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Coleman Hughes is a writer, podcaster and opinion columnist who specializes in issues related to race, public policy and applied ethics. Coleman’s writing has been featured in the New York[…]

Coleman Hughes is an American writer and podcast host known for his work on issues related to race, racism, and racial inequality. In this interview, we dive into the themes of his book, “The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.” 

Hughes articulates a vision for a future where individuals are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Drawing from research and personal insights, he advocates for a society that embraces a colorblind ethos, aiming to dismantle divisive narratives and foster a more inclusive national identity.

COLEMAN HUGHES: I think the idea of colorblindness should not be equated to racism and should not be equated to a kind of naive, pretending not to see color. What colorblindness is is a deeply wise philosophy about how we should think about race in a multiracial democracy where no group ever wants to be discriminated against. And so the colorblind philosophy amounts to a kind of truce where we take race off the table as something to directly select for, and instead use better proxies for disadvantage like class and socioeconomics.

ROBERT CHAPMAN-SMITH: Today on Big Think, we're talking to Coleman Hughes. He's a writer, podcaster, and opinion columnist who specializes in issues related to race, public policy, and applied ethics. Coleman's writing has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Quillette. He's also the author of the new book, "The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America." Coleman Hughes, thank you for coming on Big Think today.

HUGHES: Thank you for having me.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: I'm curious, before getting into sort of the meat of the ideas within the book, why did you decide to write this book?

HUGHES: In so far as I understand myself, my own story, my own motivations, I think a big part of the reason I wanted to write this book is that I grew up in a very racially diverse town, Montclair, New Jersey. I had friends of every race, and I didn't think of them as belonging to a race. I thought of them as individuals. And I felt that everyone around me more or less agreed with what's become a cliche now, Martin Luther King's famous dictum that you treat people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. I took that quite seriously as a kid, and I lived it. When I was 16, I went to something called the People of Color Conference. This was essentially a two or three-day critical race theory workshop where, for the first time in my life, people were treating skin color not as a superficial trait, but as a kind of magic. People were teaching a philosophy wherein your race and your identity and these categories that we're all born into by circumstance and by accident were teaching that these categories were a deep part of your soul. I was quite shocked and interested at that conference. Then a few years later, I went to Columbia University only to find that the philosophy I had encountered there was basically shot through the whole campus. And this is around 2014 and 2015 when there was a wave of shouting down speakers, disinviting speakers when the first murmurs of "cancel culture" were first beginning to be heard, when the first murmurs of safety culture were beginning to be heard; when people were really seeming to claim and to mean that words can equal violence. The reason I wrote this book is because I felt that the way I grew up, the attitude towards race that I, and everyone around me, seemed to have when I was a kid is the right one. And it's in danger of being lost to a philosophy which says, "Instead of your race being meaningless, insignificant, instead of race being something that's only skin deep, race is something that goes all the way down to the core of your soul." And in extreme cases, it's a philosophy that says we have to teach kids to view themselves as raced beings. So, for example, just this week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a mostly Spanish-speaking school in San Francisco has paid a quarter of a million dollars to an organization called 'Woke Kindergarten,' which teaches kids about white supremacy. Now, keep in mind, these are kids, most of them don't speak English at home, so they need extra help speaking English at school. And their English scores have been declining over the past few years. Their math scores have been declining over the past few years. Yet, people have prioritized teaching them about white supremacy, right, teaching them to view themselves and their other classmates through the lens of race. I think this is incredibly toxic, and insofar as I feel my background having lived, at least in my childhood, what I perceive to have been Martin Luther King's dream, I want to preserve that wisdom. I wanna have a conversation about how do we have more and more kids grow up with that attitude towards race, preserve it for as long as possible, and not poison it with toxic, racial essentialist ideas.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: I'm curious to dig into the idea of race a little bit more. You know, it's a bit of a sticky concept to sort of try to understand. I'm curious, how would you define race?

HUGHES: So race has two different dictionary definitions in my view: One are the boxes we check on the census, the official categories that the government has recognized since the 1970s, that these would be, you know, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, and so forth, Native American. These boxes were created in a context that has nothing to do with science and everything to do with political lobbying essentially. The book to read on this is called "Classified" by David Bernstein. And he just shows how these boxes and categories were created with no rhyme or reason, no logic behind them, just different, you know, lobby organizations trying to bend definitions in ways that were favorable to them, essentially. You know, funnily enough, our conversation about race, when we talk about it with our friends, when we talk about it, we see it on TV and on social media, we're essentially having a conversation about categories that were made up with no logic and treating them as if they're extremely real. Now, the second definition of race, which isn't always called race, is basically population genetics, right? Population geneticists, part of what they're interested is, interested in, rather, is in the fact that Homo sapiens, we all started out in Africa, some say 100,000, could be 200,000 years ago, or more. And the story is that different groups of people peeled out of Africa at different times and remained isolated for tens of thousands of years, long enough to evolve different color skin and different facial structures and so forth. And population geneticists are interested in that fact, right, in the fact that different groups of Homo sapiens changed in response to their environment, which gives us these visible differences that persist and are recognizable to this day. So you can call that "race," population geneticists usually call it "populations." It has very little to do with our everyday conversations about race. Now, obviously they're related because the whole reason we separate people into categories and check boxes on a census is inspired by the visible differences, the skin color differences, the facial structure differences, and so forth that are caused by those out-of-Africa migrations. But, the everyday concept of race has long flown the perch of those actual differences, so that if population geneticists discover something tomorrow, they discover that actually what they used to think of as two different populations are the same population, or vice versa- that's not gonna change the boxes we check on the census, right? So ultimately, race is a social construct inspired by a biological reality, but one that a social construct that has long flown the perch of that biological reality.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: Yeah, I think a lot of people get tripped up when the term social construct is used when describing race, because we tend to mix in the social realities with some of the biological phenomenon that you're describing. I think one of the things I'm curious to get an understanding from from you is when you talk about it being a social construct, I'm curious to dig into that a little bit more. What do you mean by it's like socially constructed? Who is doing the constructing of these terms? Hey, Big Thinkers, we're gonna return to the interview with Coleman Hughes in a second, but I just wanted to say, if you wanna dive deeper into Big Think content, you should become a Big Think member and join our members-only community at, where you can watch videos early and unlock full interviews. Now, back to the discussion with Coleman Hughes on the end of race politics. What do you mean by it's like socially constructed? Who is doing the constructing of these terms?

HUGHES: Yeah, so the analogy I like to use is the concept of a month. A month is a social construct. We decide that it's 30 days or 31 days, could have easily decided that it's 29 days. We could get rid of April and give the remaining days to the other 11 months if we wanted to. It's not a real thing out there in nature, right? Compare that to say the concept of a day. A day perfectly tracks the rising and setting of the sun, the 24-hour cycle that mirrors a real thing out there in the natural world. That's why you wouldn't think of a day as a natural, rather as a social construct. You'd think of it as something real. Race is kind of like a month because although it's a social construct which is invented and could be changed and doesn't directly track anything in the natural world, it was inspired by something that is real, namely the lunar cycle. The lunar cycle is, you know, 28 or 29 days. And it's not an accident that a month is fairly similar in length to a lunar cycle. In fact, the word "month" and the word "moon" have the same root. It was inspired by the lunar cycle, but then took on a life of its own where we randomly give one month 28 days, we give another one 30 days, we give another one 31 days, and it doesn't track tightly. That's what race is like. Race is a social construct inspired by the fact that out-of-Africa migrations gave us these visible differences, but, ultimately, it doesn't track them tightly. The way that these categories were created in the '60s and '70s had nothing to do with biologists; scientists were not even consulted. Ultimately, they were created because the government, the U.S. government, and it reached its final point under the Carter administration, as a modus operandi was already doing race-based policy, in particular starting with the Nixon administration. They were issuing racial quotas and employment and so forth. And so, pragmatically, they needed categories on which to exercise these policies. They just had committee meetings and met with organizations, advocacy organizations, organizations that claim to speak on behalf of various Americans, and came up with these concepts, right? Like they invented out of whole cloth the concept of a Hispanic- highly counterintuitive. We see it as normal, but to unite everyone who speaks the Spanish language, right, like someone who's descended from Incas and is from Peru, and someone in Spain have almost nothing in common genetically or culturally except for that they speak the same language. And then sometimes Brazilians are included in Hispanic, though they don't speak Spanish and sometimes they're not included in that. You know, if you grow up on one side of the Pakistan-Afghan border, you're in one category, and if you grow up on the other side of it, you're in a different category, though you might be cousins. This is not the stuff of science, this is the stuff of bureaucracy and drawing sharp lines where sharp lines don't actually exist. That's how these categories came to be, and I think we should all take them a bit less seriously.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: Moving on from sort of the discussion about race in of itself as a concept, I'm curious if you could talk about racism as a concept and how you would define that as a thing.

HUGHES: Yeah, so I think Dr. King had a good definition of racism in his final book. He defined it as "A doctrine of congenital inferiority of a people." That is to think that any group of human beings is congenitally inferior. At the level of policy, I view racially discriminatory policy simply as policy that categorizes someone based on their race and discriminates against them on that basis. In the old days, you had, you know, any given Jim Crow policy you could choose was a great example of racist policy, policies that exclude immigrants on the basis of their race. And nowadays, you have, you know, policies that attempt to reverse the scales of history by discriminating against white Americans. And I give some examples in my book of quite disastrous policies to this effect. One was the Restaurant Revitalization Fund during COVID where the government decided instead of handing out money to restaurants based on how much they're hurting financially, we're gonna do it based on race, and we're going to put minorities and women at the front of the line and white men at the back of the line, unless they're veterans, in which case they got priority status too. You can look at the details of this policy in my book or in reporting: What happened is they essentially ran out of money, white men sued. At the end of the day, what you had was they discriminated against, you know, thousands of white men, and then because they had to reverse the policy from court order, discriminated against thousands of women and minorities who were promised the money and then unpromised the money and left in the lurch. And the whole resulting policy was just a mess of racial discrimination and madness that could easily have been avoided had they just handed out this emergency financial aid not on the basis of race or identity, but on the basis of financial need. So that's my argument in the book is that I'm for any evidence-based policies that are aimed at helping the disadvantaged, but they should be done on the basis of socioeconomic factors, not on race.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: And essentially, what you're describing there is the basis for a colorblind society, certainly from a policy perspective. I think that term sometimes trips people up. So I would love to understand what do you mean when you say the words "colorblind" and building a colorblind society within America.

HUGHES: Colorblind doesn't mean that you don't see race because everyone sees race, and more than that, everyone is capable of being racially biased. So when I defend colorblindness, I don't mean to defend a kind of naivete about the possibility or the existence of racism. There is racism. When I defend colorblindness, I defend the idea that we should try to treat people without regard to race, both in our personal lives and in our public policy. That's what I mean by colorblindness. The word "colorblind," people see it as a dirty word, especially among liberals and on the left. There's been a very successful campaign of writers and intellectuals which have persuaded people that colorblindness is naive at best or racist at worst. So in my book, I try to rescue colorblindness from this PR campaign against it, and I remind people that colorblindness, even the word itself comes not from conservatives, not from white supremacy, not from white supremacists, not from reactionaries, but from the radical wing of the anti-slavery movement in the 1860s. The first person I know of to use the word was Wendell Phillips, the president of the most important abolition organization at that time, a man whose nickname was "Abolition's golden trumpet." He called for what he called "the government colorblind" after the Civil War and proposed a 13th and 14th Amendment, banning slavery, and then giving full citizenship to former slaves. That's where the idea of colorblindness comes from, and it traces from there right through the Civil Rights Movement, people like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Dr. King, and so forth. I think the idea of colorblindness should not be equated to racism and should not be equated to a kind of naive, pretending not to see color. What colorblindness is is a deeply wise philosophy about how we should think about race in a multiracial democracy where no group ever wants to be discriminated against. And so, the colorblind philosophy amounts to a kind of truce where we take race off the table as something to directly select for and instead use better proxies for disadvantage like class and socioeconomics.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: You know, you mentioned Dr. King's book, "Where Do We Go from Here," the last book he wrote before he was assassinated. And I've read that book too, qnd he spent a big portion of that book, you know, talking about the Black Power movement that was emerging at that time. And one of his core critiques of it was the branding around the idea of Black Power could certainly be misperceived by people who, you know, the white majority at that time. I'm curious to get your thoughts on, you know, the fact that colorblindness is for a huge portion of people perceived in a negative light. Do you think that there is some corollaries or some parallels between just like needing to potentially have a different phrase to promote these ideas? Or do you feel like colorblindness as the term is just important enough to focus on in order to get these ideas through and get people to understand?

HUGHES: I thought a lot about what word I wanted to use in this book, and it's not that I loved the word colorblind, but it is that all the alternatives were worse. "Post-racial" is not something that makes any sense to me. It implies that there is a pre-racial world and a post-racial world, and that time is somehow a variable in what your philosophy should be. Doesn't make any sense to me. "Race neutrality" is also pretty good, but doesn't quite have the punch. And you're right to say that Dr. King spent a whole chapter of his final book criticizing the Black Power movement. One of his critiques was that they should change their name to power for poor people because they focused on race rather than what he thought they should focus on, which was class. Despite that, the Black Power movement was quite successful as a branding slogan. If I can rescue colorblindness from its critics, colorblindness is the word that most people are familiar with. Whether or not they love it or they hate it, they recognize it, much like people loved and hated Black Power but recognized it. And so, I think it's the most useful word to use in this context because people are more likely to know what I'm talking about, and that gets the conversation started. At the end of the day, I think the word colorblindness is rescueable and defensible, and every other word that is a synonym with it gets attacked and smeared for the same reason. Ultimately, the reason people attack these words is because they're attacking the philosophy. So it doesn't matter what word you choose. You should just choose the one that people recognize the most, and that's why I chose colorblindness.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: And I'm curious to dig into how you think we would build a colorblind society in America. What are some of the steps do you think that are necessary to take from a policy standpoint, but also just from a social interaction standpoint? Like how would we actually construct a society that lives up to those philosophical values?

HUGHES: From a policy perspective, there are many things that can be done. First, getting rid of race as a category and public policy through executive orders that actually enforce the language of the Civil Rights Act, which is colorblind language. That would be a great step on the policy front. Now, on the interpersonal front, there is everybody can check their own lives to see if they are doing their best to live by this philosophy, right? I mean, it's possible for everyone to fall short here, and everyone can introspect in their own lives. Am I treating people differently because of the color of their skin? Right, this is something that everyone is capable of doing and should interrogate themselves to ensure that they're not doing. And then finally, one of the great hopes of a colorblind society is that among all the problems that children tend to have, for example, children are often selfish until they learn to share, being racist and caring about race is not a problem that most children are born with. Most children are born with the attitude that they think it's at most kind of interesting and notable that humans come in different colors and shapes and sizes, but they don't ascribe any deeper meaning to those superficial differences until they're taught by adults to do so. So I think one of the most important things we can do is the same way that we protect a child's sexual innocence for as long as possible is to protect children's racial innocence for as long as possible. Get rid of these programs like Woke Kindergarten that I talked about earlier, which try to get them to think about race, their race and their friends' race as significant from an earlier age, and instead prolong the period where they naturally don't care and don't ascribe meaning to those differences.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: How much of that do you feel is, you know, imposed by things like schools versus learned patterns and behaviors from their environments? I mean, I feel a lot of the racial ideas and attitudes and learnings people have are things that they pick up as kids just through the environments of which they've grown up, their parents, their friends, their family, and the way those individuals perceive those concepts. And so I'm curious to create that sort of innocence room that you're aspiring to, how would you do that in a society so vast and with so many social interactions that do, in some sense, revolve around these racial categories that we've constructed?

HUGHES: At the end of the day, I think, we can't reach into people's homes and make them parent their children differently. If anyone wanted that power, then they shouldn't have it. The lever we do have to pull is how we educate our kids. The lever we have to pull is pre-K curriculum and K-12 curriculum. I do think those things matter. Kids are quite influenced by the ideas that they're taught by their professors. And so I do think that pulling that lever in the direction of colorblindness, whether it's sufficient time will tell, but it's certainly what we're able to do, and so I think it matters quite a bit.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: And I'm curious, you know, you brought up the census earlier. Do you feel like we should remove these categories from efforts like the census or even like crime statistics, for example, are broken down by these categories? Should those be taken off of, like, official government documents, you feel?

HUGHES: So there are many countries in the world that don't collect racial statistics and, in fact, have outlawed any attempt to collect them. France is the most famous example. And they do this, you know, for the reason that they feel colorblindness must be a complete philosophy right down to not checking your race at the census, right? Even if you wanted to study, say, racial disparities in a place like France, you basically couldn't unless you went outside the channels of the government and somehow got your own statistics, right? So, you know, I think that is probably a step too far. As an American, I feel you should be allowed to study whatever you wanna study, you should be allowed to collect data on whatever you wanna collect data on, and the government shouldn't step in and tell you that you can't collect data on people's race or ethnicity because we've deemed that to be dangerous. Though I support colorblindness and I understand why someone might wanna go that far, I don't think that we should violate people's, you know, freedom to study what they wanna study and collect which data they wanna collect. Now, whether the government should collect that data, you can perhaps make a better case. But ultimately, I think people should be able to study the idea of race and racial disparities, and in order to do that you have to have racial data.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: In your book, you talked about how, I think it was up until 2013, you know, most Americans thought that, you know, the feelings around, you know, racial progress were in a good place, but it seemed to dip after 2013. Can you talk to me about, like, what potentially happened that changed the landscape and thus the attitudes around race in America at that time?

HUGHES: Yeah, so if you look at poll results from 2012 and 2013, most Americans, Black Americans, most white Americans, and most Hispanic Americans believe that race relations were good. Then in 2013, you see the line just begin to take a nose dive. And by 2021, roughly half of the people that thought race relations were good in 2013 still believed it by 2021. So what you're talking about is one of the biggest setbacks in American race relations in generations. So the question is, what happened? My hypothesis is that really the only theory that makes sense, 'cause you can't blame Obama, you can't blame Trump, the timelines don't match. What happened is that 2013 was the year when a critical mass of Americans got two pieces of technology, camera-enabled smartphones and social media. And what that meant is that for the first time in American history, if something happens on a street corner in a random city or town, before 2013, what would happen is probably no one even filmed it. Police would get to the scene or journalists would get to the scene and it might be on the 6 o'clock news in that local town. After 2013, what happens is someone probably films it, even if it's in an out-of-context clip that only starts halfway through the debacle, puts it on Facebook where it gets millions of views in a matter of hours with no journalistic or fact-checking context surrounding it to explain to people what exactly is going on. That creates a situation where the way information has spread is completely different. Certain kinds of content we're able to circulate to a high degree and take advantage of those new circumstances, in particular videos of police arrests gone wrong and in particular police arrests between white cops and Black suspects. We received a 10x, a 100x increase in content that appear to be examples of racist interactions, where the reality on the ground hadn't changed at all- but the appearance did. People felt that racism was on the rise, and this led to the Black Lives Matter movement and the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and the decline of race relations in general. Now, the question then has to be, is it that social media and smartphones showed us the reality that was out there, or is it that social media and smartphones gave us a misperception? I argue the latter because if it were true that social media was giving us a more accurate view of reality, then you would expect the people who spend time on social media to have an accurate grasp of the facts- but that's not true. For instance, researchers asked very liberal Americans who are the group that spend the most time on social media, asked that group how many unarmed Black Americans were killed by the cops in a single year, 2019. The answer they came back with was 1,000. The real number that year was 12. So they were off by a factor of 100. If social media were educating us, you would expect people to have accurate beliefs about these kinds of charge issues. But it's clear that social media in the modern age is miseducating us. It's giving us too pessimistic a view of American race relations. It's caused a backslide in race relations, the likes of which we haven't seen in several generations.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: You know, sort of to close it out this conversation, I'm curious to get a sense from you about, you know, what do you think are some good examples of recent colorblind policy that might have been enacted in the United States or examples from other places in the world that people can sort of sink their teeth into to sort of understand what these things look like in practice?

HUGHES: Yeah, so there are many colorblind policies that we don't even think of as such because they help people, they don't cause much backlash. If you think of need-based financial aid in college, right? That looks at income rather than at race. If you think of the earned income tax credit, which is a pretty widely supported policy to help those in need, these are both colorblind policies. Another example I give in my book are traffic cameras and red light cameras. It's been shown in Chicago and in other cities that instead of having cops handing out tickets when you run a red light or when you speed, it's better to have cameras that do it automatically. For one thing, cameras can't be racially biased the way that cops are liable to be. And secondly, you just get rid of all kinds of police-citizen interactions, that whether or not they're racist, can just get nasty, right, and annoying, so this is a great policy. Not only does it get rid of the opportunity for interactions to go left between police and citizens, it also just saves lives, right? It noticeably decreases the amount of speeding in neighborhoods, and has been empirically shown to save pedestrian lives as a result. So this is an example of a policy that is, you know, literally enacting a colorblind technology and replacing humans with a colorblind technology, saving lives as a result. Now, some people have opposed these cameras because in the case of Chicago, the result was not ticketing rates that directly matched the racial breakdown of the census. This is something people have to understand, is racial disparities and disparities between groups in general are like tumors. They seem very scary, but most of them are benign. There's such a thing as "benign disparity," and that's what I talk about in my book. When you have such a successful program like traffic cameras and red light cameras that save lives, take the human cops out of that work, frees them up to do more important work, reduces the potential for human arrests to go left as they sometimes do, and saves that many lives, when you have a policy that effective on so many fronts, you shouldn't get rid of it just because they don't yield equal ticketing rates by race.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: That example in your book was pretty instructive, and, you know, just so folks are aware, that the cameras were placed, you know, equally throughout the city, regardless of the demographics of the neighborhood, and those specific ticketing instances still occurred. Policies such as that seem like great approaches for things where it's sort of easy to be able to take sort of the potential human bias out of the equation because there's a technological solution that can sort of remove the possibility of human error and judgment or bias and things of that sort. I would love to understand, you know, in terms of places where human judgment is central for the working of a program or a policy, is there any examples of good colorblind approaches that you have discovered where the humans remain in the loop, so to speak, in terms of the decision-making process?

HUGHES: So one example is professors grading their students' exams and papers. I had some professors in college that just made it standard practice to take a student's name off the papers, have uniform font, uniform formatting so that she didn't know whose paper she was grading. I'm surprised that this hasn't been advocated more by, you know, activists that are concerned about racism, right? It's like, why wouldn't it be a good thing to eliminate the potential for bias on the part of a teacher or professor? Wherever you can blind yourself to the data that might be biasing, you should do so.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: And I guess a last question, and I'm curious to get it from sort of like a bit of a philosophical sense, do you feel that it's in any way somewhat sad a bit that some of the best ways for us to combat these notions for humans is to sort of just remove the information from our census, in some sense, where it's like we can't be helped but to be biased, therefore we must in some way put blinders in front of us so we don't trigger these attitudes that we have that bubble up inside us? I'm curious to get your thoughts and reflections on something like that.

HUGHES: You know, I don't view it as sad. I view it as a precaution that is great to do, even if it's completely unnecessary. Frankly, I don't think I've ever had to wear my seatbelt in life because I've never been in a car crash and it was redundant, right? So even if you don't suspect that you are being racially biased, and even if you're not being racially biased, to blind yourself to that data is still good because now it makes it a certainty. You know you could not have possibly been racially biased and your students know it too, so they have no basis to suspect falsely or not. So it just creates an extra layer of trust that prevents suspicion. And it's not tantamount to admitting that you are, that you can't help but be racially biased. I just think it's an added layer of precaution there to really solidify the trust between, say, a professor and her class.

CHAPMAN-SMITH: Coleman Hughes, thank you for being on Big Think today, and sharing your thoughts on your latest book and how we would build a colorblind society in America.

HUGHES: Thank you for having me.

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