The young black conservative who grew up with DEI and rejects it

For many progressives, it was a big moment. In 2019, Congress held its first hearing on whether the United States should pay reparations for slavery.

To support the idea, Democrats invited influential author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who had revived the reparations issue in an article in The Atlantic, and actor and activist Danny Glover.

The Republicans turned to a virtual unknown: Coleman Hughes, a 23-year-old philosophy major at Columbia University.

During the hearing, Mr Hughes, who looked very much his age, said testified to the House subcommittee that the failure to pay reparations after the Civil War was “one of the greatest injustices ever committed.”

But, he continued, they should not be paid now. “There is a difference between acknowledging history and allowing history to distract us from the problems we face today,” he said, pointing to endemic problems affecting Black Americans, such as poor schools , dangerous neighborhoods and a punitive criminal justice system.

Some in the audience booed. The Democratic subcommittee’s chairman, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, urged calm — “chill, chill” — but then suggested that Mr. Hughes’ testimony had been presumptuous.

More than four years later, Mr. Hughes, now 27, has emerged as a rarity in the tense national conversation about how race should figure 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 grown up in the pedagogy they disapprove of.

In his new bookIn “The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America,” due out February 6, Mr. Hughes recounts what it was like growing up in the liberal enclave of Montclair, N.J., and then attending 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 purpose of colorblindness,” he writes, “is to deliberately ignore 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 he ignores the deep racial inequities that plague American society in everything from schools to income to housing. And, they say, he deliberately misrepresents Dr. King, which also protested continued segregation, police brutality and black poverty.

‘Even those who are still financially well off still suffer from racism’ said Monica Williams, a psychologist, in an online debate in which Mr Hughes took part.

Mr. Hughes, in turn, has a harsh assessment of progressives who he says see American society in terms of white and non-white, with white people as historical oppressors. In his book he calls them “neoracists.”

“Neo-racists,” he writes, “are most likely to insist that someone of European descent should not be allowed to open a Mexican restaurant.”

In an interview, Mr. Hughes said his views on colorblindness have gained wider acceptance. But he sees a long way to go in creating a campus culture where unorthodox views, left or right, are not harshly criticized.

“I would agree that cancel culture has peaked,” he said. “But to say that something has peaked and then it’s declining doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in a really good place.”

In his book, Mr. Hughes writes that his father’s family can trace its ancestry to an enslaved gardener who worked at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. And while he doesn’t go into too much detail, he describes a comfortable childhood in Montclair, a New York suburb, where he had several friends who were generally unconcerned about race.

His first encounter with diversity programs, he writes, was as a high school student at a private school, which sent him to a three-day conference for students of color. There he first heard terms such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘intersectionality’. There was an atmosphere of ‘suffocating conformism’, he writes, with dissenting opinions strongly discouraged.

At Columbia, he became confused by students who complained about being surrounded by white supremacy. He found the campus “one of the most progressive, non-racist environments on earth.”

Why, he asks, “do these kids sound more pessimistic about the state of American race relations than my grandparents (who experienced segregation)?”

He bonded with some 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 their experiences sometimes felt disorienting, with some students occasionally accusing them of upholding white supremacy.

“It’s hard to swim against the tide when 80 percent of the people around you have different opinions,” said Mr. Gonzalez, now a doctoral student. “You can start to think you’re crazy.”

Kmele Foster, a 43-year-old libertarian political commentator, befriended Mr. Hughes after seeing some of his work online. He said black conservatives of his generation suffered far less than Mr. Hughes.

“I suspect,” Mr. Foster said, “that Coleman, who entered a polarized environment at university where his views were more explicitly frowned upon, was probably better prepared for what was coming his way.”

Mr Hughes said he started writing for the Conservative website Quillette after Columbia’s student newspaper showed little interest in publishing his op-eds.

He described feeling socially shunned, and at times isolated. For example, there was the time he matched with a classmate on Tinder, only to be rejected when she discovered his texts. “Right before the date,” he recalled, “she said to me, ‘I just read your Quillette piece. I could never date someone who doesn’t believe racism exists.’”

“It’s not even close to what I said,” he added. “It’s not something I would ever say.”

However, his Quillette articles caught the attention of Republicans in the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil LawSome of Mr. Hughes’ friends advised him not to testify because they felt that accepting an invitation from Republicans in the House of Representatives would make him look bad.

Despite the palpable hostility of some in the audience, Mr. Hughes sat quietly during the hearing, occasionally taking sips of water. But the booing made him uneasy, he said.

“People shouted ‘shame!’ at him as he walked out the door,” said Thomas Chatterton Williams, a friend and writer who shares many of Hughes’ views on race. “Coleman is a very difficult guy to wake up, but I know he didn’t have a good feeling about that.”

Mr. Hughes has turned the experience into music. Mr. Hughes, who briefly studied at Juilliard before enrolling at Columbia, raps under the stage name Coldxman and plays jazz trombone. After the hearing, he wrote a song called ‘Blasphemy’ that was released last year on his album ‘Amor Fati’, a Latin phrase meaning ‘love of your destiny’. In one verse he says, “Accuse me of thinking, and put me in prison, where I shall serve a sentence for the sentences written.”

He joined the right-wing party Manhattan Institute as a fellow and continued to write occasionally for Quillette. He forwent more high-profile careers as a commentator—such as signing on as a columnist for a major publication or contributing to a cable news channel—and began his career as a commentator. own podcastConversations with Coleman.

That independence helps protect him from backlash.

Being on your own means that, “if you don’t like Coleman’s position, you have no employer to aim at,” Williams, the writer, said. “There’s no university to complain to, no newspaper to tweet angrily at.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s accepted. Mr Hughes said the most baffling episode involved his speech at the annual TED conference last year.

In its 10-minute presentationMr Hughes called for public policies 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 largely positive, but a handful of critics, including members of the TED staff, complained that the talk was disturbing, damaging and inaccurate, even though it had been fact-checked by the organization.

Some staff have launched an internal campaign to prevent Mr Hughes’ speech from being promoted accounts provided by Mr Hughes and the head of TED, Chris Anderson.

As a result, Mr. Anderson said, the talk was initially not included in TED’s most popular podcast. TED also buried the presentation on its website until several months later a prominent speaker on the TED circuit, Tim Urban, pointed it out.

And Mr. Anderson asked Mr. Hughes for participate in a debate with Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist — the same one Ms. Williams, the psychologist, participated in — so that TED could have a counter perspective.

“It was really a heckler’s veto situation,” Mr. said. Hughes. “I said, ‘Okay, fine. I’ll do this extra debate even if you don’t let anyone else do it.'”

Mr Hughes said he had no plans to attend this year’s TED conference, but would not be opposed to going if invited again.

Mr Foster, the political commentator, says such experiences can weigh heavily on people, even those with the thickest skin: “It can still be quite hurtful when people suggest that when you take a stand it is some kind of betrayal of your ‘people.’”

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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