Should America be a colorblind society? Debate made me think more deeply about racism.

29 February 2024
John Wood Jr.

Coleman Hughes takes the position that colorblindness is the fairest, most effective social and political posture from which to defeat the ills of racism.


Writer and podcaster Coleman Hughes was invited last year to give a TED Talk called “A Case for Color Blindness.” After Hughes spoke, some TED employees argued adamantly that his speech should not be released out of concern that it would be harmful to people of color.

Eventually, video of the talk was released but with the condition that Hughes engage in a follow-up debate with an opponent who would argue against “color blindness.” That move set off opponents of cancel culture, who excoriated TED on social media and beyond.

Yet, the debate that emerged out of this awkward compromise wound up being a vital entry into the larger discourse over racial consciousness.

Hughes agreed to a moderated debate with New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who was a contributor to the 1619 Project. Co-produced by TED and Open to Debate (and co-released as an episode of “Conversations with Coleman”), the encounter between these two gifted thinkers took place at an interesting moment for the larger national discourse about race.

Anti-racism as an ideological perspective gained prominence in America in 2020, and it remains an important point of view. But of course many people do not like that fact, and the number of those Americans seems to be rising.


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Black Lives Matter, and in particular the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, is a political movement guided by the broader perspectives of anti-racism. If one were to take the popularity of Black Lives Matter as an indicator of the popularity of anti-racism in American life, you would have to see it as in decline.

Pew Research Center found approval for Black Lives Matter falling from 67% in 2020 to 51% last April.

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Likewise, the allegations against Ibram X. Kendi – arguably America’s leading scholar of anti-racism – over alleged financial and administrative mismanagement of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, likely undercut Americans’ esteem for this ideological movement. The university announced in November that its inquiry had found no evidence of financial mismanagement at the center.

One of the the chief criticisms of Kendi and other proponents of anti-racism has been that they are averse to debate their critics. So it was encouraging to see Bouie agree to debate Hughes, and the Times columnist proved that there are intelligent arguments to be made from a generally anti-racist perspective that ought not be lightly dismissed.

Debate on ‘colorblindness’ raised important points

In the debate, called “Does Color Blindness Perpetuate Racism?,” Hughes took the position that colorblindness is the fairest, most effective social and political posture from which to defeat the ills of racism.

Colorblindness doesn’t mean pretending not to see race,” he said. “It means that once we’ve noticed race, we still commit to treating people without regard to it, both in our personal lives and in our public policy.”

Reinforcing this position, according to Hughes, is the long history of America’s foremost civil rights leaders who argued for a colorblind state and society.

“If you want to fight racism, remove race from public policy,” Hughes said. “And if you want to fight injustice, do so based on class. And by definition, class policies will disproportionately benefit Blacks and Hispanics because they are disproportionately likely to be poor. That was the position of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Bouie, in arguing that colorblindness in the realm of public policy does perpetuate racism, set his argument against the backdrop of an understanding of race as “a set of social relations produced by racism.”

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Given that race was created by powers in society seeking a justification for slavery and other “relationships of subordination and domination” between racial groups, it becomes vital in Bouie’s view not to turn “a blind eye to the social relations produced by that subordination and domination.”

Bouie reinforced his position not by placing class analysis and racial consciousness as opposites, as Hughes did, but rather by analogizing them.

“The National Labor Relations Act aimed directly at reconfiguring the relationship between workers and nonworkers,” Bouie said. “We recognized that it was not simply people who were disadvantaged, it was workers, and we acted accordingly. So unless racism is a special kind of inequality, then the same goes for it as well: The way to address it, to ameliorate it, is to at least take note of and respond to the social relations that structure and continue to structure its ongoing existence.”

As hard as it is to disagree with Bouie, it is not clear to me that his points negate Hughes’ emphasis that race not be used as a proxy for class inequality. Bouie observed that even middle-class Black families are more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods (with all of their corresponding risk factors) than are white middle-class families.

That fact, in Bouie’s view, justifies race conscious policies in response. But why employ race “as a second best proxy,” Hughes essentially asked, when instead we might simply identify socioeconomic data based on ZIP codes and Census information, gaining a truer assessment of a person’s disadvantages from there?

The debate over colorblindness, along with its political and social implications, is often clumsily reduced to whether we are reviving the evils of racism on one hand or ignoring those evils on the other. Hughes and Bouie reminded us that there is indeed a conversation to be had here that is not self-evident in its conclusions. It requires us to appreciate the greater complexity of our history as a nation and to navigate the tension in our values.

This is a conversation we need to have. TED and other vital intellectual platforms should not shy away from it.

John Wood Jr. is a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion. He is national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist, and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr