A Compelling Case for Colorblindness

REVIEW: ‘The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America’ by Coleman Hughes

(Wikimedia Commons)
March 31, 2024

Between the end of the Civil War and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), the goal of nearly all advocates of racial equality in the United States could be summed up as "colorblindness."

As African-American journalist Coleman Hughes reminds us in The End of Race Politics, that aim—the "dream" Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial of a society where Americans would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"—was shared by the abolitionist/civil rights advocates Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, black union leader A. Philip Randolph, the NAACP, and many others. It was also the expression used by Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan in his dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which he denied the constitutionality of Louisiana’s law mandating racial segregation in passenger trains: "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."

By "colorblindness," Hughes of course doesn’t mean literal blindness to the fact that human beings have different shades of skin coloration. Rather, the "colorblind" attitude he espouses is "an ethical principle: … We should treat people without regard to race, both in our public policy and in our private lives." In other words, people’s skin color should be no more relevant to the way we view our fellows, both legally and individually, than other characteristics like their height or the length of their noses.

Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1955 outlawing public-school segregation, and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, polls have exhibited a remarkable transformation in white people’s attitudes toward their black fellow citizens—as witnessed, for instance, in the rapid acceptance of interracial marriage. Not only because of any legal compulsions, but out of a genuine concern to promote equal rights, corporations as well as government agencies have endeavored to "diversify" the race of their employees, including in the executive ranks.

Yet ironically, lamentably, the decline in antiblack racism and the opening of opportunities for advancement to black people has not led to a decline in the overall level of race-consciousness in our society. Instead, as Hughes demonstrates, it has been supplanted by an attitude he labels "neoracism": one championed by professional "antiracists" like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi, and (white) author/lecturer Robin DiAngelo, which holds that "whiteness" as such is an "oppressive" category, and demands that public policy explicitly favor black people over whites, either on the ground of the latter’s inherent inferiority, or as a way of making amends for the heritage of slavery and discrimination previously suffered by blacks.

In a series of clear and pithy chapters, Hughes demolishes both the principles and the policies of the neoracist movement—despite the growing influence they have achieved on mainstream media, academia, and government. One common error, for instance (dissected at greater length by economist Thomas Sowell) is the equation of any disparities in the way that members of different races are treated, even when there is a clear nonracist explanation of the difference, and when policies aimed to eliminate the disparities actually harm black people. Hence, since the George Floyd riots, cities have been urged to "defund" their police departments, since black people tend to be arrested at a higher ratio than whites or Asians. This neglects the fact that crime rates tend (for whatever reason) to be higher among blacks, and that a 2020 Gallup poll showed that 81 percent of black Americans wanted either the same, or greater, police presence in their neighborhoods (since blacks also tend disproportionately to be crime victims).

Another neoracist trick is to misuse the term "affirmative action." Like a majority of Americans, Hughes favors affirmative action in its original sense—making a concerted effort to locate well-qualified black candidates for college admissions or executive positions who might not have been aware of the availability of these openings. (In the late 1960s, the college where I taught recruited black students from rural Georgia who might never have thought of attending a Catholic school in New England; a number of those they admitted, including Justice Clarence Thomas, went on to outstanding careers in fields like law and literature.)

For several decades, however, the term "affirmative action" has been a euphemism for favoring black applicants over white ones, for no other reason than their skin color. This policy of outright discrimination meant that, according to one study of elite colleges, "when other factors were held equal, Asians and whites had to score 450 and 310 points higher than black applicants, respectively, to have the same odds of being admitted." Imagine people’s reaction, Hughes asks, "if every college rejection letter" included the explanation that the applicant would have been admitted "if you had been black rather than Asian." (While Hughes’s book was published before the Court struck down such practices in its Fair Admissions decision, administrators at elite colleges, and public-education officials supervising competitive-admissions high schools, have already schemed to evade the decision.)

Not only are such race-based policies a recipe for racial strife rather than harmony; echoing the findings of Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor in their book Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It, Hughes observes that they are detrimental to the interests of black students themselves: When admitted to colleges for which they lack the necessary qualifications, blacks often either wind up dropping out, or else switch from demanding majors (in the sciences, or pre-med) to easier ones (like sociology)—whereas they would have been more likely to succeed in difficult majors at schools for which they were better qualified. (And when it is widely known that the qualifications blacks must demonstrate for college or professional schools are lower than those for whites, clients or patients may be less inclined to employ their services as doctors or lawyers.)

Hughes is cutting in his refutation of another neoracist demand: that black people deserve tangible "reparations" for slavery. As he notes, "much has been done" by government and in our culture in the spirit of reparations, with both houses of Congress having formally apologized for slavery in 2008-09, federal holidays commemorating Martin Luther King and Juneteenth, the annual observance of Black History Month, and a Smithsonian museum devoted to African-American history. But as Hughes adds, "Americans, and white Westerners broadly, may be the only population on Earth that feels any noteworthy amount of guilt" for its past enslavement of other people—noting the absence of regret expressed, for instance, by Muslim Arabs for having enslaved some 14 million Africans, or by West Africans for the capture and enslavement of other Africans for sale to Western slave traders.

In any event, Hughes refutes the myths propagated by neoracists that contemporary black Americans, whatever their station in life, suffer from the "inherited trauma" of slavery, and hence are bound to experience victimhood. Aside from the fact that many present-day white and black people are descended from immigrants who arrived in this country well after Emancipation (or from Northerners who fought to achieve it in the Civil War), promoting a sense of victimization is the opposite of "what a wise therapist" would do for victims of trauma, "promot[ing] a mindset that treats hardship as something that people are powerless to overcome," rather than encouraging a sense of "autonomy and agency" in them. Worst of all, some neoracists patronize black people by claiming that attributes like "hard work, self-reliance, and the nuclear family" are characteristics of "white dominant culture" and thus merit rejection.

I can mention only briefly a couple of other excellent elements in Hughes’s book. One is his dissection of the flawed "doll test" on which the Court grounded its Brown decision, in place of a constitutional analysis (like Harlan’s) that would have explained the unacceptability, in principle, of racial segregation in public schools. Another is his espousal of expanded charter schools as a means of providing black kids with an alternative to the miserable, unionized public schools they often must otherwise attend. (He cites research of Harvard professor Roland Fryer that refutes the claim that charter schools’ success is just due to student self-selection—a finding, I would add, buttressed by the work of Sowell in Charter Schools and Their Enemies and Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson.)

I wish that every American could be induced to read this persuasive, sensible, and very accessible book.

The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America
by Coleman Hughes
Thesis, 256 pp., $30

David Lewis Schaefer is professor emeritus of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.