Is Colorblindness the Answer?

Coleman Hughes, author of 'The End of Race Politics,' testifying during a hearing on slavery reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Conversations about race tend to oscillate between two frustrating, polarizing extremes, between a right that often exacerbates racial animus and a left that frequently treats race as the central, enduring fact of American life.

It’s this latter tendency that Coleman Hughes explores in The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America. The popular podcaster and contributor to The Free Press certainly recognizes the former problem, but the thrust of his new book focuses on the trouble with overstating the role of race in our country. If we truly want to advance racial justice, Hughes contends, we’re better off abandoning any consideration of race—both in politics and in our personal conduct. In short, we should unabashedly embrace colorblindness.

Let’s clarify what colorblindness is and isn’t for Hughes. Colorblindness isn’t credulity about race; it’s not a claim that we could or should literally stop “seeing” it. And contra many progressive critics of colorblindness, it’s not indifference toward race, either. Hughes turns to colorblindness to improve our conversations about race, not to sidestep them.

Colorblindness, or more precisely what Hughes calls “the colorblind principle,” commits itself to treating individuals “without regard to race, both in our public policy and in our private lives.” For Hughes, that’s consistent with the legacy of abolition and civil rights, while today’s hyperfocus on race deviates from those achievements by entrenching race-consciousness into our laws and minds. With intentional appropriation, Hughes refers to the colorblind principle as the real anti-racism. What passes for that term—popularized by writers like Ibram X. Kendi and used frequently by proponents of critical race theory—he relabels as “neoracism” instead.

“Out of everyone in Western society,” Hughes writes, “neoracists (along with old-school racists) are the most fixated on enforcing the rules and norms surrounding the concept of race.”

Hughes excels at outlining the pitfalls of neoracist public policies. He covers flashy topics like reparations and affirmative action but expands his critique of neoracism beyond them. Whether it’s CDC officials considering that race might trump age as an eligibility factor for a COVID-19 vaccine or more than 40 percent of college campuses offering, in effect, racially segregated dorms and orientations, Hughes details how neoracism reinforces both a reductive preoccupation with race and a willingness to discriminate on its basis.

And he explores the mindset behind neoracism as well. The idea, for example, that hard work and self-reliance stem from a “white dominant culture,” or Kendi’s infamous adage that “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination” both get their deserved critiques. These claims aren’t just infantilizing and illiberal; they’re anachronistic. They ignore that in 1958, for example, only 4 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage, but by 2021 that figure had climbed to 94 percent. Similarly, in 1958 only 38 percent of Americans said they would support a qualified black candidate running for office; in 2019, 96 percent did

Does racial bias still exist? Does America, as David French argued in 2020, still have far to go to address racism? Undoubtedly. But by the same token, Hughes persuasively shows that we should neither downplay racial progress nor undermine it through ideas like “antiracist discrimination.” In that regard, The End of Race Politics positions itself as a rejoinder to the Kendiesque race-consciousness that’s in vogue in much of our discourse. It offers a compelling case for the colorblind principle as a matter of public or institutional policies.

Does it follow, however, that we should likewise remove the concept of race from our personal conduct? Hughes seems to think so. “We need to strive to ensure that our personal relationships don’t get infected with toxic race thinking of any sort,” he writes. 

In a sense, he’s certainly right. Treating the people in our lives on the basis of race—even when well-intentioned—is often reductive and presumptuous, making group identity a bigger deal than it might be for a given person. Moreover, America’s racial categories stem from a “one-drop rule” worldview that is both arbitrary and that has contributed to racist assumptions throughout our history.

But in another way, Hughes’ vision for a colorblind future takes things too far. Race shouldn’t have any part in an individual’s self-conception, he argues, since it tells you nothing about a person’s individuality, nothing about his or her character, interests, or aspirations. Therefore, even slogans like “diversity is our strength”—a sentiment echoed by politicians from George W. Bush to Barack Obama—miss the mark. They might be “nice-sounding platitudes,” but they nonetheless double down on race, “a meaningless trait that does not map neatly onto anything that we should care about.”

I generally agree with Hughes’ worries about overstating the importance of race, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to regard it as meaningless for many people—or to treat personal considerations of race as essentially gateways to neoracism. To focus on black America, race was clearly used to justify the horrors of slavery and the bigotry of Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the concept of race seems inextricable from the philosophy of abolition, the development of jazz and the blues, literary movements like the Harlem Renaissance, and even the linguistic contributions of black America.

It’s undeniable that these cultural components—of American culture generally and black culture specifically—were influenced by some concept of race. Out of the oppression and cruelty of a warped racial paradigm came a valuable collective identity. At least some black individuals must hang on to a notion of race not out of an internalized Kendi-ism, but out of a sense of attachment to these cultural achievements.

And if those kinds of attachments are valid and valuable (which I think they are) then perhaps our task isn’t so much to eliminate the notion of race per se as to seriously rethink it—to find a new vocabulary and attitude around it that parses through this mixed history while fending off neoracist temptations.

But Hughes rejects this possibility. “The way to avoid this kind of unfairness isn’t to come up with different race categories; it’s to get out of the business of racial classification altogether,” he writes. The result is a binary—neoracism vs. colorblindness—that doesn’t consider constructive, present-day alternatives to think about race, often from abroad.

Take Mexico, whose approach to race has been influenced by an idea called mestizaje. Whereas some parts of the world, including the U.S., categorize people into a few discrete racial categories, mestizaje holds that Mexico is a mixed-race nation. It’s a complicated idea that shouldn’t be romanticized, but as I’ve written before, it’s also helped make Mexico far less race-conscious. Race is talked and thought about in less rigid ways, avoiding the conflict-oriented mindset that pits an amorphous “whiteness” on one side against “people of color” on the other. (And not just Mexico; mestizaje is also influential and tempers race relations in other Latin American countries.)

Mestizaje might currently seem removed from America’s experience. But with the Latino population (most of which is of Mexican heritage) set to continue growing in the coming decades, it’s possible that something like mestizaje will play a role, even a big role, in our conversations about race in America. And if that’s the case, then colorblindness won’t be the only potential idea to counter neoracism—there’ll be an alternative approach that hangs on to an idea of race, but in a more moderated and less rigid way. In short, a better racial category.

But there’s a more fundamental problem with Hughes’ attempt to remove race from our personal lives: His unabashed notion of colorblindness is unabashedly individualistic.

Throughout The End of Race Politics, Hughes treats group-based collective identities—like race, ethnicity, and heritage—as problematic by default. He thinks they downplay the importance of “our common humanity,” or a belief that “what it takes for human beings to flourish has nothing essential to do with our skin color or ancestry or any of the other traits that people have used throughout history to divide themselves.” 

Hughes’ underlying assumption is that these collective identities are primarily divisive. And they often are, as the many neoracist examples he chronicles show. But especially for minorities familiar with alternative conceptions of race—often immigrants—collective identities can instead be cohesive and integral to their self-conception. That includes race, albeit understood in a different, more expansive way that blends qualities we in America associate with things like ethnicity and national origin. 

Again, to focus on Latinos: In the Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, most identified their race as either “two or more races” or “some other race,” rather than selecting one of the five census-designated racial categories. Many also wrote in that their “race” was their country or region of heritage, like Mexican or Latin American, or that their race was Latino (technically an ethnic label). Even so, a 2018 Pew survey found that more than 80 percent of Latinos are proud to be Latino and American. 

Letting go of that conception of race will be a hard pill for many Latinos to swallow, and I suspect for other minorities as well—and rightly so. Why? Because this more expansive attitude toward race reflects what various conservative writers—from Yuval Levin, to Ross Douthat, to Michael Brendan Dougherty—have in other contexts referred to as “unchosen obligations,” a sense that part of what makes you you has nothing to do with, well, you individually. It has to do with the traditions and culture that formed you before you could even notice, which behoove certain duties of you, and through which you derive a connection with other people regardless of your individual foibles and flaws. 

One of the biggest lessons of the past eight years in particular has been that people yearn to be part of a group larger than themselves. Does this have a toxic drawback? Surely. But the response shouldn’t be to entirely avoid collective identities. Without identity-based ties, we leave ourselves vulnerable to destructive influences (including, at their most extreme, ideologies like white nationalism). Rather, we should think of collective identities that minimize conflict, that are more cross-cutting and less central, that are a characteristic of people rather than the characteristic about them.

As America’s racial demographics become more and more mixed, we’ll have to envision notions of race that can satisfy an understandable desire to belong without devolving into the excessive race-consciousness that Hughes so deftly criticizes. Needless to say, that’s a tall order, but one necessary for multiracial, pluralistic democracies to thrive.

I genuinely hope that in a few decades we’ll look back at conversations about race sparked by books like The End of Race Politics and see them as the end of a debate between real anti-racists like Hughes and neoracists like Kendi. Given a binary choice, I would undoubtedly prefer to live in the world of the former, which would be far more likely to improve the incessant polarization of our conversations about race. But I’m not convinced we face that binary. 

So I also hope that when we look back at this moment in time, we might see Hughes’ book as marking the beginning of a new conversation about race, one between colorblindness on one hand and a yet-unnamed approach for people to think of race as a part of their personal lives—one that doesn’t fetishize race, but that doesn’t entirely do away with it either.

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