The Young Black Conservative Who Grew Up With, and Rejects, D.E.I.
Coleman Hughes in Queens, N.Y., on Tuesday. Mr. Hughes has emerged as something of a rarity in the tense national conversation over how race should factor into public policy.Credit…José A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
For many progressives, it was a big moment. In 2019, Congress was holding its first hearing on whether the United States should pay reparations for slavery.
To support the idea, Democrats invited the influential author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who had revived the reparations issue in an article in The Atlantic, and the actor and activist Danny Glover.
Republicans turned to a virtual unknown: a 23-year-old philosophy major at Columbia University, Coleman Hughes.
In the hearing, Mr. Hughes, looking very much his age, testified to the House subcommittee that not paying reparations after the Civil War was “one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated.”
But, he continued, they should not be paid now. “There’s a difference between acknowledging history and allowing history to distract us from the problems we face today,” he said, pointing to endemic problems that affect Black Americans, such as poor schools, dangerous neighborhoods and a punitive criminal justice system.
Some in the audience booed. The Democratic subcommittee chairman, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, pleaded for calm — “chill, chill” — but then suggested that Mr. Hughes’s testimony had been presumptuous.
More than four years later, Mr. Hughes, now 27, has emerged as something of a rarity in the tense national conversation over how race should factor into public policy: He is a young Black conservative, who argues — in his writings, a podcast and a YouTube channel with about 173,000 subscribers — that schools have taught students of his generation to obsess over their racial identity, while blocking arguments that challenge their worldview.
Mr. Hughes is not the first Black thinker to reject progressive politics or criticize the educational establishment. But unlike most of his conservative mentors, Mr. Hughes is young enough to have been raised in the very pedagogy that they decry.
In his new book, “The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America,” to be released on Feb. 6, Mr. Hughes recounts what it was like to grow up in the liberal enclave of Montclair, N.J., and then to head to Columbia, where he said the campus culture was fixated on affinity groups, diversity, equity and inclusion programs, microaggressions and “white privilege.”
He uses these stories to argue for a colorblind society.
The goal is not to avoid noticing race, which he says is impossible. (In fact, he admonishes people who say things like, “I don’t see color” and asks them to use phrases like, “I try to treat people without regard to race.”)
“The aim of colorblindness,” he writes, “is to consciously disregard race as a reason to treat individuals differently and as a category on which to base public policy.”
Mr. Hughes says that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired his views, and often repeats a memorable line from the “I Have a Dream” speech: that one day, children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
His arguments have infuriated his critics, who say that he ignores the deep racial inequities that plague American society, on everything from schools to income to housing. And, they say, he willfully misrepresents Dr. King’s speech, which also protested persistent segregation, police brutality and Black poverty.
“Even those who are still well off financially still suffer from racism,” said Monnica Williams, a psychologist, in an online debate that Mr. Hughes participated in.
Mr. Hughes, in turn, has a harsh assessment of progressives who he says see American society in terms of white and nonwhite, with white people as historical oppressors. In his book, he calls them “neoracists.”
“Neoracists,” he writes, “are the most likely to insist that someone with European ancestry must not open a Mexican food restaurant.”
In an interview, Mr. Hughes said his views on colorblindness were gaining broader acceptance. But he sees a long road ahead toward realizing a campus culture where unorthodox views, on the left or right, are not harshly shouted down.
“I would agree that cancel culture peaked,” he said. “But to say that something peaked and then declines is not necessarily to say we’re at a very good place.”
In his book, Mr. Hughes writes that his father’s family can trace its ancestry back to an enslaved gardener who worked at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. And although he is light on specifics, he describes a comfortable childhood in Montclair, a suburb of New York, where he had diverse friends who largely paid little attention to race.
His first encounter with diversity programs, he writes, was as a high school student in private school, which sent him to a three-day conference for students of color. It was there that he first heard terms like “white privilege” and “intersectionality.” There was an atmosphere of “stifling conformism,” he writes, with dissent strongly discouraged.
At Columbia, he was befuddled by students who complained of being surrounded by white supremacy. He found the campus to be “one of the most progressive, nonracist environments on Earth.”
Why, he asks, “did these kids sound more pessimistic about the state of American race relations than my grandparents (who lived through segregation)?”
He bonded with a few like-minded students and professors like John McWhorter, who said he considered Mr. Hughes like a son. (Mr. McWhorter also writes for The New York Times Opinion section.) Christian Gonzalez, a college friend, said that at times their experiences felt disorienting, with some students occasionally accusing them of upholding white supremacy.
“It is hard to swim against the tide like that when 80 percent of the people around you have different views,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who is now a doctoral student. “You can start to think you’re crazy.”
Kmele Foster, a 43-year-old libertarian-leaning political commentator, became friends with Mr. Hughes after seeing some of his work online. He said that Black conservatives of his generation had much less to contend with than Mr. Hughes did.
“I suspect,” Mr. Foster said, “that Coleman, going into a polarized environment in college where it was more explicitly frowned upon for having his views, was probably better prepared for what would come at him.”
Mr. Hughes said he started writing for the conservative website Quillette after the student newspaper at Columbia was mostly uninterested in publishing his opinion pieces.
He described feeling social castigation, and sometimes isolation. There was the time, for instance, when he matched with a classmate on Tinder only to be rejected once she discovered his writings. “Right before the date,” he recalled, “she said to me: ‘I just read your Quillette piece. I could never go on a date with someone who doesn’t believe racism exists.’”
“It’s not even close to what I said,” he added. “Nor is it something I would ever say.”
His Quillette articles, however, grabbed the attention of the Republicans on the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. Some of Mr. Hughes’s friends advised him not to testify, arguing that accepting an invitation from House Republicans was bad optics.
Despite the palpable hostility from some in the audience, Mr. Hughes sat calmly throughout the hearing, occasionally sipping from a bottle of water. But the heckling unsettled him, he said.
“People were shouting ‘shame!’ at him as he walked out the door,” said Thomas Chatterton Williams, a friend and writer who shares many of Mr. Hughes views on race. “Coleman is a really tough guy to shake up, but I know he didn’t feel good about that.”
Mr. Hughes channeled the experience into music. Mr. Hughes, who studied briefly at Juilliard before enrolling at Columbia, raps under the stage name Coldxman and plays the jazz trombone. After the hearing, he wrote a song called “Blasphemy” that was released last year on his album “Amor Fati,” a Latin phrase that means “love of one’s fate.” In one verse, he says, “Charge me with thinking and put me in prison, serving a sentence for sentences written.”
He joined the right-leaning Manhattan Institute as a fellow and continued writing occasionally for Quillette. Forgoing a more high-profile career path as a commentator — like signing on as a columnist with a large publication or joining a cable news channel as a contributor — he started his own podcast, Conversations With Coleman.
That independence helps insulate him from blowback.
Being on his own means, “there’s no employer to target if you don’t like Coleman’s position,” said Mr. Williams, the writer. “There’s no university to complain to, no newspaper to tweet angrily at.”
But that does not mean he is accepted. Mr. Hughes said the most perplexing episode involved his talk last year at the annual TED conference.
In his 10-minute presentation, Mr. Hughes called for public policy to help people based on income, which he called, “the best way to lower the temperature of tribal conflict in the long run.”
The audience was mostly positive, but a handful of critics, including members of TED’s staff, complained that the talk had been upsetting, harmful and inaccurate, even though it had been fact-checked by the organization.
Some employees started an internal campaign to prevent Mr. Hughes’s talk from being promoted, according to accounts provided by Mr. Hughes and the head of TED, Chris Anderson.
As a result, Mr. Anderson said, the talk was not initially included in TED’s most popular podcast. TED also buried the presentation on its website, until several months later when a prominent speaker on the TED circuit, Tim Urban, pointed it out.
And Mr. Anderson asked Mr. Hughes to participate in a debate with Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist — the same one that Ms. Williams, the psychologist, took part in — so that TED could have a counter perspective.
“It was very much a heckler’s veto situation,” Mr. Hughes said. “I said: ‘OK, fine. I’ll do this extra debate, even though you don’t make anyone else do it.’”
Mr. Hughes said he had no plans to attend this year’s TED conference but also would not be opposed to going if invited back.
Mr. Foster, the political commentator, says such experiences can weigh on people, even for those with the thickest skin: “It can still be pretty hurtful to have people suggest that when you take a position, it’s some sort of betrayal to your ‘people.’”