Would it Be Better if We All Turned Color-Blind?

‘The End of Race Politics’ argues that we need to stop talking about race. In practice, that would entail resigning ourselves to perpetual racial inequality.

Consider a purely hypothetical situation. Let us imagine a society. In this society, an arbitrary subgroup of people has decided to label themselves The A Group. Anyone not in the A Group is considered (by the people in the A Group) to be in the B Group. The A Group has developed a bunch of strange beliefs about how people in the A Group are superior to those in the B Group. B Group members are considered less intelligent, fit only for manual labor, etc. Members of the A Group have developed elaborate pseudoscience supposedly confirming that their group is fit to rule over all others, even though, as a matter of fact, the groupings are arbitrary (based on birthdate, say), and there are no meaningful genetic differences between the two groups. This doesn’t mean there are no differences—A Group members were born on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays, while B Group members were not. The differences just don’t mean anything, and it’s unclear why you would ever sort human beings into these particular categories.

Over successive generations, these initially arbitrary categories come to be quite significant, entirely because people act as if they are. A Group members enslave and exploit B Group members, deeming this the natural order of groups. The As do not associate with the Bs socially. They exclude them from their clubs, hotels, and restaurants. For centuries, As act with this extreme prejudice toward Bs. They won’t rent houses to them. They treat them as likely criminals. They punish those who “don’t know their place,” often with extreme violence.

This ridiculous system eventually comes to an end. The Bs resent their status and expose the pseudoscientific hierarchy as nonsense. They protest. They refuse to submit to humiliating orders. Sometimes they even riot. They soon break the back of the system, and within a few generations a widespread understanding develops that it was cruel and unjust to treat people this way.

But let us consider the strange aftermath of the system. The formal system whereby As ruled over Bs has been dismantled. But those who were previously labeled As had amassed a lot of wealth. Those who were Bs frequently lived in destitution, geographically separated. Eliminating the system has not changed these facts. It’s also the case that many children of former As still don’t associate much with the children of former Bs. They don’t like to talk about it, but they just feel uncomfortable around the others. They might still prefer to give a job to a child of a former A. When we map social networks and opportunities, we find that on average the children and grandchildren of the As still don’t know many Bs, and they still pass a lot of advantages (knowledge, access to jobs, etc.) through their networks. There is a giant wealth gap between the families of “former” As and “former” Bs. The categories have been abolished, but the old categories correspond closely to real world inequalities. 

Okay, now: let’s imagine that you are a child of a former “B.” How do you navigate this strange world, where the category has been formally ended, but it still seems to kind of matter a lot whose parents used to be in which group? Maybe you develop a sense of solidarity with other children of former Bs. Maybe you develop a proud “B culture.” Maybe you say that until the effects of the system are fixed, it’s ridiculous to act as if we’ve gotten rid of it, since it still permeates every aspect of life. 

Or maybe you react in entirely the opposite way: Maybe you’re so glad this ridiculous set of categories is gone. Maybe you cringe every time someone identifies themselves as associated with the B group. When we talk about it, we reinforce it. Let’s say you write a book. A reviewer describes you as “one of our greatest B novelists.” You look at that “B” and you fume. What the hell? Is this system back? Hadn’t we decided this was a ridiculous way to divide people up? The only way to get rid of it, you think, is to shut up about it, so that your own children and grandchildren won’t even think in terms of these categories. They’ll just think of people as people.

And yet, it will still be the case that the children of the Bs are, on the whole, poorer than the children of the As. And something might strike us as a little strange when we notice the strong statistical correlation between being the child of a former B and being in jail or prison…

Yeah, yeah, I get it, this is a very heavy-handed allegory for race in America. But it’s actually not just about race in America. I was also thinking about nationalism and imperialism. There’s a great G.K. Chesterton novel called The Napoleon of Notting Hill, where a malevolent jokester gives different neighborhoods of London their own flags, costumes, and identities. Sooner or later they take their identities very seriously indeed, hating and fearing the others and going to war for their national pride. One of the core points of my hypothetical is that socially-constructed categories can have very serious real-world consequences, and that while we might want to simply all agree to drop the “fake” categories overnight, doing so doesn’t automatically get us closer to justice. 

Coleman Hughes thinks dividing humans up by races is ludicrous. His new book The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America argues that we need to stop reinforcing the importance of what are ultimately arbitrary categories. He is like the person in my example who, descended from the B group, resents the persistence of the classification, and would rather we just drop the talk altogether. Race, he says, is “boring,” because “a person’s race tells you next to nothing about them.” It’s a “meaningless trait.” He wouldn’t write about it if he had his druthers. But everyone else seems obsessed with it. He quotes Morgan Freeman’s plea to “stop calling me a black man.” “Racial talk makes racist thought,” Hughes says. This makes about as much sense as saying that talking about class makes you a classist, talking about gender makes you a sexist, and talking about nations makes you a nationalist. 

Hughes says that while people would probably describe him as “half-black, half-Hispanic,” in truth he never thought much about his racial identity growing up. Oh, sure, the white kids at school were constantly trying to touch his Afro. But he didn’t think of his friends by their races. And he found it weird when, arriving at Columbia University, he found everyone interested in talking about race. “We were asked to divide ourselves up by race and discuss how we participated in, or suffered from, systemic oppression.” But Hughes didn’t think he had suffered from “systemic oppression”; he grew up comfortable (“unapologetically from the ‘burbs”), experienced few (though not zero) racist incidents, and made it to Columbia. He found race talk “suffocating” and wanted to get back to his real interests, music and philosophy. (Hughes studied jazz trombone and has recorded hip hop in which he portrays himself as a courageous challenger of orthodoxy.) 

Hughes begins The End of Race Politics with the fact that “race” is an absurd, socially constructed concept. It has no meaningful biological basis, and as a “mixed-race” person himself, Hughes finds it bizarre and grating. “Race is a fake idea, put it to bed,” he raps in one of his songs.

Hughes tells a story about the last half century of race politics that goes basically like this: In the 1950s and ’60s, the civil rights movement dreamed of breaking down racial barriers. Activists saw human beings as equal, their “races” meaningless. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a world in which people would no longer be judged by “the color of their skin,” i.e., we would be color-blind. They believed “there is only one race,” as Rosa Parks is quoted as having said. Hughes quotes a confidante of Thurgood Marshall telling us that Marshall’s favorite quote was “the Constitution is color-blind,” and notes that Marshall and the NAACP argued that Brown vs. Board of Education should have been decided on the grounds that racial distinctions were unconstitutional (instead, the Court concluded only that segregated schools in particular were inherently harmful to Black children). “The main goal of the civil rights movement,” Hughes says, was “the destruction of the government’s ability to make any distinctions among American citizens on the basis of race.” Civil rights leaders “saw race thinking as dehumanizing.”

Unfortunately, says Hughes, rather than finishing the work of the civil rights movement, and “putting to bed” the concept of race forever, today’s supposed left-wing “anti-racists” are reinforcing this pernicious concept. Rejecting the vision of people like King and Marshall, they believe that we need to talk more about race, that our races define us. They are, Hughes says, “neoracists” who adopt many of the same premises about race as the white supremacists of the 1950s. The civil rights movement, he tells us, “fought against any kind of race thinking that discouraged us from seeing other people as individual human beings” or “undifferentiated representatives of a collective mass.” But thinkers like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo (the two figures Hughes concentrates on most and who each propose their own kind of anti-racism) believe that, as Kendi has put it, “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination” through public policy that aims to eliminate racial disparities by directing resources and opportunities specifically toward people of color. Hughes cites as an example the prioritization of Covid financial relief for Black farmers, a policy he sees as part of the “eye for an eye” theory of remedying injustice, whereby if white people had been favored in the past, Black people should be favored in the present. 

Let’s go back briefly to the hypothetical I posed at the outset in order to assess Hughes’s take here. There, we find ourselves in a situation where after a long period of injustices along arbitrary lines, the formal discrimination has ended, but the effects linger. And some choose to argue that the path forward is to stop thinking about the group system, to move on. (The Hughes perspective.) Others think we need to take affirmative steps to remedy the situation that has resulted from the long history of the system, say by reserving particular opportunities for the children of the B Group, or redistributing wealth between the descendents of the two groups. (The equivalent of the Kendi take.)

If we’re being fair, we can see that both of these responses to the situation can be understood. Some think pernicious socially constructed categories should be ignored. Others, while acknowledging that the categories are pernicious and socially constructed, think this is just wishful thinking that leaves in place the real-world effects of the use of the categories. Neither provides an ideal way to repair the effects of centuries of injustice.

But while Hughes’s response to the impact of centuries of racism is legitimate, his distortions of the other point of view are not. Hughes accuses contemporary anti-racists of “race supremacy,” saying they agree with white supremacists that “some races are superior to others.” In fact, Kendi says precisely the opposite, writing that “whenever someone says there is something wrong with White people as a group, someone is articulating a racist idea.” “To be antiracist,” he writes in How to Be an Antiracist, “is to never conflate racist people with White people, knowing there are antiracist Whites and racist non-Whites.… We must discern the difference between racist power (racist policymakers) and White people.”

In fact, throughout the book, Hughes presents various thinkers selectively in a way that crosses into intellectual malpractice. For instance, to support his narrative that the “civil rights movement” favored color-blindness, while “neoracists” favor discrimination against white people, he cites Martin Luther King Jr. over and over, presenting a small heap of King quotes in which King says things like “black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy.” First, Ibram X. Kendi wouldn’t argue differently, having written himself that “Anti-White racism is indeed the hate that hate produced, [and is] attractive to the victims of White racism.” But secondly, Hughes selects only those quotes from King that are convenient to his narrative, excluding others like “White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism,” in which King did precisely what Hughes says he didn’t do, and made collective judgments about the members of one race. His idea of “racism” was not talking about race (for he talked about race all the time), but the domination and subordination of one group by another. 

Hughes is similarly manipulative in his discussion of Bayard Rustin. In a video for the New York Times, Hughes presents Rustin as being “opposed to affirmative action.” One need only open a copy of Rustin’s collected writings to find that, while he opposed a numerical racial quota system, he in fact wrote (on behalf of the A. Philip Randolph Institute) that “the affirmative action concept [is] a valid and essential contribution to an overall program designed to ameliorate the current effects of racial bias,” praising “special efforts to include those groups that had been previously excluded.” Rustin certainly had a strong critique of existing affirmative action programs, and argued strongly that the primary focus should be on creating an economy that guaranteed a decent standard of living for all. But it is unconscionable to leave out the nuance here, which is why leaders of the A. Philip Randolph Institute objected to a prior attempt to oversimplify Rustin’s views. They noted that Rustin chaired a program specifically designed to “rectify underrepresentation of blacks and other minority groups in the construction and building trades.” 

Hughes also cites Thurgood Marshall’s belief in a color-blind Constitution, but doesn’t tell his readers about how Marshall acted after he was appointed to the Supreme Court. The issue of affirmative action came before the court in the famous case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), which considered whether racial preferences in state school admissions policies were constitutional. Marshall gave a strong, unequivocal defense of the use of preferences to make up for past discrimination. Let’s see what he had to say:

“I do not agree that petitioner’s admissions program violates the Constitution. For it must be remembered that, during most of the past 200 years, the Constitution as interpreted by this Court did not prohibit the most ingenious and pervasive forms of discrimination against the  Negro. Now, when a state acts to remedy the effects of that legacy of discrimination, I cannot believe that this same Constitution stands as a barrier.… The position of the Negro today in America is the tragic but inevitable consequence of centuries of unequal treatment. Measured by any benchmark of comfort or achievement, meaningful equality remains a distant dream for the Negro.… At every point from birth to death the impact of the past is reflected in the still disfavored position of the Negro. In light of the sorry history of discrimination and its devastating impact on the lives of Negroes, bringing the Negro into the mainstream of American life should be a state interest of the highest order. To fail to do so is to ensure that America will forever remain a divided society. I do not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment requires us to accept that fate. Neither its history nor our past cases lend any support to the conclusion that a university may not remedy the cumulative effects of society’s discrimination by giving consideration to race in an effort to increase the number and percentage of Negro doctors.… This Court’s past cases establish the constitutionality of race-conscious remedial measures. Most importantly, had the Court been willing in 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, to hold that the Equal Protection Clause forbids differences in treatment based on race, we would not be faced with this dilemma in 1978. We must remember, however, that the principle that the “Constitution is color-blind” appeared only in the opinion of the lone dissenter [John Harlan]. The majority of the Court rejected the principle of color blindness, and for the next 60 years, from Plessy to Brown v. Board of Education, ours was a Nation where, by law, an individual could be given “special” treatment based on the color of his skin. It is because of a legacy of unequal treatment that we now must permit the institutions of this society to give consideration to race in making decisions about who will hold the positions of influence, affluence, and prestige in America.” 

Now, let’s remember that when Hughes brings up Marshall (pp. 51-53), what he tells us is that Marshall agreed with Justice Harlan that “our constitution is color-blind.” Hughes uses this as part of his evidence that the “neoracists” of today (those who believe in race-conscious remedies) are betraying the spirit of the civil rights movement, which believed in color-blindness. But Hughes deliberately misleads his readers. When Harlan mentioned that the “constitution is color-blind” in his dissent to Plessy, which established “separate but equal,” Harlan was arguing that this color-blindness conferred to all people equal protection under the law. But Marshall’s actual belief was that because the Constitution’s color-blindness, in the vein of Harlan, had been ignored for so long, it was necessary to “give consideration to race” in order to fix the resulting injustice. Similarly, Hughes doesn’t mention that King’s view was similar, and that while he aspired to a color-blind society, he thought that in the world we actually live in, “a society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.” “Color-blind” was a concept meant to challenge legally-upheld white supremacy, not a call for one to be unconscious of race altogether.

As I say, it’s extremely dishonest to manipulate the historical evidence. And how can one trust anything said by a writer willing to exclude evidence that undercuts or complicates his thesis? But it’s clear why Hughes does it. If he confronted the true beliefs of King and Marshall, which were nuanced, or the true beliefs of Kendi, which are also more nuanced (I have no time for DiAngelo), his basic framework of “color-blindness” (the good civil rights movement) versus “neo-racism” (the bad anti-racist social justice woke types of today) would be impossible to maintain, in part because he would have to call Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. racists. 

He would also have to grapple with the challenge that Marshall puts forth in his Bakke descent: how, without ever considering race, would it be possible to close the many, many gaps in social outcomes between Black and white Americans? In a brief solutions section at the end, Hughes sketches a few suggestions for “solving the problem of racism in America,” but these mostly involve abandoning a concern with the disparities that Marshall identified. Hughes says we should no longer strive for racial diversity unless it is useful (say, for making a police force more legitimate to the population) and should “stigmatize racist talk” (he believes there should be equal stigma against jokes at the expense of white people to jokes at the expense of Black people). He acknowledges that employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and some forms of racist policing are real (though he denies that fatal shootings are racially biased, a claim of his that I discuss at length in Responding to the Right). But all he suggests here is that “color-blind” processes should be used as often as possible (i.e., if employers discriminate against applicants known to be Black then they shouldn’t know applicants’ races, a remedy not too practical given that employers often make these judgments on the basis of names alone). 

I wish Hughes had confronted, with a deep analysis of data, the question of how (and whether) the racial wealth gap is ever to be closed. Here in New Orleans, it’s hard to avoid noticing that in restaurants, Black people still tend to work in the back of house, and white people in the front of house, or the gaps between wealth of the mostly white Uptown neighborhood and the mostly-Black New Orleans East. Is this to be the situation forever? How will color-blind policies succeed in changing it? One answer could be, as socialists like Adolph Reed Jr. argue, that race-neutral egalitarian programs are the answer. Tax the rich people in Uptown, and give the poor great schools and great healthcare, and raise the wages of the “back of house” staff, and you’re reducing the highlighted inequalities without ever having to consider “race.” But from those who think racial inequality can be solved without race ever being considered at any point, I want to see specific plans that persuasively show how we will eliminate the “hidden cost of being African American.” (Hughes repeatedly points out that these disparities exist on average, and that the averages may not be true for individuals, but this is no different from pointing to the existence of Queen Victoria as proof there was no patriarchy in Victorian society.) 

It’s a shame that Hughes decided to put forth a simplistic, dishonest narrative, because plenty of what he says in this book is valuable. He points out, for instance, that it means little for most Black people if a few Black people ascend to positions of power, even though this kind of representation is seen as a victory for racial justice. (Weirdly, however, he later cites the number of Black people in high office as evidence that there are few meaningful racial differences in levels of political power.) He points out that while there are indeed major wealth differences across racial groups, the biggest economic divide in the United States is between the vast majority of the population (who have little economic power) and the billionaire class. (Bernie Sanders would not disagree.) 

One thing affirmative action does, he writes, is “to provide elite institutions like Harvard with a pretense of social concern.” He notes that working-class Black students are rarely admitted to Harvard, and oftentimes affirmative action programs “benefit the people of that race who need them the least.” He argues that affirmative action is a kind of justice on the cheap for elite schools. Instead of, say, investing resources in helping high school students of color close the testing gap with their white counterparts (say, by establishing tutoring programs in the Boston Public Schools designed specifically to prepare students for Harvard), they leave the gaps in place but give a preferential bump to Black applicants. For Hughes, this method contains a racist presumption that Black people aren’t capable of competing in a color-blind admissions process, and perhaps if we had equal education before the college admissions process, there wouldn’t be racial gaps between applicants’ performance at all. As a socialist, I think this point supports the idea that instead of tinkering with admissions criteria, we should ensure that the worst-off students receive the absolute best public school educations and that college is made free for all who wish to attend. (Also: abolish Harvard.) 

Hughes goes after some points made by contemporary anti-racist activists that are indeed absurd, such as the idea that punctuality is “white.” But he does the same thing that John McWhorter does in Woke Racism, which is to pick the most ludicrous, easily shot-down examples, when it’s not clear how representative they are (e.g., an online controversy in the YA fiction world over a writer’s supposed downplaying of racial oppression). He leaves out context that might give his readers a more sympathetic view of those he’s criticizing. (For instance, he goes after activists for criticizing racial disparities in traffic camera tickets in Chicago, saying that traffic cameras save lives. But a crucial argument, undiscussed by Hughes, was that differences in road design across Black and white neighborhoods, and not just differences in driving behavior, are a major source of the disparity.)

Hughes also interprets facts to make today’s “anti-racists” look as ludicrous as possible. For instance, he says that the film Hidden Figures exaggerated the amount of racism experienced by one of the women whose lives it was based on. From this, he concludes that because “according to the strange dictates of neoracism, whiteness is inherently evil and blackness is inherently good,” the filmmakers had to show the character “experienc[ing] more segregation than she actually did.” But I’m sorry, that just doesn’t follow. I think you’ll find that most Hollywood films based on real-life stories play up the adversity the character experienced. The film Sully, for instance, created drama by portraying the NTSB as much more skeptical of Sully Sullenberger than they actually were. I certainly don’t take this as a sign that there’s an inherent Hollywood ideology that the NTSB is evil, rather that the screenwriter was struggling to create 90 minutes of drama from an aviation incident that lasted four minutes. 

When I interviewed John McWhorter about his book, one of the things I told him was that I thought he was deeply unfair to those he disagreed with. He presented the worst instances of their behavior that he could find. He paraphrased them rather than quoting them directly, making their arguments sound as silly as possible. It was clear that he was not interested in listening patiently to what they had to say and acknowledging where they made sound points; he just treated them as being in a cult and impossible to reason with. (Indeed, he has suggested dialogue with them is worthless and should be avoided.) These tendencies are ubiquitous among the critics of social justice activists, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly. McWhorter is about as shameless as it gets about this (which is one reason I consider his book the worst I’ve ever read—and I’ve read Maps of Meaning!). Hughes is only a little better. He says that contemporary social justice activists are committed to “race supremacy,” only in the opposite direction from the racists of yore. “Neoracists and white supremacists are both committed to different flavors of race supremacy,” he writes. But one of those “flavors” involves the violent subjugation of members of the other group, while the other involves giving slight preferences to members of groups that have long been violently subjugated. Is there no difference?

Hughes is among those who think there’s a “double standard” in the way slurs against white people and slurs against Black people are treated. But while I don’t think racial slurs of any kind are a defensible form of speech, surely there are reasons for treating differently words that have long been used to “put in their place” the people at the bottom of a social hierarchy from the words the victims have tossed back. I can’t share with Hughes the idea that massive underlying social inequalities are irrelevant to evaluating the justice of a given form of “discrimination.”

I don’t think Hughes really has answers for how we can get to a world where race no longer matters. We could stigmatize “race talk,” but in hundreds of years there may still be a big wealth gap, whether we acknowledge it or not. Hughes follows Thomas Sowell in appearing to rationalize a lot of disparities, saying that they may result from natural cultural differences or random factors rather than outright discrimination (they might, but the correlation between a centuries-long history of oppression and contemporary wealth disparities is hardly spurious or random). I think his “color-blind” approach is appealing for obvious reasons—John Roberts’s formulation that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” sounds so obvious as to be incontrovertible. But it’s too easy of an answer. If we think back to the world where some people were branded A, some people B, and this reality shaped the structure of society for centuries, are we really going to just declare it over and do little to fix its effects? With his cursory solutions, Hughes appears to consign us to a world in which racial inequality will persist indefinitely as a major fact of American life—albeit one rarely discussed, due to his view that “racial talk makes racist thought.” 

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