Author: Coleman Hughes

The Case for Black Optimism

When was the last time you heard good news about the state of black America? Given the way the topic is reported in the media, you could be forgiven for not remembering. Most will be familiar with the standard portrayal: black people are disproportionately poor, incarcerated, born into single-parent homes, and harassed by cops. There’s the test score gap, which places black kids at a disadvantage when applying to college; the school-to-prison pipeline, which prepares black boys for prison by punishing them disproportionately in school; and the racial wealth gap, which won’t close for several centuries if current trends continue.  In an era when bipartisan agreement is scarce, the Left and the Right seem to be united in their somber assessment of black America, though they locate the blame in different places. Democrats tend to blame systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to blame Democrats. Recall President Trump’s infamous appeal for the black vote: “You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs,” …

My Testimony on Reparations

Editor’s note: Coleman Hughes delivered the following testimony at a United States House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Bill H.R. 40 on June 19, 2019. If passed, the bill would establish a commission for reparations. Thank you Chairman Cohen, ranking member Johnson, and members of the committee. It’s an honor to testify on a topic as important as this one. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to minimize the horror and brutality of slavery and Jim Crow. Racism is a bloody stain on this country’s history, and I consider our failure to pay reparations directly to freed slaves after the Civil War to be one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by the U.S. government. But I worry that our desire to fix the past compromises our ability to fix the present. Think about what we’re doing today. We’re spending our time debating a bill that mentions slavery 25 times but incarceration only once, in an era with zero black slaves but nearly a million black prisoners—a bill that doesn’t mention homicide once, at a …

Rethinking Abortion Advocacy

Last Tuesday, the Governor of Alabama signed the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in America into law. The new law bans abortions even in the case of rape and makes performing an abortion a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison. Despite the low probability of this law going into effect, it has provoked a slew of commentary from both sides of the aisle. To call it “commentary,” however, suggests that people are engaging in thoughtful attempts to persuade one another. In reality, the abortion debate has had all the intellectual rigor and emotional maturity of a pissing contest. In an effort to be part of the solution, I’d like to explain why I’m pro-choice. Without doubt, my position will put me at odds with pro-lifers. But it will also put me at odds with many pro-choicers. Indeed, part of the reason I feel motivated to defend my position is because of how unpersuasive I find the central argument of the pro-choice movement. It’s painful to watch a movement use bad reasons …

Cowardice at Columbia

On Thursday, April 11, shortly after 11pm, a black Columbia student named Alexander McNab walked through the gates of Barnard college—the undergraduate all-women’s school at Columbia University—after ignoring a security guard’s request to show his student ID. In search of a midnight snack, McNab got all the way to the library canteen before a public safety officer confronted him and asked for his ID a second time, a request McNab once again refused. Several more officers had arrived on the scene and were continuing to request ID when McNab began yelling. What happened next, depicted in the video below, has become the subject of a national scandal: two officers pushed McNab’s upper body onto the countertop, at which point McNab finally handed over his ID. Public safety proceeded to verify that he was indeed an active Columbia student, at which point they left him alone. Administrators reacted to the incident by placing the six public safety officers involved on paid leave until outside investigators reach a conclusion about their conduct. In the meantime, administrators have …

Reparations and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Pyrrhic Victory

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates was catapulted to intellectual stardom by a lengthy Atlantic polemic entitled “The Case for Reparations.” The essay was an impassioned plea for Americans to grapple with the role of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining in the creation of the wealth gap between blacks and whites, and it provoked a wide range of reactions. Some left-wing commentators swallowed Coates’s thesis whole, while others agreed in theory but objected that reparations are not a practical answer to legitimate grievances. The Right, for the most part, rejected the case both in theory and practice. Although the piece polarized opinion, one fact was universally agreed upon: reparations would not be entering mainstream politics anytime soon. According to Coates’s critics, there was no way that a policy so unethical and so unpopular would gain traction. According to his fans, it was not the ethics of the policy but rather the complacency of whites—specifically, their stubborn refusal to acknowledge historical racism—that prevented reparations from receiving the consideration it merited. Coates himself, as recently as 2017, lamented that …

Tiers of Pride and Shame

On December 9, in the small hours of the morning, a drunk Columbia undergraduate student named Julian von Abele was filmed outside the campus’s main library delivering a passionate ode to whiteness. “White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world,” von Abele declared to a group of students, many of whom were not white. “We invented science and industry, and you want to tell us to stop because, ‘Oh my God we’re so bad.’” In an ill-fated attempt to pacify the collection of students surrounding him, he added the caveat, “I don’t hate other people, I just love white men.” Students and administrators reacted to the incident with unanimous condemnation. Barnard College, Columbia’s sister school, banned von Abele from campus. Many argued that von Abele’s tirade should be understood not as an isolated event, but as a symptom of the university’s ongoing complicity in white supremacy—a systemic problem calling for a systemic solution. Columbia’s Black Student Organization led the charge with a list of demands including extra time for affected students …

Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments—A Review

A review of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. Stripe Press (October 2018), 160 pages. The complexity of the modern world makes it difficult to know what’s worth caring about. We all know that many problems exist, but none of us know for certain which problems are over-exaggerated, which ones are under-exaggerated, which ones admit of solutions, and which ones would only be exacerbated by our meddling. To make matters worse, the increasing partisanship of mainstream media along with the echo chamber effects of social media throws doubt on the notion that information reaches our minds free of slant, spin, or skew. Onto this landscape of paralyzing uncertainty strides the economist Tyler Cowen with a bold solution. As he argues in his new book Stubborn Attachments, there is one goal we should promote above all else: maximizing the sustainable rate of economic growth. Of course, you’re free to care about other societal issues if it makes you happy. But from the point of view of increasing human well-being, …

Deepities and the Politics of Pseudo-Profundity

The word deepity, coined by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, refers to a phrase that seems true and profound but is actually ambiguous and shallow. Not to be confused with lies, clichés, truisms, contradictions, metaphors, or aphorisms, deepities occupy a linguistic niche of their own. The distinguishing feature of a deepity is that it has two possible interpretations. On the first reading, a deepity is true but trivial. On the second, it’s false but would be mind-blowing if it were true.  Consider, for instance, the phrase “love is just a word.” On one reading, this is true but trivial. It’s no deep insight that “love”—like “Ethiopia” or “subdermatoglyphic” or “word”—is just a word in the English language. But on a second reading, “love is just a word” asserts something mind-blowing if true: there is no emotion called “love,” and everyone who thinks they’ve felt love is either lying or self-deceived. If true, this would change everything we thought we knew about our emotional lives. But it’s plainly false. Whatever love is—an emotion, an illusion, a pattern …

The ‘Black Chic’ Wave

With the midterm elections approaching, political pundits have begun the hackneyed ritual of predicting wild success for their preferred party—either a ‘blue wave’ for the Democrats or a ‘red wave‘ for the Republicans. Time will tell which wave reaches our political shores. But in the meantime, a different sort of wave is already upon us: a wave of black candidates who present their skin color as if it were a political credential in itself. This new wave of ‘black chic’ candidates includes Democrats Mahlon Mitchell of Wisconsin, Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Andrew Gillum of Florida, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts (featured pic, above). To observe that these candidates happen to be black would be to state an uninteresting fact. What’s interesting is that—contrary to what the concept of white privilege would predict—their blackness actually gives them political advantages. All four candidates would be the first black governors/congress people of their respective states/districts, which allows them to project a level of historical gravitas unavailable to their white counterparts. Abrams, for instance, has “frequently noted the historic nature …

Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap

There is arguably no racial disparity more striking than the wealth gap. While the median white household earns just 65 percent more income than its black counterpart, its net worth is fully ten times as high. And, unlike income, which individuals earn in their own lifetimes, wealth accrues over generations, and whites are more than three times as likely as blacks to inherit money from their families. In the public debate on racial inequality, the wealth gap is among the sharpest arrows in the progressive quiver. When conservative commentators argue that America is a meritocracy, or that blacks lag due to cultural factors, progressives can retaliate with a single statistic that seems to prove the reality of white privilege beyond the possibility of doubt. But statistics don’t interpret themselves, and the wealth gap is no exception. A recent wave of scholarship—including Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations”—has converged on the interpretation that the wealth gap is caused by two factors: slavery and …