The ‘I’m not racist because I listen to / read Coleman Hughes’ disclaimer

Coleman Hughes is an undergraduate in Philosophy at Columbia, currently a leading voice and commentator on all issues pertaining to black people and the struggle against racism in America. To hear the number of times and the number of people he’s been cited by, you’d think he was a veteran scholar of racism and racial history in the United States. Spoiler alert — he is not. This, in and of itself is not a disqualification of course. But it does say something about the quality of global discourse when an undergraduate in philosophy skyrockets to fame and recognition on a thorny historical and social issue, and is being quoted as some kind of authority figure  without much in the way of credentials— and says even more about the more experienced intellectuals quoting him. But enough about his inexperience and lack of qualifications. Coleman Hughes shot to fame over his article in Quillette magazine criticizing black culture itself for many of the problems in the black community, particularly the poverty plaguing black communities in the US. He was lauded and celebrated as the darling of ‘rationalist’ centrist circles — to no one’s surprise he received not just the unqualified endorsement of Sam Harris, Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Christina Hoff Summers etc, they practically fawn over him as an undiscovered treasure, swooning over his arguments and commentary as bringing forth a hitherto unheard of perspective by a black writer, and reverently applauded him for being bold enough to argue an unpopular position. We all know how it is these days — the mere espousing of an unpopular position is apt to get starry eyed admiration from a certain crowd, irrespective of the validity of the position. So Coleman Hughes is now a witness on racism issues in the Senate, host of a podcast, and called upon to give his wisdom on all things black. The only thing missing? His views ever being challenged or even assessed by more experienced scholars who have propounded the opposite view. 
 
But does this young, apparently brilliant black scholar espousing controversial views deserve this stature? A detailed examination of all of his content would take too long, and is unnecessary. Take for instance his piece on black culture that sent Sam Harris and Hoff Sommers into spasms of delight. One of his arguments for his position that black culture is responsible for black poverty, is to point out that Singapore started out with very similar socio-economic conditions as the Black community, and has today built itself up into a shining economic miracle, a developed nation with enviably high standards of living and a prosperous, well governed country. 
 
Why this is wrong — Consider this for a minute. If this was a video piece, and a vaguely intelligent commentator was presented with this, they’d be struck dumb for a few seconds. Coleman Hughes compared the economic growth trajectories of an independent, sovereign city state with a bounded territory, complete economic and social sovereignty, and a limited population with an impoverished, systematically oppressed minority, scattered across large swathes of territory, with little legal and institutional power, with centuries of trauma, and a minority in a country with the majority still ruling over them and thought it was an intelligent comparison. 
 
What that says about the responders — Talk about the fallacy of analogy. He compared two incomparable socio-economic, political, legal phenomena to argue (at least in part) that black poverty is because of black culture. 
 
And thousands of predominantly white readers, and the leading intellectuals of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, gushed over him, praised him, went gaga over the incredible brilliant and moral clarity of the young black writer. He has since been repeatedly invited to talk shows and podcasts, repeated and interviewed, with masses of non-black audiences applauding his every word. The boy makes a leap of logic that should make any reasonable person with a very very basic sense of ‘what things can be compared’ shudder and recoil from the extreme idiocy of his argument, and instead they practically fall over their feet to praise him rapturously. What mental process, what intention explains this among anyone who has ever passed high school? Other than a pronounced bias and underlying animosity towards black people that they jumped with delight at a black person saying the things they believed, even though he makes logical fallacies large enough to drive a truck through?

Coleman Hughes is not the problem. He is a young writer, and should be allowed to make mistakes, and bad arguments. The problem here isn’t him, the issue is the response to a young black writer who made patently nonsensical arguments, who was feted, lauded, given even more important writing assignments because he could command a huge, devoted following who thought he was the most brilliant black intellectual on racism and is cited as proof that some speakers aren’t racist. In the article that launched him into the public eye, Hughes ignored reams of research and writing not by critical race theorists but empirical research on the deliberate, well documented attempts to strip black communities of wealth — the Tulsa race massacre, the devaluing of black neighbourhoods, redlining, and a treasure trove of undeniable legislative proofs of the attempts to keep black communities poor, not to mention the war on drugs and the mass incarceration policies — and a growing, burgeoning crowd of people claim that Hughes being some of their source proves they aren’t racist.

A non-racist response to Hughes original article would be to notice the ridiculously bad analogies, the indefensible leaps in inferences, and the denial of decades of empirical research on how attempts by black communities have been systematically targeted — this research is not hard to find, it requires a few lazy google searches by an unaffected, non-expert in black issues like myself. But I found it, partially because some of Hughes own citations lead to the opposite conclusions of what he claims, but also because it only requires a very vague knowledge of American history to realize there is research he is ignoring and to run a very brief search on Google. Now consider the thousands of rationalist, centrist, ‘I’m not racist’ people who read his original article and not only saw nothing wrong with it, but thought it was brilliant. Consider the thought process of the average educated American who read this and didn’t see the gaping flaws, but instead reacted with veritable delight at what this young black man said. Ask yourself what, other than deep rooted racism, explains their inability to critically evaluate a writer like Hughes, and instead laud him as the speaker of inconvenient truths.

Did Hughes get better, so as to justify his arguments and those citing him as having a valid point? Take a look at his article on the case for black optimism. In this piece, he argues that it is dependent on the ‘lens’ which one takes to reading and reviewing history, that determines whether racism has improved or not. In this piece, Hughes compares what he says are two lenses. The status of black people at present, qua their status at a specific point in the past As opposed to, improvements in the lives of Black Americans qua white people. He argues its an ideological choice to compare black people TO white people. That we should just compare blacks in the 60s to now. But this is an obscenely ridiculous argument — the question for those working on anti-racism, and indeed for black activists is not ‘are we somewhat better off now than in the Jim Crow era?’ It could be a valid question of course, but that is obviously not what any voter, citizen, or concerned individual is trying to find out when trying to discuss whether racism is better or worse. The question is ‘Are we becoming less racist across the board as society. For that, would you simply measure absolutes with no context of whether its connected? Take for example the citation of number of Black Americans now getting bachelor degrees. It is good news, but proves nothing. If the question is of ‘racism’ lessening, then the question or rather the quantity attempting to be measured is — are black people treated worse off than white people for similar situations? How does it then make sense to even argue, for a minute, that one should not compare with how whites are treated? Isn’t the argument by such centrist, rationalist, non-social justice advocates that equality means at least equal treatment? Without comparing how black people fare vis-a-vis white people, all we know is some people are better off. But why? Are they working harder? Luckier? Living in fear? Managed to make all the right decisions to not be hauled up in the system? It is also a profoundly frightening thought process, which essentially argues that people should be grateful for incremental improvements, and not complain — irrespective of whether the incremental improvements are incredibly slow, whether they are in pace with other developments in society, or whether they are the tiny, marginal gains achieved despite a system that is trying it’s hardest to keep certain classes down. Consider for example, the median rise in average income, and the media rise in CEO income. It is tremendously clear to anyone who is not intellectually hobbled, that while global wealth has exploded, and there is a corresponding, slight increase in the incomes of the middle and working classes, the lions share of the gains made have gone to the top 1%. All of us are immediately cognizant that this doesn’t reflect progress at all, in fact it is indicative of a steadily worsening system. It stares us in the face that sure, due to inflation and general, inevitable inexorable rise, incomes have risen, but it is not even remotely comparable to the overall gains in wealth, production and technology, and moreover that the gains made in the time frame under reference belies the notion of progress, reflecting instead that it is gains made despite a skewed system.

Similarly, that more Black Americans as an absolute number get college degrees simply proves that with the passage of time, some of the inevitable, unstoppable steps have been made by a community that has been repeatedly sabotaged. But that says little to nothing about whether or not racism has improved, and if it has, if it can indeed be called progress given the time frame and other socio-political gains made in the same period. The quantity that is being measures is reduction in racism, not whether, against all odds, black people have made small gains. It is ridiculous to even attempt to argue that one can arrive at any conclusion about racism without measuring, you know, the relative experiences of black and white people. It is simply too obvious. If you’re trying to determine if racism has reduced, you compare the experiences of the two groups — the oppressed and the advantaged. Any kid with a high school education knows this. Hughes shamelessly argues this is an ideological choice, a d huge, swelling wave of non-black men and women have let these insane logical fallacies through, have repeatedly called on him to be a writer and commentator, and now, another group of self serving non-blacks argue that because their source or inspiration is Coleman Hughes, they can’t be racist. Far from proving their absence of racism, their uncritical lauding of a young man who makes some pretty ridiculous arguments because he is polished, suave, and is saying the things that an alarmingly large group of people think is the ‘inconvenient truth’ is more proof of their bubbling racism than anything else. That is why, when a young black writer attributed many problems of the black community to the community itself and argued that racism was far smaller a problem than other intellectuals have claimed, they uncritically, and shamelessly follow and endorse his every word, despite his arguments being riddled with holes. What, other than racism, explains the fact that they don’t see the massive logical leaps and instead retweet and endorse with sheer delight and affirmation? 

About B Louis 35 Articles
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.

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