Hughes’s lead, we should all reclaim that noble aspiration, no matter how passé it is in elite circles. Perhaps then our national conversation might become worthy of the name.

Photo: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

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