A young black conservative who grew up with DEI and refuses

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 revived the issue of reparations in an article in The Atlantic, and actor and activist Danny Glover.

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

At the hearing, Mr. Hughes, looking very much his age, testified subcommittee of the House of Representatives that the non-payment of reparations after the civil war was “one of the greatest injustices ever committed”.

But, he continued, they should not be paid now. “There’s a difference between acknowledging history and letting history 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 chairman of the Democratic subcommittee, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, pleaded for calm — “cool it, cool it” — but then suggested Mr. Hughes’ testimony was presumptuous.

More than four years later, Mr. Hughes, now 27, has made a rare appearance in the tense national conversation about how race should be included in public policy: He is a young black conservative who argues — in his writings, a podcast and 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 they decry.

In his a new bookIn “The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America,” to be published Feb. 6, Mr. Hughes recounts what it was like to grow up in the liberal enclave of Montclair, N.J., then head to Columbia, where he said the campus culture was fixed on affinity groups, diversity, equality and inclusion programs, microaggressions and “white privilege”.

He uses these stories to advocate for the colorblind society.

The goal is not to avoid seeing 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 regardless of race.”)

“The goal of colorblindness,” he writes, “is to consciously ignore race as a reason to treat individuals differently and as a category upon which to base public policy.”

Mr. Hughes says that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired his views and often repeats the 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 inequality that plagues American society, in everything from schools to income to housing. And, they say, he deliberately misrepresents the speech of Dr. King, who also protested persistent segregation, police brutality and black poverty.

“Even those who are still financially well off still suffer from racism,” he said Monica Williams, a psychologist, in an online debate in which Mr. Hughes.

Mr. Hughes, in turn, has a scathing assessment of progressives who he says see American society in terms of whites and nonwhites, with whites as the historical oppressors. In his book, he calls them “neo-racists”.

“Neo-racists,” he writes, “will most often insist that someone of European descent should not open a Mexican restaurant.”

In an interview, Mr Hughes said his views on colour-blindness were gaining ground. But he sees a long way to go to achieve a campus culture where unorthodox views, from the left or the right, are not loudly shouted down.

“I would agree that the cancellation culture has reached its peak,” he said. “But to say that something has peaked and then declined is not necessarily to say that we’re in 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 while he’s light on details, he describes a comfortable childhood in Montclair, a New York suburb, where he had a variety of friends who generally paid little attention to 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. It was there that he heard terms like “white privilege” and “intersectionality” for the first time. There was an atmosphere of “suffocating conformity,” he writes, with dissent strongly discouraged.

At Columbia, he was confused by students who complained that they were surrounded by white supremacy. He considered the campus to be “one of the most progressive, non-racist environments on Earth.”

Why, he asks, “did those kids sound more pessimistic about the state of American race relations than my grandparents (who lived through segregation)?”

He connected with several like-minded students and professors like John McWhorter, who said he considered Mr. Hughes a son. (Mr. McWhorter also writes for The New York Times Opinion section.) Christian Gonzalez, a college friend, said their experiences were sometimes disorienting, and some students occasionally accused them of supporting white supremacy.

“It’s hard to swim against the tide like that when 80 percent of the people around you have different views,” said Mr. Gonzalez, now a Ph.D. “You might 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 had much less to fight for than Mr. Hughes.

“I suspect,” Mr. Foster said, “that Coleman, who went into a polarized college environment where his views were more explicitly frowned upon, was probably better prepared for what was about to happen to him.”

Mr Hughes said he started writing for a conservative website Quillette after the student newspaper at Columbia was largely uninterested in publishing his opinions.

He described a feeling of social castigation and sometimes isolation. There was the time, for example, when he matched with a classmate on Tinder only to be rejected when she discovered his writings. “Right before the meeting,” 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. “Nor is it something I would ever say.”

His Quillette articles, however, caught the attention of House Republicans Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Judiciary. Some of Mr. Hughes’s friends advised him not to testify, arguing that accepting the invitation of House Republicans was a bad look.

Despite palpable hostility from some in the audience, Mr. Hughes sat quietly throughout the discussion, occasionally sipping from a bottle of water. But he was upset by the regret, 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 Mr. Hughes’ views on race. “Coleman is a really tough guy to shake down, but I know he didn’t feel good about it.”

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” which was released last year on his album “Amor Fati”, a Latin term meaning “love of fate”. In one verse he says, “Chastise me to think, and put me in prison, to serve the punishment for the written punishments.”

He joined the right wing Manhattan Institute as a contributor and continued to write occasionally for Quillette. Leaving a higher-profile career as a commentator—such as signing on as a columnist for a major publication or joining a cable news channel as a contributor—he began his own podcastConversations with Coleman.

That independence helps insulate him from backlash.

Left to his own devices, “there’s no employer to target if you don’t like Coleman’s position,” said Mr. Williams, the writer. “No university to complain about, no newspaper to tweet angrily at.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s accepted. Mr Hughes said the most confusing episode was his speech at the annual Ted conference last year.

In his 10-minute presentation, Mr 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 mostly positive, but a few critics, including members of Ted’s staff, complained that the speech was disturbing, harmful and inaccurate, even though it was vetted by the organization.

Some employees began an internal campaign to prevent Mr Hughes’ speech from being promoted, it said accounts given by Mr. Hughes and Ted’s boss, 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 his website, until a few months later it was pointed out by a prominent speaker on the Ted circuit, Tim Urban.

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

“It was a heckler’s veto situation,” Mr. Hughes said. “I said, ‘OK, fine. I’m going to have this extra debate, even though you’re not forcing anyone else to do it.’”

Mr Hughes said he would not be attending this year’s Ted conference.

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

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