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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

A Colorblind Nation

Featuring Coleman Hughes

Can the idea of America looking beyond race work in such a divided time? Are there reasons we should still use race as a basis for public policy? Have colleges gone too far in their actions to confront racist actions in the past? Zachary and Emma talk to Coleman Hughes, the author behind the new book ‘The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America’ to look at a modern approach to race that seems to be making waves.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Coleman Hughes: I never cared about race. I never thought that race was interesting in itself. And it was precisely because my new environment refuted that lack of interest that I became curious. Why am I suddenly now being told to pay attention to race all the time? I don’t care about your race. I care about becoming friends and associating with people on the basis of shared interest and shared values. I thought that’s what it meant to be progressive about race.

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the Founder of The Progress Network joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the Executive Director of The Progress Network and this is our weekly podcast called What Could Go Right? Which is a way of asking a question that we don’t ask enough as in- we’re always asking what could go wrong in the world. Why don’t we ask what could go right in the world? They are both intrinsically possible outcomes of uncertain futures. And so the fact that we pay substantial and perhaps inordinate attention to all that could go wrong, May skew our sensibility as to what is actually going on in the world in a way that prevents us from asking the question, what could go right? And really considering the possibility that there is a lot that could go better than we think, better than we fear, better than we perceive, especially given that we are constantly focused on all the things that could go wrong. And rarely do people look at the question of race in America from a question of what could go right.

In fact, race in America for my entire lifetime, and for the lifetime of most people alive today, has been a continual, chronic question of all that is going wrong. or at least has been filtered through a lens of everything is always going wrong and going awry and we have failed to solve one of the great wounds of American society between African Americans and the greater largely white society although now that is less true meaning the greater society is Hispanic and Asian and all sorts of multicultural but nonetheless the question of how races organize themselves in the United States, how we live together, how we don’t live together, what kind of social injustices and inequities there are, and how we are supposed to deal with those.

Either we’re supposed to deal with those through law, through a change in attitude, through a change in sentiment. And the degree to which these questions are rarely asked calmly. They are usually discussed hysterically, if at all, in shouting and ad hominems and in accusations of lack of good faith and or racism and or insensitivity, you name it, on the part of those arguing and their view of those whom they’re arguing against.

So hopefully we will have a conversation today that is on a difficult third rail topic, but not in an hysterical fashion. And I am pretty convinced that the person we’re going to talk to will at least allow for the space to have that kind of conversation. So Emma, tell us about who is behind door number three.

Emma Varvaloucas: So today we’re going to talk to Coleman Hughes. He is a writer and a podcaster. So if you’re interested in listening to his podcast, it’s called ‘Conversations with Coleman’. We love a good alliteration around here. He usually writes about issues related to race and public policy and applied ethics. He’s an analyst on CNN and also a contributing editor at the City Journal.

Emma Varvaloucas: So we’re going to go talk to Coleman and see what he has to say about his new book, which is called ‘The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.’ Ready, Zachary?

Zachary Karabell: I am ready. 

Coleman Hughes, it’s a pleasure to have you join What Could Go Right? And as our listeners know, but you may be less familiar with, you know, one of our attempts in doing this podcast was an attempt to either look at things that are going better in the world than we think they are, or to look at things that we know are going badly with an eye toward what are we able to do collectively to ameliorate, to improve, to move forward rather than, say, stuck in an endless spin of negativity, right?

Zachary Karabell: So those are the two kinds of axes of how we try to have these conversations and not in any manner, shape or form skirt or elude or evade difficult questions, difficult topics and things that are indeed problematic, right? Your recent book, while it’s titled The End of Race [Politics], is more aspirational at the end of than it is, it has now ended.

And I wonder, when you think about racial politics, when you think about what you’re drawing attention to and what all your work over the past years has been, you Do you feel that there is a plausible end in the way in which you aspirationally titled the book, or is this just more of a call to awareness and I guess each of us just doing what we can individually and within whatever collective institution we have?

Coleman Hughes: Yeah, good question.

In the book, which is called The End of Race Politics, The subtitle is arguments for a colorblind America. And the question you asked is a variant of many people’s first thought, which is, is a colorblind America even possible? Forget about whether we should go towards it. Can we reach it in some way. The more pressing first question. I view the prospect of a colorblind America kind of like I view the prospect of a peaceful America. It’s never going to happen in a perfect sense. Like we’re never going to live in a country with a murder rate of zero, an assault rate of zero and so on and so forth. But the concept of peace and peacefulness is a north star such that we know when we’re going towards it and we know when we’re going further away from it. I view colorblindness very much in the same way. It’s not that we’ll ever get to a society with zero racism. That’s impossible given just how flawed human nature can be. And the fact that certain people will always want to indulge a kind of toxic bigotry.

Colorblindness should be the north star in determining whether we’re going closer to that ideal or whether we are moving further away from it. As I argue, we have been in the past 10 years by obsessing more over racial identity. in our personal and social lives and by injecting race into public policy.

Emma Varvaloucas: So Coleman, maybe you can give us a little bit more detail about what you mean by colorblind. I think the phrase that comes to mind for a lot of people when they hear something like that is “I don’t see race,” you know, but I don’t think that’s exactly what you mean.

Coleman Hughes: Yeah. I don’t like the phrase. “I don’t see race” but I don’t like it for a different reason than a lot of commentators and writers dislike it.

Many people criticize that phrase. As a general critique of colorblindness in general, they will say that colorblindness is really white supremacy in disguise, or it’s naive at best. It’s somehow an inherently conservative or reactionary concept. I reject all of these ideas for reasons I go into detail in the book.

I dislike the phrase, “I don’t see race” because it provides a very convenient target for critics of colorblindness, an easy target. And it’s actually misleading because in fact, we do see race, right? At least American adults, if you’ve, if you are raised in the society that makes race this salient. So by the time you become an adult in America, given how sensitized we are to race, everyone sees race, right?

I don’t know if your podcast does video, I assume you do, your listeners are going to see that I’m not an Asian woman. They’re going to see that I’m a Black guy and they’re going to see what, what race they, they believe you belong to. And more than that, we’re all capable of being racially biased. So I want to grant those two things right at the top.

What I mean by colorblind and what many people mean when they say I don’t see race is really, I try to treat people without regard to race, which is a more accurate and defensible. statement. And that’s what I mean by color blindness. And then the last part of it, which is the more controversial part is that I demand that the state treats me without regard to race, which means getting rid of race in our public policy.

Zachary Karabell: So what does that look like in a specific example? What’s something that you can point to that most people will be familiar with that we do now that we should do differently?

Coleman Hughes: So at the policy level, race based affirmative action is the most salient case here because Before the Supreme Court ruling, you have a situation where, you know, an 18 year old student applying to college, in many cases, a but for cause of their acceptance or rejection at a college would be their race, which is to say an Asian student applies to Harvard and gets rejected.

You make that identical application, but make that student white or, or, you know, God forbid Black or Hispanic, they will definitely get it right. There are many cases like that. It’s not every case, but it’s widely enough true that you just have what is in essence, mass racial discrimination every year in who gets admitted to colleges and in why they get admitted.

And there are various defenses for this, some overly clever and some more substantial, but at the end of the day, they all amount to You know, looking someone in the face and saying, sorry, you know, your race is, is the reason you didn’t get into this school, which is something that makes Americans, uh, in both parties, profoundly uncomfortable when forced to look at it in the face and without euphemisms.

So something like affirmative action, going from a race based policy to a policy that is based on other factors, whether that be class or whether that be policies, where You accept the top 10 percent of students at every public school in the state, if you’re, say, a state school, that’s a race neutral policy that is still quote unquote equitable in the sense that you are casting a wider net than you would have based on, say, looking at SAT scores alone.

So really, you know, that’s, that’s the most salient example of a policy where you can get rid of race while also still addressing the issue of disadvantage. and Unlevel Playing Fields.

Emma Varvaloucas: So, Coleman, I’m going to ask you for another example, since the affirmative action one is kind of a moot point at this point, and I’m going to ask that it not have to do with the COVID vaccines, as I think that was, you know, pretty strongly backtracked, and I asked for another example, mostly because when I hear about arguments for a race blind society, in terms of public policy, it does feel like we’re kind of already living in one.

Like we’ve already reached that.

Coleman Hughes: So another example you could use is federal contracts and state level contracts, federal contracting. The federal government and the vast majority, if not all states have requirements that a certain percentage of government awarded contracts go to minority owned companies.

Businesses and certain states have percentage guidelines and percentage quotas. And this varies at the state level and so on and so forth, which has for decades as a sidebar led to the problem of essentially fraud of white owned businesses, pretending to be minority owned businesses, or actually having kind of, you can call it as sort of an Alibaba business where it’s really owned by someone.

And then someone else is sort of fronting the ownership, so on and so forth. So this has been a longstanding policy that’s ingrained in the fabric of federal contracting and state level contracting at this point. And if you want it to somehow distribute this based on some other metric, I’d be open to that conversation, but I don’t think that we ought to use race as a variable.

Zachary Karabell: I’m wondering what you think of, and this may be neither here nor there for the essential point. There was a, an attempt or still is an attempt in New York state with cannabis legalization to award dispensary licenses primarily or disproportionately to people who had been harmed by zealous prosecution of, uh, cannabis laws prior to legalization.

That was like part, there was a whole quota system that was then challenged in the courts as being discriminatory to other people, not on racial grounds, just on, and basically the whole system. has drawn to a total halt. But what do you make of that type of discrimination, right? It’s not racial per se. It was an attempt to say that there should be a remedial attempt to, I guess, retroactively address harms that were done often in African American communities by like, zealous prosecution of cannabis possession.

Coleman Hughes: Yeah. So in, in principle, I don’t see how it’s a race related issue. Oh, it’s race related, but only in the sense of disparate impact. Right? So it’s, it’s not choosing black people to give or Hispanic people to, to give licenses to it’s saying, if you can show you’ve been harmed by overzealous marijuana laws in the past, then we’re going to put you at the top of the list.

And, you know, whether it so happens that the majority of people fitting that bill are black or Hispanic or otherwise is a knock on fact, right? It’s not true. So my argument in general isn’t against, almost everything has a racial disproportion. And if you, if you had a law like that after prohibition that wanted to give the liquor licenses to the people that had been harmed by like overzealous prohibition laws, you You would find it would have a different racial breakdown.

And I would not be opposed to that on colorblindness grounds, whether it’s a wise policy is a totally separate question that I haven’t really looked into.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. And I guess that also then raises, you know, for me, one of the big questions is does anywhere in the world that has racial divisions and not every country does, or at least not.

You know, fundamentally, right? Scandinavian countries don’t fundamentally have this issue ethnically, although they do now with, you know, how they have dealt or dealt badly with a surge of non Scandinavian immigrants. Do you feel anywhere in the world, any human society gets this right or gets this better?

Coleman Hughes: Better than America? I’m unaware of a society that gets this better than America in, in the general sense, there’s a few things that we have to observe about the difference between America and most of the rest of the world. Whether we’re talking about European countries, or certainly East Asian countries, we’re talking about societies that have been so deeply premised on a shared ethnicity and shared language that They’ve rarely or only recently had, had to begun to deal with the challenge of multiculturalism and multi ethnicity.

I mean, Japan and Korea are effectively ethno states in a sense that it’s one ethnicity. And you can’t immigrate there or it’s extremely hard to. And so have never been faced with, as a society on a deep level, this question of how should the state deal with the conundrums and issues that arise when you have multiple races of people living alongside one another.

America, for various reasons, was really the first experiment in multiracial democracy and has thus, and because it had effectively open borders in the 19th century until 19, early 1920s, and substantial immigration after 1965 has been faced with a, A challenge that most, most European countries haven’t until I guess the migrant crisis, even then it’s a little bit of a different challenge.

So my arguments are more kind of narrowly tailored to America in the sense that I’m not really sure I know what like Singapore should do. or what Japan should do necessarily. These are very different societies, very different cultures that deal with the issue of race and diversity in quite different ways.

Coleman Hughes: But in general, it’s not just that I don’t know of a place that has done it better. I don’t know of a place which has truly faced the same challenges, even period. Uh, you know, how, how it’s addressed the challenge is a separate question from even whether countries have faced the challenge in a long run way, if that makes sense.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. I mean, I do think there are societies like Canada has had a more melting pot ish. I mean, we say we have a melting pot. Canada probably has had a more actual melting pot approach. And, and then you’re left with countries that have de facto dealt with different aspects of race, you know, Mexico between a Spanish immigrant group and a indigenous or Brazil with probably more similar to the United States.

I think my answer to that question is it’s not clear that any society has dealt with this particularly well. Some have dealt with it differently. You know, India, which is more caste issue, right? Just has massive quota systems, which according to most Indians, doesn’t really ameliorate the problem. It just is a way of addressing it.

News Clip: And this would continue even after independence, India’s constitution permitted quotas and reservations. Not for everyone, though. Only two marginalized groups, the SCs, that is the scheduled castes, and the STs, the scheduled tribes. This reservation can be divided into two types. One is the political one, which is temporary.

The other is a social kind, your jobs and college seats. The political reservation meant quotas in elected bodies like parliament and state assemblies. That was supposed to be re evaluated after 10 years, but nowadays there is no evaluation. There is only extension.

Coleman Hughes: Famously, there’s the French model where the government can’t collect any kind of racial statistics and you, you know, if you’re, the government can’t ask you what race you are, right?

And so if you look up census figures in France. You’re not going to find how many Moroccans live in Paris or whatever. You might find that from some academic, but you’re not going to get it on government figures. To what extent that has a big effect, I’m skeptical of, and I think it’s possible to go too far in terms of prohibiting people from even asking certain questions.

Emma Varvaloucas: Coleman, I want to go back for a second to Zachary’s question about the weed industry, not specifically about the industry, but the remediation of harm argument, because I think it’s the most common argument that I hear against your colorblind argument, right? That given the history of the United States and given that there’s a specific history of harm against, against, I was, you know, Black people in particular because of slavery.

Also other races and ethnicities, you know, you could talk about Chinese or Japanese, for instance. Why to you is a remediation of harm argument okay as far as weed, right, where an overzealous law harms you, but not one that’s based on race, when there have been laws in the past that did cause harm based on race?

Coleman Hughes: So the, the analogy would only make sense if instead of talking about remediating individuals that were convicted of marijuana related offenses, you were instead drawing a line around a group, many of whom are six, seven generations removed from the people that were convicted. That’s what would make the analogy make sense.

I’ve always been in favor of paying remediation to specific identifiable people. So for example. There’s a program outside of Evanston, Chicago. I don’t know what the status is, but it was months ago last time I checked on it, where if you can show that as a Black person, you were denied a mortgage in the 1950s or 60s in a redlined neighborhood, then you get a certain sum of money as remediation for that.

I’m all for that in principle. What I’m against is the idea, which is quite a separate concept, that I, because I happen to be a descendant of slaves, many generations removed. Not myself harmed, but rather a descendant of someone who was harmed, that I’m therefore entitled to what they didn’t receive.

Zachary Karabell: I want to shift gears for a moment and talk a little about you personally, as it applies to the work that you’re doing. And this may be an unfair question because none of us have full perspective on ourselves. But, um, You know, it strikes me that there is almost an oddly inverse reaction to the, the moderateness of your tone and writing and the hysterical reaction to your tone and writing, you know, you don’t come across as a firebrand.

I mean, there’s definitely a place for firebrands, right? There are people who preach, there are people who get off on a kind of a moral, unequivocal, on a soapbox stance. And sometimes that’s an effective way of moving an argument and talking about things. But I think it’s fair to say that’s not you, you know, that’s not your temperament, it’s not your affect.

And yet, you would think, like, if someone only read and listened to reactions to you, I mean, you would think you were this. Just an nuanced, zealous crusader against all that is good and affirmative action in the United States. Do you have any sense of, I mean, is it just our moment? Is it, are you just a convenient lightning rod for a whole series of other things?

And again, I get the fact that none of us are the best judges of how we come off and how people react, but I wonder if you have any, having now been in this particular arena for a couple of years, right? If you have any thoughts about that.

Coleman Hughes: I don’t know. I guess I have two thoughts about it. One is. It’s possible that someone that is calm and not firebrandish can provoke more anger than someone who is firebrandish because there can be a kind of backlash effect to calmly reasoning with someone but still deeply disagreeing because there’s a sense that I may not be phased by things I should be phased by and that can be additionally frustrating.

In a way, I think certain people would prefer me to be a kind of hysterical preacher because then I’d be easier to dismiss and I guess. Maybe that can provoke more anger in people. Secondly, I think it’s, it’s true that like, if you compare me to someone like Candace Owens, who’s, I think her, her most recent insanity, I mean, her two most recent insanities were that the, I think, uh, the CIA created Hollywood.

Which I think the timeline on those two things is the wrong direction for that to be even true. We would say it’s problematic. And Emmanuel Macron’s wife is a man. I think she said, quote, she would stake her professional career on that fact. These are the kinds of things that, like, I would, I would have to be literally in the grip of a meth addiction for me to say these kinds of things.

But on the other hand, You can probably find two sentences of me that sound very similar and are making a very similar claim to something that Candace Owens would say. So superficially, if you’re not paying attention, it could be very easy to lump us into the same category and think, well, all of these, you know, black people that have the kind of contrary views you’re not supposed to have, they all seem like nutjobs.

You know, they say things like the CIA invented Hollywood and Emmanuel Macron’s wife is, you know, a man. And so I think not looking into things is the Occam’s razor explanation for a lot of misjudgments in this space.

Emma Varvaloucas: So Coleman, you know, the follow up question to that for me is why did you get into this sort of thing? – arena of issues. Was it an active choice and something intentional? Or was it that you fell into it? Or was it that you just felt that it was so important that, you know, you needed to get into it? Because it does seem sometimes from the outside that the reaction and the criticism might not be worth the engagement, but maybe you don’t feel that way.

Coleman Hughes: There’s been times when I felt that way. Absolutely. Well, my, my career has been a kind of a weird, a weird journey. At 18, I went to the Juilliard School of Music and I was a professional musician. Still am a professional musician though. I spend more of a hobbyist amount of time on it. And I always loved both music and philosophy and split my time between the two.

My, mother died when I was a freshman at music school. And that caused me to really, uh, reflect and, and actually caused me to drop out of Juilliard and apply to Columbia. And, uh, when I got to Columbia, This was right around the beginning of what Matthew Iglesias would later call the Great Awokening.

YouTube Clip: Would it be fair to say that the Great Awokening, this quasi religious, quasi cultural revolution, originated at the universities? I would say absolutely yes. What I would say is that it’s very clear that the nucleation point for this ideology, were the universities and originally kind of the fringe departments of the universities.

And the old consensus, you know, you could ask a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal, a conservative, they would all tell you the same thing up until extremely recently. And that was, It’s campus nonsense.

This is a time when liberal white Americans began going bit by bit further and further to the left on racial issues to the point that by a certain year, I forget which, white Democrats were further to the left on race issues than Black Americans as a set. This was much more pronounced on college campuses than it was among white Democrats on the whole. So I was going from a situation being a black and Hispanic kid who grew up in a liberal town with a kind of default MLK style ideology towards race, which is to say race doesn’t matter.

Your race doesn’t define you and it doesn’t define me. And the first person to come into the room and begin treating people differently as a result of race, that’s the person who’s making the mistake. And it’s up to everyone else in the room to say, no, that’s the philosophy of race I grew up with, and I think it’s the right one cut to now I’m in an environment where.

All of a sudden, racial identity is spoken of as a kind of magic inside your soul, right? People talk about blackness as this beautiful inner quality. Insofar as you have anything that’s non white, it’s talked about as a kind of, as a kind of slice of God inside your soul. And insofar as you’re white, this is supposed to be basically a, a marker of shame and a reason to humble yourself, right?

And this influences social interactions, it influences conversations, and what’s more, it’s enshrined in some of the policies at the school, the, the, I talk about the orientation policy in my book, where at Columbia Orientation, they had us go, Black kids in one corner of the room, Hispanic kids in another, whites, Asians, et cetera.

And then we all talk about how we either participate in or suffer from systemic racism. And that the effect of this policy, whatever its intent, was now to make me hyper aware of my racial identity and how presumptively it makes me different from other people in the room. Now, this is precisely the opposite emphasis of the kind of common humanity, civil rights ethos, which says, Yes, you’re white and I’m black, but don’t we both bleed red?

Don’t we both love our children? Check on and on down the line of the things that make us common, so as to not exacerbate the inevitable tribalism in society, but to tamp down on it. And so, being thrust from the one environment into the other, it’s a lot of work. made me wonder, okay, this is a totally new approach and philosophy to race, which people are basically afraid to talk about because if you’re a white person to consider critiquing it is to potentially invite a charge of racism.

And that’s like, who would want to do that? To critique it as a person of color is potentially to invite the lesser, but still damning charge of being a traitor of some kind. And the whole dynamic around it was so contrary to skeptical inquiry. And so that’s essentially where I’m coming from as a person.

I never cared about race. I never thought that race was interesting in itself. And it was precisely because my new environment refuted that lack of interest that I became curious. Why am I suddenly now being told to pay attention to race all the time? I don’t care about your race. I care about becoming friends and associating with people on the basis of shared interests and shared values.

Coleman Hughes: I thought that’s what it meant to be progressive about race. And so it was the distance between those two things that interested me at a personal level. And eventually I started writing about publicly.

Emma Varvaloucas: It’s always so interesting to hear about this because I was at college Five years, I think, before you were, and we had none of that stuff. Imean, Zachary, do you see this going on with your kids who are? Next generation from Coleman and I?

Zachary Karabell: Curricularly. Yes. Socially. No, I mean, the, the books that are chosen to be read, but much less of this going on in, in fact, I’m wary though, of kind of anecdotal, um, you know, we all have our own personal experience.

Sometimes that personal experience scans well with a generalizable one. Sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t mean the generalizable isn’t true. And usually it means that the personal one isn’t true or sorry, isn’t indicative.

Coleman Hughes: Yeah. I mean, well, I’ve heard from more than one person that a lot of younger kids, I guess, I don’t know if they’re Gen Z anymore.

Actually, they might be whatever comes after that are not so hot on this philosophy anymore, as Generational turnover tends to do, you know, what was cool in one generation almost by definition can’t be cool next. So it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if, if you didn’t see much of this socially.

Zachary Karabell: So I wonder on this question also of the bedfellows one attracts when you, you know, annunciate a view and a philosophy about change,what you end up doing about, there are going to be a lot of people, particularly given some of the philosophies you articulate, uh, in your book and in your work, whose, whose allegiance you probably wouldn’t be overly fond of. I mean, it may not be as bad as Churchill once said, I would ally with the devil, but it would help me defeat the Nazis, right?

Meaning I don’t, I don’t care who fights on my side, as long as. They’re fighting on my side. Because there are an awful lot of people, right? Who faced with some of the. articulation of your philosophy might be genuinely racist or might be genuinely hold a whole series of views that you would probably find morally questionable, if not abhorrent.

Now you’re not responsible for that in any manner, shape, or form. I’m just wondering how you navigate that.

Coleman Hughes: Well, I guess the options are either to, to see that as a reason not to speak, which I find unacceptable or to speak anyway and to try to mitigate that risk by doing my best to be responsible about what I’m not saying.

I’m not saying that you should be a single issue voter on colorblind issues. I’m not. And if you were a single issue voter on colorblindness, then almost by default at this point, you’d have to vote for Republicans and for Trump, but I didn’t, and I don’t think I’d ever vote for Trump. It’d have to be something so horrible on the other side to get me to, to vote for a guy like that.

So I don’t recommend being a single issue voter on, on any topic necessarily. I absolutely don’t condone voting for Trump. The far right and white supremacy and all of these things are precisely counter to the spirit of colorblindness. And insofar as there are people pretending to cheer on colorblindness, but actually holding something else, that’s not a mark against colorblindness.

That’s a mark against them for being dishonest. And it’s not a mark against people who hold the colorblind philosophy in good faith. It’s definitely a real phenomenon. To me, that doesn’t justify not speaking. Although for many people, it would, for many people, they would just say, rather than have a single person take me to be someone I’m not, I’m just going to shut my mouth and choose a different career path.

I’ve chosen to take the opposite side of that because I think the importance of speaking outweighs the discomfort I feel when somebody unsavory likes me.

Emma Varvaloucas: Coleman, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about something that we confront with the Progress Network, which is that when you point out progress, A lot of people think that you’re kind of being an ass, meaning that, you know, there’s really no good argument that race relations in the United States nowadays are worse than they were in the 60s.

I would say worse than they were in the 80s, worse than they were in the 90s. Like, there’s definitely been. Progress on that, but that has come along with a view, I think particularly on the left, that things are getting worse and worse and worse to the point that people think that the United States is a much more racist place than the rest of the world, which if you’ve left the United States, you know that that’s absolutely not true.

So I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about why you think that that is, that perception is so unmatched with reality on this issue.

Coleman Hughes: Yeah, well, there’s a whole spate of books that talk about progress in general and why people are so angered by it. Steven Pinker, I think, probably had the most famous book, Enlightenment Now.

Hans Rosling had a book called ‘Factfulness’. Your listeners probably have heard of these books. And they and others have pointed out just that there’s, there’s a basic point about media bias. I’m, I’m a CNN analyst. We almost never analyze good news. In fact, I’m not sure we’ve ever analyzed good news. We, we analyze controversial news and upsetting news.

So anything from controversial to upsetting gets eyeballs on the screen. But it seems like good news might appear in your Instagram reels. Like my fiance likes to watch videos of dogs and babies and stuff like that’s happy stuff that doesn’t get people tuning in to, to cable news or to the New York times or to the wall street journal and so forth.

So there’s a general bias towards the negative, which shapes every issue. On the issue of race in particular, I think that the problem is if you’re seen to be saying that progress has been made, you can also be construed as saying that the issue is over. And if you’re construed as saying that. Then you get written off if you’re a white person as the category of a clueless Pollyanna white person that doesn’t know about racism because they’re white and is ignorant and needs to read Robin DiAngelo and so forth.

And so you get very few people willing to say, you know, what you just said, namely that a lot of progress has happened. I had an essay probably five years ago at this point in Quillette called ‘The Case for Black Optimism’, in which I laid out a lot of the data points about progress are just not publicized at all.

I mean, the most shocking one to me, shocking in the sense that it was never a front page New York Times article, is that, I think it was between 2001 and 2017, the incarceration rate for Black men in their twenties, more than cut in half. That’s astonishing. That’s, that’s between when I was in kindergarten and my first drink, 21.

Actually, that wasn’t my first drink, my first legal drink. Thank you. So we’re talking about, I mean, there’s, it’s interesting cause there’s an organization. I don’t know much about it, but it’s called ‘Cut 50’ and it wanted to cut the incarceration rate by 50%, which is. Considered an ambitious goal. And nobody knows that this happened between 2001 and 2017.

Coleman Hughes: And so there’s many other statistics like that, that point to overall uplift in among black Americans. And then there’s other statistics that point to a decline in actual. Racism towards black people on the part of whites and others. I don’t think that that is ever going to go to zero, but we’ve made substantial progress in the time between my grandfather’s generation and my father’s time.

Zachary Karabell: Recent polling has shown that the support of African Americans and Hispanics for the democratic party. is at its lowest level really since polling began. I mean, it’s since 1960, but a lot of these questions were not well asked and the, and the makeup of the parties in 1960 was much more national and diverse than it is today.

And it’s been a pretty precipitous drop, even in the past eight years, particularly amongst African Americans and again, yes, in Florida, amongst Hispanics. Moving toward the Republican party or also moving toward independent parties. Do you have an explanation for why this is the case or do you have, have you thought about what underlies this particular shift, which is pretty dramatic and will obviously have profound or potentially profound impacts on what goes on in the election in 2024?

Coleman Hughes: Yeah. So I’ve looked into it a fair amount. It seems that the Hispanic trend is really quite significant in terms of numbers and was really material that the difference between 2016 and 2020. The change in black voters has been more modest. I mean, I think we were talking about Trump got 2 percent more of the black vote in 2020 than he did in 2016. And the poll, the New York Times Siena polls that have been coming out have shown something like 20 percent support for Republicans among Black Americans. And I think those polls should be taken with heavy, heavy grains of salt. The media likes to report on polls because they seem like they’re facts, but they’re really not, vague suggestions of a signal. So what we have right now is, is a vague suggestion of a signal that there is motion among black voters toward the Republican party. Shouldn’t be read into overly. However, it’s a real signal. So the question is what’s behind the signal. I can tell you what I don’t think it is.

I don’t think that Trump in particular is a P is more appealing than other Republicans, because when you put. Other Republicans against Biden, they get roughly just as much support from prospective Black voters in those polls. So I think there is a trend among a certain portion of in particular, Black men under 30.

So this would be my demographic essentially. And Pew actually looked into this at some point in the past few years and tried to isolate. What do we know about these voters that are going to the Republican party, these black voters? And what it found is that they’re no like they’re no more likely than black Democrats to be upper middle class.

So it isn’t the stereotype that Black Republicans are all bougie, upper middle class, and that’s why they’re Republican. But they’re what, what they did find is that black Republicans resonated more with the message of the Republican party, i. e. Personal responsibility. Don’t blame systemic racism for your problems, et cetera.

And also had less racial solidarity in general. In other words, they were less likely to say my, my blackness is the most important thing about me. They were much more likely to say my individual identity is, is, is, is what matters about me. And I happen to be black. Probably the Occam’s razor explanation is that something about the messaging of, if not the democratic party, then like the, of the, the wider vibe of the democratic party has turned off a subsection of black voters and over indexes with black men under 30 who are more drawn to the message of the Republican party on race issues and in general.

Emma Varvaloucas: And then there’s Sexyy Red who says she’ll vote for Trump because the economy was better and everyone’s racist anyway. So she counts as a data point.

Coleman Hughes: You know, she may count as a data point. And you might also think Trump’s problem in terms of, you know, purported bigotry was largely directed at immigrants, not Black people.

So, and, and, and Black Americans in general are not really pro immigration. And so it’s, it’s certainly possible that a lot of the, the aspects of Trump that great the, the, the elite kind of people in, Our, our world of podcasting journalism may not land the same for, for the, the, the median black voter. I don’t know.

But again, I think really the earlier stuff I said is probably closer to the truth because other Republicans seem to also be pulling better withblack voters. 

Zachary Karabell: Well, Coleman, this is one of these conversations of which there are several, but I’m going to say it about this where I wish we had days to talk and not just less than an hour.

It’s also a conversation where Occam’s razor managed to be mentioned twice, which any conversation where it’s men where it’s mentioned once is a good conversation twice. 

Coleman Hughes: Do you have a bell you ring when that happens? 

Zachary Karabell: I feel like I should have an Occam’s razor bell in the background. That’s kind of a thing.

We probably get more viewers. We, we’re not doing our bells and whistles. I think well enough 

Coleman Hughes: or a drinking game, maybe? 

Zachary Karabell: that’s right. Every time, you know, everyone takes a shot. So maybe, maybe that. As a note to self, Emma and I will consider for future, uh, future podcasts, a bell for Occam’s Razor 

Emma Varvaloucas: and a shot or something like that.

Zachary Karabell: Keep up the work you’re doing. I think it’s vital and important that we actually have these debates in an open, direct fashion. I think sensibility matters hugely and I don’t think that there’s a lot of defense of sensibility out there. Meaning the way one has a discussion and the way one has an argument has a lot of effect on shaping the arc of that discussion and that argument.

Combativeness breeds combativeness. Hostility breeds hostility. Fear breeds fear. And if you’re looking for a fight, it’s easy to find one. But if you’re looking for solutions, or you’re looking for some degree of, okay, how do we navigate in the best collective fashion, how one starts that conversation, the sensibility that one brings and that you so evidently bring to your writing and to your work is vital in that, even if, as you’ve mentioned before, there can be times when being calm and cogent And collected can actually be more of a third rail for people than being strident and angry and extreme.

That being said, I really appreciate the tone. I appreciate the work. And I think it’s appreciating at whether I would, whether I do or do not agree with everything you say, it’s the starting point of a discussion and a debate that I think is absolutely vital. So I want to thank you for that. And thank you for joining us today.

Zachary Karabell: Well, thank you so much for the interesting interview.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks Coleman.

Zachary Karabell: So we’ve been looking forward to that conversation for quite a while, and it was definitely worth the wait. He is disarmingly calm, and as we know, we both like, and we like as an approach and a sensibility. But it was viscerally, if calm can be visceral, it was a visceral indication of, again, the question I asked that he addressed of, it is fascinating how much negative heat Coleman Hughes has attracted, given his whole approach and persona, and it’s true in his writing too, I mean, I’ve read a lot of his essays, he’s not, you know, he’s not someone, there are people you meet, there are particularly writers you meet who are intense and vicious in print and then very soft spoken in person.

He is both soft spoken and moderate in both print and in person. And so, you know, you know, just how contentious and emotional people are about the issues he deals with and the questions of race in America in particular, by virtue of even someone who talks more calmly. And we had this conversation a little bit with Richard Reeves when we talked about masculinity and boys, right?

That, that he too is somebody who’s been. Who does not have a firebrand, polemical personality. And yet the stuff that he writes about can engender those responses.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. I mean, fun fact, I didn’t tell Coleman this because it would be socially awkward, but he almost caused a breakup one time in my life. Because we had such an intense argument about Coleman Hughes. That’s neither here nor there, really.

Zachary Karabell: But enough about me. Let’s talk about me

Emma Varvaloucas: I’ve been sitting on that for years, for years.

Zachary Karabell: You should have brought that up with him just to see what the reaction is. Might have been like, you’re not the first person to tell me that.

Emma Varvaloucas: Right? Yeah. And I kind of regret that I didn’t say it. I thought that it just might make him feel uncomfortable. You know, that he was the, the source of relationship dispute. But anyway, I think the reason why people get so emotional about this issue is because the history is so powerful. And because, you know, despite the fact that I was the one to bring up all the progress in race relations and the sort of prosperity and success, particularly of Black Americans.

Now, it does remain the fact that there are a lot of stats that when you look at the disparities are really. discouraging, you know, like if you look at white versus black home, home ownership rates or net wealth, uh, there are things like that where you see the disparity and you think to yourself, okay, maybe philosophically Coleman is right that we should live in a colorblind society, but These inequities have not been balanced.

So I am very sympathetic to both Coleman’s side and the side that says, Hey, should we, how do we, would it be better if we tipped the scales?

Zachary Karabell: I think then the question is the challenge of individuals versus aggregates or even regions versus aggregates, meaning if a cohort of, uh, white males are doing statistically better overall as a cohort than black males, just as a group set. Does tipping the scales in a group fashion really help things in an appreciable way past a certain point? You know, there’s a somewhat debated economist, uh, paradox called the Easterlin paradox, where I think we talked about this once on one of our shows about a certain amount of wealth clearly makes people happier, but that once a certain rate or range has been reached.

There’s a plateau effect so that increasing wealth over a certain factor doesn’t increase happiness. And there have now been debates about whether or not that’s the case, but it certainly was posited as a, if economic inequality is the one thing you’re looking about in terms of collective either satisfaction with society or belief that society is functioning, it may be that the scale tipping from 1965, whenever much more robust, great society, affirmative action programs really, really came into place until let’s say the late 90s might have been very effective in, in redressing some of the imbalances. The question is, are they endlessly effective, right? Does, does doing so actually lead you toward a societal balance that either the individuals and the groups who are affected feel is an improvement? Or is there a law of diminishing returns?

And, and should this be a forever, right?

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, I think that even people who would be anti the side of Coleman Hughes, right, would say that there would be an end to this and that particular end would be when those stats are equal. And, you know, we can get into a whole argument for or against that, but even if you don’t take that particular tack, I think that it’s less of a diminishing returns vis a vis wealth argument and more of a justice argument.

Like you want to live in a society that you feel is fair and just. And I think that that emotional component is also very important and very strong in these cases. And I think that that emotional component is a lot of What drives the argument for, Hey, you know, there’s 50 percent of Blacks who own homes in the United States versus over 70 of Whites, you know?

And so why is that the case? I don’t think it’s a like, how much better would your life be percentage wise if you owned a home versus not owned a home?

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. And I do think one thing is clear demographically, and we touched on this in the conversation is, the more time passes between, let’s say, a point of origin of complete societal injustice and fracturing, so a point of time of slavery in the 19th century, the more history develops between now and then, or let’s, let’s move the clock forward, Jim Crow, systemic, uh, segregation and discrimination well into the 20th century.

But the longer you go from whenever that legally ended, not talking about cultural racism and social racism, the harder it is to sustain the argument for subsequent generations that you should be tipping the scales, right? Because the, the original point of which that inequality starts Seems further and further in the past.

And again, this is not something that the United States alone deals with. You know, countries have to constantly deal with when is the past the past, as opposed to when are we in the present and still living with whatever imbalances and harms in the past that we should redress in the present.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, I think you’re right that the, the line becomes less direct.

Right, as far as, um, I just don’t know when we can say that there’s no line at all anymore. I think I can certainly think of many people that vehemently argue that we aren’t. there yet. But that is a big conversation that we could have right now, I guess.

Zachary Karabell: I don’t, I don’t even, I don’t think, I don’t think we touch on this as explicitly with Coleman as we should have, but I, I doubt that he would argue that everything is fine and dandy, meaning that there’s economic equality and equality of opportunity and all of these things.

Emma Varvaloucas: He did make the point that if you could identify a direct harm in a descendant right now, that he is pro that he is just anti what you said before, which is to draw a circle around an entire group.

So. You know, the, the two issues are when, when would you decide that things are done or sufficient? And two, is it the role of government and law to make it sufficient versus societal evolution that may not be about laws and government?

We are clearly not going to answer these questions right now. It’s just a, you know, whenever, whenever these programs, particularly when it comes to affirmative action and, and the programs of the 1960s, there was never any clear end point, right? And clearly people. We’ll ask, I mean, I guess they will ask.

We don’t ask this about entitlements because entitlements were not supposed to have an endpoint. I mean, there was never going to be an endpoint for social security and Medicare because every human being was going to grow old and age and have health problems. So they were all going to need retirement money and healthcare in perpetuity.

I’m not sure that affirmative action programs were thought of as an in perpetuity thing.

Emma Varvaloucas: They were specifically not. I think it was RBG. Hopefully that’s not the wrong person, but they did think that affirmative action would no longer be necessary. 

Zachary Karabell: If it wasn’t her, it could have been. 

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you.

I do remember reading that when affirmative action was put into place, that they thought that it wouldn’t be necessary anymore. I think like 20 years previous to now, it was earlier than now that they thought that it would be totally fine.

Zachary Karabell: So here we are with unresolved questions and good debates.

Please, those of you listening, you know, send us your thoughts about this. Obviously, this is, it’s an evergreen conversation, even if we wish it weren’t, and it’s going to continue to be, even if we hoped that it would stop. So shall we turn to some news of the week?

Emma Varvaloucas: Yes, let’s do it. Okay. So three big things that you guys should know about in the progress news.

One is a surprise election during our year. of elections 2024, the mother of all election years. And that is Senegal. Probably a lot of people missed that last month. They had peaceful elections, voted in the youngest president in Africa’s history. And this is all very exciting because just a few weeks prior, they were having a constitutional crisis and mass protests.

So good for Senegal.

Zachary Karabell: Good for Senegal. Good for West Africa. Yeah. There’ve been a lot in the news about sort of Senegalese backsliding about democracy being imperiled. It’s a good snapshot for the moment. We’ll see where it goes, but. It’s moving in the more positive direction when much of the news had been moving in a more negative direction.

Emma Varvaloucas: Absolutely. New news out of Canada. Apparently the Canadian government just announced in April that they are going to pay for most forms of contraception for women of reproductive age. I mean, that is what a dream life, you know, to be a Canadian woman.

Zachary Karabell: And that’s national, right? So not. It will not just be a provincial reality. Obviously in the United States, we have that whole issue of federal mandates versus state mandates, which is somewhat of an issue in Canada, but there’s a, I think a more forceful central government there.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yes. And one for the science geeks. So People may or may not know that partnership between French and Germany, the U.S. and South Korea, all separately, are developing super highly precise MRI scanners. So the France and Germany partnership is the first to begin actually scanning human brains with the kind of MRI machines that are 10 times more accurate. the amount of precise as previous ones. So obviously no like big research findings or discoveries have come out of that yet, but it’s pretty neat.

Pretty neat. I’m sure some will.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. No, I had a doctor recently say, uh, I was asking about getting a scan of something and he said, you know, You should wait another year or two for these new machines to come because the amount of information you’ll be able to get then will be so much more complete than whatever you get now that whatever you find now probably isn’t going to matter nearly as much as what you find then, which I thought was interesting.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: And that was kind of apropos. This development.

Emma Varvaloucas: Absolutely. But last but not least, this was a write up of social psychology research in the Harvard Business Review, but I thought it was really nice that apparently there’s what’s called a like gap where people actually underestimate how much other people like them.

So after you have a conversation with someone, our self critical thoughts tend to dominate and we tend to underestimate how much the other person had a good impression of us. So something to remember next time you have a new interaction.

Zachary Karabell: I wonder if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I mean, to some degree, it’s probably a better thing for all of us socially and collectively to have a more skeptical sense of how we have conveyed ourselves than to have an overweeningly positive one.

Because the overweeningly positive one means you’ll never be self critical. You won’t think about your behavior. You won’t try to be mindful of how you are. Whereas being a little too critical, Unless it goes into kind of like innervating self doubt, it’s probably a healthy thing of just like, be mindful of how you interact with people, try to be self aware, try to notice the cues.

So I think on that one, yeah, I think it’s probably a better thing that people feel worse about themselves. Then it would be if people felt really good about themselves.

Emma Varvaloucas: On the whole, I agree with you, but maybe considering the amount of social anxiety that Gen Z apparently has, that it might be a good reminder for them. The ones that tend to spiral after they’ve had a social interaction, that’s who that is aimed at.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s totally fair. Like you don’t want to, as I said, you don’t want to have like debilitating social anxiety based on an erroneous sense of how negatively you’re, you’re impacting people.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. But you don’t want to go to the other extreme.

Emma Varvaloucas: No, no, no, no. We’re in the happy medium here. But if you have any doubters or self criticizers rather listening to the podcast, that one’s for you.

Zachary Karabell: Well, thank you all for listening. As always, please go sign up for the weekly newsletter. What Could Go Right at and send us your comments, send us your questions, send us ideas. You have of shows and topics that we may or may not have covered or have covered that you would like us to continue to cover. We’d like this to be a conversation and we will continue to have it as long as you continue to listen.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks Zachary, and thanks everyone for tuning in.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right is produced by the Podglomerate, Executive Produced by Jeff Umbro, marketing by the Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right, The Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right newsletter, visit

Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


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