A Response to Hughes

In defense of a highly critical book review.

Coleman Hughes has written a response to my review of his book. I shall respond to the response. (But I promise not to respond to a response to the response to the response.) 

I began my review by relaying a hypothetical about a world in which people are artificially placed into two groups. One group oppresses the other for generations, and as a result the descendants of the people initially assigned to one group end up in a much worse position than the descendants of those assigned to the other group. After the significance of the group categories had been formally abolished, I pointed out that there could be two quite understandable reactions to this. Some might say we should just stop talking about the fact that we were ever organized into groups, and say that any attempt to enact a remedy based on the old group classification system would illegitimately retain/reinforce that system. Others would say that the lingering effects of the classifications need correcting and there is simply no way to fix the effects of the injustice without taking it into account. 

My argument was that both of these responses have arguments in their favor. The former corresponds to what I take Hughes’ position to be, the latter corresponds to the position of those he calls “neoracists.” I used this hypothetical to make two criticisms of Hughes: (1) He is far too harsh on those who take a “race-conscious” position, and instead of denouncing them as “neoracists” should treat their position as an understandable and legitimate response to the kind of situation I described in my hypothetical. (2) He does not grapple with the challenge of how the inequalities resulting from an injustice like the one in the hypothetical can be remedied, or even clearly say whether he thinks they ought to be remedied. As I said, a crucial point is “while we might want to simply all agree to drop the ‘fake’ categories overnight, doing so doesn’t automatically get us closer to justice.” I want to know how his framework will get us closer to eliminating disparities born of injustice. 

Hughes summarizes “the purpose” of my hypothetical as being “the commonplace observation that race, though an arbitrary trait, is nevertheless correlated with all kinds of outcomes.” He believes I am asking how it is that “people oppressed for centuries just so happen to be on the wrong end of so many disparities?” He then says he has dealt with this point in his book, on pages 108-119. But these pages just consist of explanations for how some racial disparities can arise without conscious racist discrimination, such as through differences in culture. That is not a response to the issues raised by the hypothetical, which are: when a centuries-long apartheid system does produce lingering disparities that last after it has been destroyed, how are those disparities to be addressed? Should they be corrected? 

Hughes summarizes his response to this point of mine: 

“The history of oppression plays a role in the current state of black America. But if one looks at the whole landscape of interracial and intra-racial ethnic disparities (rather than the single data point of African-Americans), there is no way to make sense of the hypothesis that discrimination, past or present, is the main driver of modern-day disparities.”

For this to be responsive, I would have had to argue that across “the whole landscape of interracial and intra-racial ethnic disparities” (including, for instance, the difference between Chinese Americans’ income and Norwegian Americans’ income), “discrimination” is “the main driver.” Instead, I only claimed what Hughes concedes, which is that “the history of oppression plays a role in the current state of black America.” What I sought was an answer to how, given that fact, one ought to deal with the portion of inequality generated by that oppression. I did not receive an explanation, though Hughes does call me a bad writer and suggest I should have based my hypothetical groupings on a heritable trait like hair colors rather than birthdays.1

Next, I criticized Hughes for writing that “racial talk makes racist thought.” I argued that it does not inherently do this. Hughes says this is unfair, because he makes clear that he is in favor of “racial talk,” e.g., identifying genuine instances of discrimination. Fair enough, we agree that “racial talk” does not “make racist thought,” and that the phrase, while pithy, is simplistic and misleading. 

Next, I said that Hughes accuses those he calls “neoracists,” like Ibram X. Kendi, of believing in “race supremacy.” I showed that Kendi is explicitly against that. Hughes replies that “Nowhere in my book do I claim that Ibram X. Kendi endorses race supremacy.” 

Here is what Hughes writes in the book: 

“Neoracists… endorse a type of de facto race supremacy. Neoracists and white supremacists are both committed to different flavors of race supremacy. They both deny our common humanity. They both deny that all races are created equal. They both agree that some races are superior to others, and they both agree that not all people deserve to be treated equally in society. 

Elsewhere in the book, whenever Hughes specifies who the “neoracists” are, Kendi is one of his go-to villains, along with Robin DiAngelo. He speaks of “today’s neoracist radicals—people like Kendi and DiAngelo.” Over and over, when Hughes needs an example of a neoracist, he picks Kendi. (pp. xvii, 23, 39, 42, 61, 64, 108, 109, 115, 119, 120, 120, 160). Now, confronted with evidence that Kendi does not believe the very thing Hughes said the “neoracists” are “committed to,” Hughes says that he didn’t mean Kendi specifically was committed to that. To my mind, it’s a pretty significant fact that the leading person he cites as a “neoracist” doesn’t believe the thing that he says “neoracists endorse.” But Hughes says that acknowledging this would have required “a mess of annoying caveats”—in other words, being honest.

Next, I said that Hughes was selectively presenting the views of three members of the civil rights movement: Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bayard Rustin. On Marshall, I noted that while Hughes presents him as an advocate for a “color blind constitution,” in fact Marshall was famously supportive of affirmative action, which goes unmentioned in the book. Hughes replies that this was “after the civil rights movement was over,” and he was only interested in what Marshall thought during the civil rights movement. Marshall, he says, must have changed his mind, and Hughes left it out because “Had Thurgood Marshall become a full-blown Nazi later in life, I would have ‘omitted’ that too.” (Really?) The evidence he presents is weak (he cites the Brown legal brief as proof of Marshall’s early beliefs, even though lawyers make the argument they think is most likely to persuade a court, not the argument they most passionately believe). But the more important point of discussing Marshall’s support for affirmative action is that Marshall made a pro-affirmative action argument grounded in the values of the civil rights movement, and Hughes chose in his book not to let his readers hear that argument or offer a response to it. I claimed in my review that this was because Hughes prefers a simple narrative (free of “annoying” caveats) in which the civil rights greats were all “color blind” and people like Kendi are “neoracists” who reject the civil rights tradition. Readers can judge for themselves whether they think that’s why Hughes made the choices he did, or whether he indeed saw Marshall’s vocal public stance on affirmative action as being irrelevant in the same way a late-in-life Nazi conversion would be.

As for Martin Luther King: I pointed out that Hughes excluded quotations from King that were inconvenient for his narrative of the man as “color blind,” such as his sweeping critique of white Americans. Hughes replies that King also critiqued Black Americans. True, and further evidence that he was not “color blind.” Weirdly, Hughes says “something tells him” I wouldn’t want the quote about Black Americans presented. Not so. People’s actual views should be presented, not cartoons of them. 

Hughes says that I am misrepresenting King’s endorsement of racially specific remedies for injustice. Hughes says that what King meant by doing “something special for the Negro” was “a class-based antipoverty program that would benefit black and white poor alike.” Hughes directs readers to the pages of Why We Can’t Wait, presumably assuming nobody will actually follow through and open the book. But if you do, you’ll see that King is crystal clear that he’s defending racial preferences for Black Americans, writing that “The moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery.” Now the core mechanism he proposes implementing is a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” which would also help disadvantaged white people. But he is unequivocal that he’s talking about paying the unpaid wages of slavery and specifically dealing with a debt owed to Black Americans: 

No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. 

King also gives a clear example to show how and why preferential treatment can be justified: 

Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner. Several years ago, Prime Minister Nehru was telling me how his nation is handling the difficult problem of the untouchables, a problem not unrelated to the American Negro dilemma.… The Indian government spends millions of rupees annually developing housing and job opportunities in villages heavily inhabited by untouchables. Moreover, the prime minister said, if two applicants compete for entrance into a college or university, one of the applicants being an untouchable and the other of high caste, the school is required to accept the untouchable. Professor Lawrence Reddick, who was with me during the interview, asked: “But isn’t that discrimination?” “Well, it may be,” the prime minister answered. “But this is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.” 

Hughes says that the inconvenient King quotes I present are simply “exceptions” that “prove the rule.” I would argue they prove that King’s views were a good deal more sophisticated and subtle than Hughes tells his readers. I hereby repeat my original claim that failing to discuss these passages, and misleading readers into thinking King would have agreed with Hughes on color-blindness, is a form of intellectual malpractice. 

Finally, Bayard Rustin. I argued that presenting Rustin as a pure opponent of affirmative action and an endorser of the color-blind principle was misleading. Hughes points out that Rustin opposed preferential treatment on the basis of race in hiring decisions. I don’t disagree. But as Hughes concedes, Rustin did appear to speak favorably of “making extra efforts to reach minority candidates, followed by judging them purely on colorblind merit” or “soft affirmative action.” I noted that Rustin had headed a program designed to “rectify underrepresentation of blacks and other minority groups in the construction and building trades.” I criticized Hughes for leaving out this “nuance.” The nuance is important, because while it is true that Rustin didn’t endorse our contemporary notion of affirmative action, he did not adopt a pure “color blind” principle (to put in extra effort to reach minorities, you have to “discriminate” in a certain sense). I think this is important to mention. Hughes doesn’t. Again, up to readers to judge.

Hughes has two small points at the end. He argued that the film Hidden Figures exaggerated the racism a character faces because its makers believe “whiteness is inherently evil.” I noted that many films exaggerate the adversity characters face for dramatic effect. In response, Hughes says that if I am right, there would be lots of films that “distort history by downplaying the historical sins of white people and playing up the sins of people of color!” But I don’t deny that anti-racism is more prevalent in Hollywood these days than outright white supremacism. It’s not that the values aren’t influencing the film, it’s that the values in question are quite defensible (a distaste for racism, an understanding that there was a lot of racism in the ’50s, a need for drama) and do not in any way reveal a view that “whiteness is inherently evil.” (Actually, a fictitious scene was created which allowed for a “white savior,” played by Kevin Costner, to rectify segregation of the restrooms at NASA. The director justified the choice saying that in such a story “there needs to be white people who do the right thing,” even if it didn’t actually happen. Hardly “whiteness is evil” stuff.) 

Finally, I thought Hughes should have discussed the broader context of a fight over traffic cameras in Chicago, laying out the activists’ view that infrastructure changes were a better, fairer solution than punitive enforcement. I saw this as part of a pattern of deliberately turning activists into caricatures rather than fully and fairly presenting the issues of a given case. Hughes thinks there was no need to go into the details of the politics of traffic enforcement in Chicago. I confess his readers might have enjoyed the book less if he followed my advice. In fact, I am fine admitting Hughes is a better writer than I am. But I would maintain that, despite my clunky, tedious prose, I have the advantage of presenting an accurate analysis that doesn’t mislead readers.

  1.  In fact, no need. I could just as easily have based the initial groupings on “who was facing east rather than west on a given day in 1942.” The initial quality defining the group doesn’t need to actually be passed on to the descendants. It’s the social perception that matters: that it means something to be descended from someone who possessed the initial quality. Hence my comparison with nationalism. Admittedly, I should have said something like “which people in the first generation were born on a Tuesday” which would have avoided the implication that people in subsequent generations will all be born on Tuesdays, the absurdity of which is what causes Hughes to call me a bad writer. 

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