In today’s America, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hope that black people might be judged by “the content of their character” is increasingly dismissed as quaint or even inconvenient. The new idea is to pose an eternal opposition between “whiteness” and “blackness,” to the point that even a quick Google search for the term “colorblindness” will reveal how casually that notion is dismissed. Once a widely held ideal, disregard for racial differences has now come to seem naïve and even callous to many who equate it with unconcern about the injustices of racist bias.

In The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America, essayist and podcaster Coleman Hughes issues a call to heed King’s counsel instead. King’s radical positions on economics and foreign policy notwithstanding, Hughes observes that much of what is considered higher wisdom on race relations today would surely have perplexed and dismayed King—as it did Hughes himself, currently 28, during some of his formative experiences in the 2010s.

A three-day “People of Color” conference he attended at 16 turned out to be a teach-in on Critical Race Theory, advertising the importance of concepts such as the safe space, internalized oppression, white privilege, and microaggression. An orientation exercise at Columbia University divided students by race to discuss how they had “participated in, or suffered from, systemic oppression.” Throughout college, Hughes was fascinated that his peers were more pessimistic about race than his grandparents had been.


Like too many of our established terms in the race debate—societal racism, equity, affirmative action—“colorblindness” is less than ideal in its susceptibility to misinterpretation. It all but invites swift objections about the real existence of racism; critics will be quick to point out that anyone who claims not to perceive race is surely lying (which is true). Hughes bristles at those who say “I don’t see color,” and understands that racism persists. Regardless, he proposes, our ultimate objective should be to install “The colorblind principle: we should treat people without regard to race, both in our public policy and in our private lives.”

This is incompatible with much of what travels today under the antiracist banner. Recently the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s law school required first-year students to attend a “re-orientation” workshop. The event featured proclamations to the effect that advocating colorblindness is racist (because it amounts to denying people of color’s experiences); that whites have a “fear of people of color and what would happen if they gained control”; that whites should never talk about their “own story of hardship” because it “diminishes the experiences of people of color”; and that white people “attempt to excuse, defend or cover up racist actions of other white people.” In response to these sweeping characterizations of entire populations not even just by race but by skin color, Hughes makes a useful comparison: “We cringe when we hear old recordings of people describe Asians as ‘yellow’ and Native Americans as ‘red,’ then we proceed to talk about ‘black,’ ‘brown,’ and ‘white’ people with a straight face—as if the generations past were simpletons with respect to racial classification, but we are far superior.”

Is racism so determinative today that this kind of “antiracist” approach is necessary? The alarmist, pessimistic tone in which race is now discussed seems more suited to the period of the old recordings Hughes refers to. I think for example of how the glamorous Broadway diva Ethel Waters made a hit in the 1933 musical As Thousands Cheer, but her three white co-stars had to be forced by the producer to take a bow with her at the end of the show. Or how the white character actor Eugene Pallette—pot-bellied and froggy-voiced, best known for his roles in My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)—refused in 1944 even to appear on camera next to a black actor.


Today’s professional antiracist insists that even though open bigotry of the kind described above is now proscribed, the very fabric of the nation remains racist as long as any statistical disparities between black and white people persist. “When I see racial disparities, I see racism”—so Ibram X. Kendi, megastar guru of antiracism, once famously intoned. Hughes calls this the Disparity Fallacy, and his primary aspiration in The End of Race Politics is to refute it. The white suicide rate is twice the black one, yet neither Kendi nor anyone else would attribute this to systemic racism against whites. “Is anyone suspicious about 75 percent of NBA players being black?” Hughes asks. It would be unthinkable to institute a “racial equity” policy that mandated reducing the proportion of black NBA players to 13%.

Clever as observations like these are, however, they argue past a key premise of the opposition’s argument: that disparities are only pernicious if those with purportedly less power fare worse than those with more (this is called “intersectional hierarchy”). If more whites commit suicide, we assume there is a problem with white “culture.” If there are more black basketball stars, that is because black “culture” values basketball highly. Under this logically fragile but highly influential construct, only white culture can be flawed; if black people lag behind in any way, the fault must belong to “racism.”

Hughes’s more useful points are those immune to this objection. For example, some data show that racism, while it exists, is not uniquely virulent against black people. Studies of callbacks after the submission of job applications show black applicants 32% less likely to get a reply than white ones—but then Arabs are 41% less likely, while Indians and other South Asians suffer the same rate of non-callbacks as black people (30%). In the early 20th century, at a time of open and implacable racism, black Caribbean immigrants owned most businesses in Harlem. On the basis of these and other realities, Hughes offers the conclusion—as likely true as it will be infuriating to the antiracist brigade—that “current racial discrimination is not a significant cause of current racial disparities in income.” He notes further that Indians today earn $1.50 for each white dollar, while Bengalis earn $0.65, despite the fact that the two groups suffer the same discrimination.

Hughes knows how to wield a scalpel. His calm but insistent argument is masterly and serene—as music, his prose would be Sibelius. But then, to many, Sibelius’s music can sound somewhat removed from the mess of real life. This is also true in some ways of Hughes’s approach.


For one thing, Hughes appears to miss the important point that most black Americans’ view of racism hinges not on statistical discrepancies, but on the relationship between black people and the police. The common assumption is that cops kill black men disproportionately to their number out of racist disregard for black life. It is irrelevant to this analysis that hundreds more white men than black men are killed by the police each year in absolute terms. Proportionally, black men are killed at twice the rate (i.e., roughly 25%) that our percentage of the population would predict.

To those under the impression that this take on race and the cops is irrefutable, the idea that it’s time for us to all be colorblind sounds like folly at best and cynical at worst. Hughes would ideally have spent more time applying his scalpel to these arguments (as he has elsewhere). He could for example have counterpoised the image of George Floyd, dying with a white officer’s knee on his neck in 2020, against that of white Texan Tony Timpa, killed by cops under near-identical conditions in 2016—while the nation learned nothing of it.

One senses that Hughes also misses the extent to which “colorblindness” would deprive many black people, and our fellow travelers, of their sense of purpose and significance. After the exercises Hughes was put through at Columbia, he felt “less connected to the people around me, not more. I worried that rather than approach me as a blank slate, these students would approach me as a black man, and, by implication, as a victim.” But this victimized self-conception affords many black students a sense of belonging in a competitive environment that can seem intimidating otherwise. The irony is that a sense of eternal battle against an external enemy force can be powerfully comforting—so much so that it attracts even many whites to assume an “antiracist” label along with all its underlying propositions, however fitfully convergent with reality. Given this frame of mind, it makes sense—independently of data, statistics, and even common sense—that many black people are more comfortable than Hughes to be thought of as victims.


“I dread the possibility of black identity becoming tied to a rehearsed sense of victimhood…that we’ll never accept that we’ve won the battle for civil rights…we’ll be so limited in our conception of who we are that we’ll prevent ourselves from enjoying the fruits of victory,” Hughes writes. But this scenario strikes me less as a prospect to be feared than as a horse already out of the barn. Many consider that a good thing, and the question is how we reach them. In terms of feeling good about yourself, what is a healthy and attractive alternative to a manufactured sense of victimhood? This question is more challenging than many suppose.

Getting past our glum stalemate on racism will require not just facts but plying the choppy waters of captious human psychology. The End of Race Politics is, in itself, magnificently correct. But in the end, the focus on colorblindness—even as guiding star rather than as a form of denialism—will too commonly elicit from white readers the age-old and inert “All I know is I was taught to view everybody equally.” Hughes’s book would haul us all harder up the proverbial mountaintop if it made more of an attempt to meet the “antiracists” where they live.