Coleman Hughes Cannot Be Trusted

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A photo of Coleman Hughes speaking

There has never been a Golden Age of Internet punditry- just a bit of blight around an anemic middle, and all the responses rushing in to fill the void. Now, I don’t know how most critics have navigated these last few years, but I’ve had a tough time disconnecting from both the punditry as well as the responses. Perhaps it’s because I am a bit younger than my favorite writers, and must come to terms with the fact that ‘my’ (but not their) culture is pretty much bitcoin, Twitch, anime, and whatever fresh regurgitation wants to get mopped up. Or perhaps it’s because I recognize that the best way to deal with wasted human capital is not to discard it, but to re-purpose it, and hope that people notice. It was only a matter of time, then, before I came across the name Coleman Hughes- a recent graduate of Columbia University, and the token child of the Intellectual Dark Web. And why not? A left-wing critic of Affirmative Action, Coleman believes in personal responsibility, bottom-up changes in cultural mores, and the rejection of extremism, divisiveness, and ‘easy’ conversations: ideas which, by analyzing his thought process, will beget important lessons about the state of American discourse. The purpose of this article is to understand those lessons, if only in the hope that young readers with Coleman’s ambitions do not make Coleman’s more ambitious mistakes.

To frame his POV more fairly, I will first offer a digest of Coleman Hughes’s breakout piece- Quillette’s “The High Price of Stale Grievances”- followed by a line-by-line analysis of some actual macro-proposals. Not to be accused of ignoring his philosophical and perhaps more substantive work, I will (briefly) set Coleman’s ideas against his preferred vision of humanism and end with a practical test of his stated commitments: Coleman’s interview with Dave Rubin, where he was given ample opportunity to confront false claims, divisive rhetoric, and bad faith actors on both sides of the political aisle. This is to ensure that I’m not only dealing with ideas, but also with the evidence presented for these ideas, the conviction behind them, and the most probable trajectory for Coleman’s worldview to play out. And although I am well aware of the risks in ad hominem attacks, I will also argue how poorly understood- from a dialectical point of view- ad hominem is, and propose a framework for both tapping and responding to this tactic. As the lesson’s practicum, we shall take informal bets on some possible directions of Coleman Hughes’s career, keeping a ledger of how many stereotypes he dutifully embraces for every taboo he gleefully rejects.

Coleman opens with a rather emblematic example of his own grievances: that it was permissible for Rihanna to fire non-blacks from a concert (she wanted an “all-black aesthetic”), whereas firing black artists for similar reasons would be met with outrage. He then examines a common justification for this- slavery- and dismisses it, wondering how “young black men born decades after anything that could be rightly called ‘oppression’ had ended” could now benefit “from a social license bequeathed to us by a history that we have only experienced through textbooks and folklore”. It’s not that this permissiveness is “a great societal injustice”, he argues, but more so that bad ideas filter down from thought-leaders in even less sophisticated forms: a rather liberal critique, really, given how much emphasis progressives place on the tone, structure, meaning, and stochastic violence of so much right-wing rhetoric. The path, then, to greater purpose and accomplishment lies in personal responsibility and a willingness to let go of “stale grievances”- to make a commitment, for example, to better financial decisions, today, or to swear- on your mother’s grave, if you must- that you will ‘definitely’ finish high school, no matter what happens. Indeed, for while America is obsessed with racism, objectively bigger problems- a high black murder rate, fatherless households, unemployment- are left unexamined, as group struggle is ignored and blacks themselves deemed mere objects knocked about by historical forces. After all, where is a person’s autonomy in victimhood and in food stamps? This is not to say that nonwhites have no legitimate structural complaints- they do- but the “radical strain of American of black identity politics” is a counter-productive force that engenders more of “the Right’s…toxic strain of white identity politics”.

More fundamentally, there is “a clash between two visions”: “antiracism” and the broader concept of “humanism”. To Coleman, “racism should be understood as the opposite of reason”, since there is no logical reason to hold racist beliefs. This humanist approach is differentiated from antiracism’s emphasis on the “historical power relations of a society”, where skin color gets “injected with meaning” by the depth of its surrounds. A common objection, he says, is that one should not “abstract away” race from race-history. To Coleman, however, it was precisely this conceptual difference “that got black people civil rights in this country”, for humanism- unlike antiracism- is pragmatic, more motivating, and creates fewer group divisions. And although Coleman does feel the need to keep tabs on politics and on material reality, he confesses a strong distaste for political life, preferring to explore a world of “ideas” that aren’t so burdened by historical data: a curious admission, even if Coleman himself is not quite ready to push his framework to its logical end.

Now, such purity does have its advantages, but the problem is that it can be challenged from so many angles. Let us take the most obvious objection- that structural racism does exist and has quantifiable effects on day-to-day life. One example of this is that black Americans still face massive disenfranchisement: hundreds of thousands of votes are routinely at risk due to Republican legislation that- according to court rulings– “target[s] African-Americans with almost surgical precision”. Thus, blacks have less per capita voting power compared to white Americans, which- given the closeness of so many elections- can have downright geologic consequences. Another is the fact that blacks receive harsher sentences for identical crimes, with deep (read: negative) implications for productivity, recidivism, and family structures. Yet another is that besides the well-documented cases of redlining during Jim Crow, there have been dozens of mortgage discrimination lawsuits settled by the Department of Justice since the 1990s, with hundreds of millions paid out to consumers across every housing market in the United States. I can think of more objections, but suffice to say that evidence for just one of them does all sorts of damage to the ‘humanist’ perspective, given how strongly they affect the very numbers (murder, education, income disparity) it demands we target. The issue isn’t that Coleman believes in a radical responsibility for each person- that may not even be relevant, as I will show- but that, in feeling the need to deny a powerful causal factor, he admits the original concept is just not very compelling when forced to stand beside it.

Another challenge to Coleman Hughes is philosophical. Recall his division between “humanist” and “antiracist”, then ask yourself: why? For while they are called “competing visions”, there is little reason to think so, since they are quantifying and responding to unrelated categories. Yes, racism is- at bottom- nothing more than a cognitive bias, and it’s good that it’s being framed this way. But the fact that it is a bias, or irrational, is not a comment on its effects. God is a bias- the heliocentric model is a bias- anti-Semitism is a bias- and yet, every one of these biases generates ideas that human beings will act upon. Is Coleman’s entire worldview nothing more than a category error? I don’t know, but it is a touch worrying that his own explanation- “the best analogy I can think of”, as he calls it- compares these competing visions to weight and absolute mass in physics: that is, as relative versus objective interpretations of the world. Of course, this is a very slippery use of the term ‘relative’, and the image it leaves in the mind is not at all what the word entails. To say that weight is relative simply means that weight measures the effect of gravity- a perfectly real and quantifiable phenomenon- from object to object. It is not- I don’t think?- all that interesting to say ‘if we change the independent variable, the result changes’, which is the true extent of Coleman’s insight. Yet the same can be said for mass. It is ‘absolute’ ONLY in the sense that we are not typically around processes that can alter it. To be sure, Coleman is a fit, handsome young man, but he might still trim up considerably if subjected to particle bombardment. And even that is true only if we define ‘Coleman’ as the sum-total of his body mass the moment prior, which is just as relative in this frame. That his weight would also change is unquestionable, though this has less to do with altering one’s location- which is Coleman’s idea- and more with the fact that gravity is instantaneous (e.g., “racism exists, here are the tangibles”). In short, one is neither more useful nor objective than the other, even as Coleman’s analogy muddies two slices of reality with the complaint that one is not a constant because its measure isn’t. Garbage In, Garbage Out, I suppose- feed your algorithms nonsense, and you just might get a group of adults, like in this lecture, so used to indulging the worst assumptions of American discourse that they forget how to question its more ignorant parts.

But perhaps Coleman’s- oh, I don’t know- silliest preoccupation is with the inflated stakes of so much of what he writes. Yes, there are some niche events like a concert hiring only nonwhites, or the verbal indiscretions he offers as an example of racial double-standards: Michael Eric Dyson’s claim that Jordan Peterson is “a mean, mad white man”, or when Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that the 9/11 first responders “were not human to me” but “menaces of nature”. Yet the macro view of employment discrimination is that it runs in the opposite direction, while anti-white insults- I am happy to report- mean absolutely nothing to white Americans. It is NOT the banning of the word ‘nigger’ that more rational progressives wish to see, but the curtailment of the formal processes to which the word is so often attached. To be called any of these abusive terms is no doubt annoying and wrong. Yet the functional effect of being called ‘white faggot’ or ‘honkey bitch motherfucker’ is the same as being called a ‘moron’ by some stranger: unpleasant, yes, but the sort of purely emotional event the Intellectual Dark Web would otherwise dismiss. That so much attention gets paid to the justice or injustice of an insult is telling, while Coleman’s belief that nabbing a Rihanna gig is ‘black privilege’ after a net-negative start to one’s life is both technically correct AND stunningly delusional. Again: one must draw a distinction between what is generically true and what is salient. Do Coleman’s more extreme examples matter? They do- Affirmative Action will always breed resentment, especially in ‘meritocratic’ environments such as college testing. And although I do not cover Affirmative Action in this essay, my answer at this point of Coleman’s argument is that this is the one and perhaps only structural obstacle whites face along the color line: and one that, incidentally, occurs as the final link of an event-chain (birth location, race, property values) marked by advantage at every other point.

Of course, to understand why Coleman so easily unravels at the gentlest tug, we need to examine the countervailing positions a bit more closely. Perhaps the broadest, most evidence-rich precis of Coleman’s worldview is Quillette’s “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap”, which begins by highlighting the three texts Coleman is arguing against: Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations”. The first myth he wishes to dismantle is that slavery “is central to explaining American affluence”- a claim he ascribes to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who calls American prosperity “ill-gotten”. Soon after this framing, however, Coleman shifts emphasis: from slavery being “central to explaining” America’s wealth, to slavery being “the root cause” of it. Yet Coleman should understand the difference- something can be ‘central to explaining’ X without being its ‘root cause’. Is it pollen, a flower, or the bee that’s responsible for a rich ecosystem? Yes, this is rather sloppy thinking, but the fact that Coates, himself, never seems to suggest what he is said to be suggesting is especially troubling. Does Ta-Nehisi Coates believe slavery was ‘the root cause’ of American wealth? I don’t know, but he does provide at least one direct, numerical measure for slavery as an asset class, which in 1860 “‘w[as] worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.’” (Baradaran, for her part, cites the number as roughly equal to America’s entire antebellum GDP.) In short, it is not even necessary to get lost in Coleman’s amplifications- why would it be? An objective measure has already been provided: that is, slaves were a valuable asset with a highly liquid market, and thus had a substantial effect on the nation’s total wealth irrespective of what was ultimately done with it. This may sound like a minor objection, but it’s not, for Coleman implies that his case against reparations depends on the extent to which slavery (and anything in proportion to it) still has economic consequences. Yet he also suggests that an effect below some undefined threshold would not count, as if forgetting that defining this threshold might simplify the argument into a math problem.

Coleman doesn’t even need to think this far ahead, however, because in his dialectic, if slavery really was “the root cause [a cause] of America’s prosperity…then we would expect American states that practiced slavery to be richer than those that did not. Yet we see precisely the opposite.” I must say, this is quite the claim, for it manages to not only ignore history, but also frieze the world into the exact double-standard Coleman rails against: black people (he says) often make poor financial decisions and squander their wealth, but an entire nation cannot. Now, I should not have to mention this in a discussion about American slavery, but what had happened was, there was a war. It was a war about slavery- that is, the primary economic engine of the South- fought by wealthy slaveowners by way of poor whites. As it turns out, the South had lost that war: they lost the most physically destructive war in American history, which saw everything from mass casualties to land appropriation, the demolition of cities, military occupation, the forced liquidation of its key industry, and a de facto refugee crisis involving 4 million former slaves. The outcome was especially punitive because the South was a rebel faction wishing to prolong something that- in just a few decades- would be universally condemned. Indeed, how does this NOT fit the definition of squandered wealth and poor planning for one’s future? Today, red states are still living off of blue state dole in part because they insist on typical wealth-depleting policies, culminating in Kansas’s failed libertarian experiment and- surprise!– the No True Scotsman fallacies by those responsible. I wonder- if Kansas hadn’t become re-acquainted with the wonders of a functional revenue system, and prairie children were reduced to feeding off of prairie grasses, like in the bootstrap days, would the extent of this impoverishment be proof that slaves never existed? To be clear: the South had LOST its wealth soon after its slaves had EARNED it. Not ‘all’ of it, mind- not EVERY PENNY, but certainly ENOUGH to make any discussion of reparations begin in a place Coleman would prefer to skip. That Quillette did not stop him a few paragraphs in with the most mild suggestion- even a ‘hey, so, about this Civil War thing…’- is telling, but of what? Perhaps it’s that Coleman is right, and that his skin color has given him blanket permission to say all manner of mishegoss. Or perhaps Quillette simply hadn’t caught this lapse either, and thought Coleman was making a vaguely interesting point in omitting the logical climax of one hundred years of American history. Whatever the explanation, both magazine AND writer have already failed their readers, and it only gets worse.

The slave-wealth argument, he explains, is “part of a larger fallacy about national wealth in general: the assumption that if a nation is wealthy, it must have stolen that wealth from somebody else.” This is technically true, I guess- not every wealthy nation ‘must have’ stolen its wealth, although the best Leftist arguments focus more on the fact that slavery added a valuable productive asset. “To the contrary,” he says, “the example of Singapore is instructive: although it was raided by Portugal in the seventeenth century and colonized by Britain in the nineteenth, today Singapore is wealthier than both Portugal and Britain, in terms of median wealth per adult.” Interesting- ‘in terms of median wealth per adult’. I wonder why, in a discussion about a nation’s total accumulated wealth, Coleman’s preferred metric is a blurring of (at best) tangential data points? To get a sense of just how misleading these numbers are, Coleman must also argue that- according to his own sources- Russia has ‘less wealth’ than former satellite Azerbaijan, or that China, in 2016, was poorer than ISIS-besieged Libya. Apparently, median wealth taps any number of variables, and can also change according to policies like wealth redistribution and mass unionization. Indeed- if Congress passes a reparations package for every black American, that alone might push us into the top 10 overnight. Yet by insisting on this metric, Coleman gets to dismiss an article on nations ‘alleged’ to have benefitted from slavery, then declare that the wealthiest nations, today, were not slave-owning in the past. In reality, however, America is not ranked #26 in wealth, but #1: and wouldn’t starting with double the GDP you’d otherwise have present at least some benefit here? The United Kingdom- once the world’s most powerful slave-owning empire- is now #5. France and Spain- which, at their heights, were only surpassed by the first two- are still at #6 and #10. China- a newcomer to this list- is #2 after having rapidly developed by way of forced labor camps and collectivization. In fact, most nations in the top 10 had either engaged in some form of slavery or stolen land (a ‘free’ asset) from another group of people, while others- like America- had mastered both. Indeed, of all the nations discussed, Coleman’s example of the wealthiest enjoys the lowest actual ranking: #25. Say what one will of economists’ competing metrics, but it is a rather curious tool that declares the objectively richest country to be the poorest, the poorest to be the richest, yet still manages to make your case EXACTLY while measuring something else ENTIRELY.

Median wealth per adult by country, from Coleman Hughes

Coleman Hughes implies China is poorer than Gabon, Tunisia, Trinidad, and El Salvador, and that all are richer than Russia.

Needless to say, any objection to this article’s title should have long passed. Indeed, one does not even have to psychoanalyze Coleman Hughes nor guess at his motives for its meaning to be true. The deeper point is that anyone looking to him for information will inevitably be misled, whether it be by incompetent use of statistics, conceptual mix-ups, or bizarre omissions. Just consider how he deals with redlining and Jim Crow- two of the biggest historical obstacles in black America. “But this story, though based in truth,” he explains, “has been massaged to give the false impression that benevolence from the state is a prerequisite for wealth accrual.” Now, I am not sure whether ‘benevolence’ is necessary, but toleration is: you need, at minimum, to be ALLOWED to accrue wealth, as a rule. In fact, so many of Coleman’s assumptions revolve around government kindness that he fails to appreciate that the default state for most of the twentieth century was not neutrality, but a special kind of hostility towards blacks. Naturally, this is a much tougher position to argue against, so Coleman crunches a few more numbers instead:

Rothstein, for instance, falsely claims that “African American incomes didn’t take off until the 1960s,” and that “black workers did not share in the income gains that [white] blue collar workers realized” in the mid-twentieth century. Although it is true that the median income of white men more than tripled between 1939 and 1960 (rising from 1,112 dollars to 5,137 dollars), the median income of black men more than quintupled (rising from 460 dollars to 3,075 dollars). Black women, too, saw their incomes grow at a faster rate than white women over the same timespan.

Coleman’s first line is in reference to The Color of Law, and Rothstein’s ‘false claim’ should be investigated against the evidence both writers present. Coleman cites the second, more summative quote first, so I will go in reverse to give the reader a sense of the logical buildup. The chapter- titled “Suppressed Incomes”- in part details the exclusion of black Americans from the most profitable work by both private and government policy. In exchange for Democratic support in the South, the New Deal refused to extend its key protections to black-dominated professions, and many of the most well-known public works programs such as the TVA and CCC excluded blacks in part or in full. The hiring of black workers often ended in protests or even violence by white workers, and the law formally protected a union’s right to refuse entry to nonwhites until the 1960s. After combing through specifics, the full quote reads:

At least [thirty] other national unions either excluded African Americans entirely or restricted them to second-class auxiliaries. In the postwar years, some unions began to desegregate voluntarily, but federal agencies continued to recognize segregated unions within the government itself until 1962, when President Kennedy banned the practice. Nonetheless, the Post Office’s National Association of Letter Carriers did not permit African Americans to join in some areas until the 1970s. African American mailmen could not file grievances to protest mistreatment and instead had to join a catch-all organization for African Americans, the National Alliance of Postal Employees, a union mostly serving truck drivers, sorters, and miscellaneous lower-paid job categories. […]

The construction trades continued to exclude African Americans during the home and highway construction booms of the postwar years, so black workers did not share with whites the substantial income gains that blue collar workers realized in the two big wage growth periods of the mid-twentieth centurywar production and subsequent suburbanization. African Americans were neither permitted to live in the new suburbs nor, for the most part, to boost their incomes by participating in suburban construction.

Strange, but Rothstein’s quote does not say what Coleman says it does- that “‘black workers did not share in the income gains that [white] blue collar workers realized’ in the mid-twentieth century”- but limits itself to two areas: war production and suburbanization. These markets, specifically, were difficult for blacks to enter, and Rothstein names events, government policies, and raw numbers to make his case. Further, black Americans had less purchasing power for every dollar, paying more in rent (and real estate ‘contracts’) than whites did on suburban mortgages that doubled up as highly profitable investments. Naturally, this is still the case, what with food deserts, mortgage rate premiums, and more, thus magnifying income disparities to the point that 1:1 assessments aren’t so easy. Yet these are the very details Coleman refuses to address, choosing- as he does- to hang his argument on whether Rothstein overstates things by seeming to exclude black Americans from ALL blue-collar wage increases. The latter is especially troubling because Coleman has ostensibly read the book, and is therefore well aware of the chapter’s conclusion from which he pulls his next quote:

From the end of World War II until about 1973, the real wages and family incomes of all working and middle-class Americans grew rapidly, nearly doubling. African Americans, however, experienced the biggest growth toward the end of that period. In the 1960s, the income gap between them and white workers narrowed somewhat. The incomes of African American janitors and white production workers grew at the same pace, and the gap between them didn’t much narrow, but more African Americans, who previously would have been employed only as janitors, were hired as production workers, and they made gradual progress into better jobs in the skilled trades, at least in unionized industry. African Americans remained mostly excluded, however, from highly paid blue-collar occupations—the construction trades, for example. In most government jobs (teaching, the federal civil service, state and municipal government) but not in all, African Americans made progress: they were hired in city sanitation departments, for example, but rarely as firefighters. Overall, African American incomes didn’t take off until the 1960s, when suburbanization was mostly complete.

Now, this is hardly the image of perpetual stasis Coleman ascribes to Rothstein’s black America. Regardless of what the true numbers are, it is obvious that Rothstein does believe black income increased, and even explains one mechanism by which this happened. Perhaps the phrase ‘did not share in’ is an overstatement on his part, but this is at worst a clerical error in the face of every paragraph before and every paragraph after. And Rothstein’s claim that black incomes “didn’t take off until the 1960s” is a legitimate reading of the data. In fact, understanding the reason- and not merely the reality- for black wage growth in the 1960s-70s seems to be a major area of academic research. Coleman is likewise amazed that black income ‘quintupled’ into the 1960s, but doesn’t seem to appreciate that’s just how math works. If you begin with an incredibly small number, the percent increase will always look big next to some default, which in this case was less than half of an already-tiny prewar income. That black wages did not find parity with white wages is what’s salient, however, as is Coleman’s flippant refusal to engage with Rothstein’s source material. And what do Rothstein’s sources indicate? That compounding matters: whites (even using Coleman’s numbers) were able to save and invest much more than nonwhites. Does Coleman not realize that raising one’s income to the point of still being 40% underwater on the baseline, then falling even more behind in wealth accrual over the same period (!) is not exactly something to celebrate? Again: Coleman is ostensibly discussing WEALTH, but just like his use of median wealth as a proxy for highly concentrated, centuries-old national wealth, he is now invoking a separate metric to soften the blow of the topic at hand and playing ‘gotcha’ to snuff the noise of shifting goalposts.

Yet if Rothstein can be accused of clerical errors, of what can we accuse Coleman? I had, for the sake of argument, assumed Coleman’s own numbers were correct, but it turns out even those are wrong. One detailed analysis follows Coleman’s original source to the U.S. Census Bureau, which- according to Tom Westland- provides nominal wages, not real wages. By tracking the Consumer Price Index, inflation-adjusted incomes for whites increased from $1112 to $2410, and $460 to $1440 for blacks- a still-respectable 213% jump, but hardly Coleman’s quintupling. Then again, we know that today’s black CPI is still quite different from the CPI of white Americans, a discrepancy which was even more dramatic one century ago. Remember that the reason for black wage growth in the postwar period was another Great Migration, which concentrated blacks in Northern cities offering higher wages but also higher prices and substandard living conditions. Meanwhile, white Americans either stayed where they were and realized income gains at parity, or were able to take advantage of government-backed mortgage loans and move to the suburbs. Taking this into account, Westland caps true income growth for the median black worker at a mere 52%. In other words, Coleman’s objection fails not only for its sensationalism, but also on its preferred turf- it fails (and this must take some doing) whether or not the underlying numbers are correct, because the wrong question is being asked, and the wrong answer needlessly delivered.

Having now made the groundbreaking case that ‘black wages increased after Abolition’, Coleman Hughes is able to treat Mehrsa Baradaran to the same tactics:

Baradaran makes the same mistake in her description of life for blacks in the 1940s and 50s: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to more poverty.” But between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any significant civil rights gains were made.

Yet Baradaran’s full quote reads:

The problem with suburbs full of homeowners and urban ghettos comprised of tenants was not just that it caused generational wealth inequality; it also affected the avenues of opportunity available to residents of these disparate communities. The disparity in community resources had to do, in part, with the operation of the American tax system, which gives local municipalities control of the bulk of their own tax dollars instead of distributing taxes nationwide or statewide. The creation of the white suburb meant that white communities had more tax revenues with which to build better schools, parks, and infrastructures, and the ghettos did not. Government credit led to a housing boom, a homeowning middle class, and communities where future generations could be nurtured through well-funded public and private accommodations. Meanwhile, the cycle worked the other way in the ghetto: poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to even more poverty.

As black neighborhoods became overpopulated, blight and crime rose. The largest wave of the Great Migration, spanning from 1940 to 1970, involved an exodus of several million blacks out of the South, which further concentrated the population of the ghetto. Harlem, which had been in full bloom in the 1920s, had by the 1950s become dilapidated and rat-infested: so bad was the rat problem that specific coalitions were formed to address the problem, and it was a repeated topic of conversation in Congress. Asthma, disease, drug addiction, and tuberculosis were rampant. By 1952, nearly fifteen as many African Americans in Harlem were dying of tuberculosis than among the all-white residents of Flushing, Queens.

This is from a chapter on federally led discrimination, which is once again fleshed out through a documentary record Coleman does not bother to engage. His objection to Baradaran- that black poverty dropped over the past century- is both correct and irrelevant: correct because poverty did decline for all Americans, as Baradaran repeatedly makes clear, and irrelevant since her quote is specific to ‘the ghetto’. As she explains, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and Jim Crow concentrated black poverty into housing projects and segregated neighborhoods, many of which reached their nadir in the postwar years. I am not sure whether Coleman reads sociology, but it is a truism of the field that concentrating poverty- even if decreasing it for the group more broadly- tends to exacerbate its effects. Baradaran’s own example is infamous for both its downfall as well as its gentrification, while black home ownership outside of the ghetto (which is what’s material to Coleman’s POV) occludes a disturbing reality: these were the same homes white Americans abandoned for the suburbs, thus making them more affordable to blacks who would eventually take out bad loans to buy depreciating property. Put another way, blacks enjoyed a mild wage increase in exchange for perpetual debt. It is not enough, then, to merely glance at the rates of black homeownership or some other preferred metric- one also needs to contextualize a little to get the more robust perspective only one of these writers is offering.

He continues:

The prevailing progressive narrative also gives short shrift to the history of immigrant groups succeeding in the face of racist hostility and without help from the government. Baradaran, for instance, criticizes the “pervasive myth that immigrant success was based purely on individual work ethic.” To the contrary, she claims, “most immigrants’ bootstraps had been provided to them by the government.”

Actually, Baradaran makes a number of similarly worded ‘bootstrap’ comments throughout the text, and Coleman cites one of them here to express his disapproval. Here is another, in the book’s introduction, which supplies the specifics Coleman must address:

The ghettos that initially trapped America’s other immigrant groups did eventually improve themselves out of existence, once they were no longer segregated from the mainstream economy. In fact, the dilemma faced by black banks is highlighted when contrasted with the viable banks created by Italian, Jewish, German, Irish, and Asian immigrants. Each of these immigrant groups faced discrimination and exclusion like the black population, but the key difference was that none of them was systematically, uniformly, and legally segregated to the extent and for the length of time the black community was. Many immigrants eventually left their overcrowded ghettos and settled in suburbs where, through violence, zoning restrictions, and racial covenants, blacks were barred…The success of immigrant banks should not be misinterpreted. It was not self-help and community support that allowed them to finance themselves out of the ghetto. They left the ghetto first. And they did so only after being accepted as ‘white’; not through segregating their money. The bootstraps they were given were government-guaranteed mortgage loans, from which black people were excluded.

Now, keep in mind that Mehrsa Baradaran has written a synthesis of the academic consensus- her ideas ARE mainstream scholarship, and if they are to be discredited, the underlying evidence needs to be discredited as well. It is not enough to say, ‘No, I disagree with this conclusion,’ and move on to some counterpoint. Take the above paragraph: what should Coleman be focusing on? Well, Baradaran’s claim is that blacks faced not just generic obstacles, but obstacles of a uniquely destructive degree and type. This would make nonwhites positioned for suboptimal outcomes in a probability space, which makes top-down remediation justifiable since there was a top-down, state-enforced series of handicaps that generated these probabilities in the first place. What about the obstacles themselves: were they uniquely onerous? Let’s see- there were centuries of slavery, as well as the psychological justifications that kept slavery afloat: that Africans were not human beings, and were not worthy of dignity while they were enslaved and all the century after. The endurance of these beliefs reflected in the law: apartheid, wage theft, state-endorsed violence, voter suppression, a de facto ban on acquiring real estate, and so on, with millions of blacks (and millions of their descendants) who experienced these hardships still alive today. From birth- that is, before a child has made any choices for which it can be held responsible- these obstacles would, on average, damn that child below baseline in so many areas of life. And while rejecting this argument at any point is perfectly fine, that does require a counterargument to show that the black experience was NOT uniquely destructive, or that if it was, that historical obstacles no longer have a residual effect, and that today’s obstacles either do not exist or do not matter. That is the standard that must be met, and so one needs to spend some time with the evidence. Does Coleman Hughes understand what is required of him? Well, he does think the following a sufficient response:

But history tells a different story. Starting with the California Alien Land Law of 1913, fourteen states passed laws preventing Japanese-American peasant farmers from owning land and property. These laws existed until 1952, when the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Add to this the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, and it’s fair to say that the Japanese were given no bootstraps in America. Nevertheless, by 1970 census data showed Japanese Americans out-earning Anglo Americans, Irish Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans, and Polish Americans. For Asian Americans on the whole, an analysis of wealth data from 1989 to 2013 predicted that their “median wealth soon will surpass the white median level.” If wealth differences were largely explained by America’s history of favoring certain groups over others, then it would be hard to explain why Asian-Americans, who were never favored, are on track to become wealthier than whites.

Note Coleman’s implicit suggestion: that it is unnecessary to respond to the structural obstacles blacks faced, because Japanese Americans also faced obstacles. Yet there is zero attempt to tease out the extent, severity, and potential consequences of one set of obstacles over another, and no attempt to understand the social contexts to which both groups belong. The argument- again- is hindrances of a uniquely destructive degree and type. As it stands, however, Japanese Americans were never enslaved, had self-selected for all manner of positive traits (drive, talent, a willingness to take risks) simply on account of being immigrants, and started with significantly more wealth- i.e., not zero, unlike former slaves. Japanese enclaves faced little competition from white neighborhoods, enjoyed a reliable clientele, niche labor markets, and even the implicit support of a developed nation-state that would indeed ‘send its best,’ down to the businessmen who would set up shop with foreign cash. That Asian Americans faced discrimination is undeniable, and that Japanese Americans experienced a violation of their human rights is likewise true. Yet the Japanese received a formal apology for this violation and victims were financially compensated. Did four years of internment damage job prospects, mental health, and the broader social fabric? Of course. But centuries of slavery and one hundred years of Jim Crow had that effect, as well, with some of the worst anti-black policies continuing decades after Japanese internment was over. There were no reparations for blacks, however, not because giving money to the Japanese was more just, but because it could have been done more quietly, more cheaply, and with less shame. Japanese people also have- well, they have Japan, for one, even if in a purely cultural sense. Black Americans have NO nation but America, yet what of that? For while Coleman might ignore the actual, day-to-day meaning of a massive propaganda campaign targeting the first black president as foreign-born, I’d argue that it is rather difficult to popularize such a nasty little rumor without having some form of structural apartheid and Otherization to begin with. Republicans had endless opportunity to play the birther gambit, and yet, it ‘just so happened’ that it was reserved for this president, and was- get this, Coleman!– started by the country’s next president, who had reached the world’s highest office by way of another xenophobic campaign wetter than the dampest dream of the most radical left-wing identitarian? And although I understand Sam Harris is NOT USING RACIALLY CODED LANGUAGE AT ALL when he calls him “eloquent” and “restrained” (take that, Huey P. Newton!) one still feels the need to shake this kid out of his Platonic slumber in the hope that he can stay awake through history, just this once.

Sam Harris presents a thought experiment.

Sam Harris presents a classic thought experiment. Image via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxICdTboDQ0

The phantasms continue, however, with Coleman Hughes ‘debunking racism’ by pointing out that Caribbean blacks are wealthier than blacks born in America. Indeed- the self-selection (and thus survivorship bias) of immigrants as a whole leads to better outcomes: education, wealth, household stability, and so on, with many such outcomes having already been forged at home. Nigerians, for example, are one of the most educated ethnic group in America, which is not surprising given the fact that African visas were once available only to students and the highly skilled. Coleman assumes there is a purely cultural explanation for these differences, and the irony is that he’s right- it is the culture of immigration, and the unique sociopolitical baggage it entails. He wonders when Asian American wealth will outpace that of whites, but neglects to mention what makes Chinese and Indian immigrants (rather than Chinese and Indian nationals) so special. Does Coleman realize that Chinese Americans with American-born mothers are, in terms of achievement, generically white? The archetypical ‘immigrant drive’ is quashed, but wealth and all the good luck that wealth begets is still there to be enjoyed by their descendants. Worse, he does not apply his own logic to other groups- Cambodian and Laotian Americans, for instance, who entered the United States as refugees (thus eliminating self-selection), with the Hmong in particular experiencing astronomical levels of poverty and crime. One also wonders at his fascination with Jews- Jews, whose literacy was encouraged for thousands of years, who enjoyed two waves of migration from developed nations, founded (and were allowed to develop) niche industries, and were ultimately deemed white enough to move to the suburbs and capitalize on the housing boom. How many of these opportunities were available to blacks? World War II helped cement additional gains for American Jews, in part because Germany was the enemy, and an enemy’s evil is far easier to critique. Put another way, the Holocaust was wrong not merely for its own sake, but also due to anti-Hitler patriotism, forcing Americans to re-assess their own anti-Semitism in the face of its logical outcome. Meanwhile, the holocaust of Native Americans (to take one example) is still being justified by the biggest pundits in America: even Ben Shapiro, who took a whole twenty-four hours before deciding that a Columbus Day cartoon celebrating genocide was unacceptable for publication. I wonder how long he would have waited before condemning a similarly jocular depiction of Dachau? And while Alan M. Dershowitz once blamed the ‘disappearance’ of the American Jew on affluence and social acceptance, 69% of blacks still feel it’s acceptable to kneel before their own national anthem. Not to put too fine a point on it, but perhaps it’s because black Americans do not FEEL as if it’s their national anthem- that they were (unlike Jews) never meant to BELONG. And for a guy who really values the ‘hints’ within cultural différance, it is rather shocking to ignore one which suggests 42 million of its own nation cannot properly belong to it. Indeed- what is the material effect of THAT culture? Or is that too offensive of a question to ask? Cue Ben Shapiro’s outrage. Cue Coleman miming the entire grift of right-wing personal responsibility: none for me, all for you. Meanwhile, babushkas from the USSR still walk the piers of Brighton Beach, once doctors, chemists, and engineers, but homemakers now. And if Coleman does not quite get how even the subtlest change can lead to such divergent realities, perhaps he ought to re-read his own citations.

Finally, we come to the essay’s most philosophical part:

Conspicuous by its absence in the progressive account of the racial wealth gap is any active role for blacks themselves. Reading Baradaran, Rothstein, and Coates, one gets the impression that there is nothing blacks could do to improve their lot—outside of asking the government for radical policy solutions. But there are things that blacks can do. Indeed, there are certain elements of black American culture that, if changed, would allow blacks to amass wealth to a degree that no government policy would be likely to match.

Prior to addressing the central claim, let us do something Coleman has repeatedly refused to- let us understand the argument, and what is required of us. First, he offers a characterization of redistributive policy as “radical”: this is not something I’ll be commenting on, but suffice to say that America has some of the most radical policies already in place- tax cuts for the rich, a lack of universal health coverage, poor labor protections, for-profit mass incarceration, open political bribery, race-based voter suppression, and so on. This is unlike any other modern democracy on the planet- so, in a technical sense, we ARE a radical outlier, but on the world’s Right. Ok, moving on. The more relevant claims are that 1) black people CAN change their culture and amass wealth, 2) this can be done more effectively than top-down remediation. If Coleman demonstrates point #1, that’s fine, but it would be a purely philosophical score. It does not sufficiently address why the default answer- wealth redistribution- is the wrong one. After all, few would argue that Germany’s reparations to Holocaust survivors were wrong, yet far fewer Americans grant that reparations for Jim Crow are just. Putting aside the question of reparations for slavery (since no former slaves are alive, whereas Holocaust survivors are), millions of American blacks born as recently as the 1960s dealt with legal apartheid on every level. One can even grant that survivors of Jim Crow deserve less compensation than survivors of death camps, but the point is that compensation in some form is reasonable. This is why it’s so critical for Coleman Hughes to demonstrate point #2 and its implicit demand: that, when the probability space is rolled, ‘what blacks alone can do’ must have a meaningful chance of success compared to government intervention.

The first example Coleman provides of a black cultural defect is luxury spending. He cites a Nielsen report suggesting black women are more likely to buy luxury goods compared to white women, which is true. Yet if that is supposed to be proof of black irresponsibility, the other side of the ledger shows black Americans also spend more money on rent, baby food, and long-term contractual obligations, such as utilities and insurance premiums. They also spend less than whites overall, which is true regardless of income level. To complain that ‘X’ percentage of the racial wealth gap can be ascribed to black luxury spending is no more reasonable than ascribing similar percentages to black over-indexing on rent and other necessities, a logical conundrum few pundits have appreciated. Coleman’s observation that black Americans are more likely to own a cell phone is especially bizarre- first for the implication that a cell phone is a luxury, and because Coleman is once again sloppy with his numbers. Yes, blacks are more likely to own cell phones, but they are also less likely to use broadband or own a computer. More pertinently, Coleman neglects the median age of black and white Americans: 24 versus 55, which alone explains the modest 9% discrepancy in phone ownership. I wonder- if women in nursing homes own fewer smartphones than their children do, might that make the Greatest Generation less profligate? Perhaps. But one can say the same of the Greatest Generation’s use of refrigerators when their own grandparents were content with earth-cellars. And if Coleman had simply thought about what a smartphone is, he’d realize that black Americans often use smartphones as computers– that is, in lieu of them. Is that so surprising? They are cheaper, more ubiquitous, and remain the simplest way to access tools essential to today’s labor market. The analogy, then, is not so much that Coleman expects black people to do without refrigerators, but that blacks themselves have dug a hole in which to store milk, and Coleman shakes his head at the cost.

But there is an even deeper problem- the meaning of “financial literacy”, at least in the way Coleman Hughes defines it. According to one analysis of Coleman’s data, its tracking of financial habits- the so-called “financial health score”- conflates education with income, absolving financial obstacles (such as having credit access only through payday loans) of any causative power for bad financial decisions (such as actually taking a payday loan). As the author points out, the final number is based on a handful of criteria, including statements like “I have not missed a mortgage payment in the last year.” Obviously, this is NOT a measure of financial literacy, as Coleman implies, but a catalogue of whatever financial decisions a person felt the need to make. Does Coleman see the issue with judging one’s financial savvy by the number of late bills and credit line rejections? Race-based lending bias is EXACTLY the question antiracists are trying to adjudicate, while missing mortgage payments- which overwhelmingly affects the poor- will be more prevalent among nonwhites. Put another way, the lower your income, the lower your financial health score will be: hardly a fair measure of individual decision-making, even if individual decisions do get made. Most astonishing of all, Coleman’s study does not itself make any proposals- it is merely a descriptive study which tracks racial differences in behavior without explaining this behavior. Yet Coleman uses its data as an opportunity to deride black Americans’ financial decisions when the argument is really about the forces behind these decisions- the why, for example, a mortgage payment was missed, not simply that it was, and whether there are more cumulative ‘why’s’ to choose from across racial lines. Yes, the study does indicate individuals can make better choices (obviously), but finds so many other problems that it references “policymakers” as an integral part of the solution.

Interestingly, Coleman and I are also using another study to draw two different conclusions- not because one of us is cherry-picking data, but because only one of us seems to remember what the original argument demands. To Coleman, the fact that “blacks spend 32% more on luxury goods” is evidence that blacks need to be taught financial skills in lieu of state-level remediation. He doesn’t explain why the state shouldn’t come into play here, which is what’s dialectically required, mostly because he doesn’t address the broader question of why a spending discrepancy exists. Yet the study not only tackles this question on the very first page, but even proposes an interpretative framework based on Coleman’s own data:

Using nationally representative data on consumption, we show that Blacks and Hispanics devote larger shares of their expenditure bundles to visible goods (clothing, jewelry, and cars) than do comparable Whites. We demonstrate that these differences exist among virtually all subpopulations, that they are relatively constant over time, and that they are economically large. While racial differences in utility preference parameters might account for a portion of these consumption differences, we emphasize instead a model of status seeking in which conspicuous consumption is used to reflect a household’s economic position relative to a reference group. Using merged data on race and state level income, we demonstrate that a key prediction of our model – that visible consumption should be declining in mean reference group income – is strongly borne out in the data separately for each racial group. Moreover, we show that accounting for differences in reference group income characteristics explains most of the racial difference in visible consumption. We conclude with an assessment of the role of conspicuous consumption in explaining lower spending by racial minorities on items likes health and education, as well as their lower rates of wealth accumulation.

In other words, the authors present a psychosocial model to understand luxury spending- that is, a status-signaling common to poor people– and even conclude that, when controlled for income, the racial disparity almost entirely disappears. Isn’t this an important detail to omit? Not to Coleman, who begins with his theory, first, and assumes that any countervailing data can be ignored. Now, I do not doubt that black Americans spend more on luxury goods, and I do not think- on a personal level- buying luxury goods is very wise. The Right has ALWAYS tried to make it about that final, individual choice- the moment, for example, when a black woman buys an expensive car, or takes out a payday loan, or a subprime mortgage. But this is a ridiculous inversion of the problem: payday loans are taken because they exist, and they exist because they are the only line of credit for too many people. If phenomena such as medical or family emergencies persist, loans will logically be required, but not everyone will be able to take out the same kind of loans on the same terms. This doesn’t change their necessity- it only compounds their negative effects. It is ABSURD to think that teaching blacks about the evils of subprime mortgages or the “diversification of assets” (as Coleman suggests) will do much in the face of redlining and a total lack of assets to invest. Is there a better way to make sense of the data and ensure that concepts like free will and personal responsibility remain coherent? Yes- and it begins with an understanding of human behavior as a probability space.

People- like all organisms, really- respond to material stimuli in predictable ways. It is known, for example, that living in a stable two-parent home leads to better life outcomes than the alternatives. It is known that being born to obese parents is a risk factor for becoming obese. It is inarguable that children living in poverty have a higher chance of dropping out of high school, getting arrested, being unemployed, developing health problems, and more. And, logically, it is black children who are disproportionately burdened by such outcomes, since wealth fractures along racial lines. Further, black children experience (or will experience, as adults) any number of obstacles unique in severity and type: lending bias, employment discrimination, and comparatively steeper consequences for personal mistakes. Yet if race provides some cushion for these mistakes, it is less likely that a white person will become part of the annual statistics despite an identical string of behaviors. To raise a familiar example: do white people commit marijuana offenses at the same rate that black people do? Yes. But while pundits object that unequal incarceration is merely the end-result of heightened police presence in bad neighborhoods, the logic of policing an overwhelmingly black population, for ANY reason, means that more blacks will enter prison despite an identical crime rate. In other words, by ‘incidentally’ catching more black criminals, America will- to invoke a conservative talking point- create more fatherless households, an effect that gets painted as a cause ONLY, as if that absolves a state-level policy of contributing ‘X’ percentage to the total pool of fatherlessness. Nor do we have to argue about the degree to which unequal policing leads to single-parent homes, since any degree of state-level culpability demands state-level remediation: even if ‘remediation’ is as simple as putting a stop to the state’s destructive behavior.

Yet Coleman Hughes has not wrestled with this, has not dealt with what personal responsibility even means in the face of children born into a set of obstacles that they themselves did not create. To Coleman, it’s enough that they have an obstacle to respond to, something to test themselves against and perhaps overcome. This is not wrong, I guess, but Coleman’s error is in assuming that the mere existence of free will- that is, the ability to respond to an event in a myriad of ways- suggests that black Americans can tap one set of responses over another. And this is not wrong either, for anyone CAN technically do ANYTHING: even a Congolese paraplegic who self-diagnoses, miraculously learns to walk, and becomes an Olympic gold medalist at age 60. The more relevant question, though, is what’s LIKELY given the probability space (born paralyzed and malnourished in Africa) and the logical set of outcomes (dead by 10, laborer by 20, world champion by 60) to which those variables most often attach. No, not all events in a probability space can be improved upon, but even a superficial accounting of their existence renders Coleman’s ‘self-help’ a logistical nightmare, IF the actual goal is closing the racial wealth gap. And while Coleman might object to the Left’s bias towards antiracist justice, the Left- naturally- can point to Coleman’s exclusion of an even broader justice from his own set of imperatives. Just think: millions of black Americans have lived through a state-mandated apartheid, and Coleman’s own ethical system does not permit the still-living victims to be compensated! I mean- does anything else need to be said at this point? Are radical Leftists STILL on the defensive when the other side can’t even propose a behavioral framework that isn’t some absurd denial of human nature?

At bottom, the notion of a probability space is a philosophical dilemma, and one that Coleman Hughes cannot sufficiently answer. At what point can we demand ‘personal accountability’ for reaching some wealth-target, IF we agree that merely being born black is an obstacle to wealth? Now, I understand that conservatives will deny this in knee-jerk fashion, but why? They themselves admit as much when they point out that unwed motherhood is a problem, or that black-on-black crime does destroy neighborhoods and generates poor life outcomes. And if a probability space of 1000 children born into crime and fatherlessness is run 1000 times, all the moralizing about what black people should and should not do is irrelevant to the underlying question of macro behavior and meaningful (not merely ‘possible’) outcomes. The most common objection to this framing is that possibility IS enough: that those who do ‘rise above’ on talent alone ought to be better compensated than those who don’t, at least in the parts of our simulation where talent is the variable. But so what? Antiracism simply asks why the consequences- good AND bad- for identical behavior are different for different people. Are talent, drive, or good decision-making really the variables at play? If a rich white mother pays for her daughter’s abortion whereas a poor black mother cannot, the decision-tree of both children may be identical, but when smoothed over a large enough sample space of pregnant teenagers, one child faces very steep consequences while the other does not. And it just won’t do to say that black girls should ‘know’ the cost of their pregnancy, or that black men ought to run a cost-benefit analysis every time they roll a joint: as if that directive is anything BUT an expectation for black Americans to behave unlike any other Americans.

This is especially pertinent to the question of wealth, since wealth begets wealth, as a rule, and if blacks were shut out of the nation’s real estate boom- the largest wealth-creator for white Americans- they were also shut out of multiple bull markets in the S&P, denied education, and barred from the most lucrative professions. Unless there is some coming global contraction exclusive to whites, how does Coleman propose black Americans reach parity in the face of multiplying white wealth- a 712X of the entire stock market since 1932- after having already missed so much of the upswing? It can’t even MATHEMATICALLY be ‘go index your cash’, as there will never be enough capital to catch up to a 100-year-old parabola. I mean- is this not obvious? Coleman Hughes might be content with generic suggestions, but even those have a material reality he fails to respect. He marvels, for example, that the black/white income disparity is ‘only’ 65% whereas the wealth gap is a full 10X, missing the fact that even a modest differential can deliver a significant return on wealth in less than a year. And since blacks are surviving on 0.65X of a white family’s expenditures, what is the actual recommendation- more downsizing? Ok. Yet the demand as I understood it was for Coleman to demonstrate that government remediation does not work, or is at the very least unjust. He never does quite show this, however, as the essay veers into parable, then invokes his yet-unproven conclusion re: ‘black culture’ as its own proof. He slows down to critique Rothstein once again, this time complaining that the inconvenience of segregation does not justify the inconvenience of desegregation- that there are people out there who will have to now be bothered by all the historical nonsense they never once consented to be a part of, anyway. He suggests immigrant self-help campaigns were ‘a’ if not ‘the’ variable in immigrant success, but offers no evidence for this save for the fact that such campaigns existed, ignores the long history of self-help ethos in black America, then unironically contends the burden “is on the advocates of programs which have never worked anywhere to prove that, for whatever reason, this time is different.”

And yet, we can still answer this burden. First- lead poisoning used to be one of the biggest concerns for poor (and especially black) Americans, but it wasn’t a self-help campaign that eliminated lead and its effects on crime, intelligence, and human behavior. The windfall from this regulation is estimated at $2.4 trillion internationally- hardly the figure one might expect if Coleman were at the helm, teaching poor mothers to ‘make better choices’ with a home test kit and a respirator. What about food stamps, a program that takes in twice as many black Americans as a percentage of the population? Well, it turns out that children who were on SNAP between 1961 and 1981 enjoyed better life outcomes than children in comparable situations without SNAP, including a reduced risk of being on assistance programs as adults. And how about the effects of welfare more broadly, which ameliorates poverty in proportion to GDP expenditure from nation to nation? Did the effects of Medicaid somehow exempt black recipients from its MASSIVE boon to well-being? And the now-deluge of research on Affirmative Action: did it or did it not close some of the racial gap in wages and career choice, especially among regulated firms? And how about a more dreamy-eyed proposal: the legalization of all drugs and immediate freedom to the hundreds of thousands of drug offenders still in prison? Damn- how’s THAT for returning fathers to fatherless households? It is telling, too, that Coleman still has not addressed the most obvious counterpoint to “programs which have never worked anywhere”: federally backed mortgage loans, which had a tremendous effect on both living standards and cumulative wealth for white Americans. I mean- wasn’t that the whole point of Baradaran’s book? Now, if the argument is that some of these programs did not do enough or even outright excluded blacks from their benefits, then I’d certainly agree. Yet Coleman means something else entirely, pointing to the failures of black America as evidence against remediation, when one could just as easily ask how much worse these failings would now be without it. The null hypothesis- I hope?- is that remediation can work just as well for black people as it has for any other ethnic group, and it doesn’t help that the objection to this is a tautology (“black Americans are black, whites are white”) dressed up in bad statistics.

And so on. It’s gotten so easy to slap these arguments back that I’ve become a touch lazy- enough, at least, for my wife to caution me the other day to read up on Coleman Hughes’s stance on reparations more broadly. What if he does support reparations for Jim Crow, but not slavery? Doesn’t that undermine some of the critiques you’ve made? I quickly put this out of mind however: NO WAY could a rational human being with real policy convictions spend most of his time on the negative portion of this conviction rather than on what ostensibly matters, then sit idly by as every quote, video snippet, and interview focuses on what he doesn’t want and so openly conflates it with what he does. And yet, I was wrong, for Coleman actually appeared in front of Congress to argue his anti-reparations position, where- in 10 paragraphs of testimony– he dedicates a single sentence arguing for Jim Crow compensation in a hearing that pitted him against Ta-Nehisi Coates! A single sentence- really? Perhaps I’d missed something, and so I re-read the articles for Quillette, his blog, and listened to a few more interviews. NOTHING- not even in his piece decrying these “stale grievances”, which was about reparations and Jim Crow. Damn- would it be impolitic to wonder of Coleman’s true motivations when he buries his feelings about a policy that, if enacted, would amount to one of the biggest wealth transfers in American history? Indeed: given the fanbase he has cultivated, would it even be in Coleman’s self-interest to write essays on the justice of a hyper-focused, blacks-only redistribution scheme? And all the white readers now praising his ‘eloquence’ and ‘restraint’- would they suddenly feel under personal attack? Imagine if, instead of delivering all the bad reasons for slavery reparations to Congress, he focused on the good reasons to compensate victims of Jim Crow. Yet he knows- I am sure- that if the classic pro-reparations argument is defeated, the national appetite for a Jim Crow reparations package would disappear, as well. And why not? It’s not like Coleman Hughes is fighting for it now. And while Coleman says he is uncomfortable “putting a price” on his ancestors’ suffering, did it escape his notice that, in the status quo, this price tag already exists? After all, a price of ZERO is still a price. It’s just that no one has to pay for it, and no one gets anything in return- problem solved.

This silliness and outright hypocrisy all came to a head on The Rubin Report late last year. I mean, just think of it from Coleman’s professed POV- imagine you’ve been given the media opportunity of your life, and can finally showcase your commitment to rational, fact-based argument, and make good on your personal need to squelch out racial animus and division. Ah- where to begin? Well, if you are concerned with hitting the above goals, perhaps you turn the tables on your interviewer and grill him about the extremism so readily fostered on his own show. Naturally, you MUST bring up his discussion with Stefan Molyneux, who told Dave Rubin that black people have “smaller brains”. Then there was pedophilia apologist Milo Yiannopoulos, who informed Rubin- a Jew- that Jews control the media and the flow of information, at which Dave merely giggled. Then there’s Steven Crowder, a ‘comedian’ whose gags include giving Mexican day-laborers construction jobs then threatening to have them deported. Jesus– you think of Rubin’s whitewashing of lifelong criminal Tommy Robinson, who had even managed to sexually harass a fifteen-year-old Muslim girl before sitting down with the host. And then you think of Candace Owens, who said Hitler’s “real” shortcoming wasn’t that he was Hitler, but that he did not limit his activities to his national borders. Oh wait- that incident is after your time, but even so, isn’t it a bit strange to share a platform with a woman whose biggest takeaway from World War II is that genocide should not be wasted as an export good? And then you dream back to your own childhood, your tell-tale curiosities and budding interests, and wonder how the hell you even got here. I mean, what is the logical overlap between a young black philosophy student and these circus freaks? And why should you- a fighter for humanism- be so tolerant in the face of its undoing? Yet that is too much to think of now. Rubin is asking you something frightfully general about black people, and your mouth is moving with a frightfully general answer. You have a career now: and didn’t you say that the best thing a black man could do is hold down a fucking job? Molyneux’s name does in fact come up, and- oh, Coleman! Did you REALLY try to change the subject and feign ignorance over what was said? To think that Coleman Hughes- brave, eloquent, restrained- was just hit with a water balloon in the face, and he turns the other cheek to avoid a confrontation! Aye- turn your cheek, and assimilate into the Promised Land of blonde whores and black Lamborghinis, if you’re poor, or a Platonic world disemboweled of reality if you can afford to ignore this reality. And yet, they are BOTH a form of conspicuous consumption, save that one might leave you homeless while the other- apparently- just snips your balls.

I know, I know- this is just ad hominem bullshit, and ‘not worthy of a response’. Yet it comes at the end of a detailed, substantive critique: for doesn’t the critique make the ad hominem logical? A fallacy appears only when the order is reversed, while not considering a person’s motivations at all keeps one from understanding how their arguments (and the value systems which engender them) get shaped. Must we REALLY take Coleman Hughes at face value- to pretend, for example, that his pro-reparations anti-reparations speech before America’s top legislative body was just a tactical mistake? Or can we make a reasonable deduction about the role he plays for the Right? I do wonder, at any rate, if there’s some breaking point- a line that his ‘friends’ might cross for him to finally want out? I mean, they already said he has a smaller brain, which wasn’t enough to dissuade Coleman from their company. They have favorably contrasted his blackness with that of others, a stunning amplification of the exact racial slur Coleman says is often used against him by the Left. They have said some rather ambivalent things about genocide, and one of this bunch- Candace Owens- even took advantage of a mentally ill celebrity to the cheers of a white audience. And yet, there is no way out for Coleman, for he once praised both Candace Owens and Kanye West in the same essay. Now, did he really find West’s psychotic break all that compelling, and did it really make sense to discuss his POV through any other lens? On some level, Coleman Hughes MUST know what he is doing, and knows that- in a just world- an article such as mine would upend not only his career, but destroy the credibility of anyone who signed on to his elaborate hoax. Jordan Peterson loves to tell the anecdote of the Sokal affair, but still went out of his way to praise Coleman, thus refusing the same due diligence which might have saved Social Text its embarrassment. The difference, of course, is that no one will be held accountable here- not Coleman, who will continue to grow his brand by playing dumb with total lunatics, not Quillette, whose editor left after video footage showed him laughing alongside neo-Nazis planning a violent crime, and certainly not the more established figures accepting yet another grifter into their fold. And for anyone who objects that this is so much harder than swallowing the progressive party line- BULLSHIT! Had Coleman merely expressed what typical left-wingers believe, he’d be just another upper-class kid getting ready for life at the firm. The ‘hatred’ he complains of is pure fuel- fuel to appear on television, fuel to sign book deals, fuel to give lectures, fuel to say whatever he damn well pleases under the umbrella of the biggest money-making machine in pop intellectualism today. What is ACTUALLY hard is being alone: to reject, for example, much of the Left without giving into the Right, until no one accepts you, and nobody cares. This is why the humiliation of Cristina Hoff Sommers and Bret Weinstein has been so fascinating to watch. One finds herself a serious, credentialed scholar sucking up to total morons, and Weinstein- a Bernie Sanders supporter- is in the odd position of having to justify Ben Shapiro’s comment that the ‘real’ reason why Palestinians are so miserable is because “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage”. In short, all 3 have made the calculation that being relevant is more important than being right: a decidedly un-ideological POV, as it swaps ideology for pelf and pretends this is a sensible exchange.

And in case the objection gets raised- no, I do not believe Coleman Hughes is part of some cabal with a formal payment system for its proselytizers. This is not, of course, about Coleman Hughes, the person, nor any other flesh-and-bone iteration of his ‘type’. It is about the iteration itself– the fact of the iteration, that it exists, as well as its function in the probability space. And I suppose that’s the greatest irony of all: that Coleman- a champion of radical responsibility- is in fact a mere placeholder in the world’s grift. Nor does one have to reject the Great Man theory of history for this to be so. Remember, there are ALWAYS a few Great Men waiting to capitalize on their circumstances. How many would-be Khans are buried in the steppes, killed in the middle of dinner or simply because they were unlucky enough to go for a walk? One can likewise imagine a more benevolent Stalin, but even that would be mere luck of the draw. His job does not select for personal goodness, and so we can predict how that particular die is loaded too. As for Coleman- well, the only difference between a Great Man and a peasant is the number and the niche. Is this ad hominem, as well? Yet one MUST admit that- at some point- the most robust ad hominem really does cut ‘to the man’: for- at some point- is not Man the sum of his ideas, and his ideas on those ideas, and his manner of defense? Once these are discredited, all that’s left is skin, which is why the Right is so keen to defend appearances: it is the prodding of the Right’s skin that so enrages it, and why this line of attack is an existential threat. Is it MY fault that Coleman’s die is so front-loaded for deceit? I am simply here to watch it roll, oblivious to it, oblivious to Coleman, just as Coleman Hughes is oblivious to himself. Once it comes to rest, I shall write my observations and move on. After all, I am NOT here to start a conversation, but to end it: for what else is there to say? Goddamn, to live amidst such waste and mediocrity and self-negation: and what else is there to say?

15 Comments Coleman Hughes Cannot Be Trusted

  1. Billy

    Oh boy, it’s been almost a year already. But you’ve proven again that it’s worth coming back. A really fine essay. I’ve had to force myself to stop reading the other day because I had to go to bed …

    Also, I think this essay showed, again, one of your strongest points: that you can stay level-headed and keep analyzing things intellectually, even when writing about such a topic as racism. Most other people, I think, especially on the internet, would quickly devolve such reactions as “racism is bad, because *I* have a negative *emotional* reaction to it.” Which is why as much a distaste for the left as for the right. They have wildy opposing positions, but they use the same moronic methodology.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve recently read a few of Dan Schneider’s short story collections, but this time I’ve been noticing the writing of your essay itself a bit more than before. It might just be basic paragraph structuring, but I like how your paragraphs sort of build up to their final sentence, some of them pack quite a punch. I also love these little side remarks of yours, every once in a while. I had to laugh out loud when you described “stolen land” as “‘free’ asset.” It sort of reminded me of this clip: https://youtu.be/ngEICruq0fc . Also, it’s really a boon how the essay opens up at the end and makes it not just about Hughes, but a more general issue.

    I’m still thinking about how this essay compares to your Shapiro essay. But I’m not sure how to articulate it at the moment, so I think its better I’ll leave it at that for now. I do hope lots more people will read your essay (or any of your other essays), but also fear this will attract more of the idiocy that your Ben Shapiro essay pulled in.

    Sometimes I wonder how people like Hughes or Shapiro would react to read such an article (not necessarily yours, but simply something like it). I mean, there’s no coming back from someone disproving your bullshit with your own sources. That must cause a serious mental meltdown, unless they’re already too far gone.

    I’m also wondering, what, you think, is necessary overcome/get rid of these issues described in the essay. I don’t excpect you to “have all the answers,” and some things are obvious, such as getting rid off racist legislation and institutional discrimination (e.g. loans), and some form of reparation to level the playing field, but do you think that would be enough? I mean, let me try to put it like that: I’m a technical person, so for me, personally, this is less an issue of justice/injustice, but more of an issue of scaling and stability. I see as something like a machine or organism with more than 300 million moving and interacting parts. I think it is more interesting to ponder a) how do we keep this system from breaking down, and b) how to we keep it stable, or even better, make it grow more robust. What do you think?

    Cheers

    Reply
    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Thanks for the response. Yeah, I’m not ‘merely’ writing political essays (or ‘merely’ writing, for that matter), in the sense that if I can’t craft something that is just flat-out good writing, there’s no point in me doing it. The Ben Shapiro essay was not just about Shapiro, as you and others pointed out, but touched on deeper things in memorable ways. I do think this essay is better, because it’s tighter, leaves much unsaid, and works the reader via build-up and sentence structure and re-visiting tropes. The ultimate abnegation of Coleman’s worldview is not only presenting human behavior as a probability space, but boxing his entire being into the very same system at essay’s end.

      No, there’s no coming back from this, which is why I said this wasn’t meant to start a conversation, but to end it. What else is there to say? The guy abuses so many statistics, ignores data from his own sources, intentionally quotes others out of context, and outright manipulates his audience. The whole “median wealth per adult” thing is telling, given the actual question vs. the proxy he decides to use. And it’s just so sloppy and amateurish to avoid the question of slavery-related wealth by pointing to the impoverishment of red states, as if the Civil War never happened. Nor does it help that pre-modern economies were agrarian, and the South couldn’t catch up to the service, manufacturing, and finance-based world of the North. His entire article is an elaborate hoax, which is obvious after you go through every citation as I have.

      In some respects, fixing the racial wealth gap seems impossible. Just think of the math. If white Americans are 10X ahead and wealth grows exponentially (barring some catastrophe), there will have to be imbalanced growth for the gap to be completely resolved. If I were dictator for 8 years, I’d create a reparations package that is both cash-based and structural. Some structural changes might include the elimination of housing projects and requiring 1-2% of every apartment co-op to be treated as public housing so that poverty is not allowed to concentrate. I’d ban every private school and ensure that state funding of public schools is not based on property values. I’d offer reparations by way of massive business grants to trained black entrepreneurs in exchange for starting local businesses. I’d legalize all drugs. And so on.

    2. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Also, “racism is bad” because 1) it’s a cognitive bias, like any other cognitive bias, 2) it creates highly visible differences between people, and, because of a bias towards what the eye can see, it tricks the mind into ascribing these differences to something that is purely congenital, as opposed to something congenital (skin color) mediated by social responses to the congenital. The end result is social disunity that feeds off of the dumbest parts of human psychology.

      That’s pretty much the best ‘dispassionate’ response to the question of why, for those who don’t care about the plight of victims. You’d think Jordan Peterson would be all over this narrative.

    3. Billy

      > I do think this essay is better, because it’s tighter

      Hhm, that pretty much sums up my thoughts about this essay. I would definitely agree. But then again, the Shapiro essay does tackle more topics.

      And just to clarify a small thing, because I’m never really sure whether I expressed myself clearly or not (I’m by far not as good as you at articulating my thoughts): I mean, racism is obviously bad and unjust, but I find the usual emotional response to be counterproductive and I think a rational approach, especially when it comes to finding solutions, would be more fruitful. As you’ve described it, racism, if you really look at it, simply is a bland old cognitive bias. And then to say “just give black people some money,” is a pretty stupid response. Not because African-Americans shouldn’t get reparations, but because so much more is necessary to bring this to a healthy state. I mean, even with the host of things that you suggested, this will be a pretty slow process (yeah, it’s a 10x gap!). And you rightfuly pointed out that probably these policies could only be pulled off by a dictator!

      Let me try to compare it to homelessnes. Certainly, it’s a nice and good thing to give a guy on the street $10, it will help him temporarily (ignoring the fact that probably a lot of them will use this money for alcohol …), but it won’t get him off the streets. And neither will it get millions of homeless people across the country off the streets. For that there needs to be a bigger and more systematic effort than just handing out money on good will (I think that $10 would be more effective if it was channeled into a goverment or other program via taxes). AFAIK (although I’m not 100% sure), in my country you can’t have/open a bank account if you don’t have housing/a fixed adress. And you can’t have housing without a bank account, meaning, if you’re homeless, you’re shit out of luck (oh, well …).

      That’s at least how I view the racial problems in the US. But then again, I also might just be talking out of my ass, since I don’t even live in the US 😛

      Cheers

    4. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Much of the emotional response to racism comes from the fact that racism itself is an emotional response to a physical stimulus (in the broadest sense), and is often wrapped in personal feelings of insufficiency, self-loathing, etc. Just look at most of the people in the alt-right, they were and are the general losers of life now expressing this frustration outward. Then there’s the fact that it targets ordinary people for no good reason, who will have a knee-jerk reaction. And then there’s people like Coleman Hughes, who argue (for example) that a program of ‘forced’ de-segregation will create new problems, fresh resentments, and so on (which is true), but fail to appreciate the extent to which those who are forced to live on the ‘wrong’ side of segregation are already dealing with the same. Asking people to be rational about all this doesn’t really work.

      Is this essay really that dispassionate? I mean, it is in the sense that 90% of the time I’m just going over statistical errors and making fun of poor arguments, but I definitely make value judgments in large part based in emotion re: what I want society to be, and some of the humor is there to temper the anger. But just look at the humorlessness of a Shapiro or Coleman, they not only lack substance, they also write boring essays and deliver silly lectures with zero ability to communicate. I want people to read my stuff and feel like they’ve been knocked in the mouth. If you’re a halfway intelligent person, you will remember these lines whether or not you agree with them. And then, simply because you remember them, you will start to believe them. That’s how polemics should be.

      Homelessness is another one of those things people will look back on and shudder. In the next century, I expect all modern democracies to offer guaranteed housing, healthcare, food, and UBI. What happens in your life then is totally up to you. How’s that for giving people the ability to exercise some free will?

    5. Billy

      I wasn’t really trying to argue that your essay is completely dispassionate, and it really doesn’t have to be. Personally, I’m less interested in specific positions and facts and more in methodology. What I often see is—and I think this applies to Hughes and Shapiro as well—that people have an emotional reaction to something and then invent or look for some post-hoc reasoning why their reaction is correct or justified. This might not be bad in itself, at least when it is handled correctly (i.e., one keeps an open mind about being wrong), but it usually spoils anything further down the line. And I get that humans are primarily emotional instead of rational beings, but if someone takes the time to put their thoughts into writing, which takes a lot of effort and time (at least compared to the mechanisms in your brain that come up with judgements), I expect a little better. But then again, Hughes and Shapiro show that I probably shouldn’t.

      I mean, I keep griping about left-wingers (even though I’m no left-winger, so this is not some disappointment in “my own people”, and neither am I right-winger nor am I a centrist; again simply interested in methodology), simply because I find the alt-right to be quite hilarious and I can’t take them seriously. Whereas left-wingers do occasionaly hold a correct positon (the general thrust about racism, gay rights, etc. *is* correct), but they usually don’t get there by thought, but because they lucked into it, purely based on circumstance. Meaning, if they were born in a different context they probably would be the most rabid, fundamentalist, Bible Belt christians.

      I think the left and the right need each and feed off of each other (at least in public discourse and online, where it’s just idiots bashing in each other’s heads), because they are both entirely reactionary, like children (“you tell me I can’t do that, so now I’m going to do the exact opposite!”).

      Your last paragraph (in your comment) pretty much sums up my stance. I mean, the schtick of Libertarians and other right wingers is that we should let markets run completely unregulated, because then anyone can achieve anything, *if they only work hard*. I would love to live in that world (even though I would not be one of the winners), because then, regardless of whether you win or you lose, it’s your fault and your fault alone, so no blaming anyone else. But a) this world doesn’t exist and b) capitalism has proven again and again that it isn’t the way to achieve that (and I’m not even communist/socialist doing the old “captialism is evil” spiel, and one doesn’t really have to be). But yeah, UBI and all that sure would be nice (at least here in Germany we’re closer to it than you guys over in the US :-P).

      Cheers

    6. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Yes, the post hoc/ad hoc rationalizations are the norm in most belief systems, if you analyze how the thought progresses and compare it to other beliefs the same person holds. Ben Shapiro offered a wonderful example of this recently- he complained that “the far Left” has adopted a “top-down” approach to political change by pressuring Wal-Mart to stop gun and ammunition sales. Of course, this is merely an ad-hoc rationalization due to Shapiro’s pro-gun stance, since he has in the past advocated boycotts unrelated to the quality of individual products simply because he didn’t like the politics of the companies. It’s also ridiculous because in a capitalist democracy, that’s just how change works- consumers generate social change by publicly denouncing the actions of companies for the sake of some goal. Shapiro’s REAL complaint is that the Left is numerically superior, and companies don’t want to be on the wrong end of social consensus. Remember all those dumb Starbucks boycotts? Right-wing boycotts fail because they just don’t have the numbers and have turned to criticizing the technique instead. This is by definition ad hoc. Shapiro doesn’t seem to get that the alternative to social pressure is to nationalize corporations and demand they sell the products you want them to sell. He also doesn’t get that this is just how the free market works. Always suspicious when a free market absolutist wants to limit the free market for some individual end.

      The Left has stumbled into the correct position on most issues (welfare, taxation, climate change, etc.), but I wonder how much of it is an accident. There’s been a great deal of quality intellectual work on this stuff- so, at least the intelligentsia have a true justification for their beliefs. But because the world HAS been improving, which can only happen if we’re expanding the circle of empathy (among other things), it’s just inevitable that Leftist positions become a kind of default. It’s one thing to be hyper-conservative in the Ancestral Environment, but the modern world is absolutely designed for exploration and pushing boundaries. In fact, true conservatism in the context of the modern world entails stuff like environmentalism- that is, we’ve pushed boundaries too far, too fast, and need to make sure we don’t kill ourselves in the process. This is why old-school conservatives were environmentalists, and it’s a historical accident that today’s conservatives are not.

      There are very very few true meritocracies anywhere on the planet. Perhaps a couple of careers, or maybe even extreme competitive gaming where, the higher you climb, the more your world is just a hyper-efficient game of numbers. Day-trading too is a meritocracy (only good traders make consistent money, everyone else loses), but even that is complicated by the fact that only those with access to financial resources can day-trade. It doesn’t matter that a drug dealer in the projects might be more temperamentally suited to day-trade compared to the average guy at Deutsche Bank if that’s just not in his purview.

    7. Billy

      > There’s been a great deal of quality intellectual work on this stuff- so, at least the intelligentsia have a true justification for their beliefs.

      Yeah, I guess you’re right on that. It just seems that not a lot of that disseminates to the masses. But I think I’m gonna stop here, before I start ranting again ;-). Thanks again for the essay and your thoughts.

      Cheers

  2. Christopher

    Another excellent read. The internet has yet birthed another charlatan that the Right can use. Have you ever considered writing about Climate Change and people who accept/deny it? Politicians like Al Gore and AOC may exaggerate that the world is going to end in 12 years, which can hurt the cause. What areas of the science behind Climate Change do you find problematic or hazy? Also, you’ve mentioned this before, you are a Liberal who believes in the death penalty. How did you come to this position? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Writing about climate change would require me to go through so much data that I wouldn’t have the time for it. Most objections I’ve read that are legitimate deal with highly technical issues of modeling- there is no legitimate denial of the core idea: that climate change is happening, that it’s man-made, and that it will have severe consequences for the world.

      I believe in the death penalty because I don’t think punishment is purely rehabilitative. It’s also punitive, and one can think of many value systems where taking another person’s life is just, especially if it offers relief to victims. That said, it’s not a position I talk about nor advocate for, because even if one argues that the ‘civilizing wave’ of the past century went too far in some places, 1) few will accept this, 2) we will develop far more novel solutions to crime and punishment, anyway, and the death penalty will become irrelevant. If anything, abolishing capital punishment will just be a symbol of empathy and compassion that will naturally extend to and itself be amplified by other expressions of such- universal healthcare, eliminating war, etc. In a more docile environment, the more punitive stuff might feel exotic.

      Thanks for reading.

    2. Christopher

      Thanks for your input! Regarding the so called counterarguments against Climate Change, there pops the idea that if lowering global emissions was so important, why doesn’t so and so lead by example? I speak mainly about Greta Thunberg and celebrities like Harrison Ford advocating for action, but they supposedly have bigger carbon footprints thanks to their private jets and such and such. While I do think leading by example is great, the problematic thing is, this seems like trying to solve the problem individually. How would you argue against this? Love to hear your thoughts!

    3. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Personal examples are nice, but what’s nicer is legislation that FORCES better emission standards. You can’t tell people not to drive, but you can mandate every car gets certain fuel mileage and/or is electric.

      You also can’t people not to fly, or not transport goods from place to place. Kinda weird how the conservative talking point here is 1) go back to the 1400s, 2) do nothing, like those are the only two logical options that sane people see.

  3. alien

    What are your plans for future essays/posts/videos? Will you be reviewing more anime/animation, as you’ve mentioned?

    Reply
    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Right now, I’m doing a review of this Donald Trump/Pink Floyd mash-up ‘documentary’ from 2016. If you search for Donald Trump’s The Wall + Pink Floyd on Vimeo, you’ll still find it there. Then I’ll critique a bunch of poems a reader sent in to me. Then we’ll see- just doing things month by month based on what comes to my attention.

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