Coleman Hughes’s essay “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap” has caused a bit of a stir since its publication at Quillette in July. The author, a black undergraduate philosophy student at Columbia University, argued that black Americans keep themselves poor by glorifying materialism and making “poor financial decisions.” The racial wealth gap, in his account, has been exaggerated by liberal social scientists and exacerbated by black Americans themselves.
The usual suspects could hardly contain themselves. “Brave, eloquent, restrained—the kid is an absolute killer,” said New Atheist ideologue Sam Harris, who has since hosted Hughes on his podcast. Bell Curve quack Charles Murray called it “a data-driven piece that few white social scientists would be willing to write and few places besides [Quillette] would be willing to publish.”
Murray is certainly correct on that last point. Quillette is an unusual publication, one with a particular agenda. It describes itself as “a platform for free thought featuring unorthodox viewpoints in politics, science & art.” It was founded in 2015 by Australian psychologist Claire Lehmann, who claimed she had been “blacklisted” by the Australian press. In Lehmann’s own words, Quillette ultimately functions as that much-maligned enclosure of social justice activism: a “safe space.”
The publication lives up to the worst stereotypes that classification entails—it is an echo chamber for pseudo-intellectuals to present their personal feelings as the way of the world, without threat of critique. Claiming to present “data-driven, scientifically literate commentary,” Quillette deals in popular misconceptions bordering on truisms, using misplaced scientific or historical research to back unscientific and ahistorical claims.
Hughes targets three texts on racial economics: Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations.” American prosperity was not “plundered” through the institution of slavery, he says, but “created,” presumably by the capitalist spirit. Black Americans didn’t need welfare from the New Deal to amass their wealth, because income for black households ballooned between 1939 and 1960. Hughes’s points are not at all new, with roots in “cultural poverty” rhetoric like that of the Moynihan Report. Nor are they supported by the texts.
From “The Case for Reparations,” Hughes fixates on Coates’s argument that slavery was the backbone of American prosperity and, in response, claims that slavery is “hardly the root cause” of American accumulation of profit. Southern states where slavery flourished, Hughes argues, were much poorer than northeastern states where slavery was prohibited. But his point relies on an elision of the definition of slavery. Was slavery just the international slave trade? The domestic slave market? Or the goods produced by such cheap labor, the sale of which was crucial to the development of North America, and beyond? He doesn’t say. Either way, slave labor did, in fact, profoundly shape America’s then-burgeoning economy, primarily due to its fundamental role in enabling the manufacture and sale of cotton. This historical fact is so widely accepted it can even be found in sources like the neoconservative New Criterion.
In The Color of Money, University of Georgia law professor Mehrsa Baradaran points out that in the 1940s and ’50s, FHA mortgages were deliberately withheld from black Americans by means of racist policy designed to keep white neighborhoods white. “What resulted was a Jim Crow credit market,” she writes. While government credit led to a housing boom in the white suburbs, the reverse was true in the ghetto: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to even more poverty.” Hughes goes on to claim that “between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any civil rights gains were made,” rather than address the stark socioeconomic disparity between white suburbia and black ghettos. In reality, even black suburbanites who could purchase their own homes were less likely to profit from those homes’ earnings.
According to a study from the Brookings Institution by Richard B. Freeman, however, black men and women were still routinely underpaid. Black unemployment rates were still about twice as high as those for whites, and blacks were still concentrated in low-skill jobs. Jim Crow, redlining, and hiring discrimination are not figments of our collective imagination, despite the later emergence of a black middle class.
Hughes’s most egregious claim introduces a corollary: In response to Baradaran’s statement that “most immigrants’ bootstraps had been provided to them by the government,” he resorts to a model minority stereotype. Japanese Americans, he asserts, “who were never favored,” outearn most other racial groups. This phenomenon was explained by Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger in 2016. Hughes neglects to mention that high-skilled Asian workers—professionals in medicine, aerospace, and communications—were welcomed en masse by the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
The glowing reception to Hughes’s piece—in spite of its faulty historical logic—should come as no surprise. When it comes to bolstering arguments against the existence of structural racism, there is no weapon more powerful than the skepticism of a black author. Hughes’s other essays wield a similar sword: In “The High Price of Stale Grievances,” he voices his own grievances with the collective eulogizing of modern-day black intellectuals but calls for greater deference to white ones. At one point, he insinuates that Michael Eric Dyson’s jab at Jordan Peterson—“You’re a mean, mad white man!”—deserved a harsher public backlash. This on behalf of the man who publicly threatened to slap Pankaj Mishra over a bad review.
Hughes, above all, seems disillusioned with the current state of the black commentariat: always left-wing, always the victim, always self-righteous, too often intellectually dishonest. And truthfully, I see where he’s coming from.
As a young black writer myself, I understand the urge to resist business as usual: white privilege and microaggressions and slavery and racism over and over and over—the “Black [blank] Matter” editorial style. The mainstream media does, too often, promote one kind of black voice—partly to maximize appeal within such a minority, and partly because America does still see black people as a hive mind. Blackness, as a cultural heritage, has always depended on collectivity, solidarity, and community. And like in any community, this can give way to groupthink, tribalism, and mob mentality.
Much of the trouble with being black today has to do with the classification itself. Most black Americans—at least, those surrounded by whiteness—grow up coming to know themselves in relation to the world as hyphenated or subcultural, or as afterthoughts. Black America is to America as a moth is to a butterfly; it has its own diaphanous wings and it, too, can fly, but it is always considered its cousin’s lesser. Butterflies are just so pretty, after all—who wants to wear a moth around their neck?
We’ve embraced this otherness because we had no choice. The word black was the single most dominant force in the lives of the majority of African Americans for a long time, and so the burdens “blackness” wrought onto millions bound them together. It didn’t matter who you were; you were still black.
Those days, however, are over. In 2018, while most black Americans are treated similarly, not all are treated the same. There is no—nor, really, has there ever been—one true “black community.” There is no one quintessential “black experience.” There is no “black economic class”—there are, in fact, many, ranging from cosmopolitan elites like the Carters or the Obamas to the family still grieving Freddie Gray’s murder. And there is no collective black vision for a just America.
There are those who want universal healthcare, and there are those who want to amass generational wealth. There are those who want full-scale, bloody revolution, and there are those who advocate for reform at best. There are those who descended from American slaves, and there are those whose parents emigrated from Africa 30 years ago. There are those whose blackness serves as a wellspring for illustrious artistic, literary, or academic careers, and there are those whose blackness has gotten them killed. There are those who find comfort in casting “blackness’’ all over their work, art, or entire lives, and there are those who want to become the next Socrates or Einstein without being reminded of the color of their skin every second of the day. And there are those who just want to be known by their name.
“Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap” was, for all its rhetorical self-regard, ultimately inaccurate. A piece by Jamelle Bouie had already addressed most of the mythology Hughes derived it from, three months prior. It does, however, illustrate a real phenomenon, hinting at an anxiety shared by Candace Owens, Tosin Akintola, and many nameless, misguided young blacks, those who find the dominant narrative a bit too dour and detached from their own lives to hold much merit. And like disaffected teens seeking independence from their parents, they fall in with dangerous crowds and adopt bad habits, caught in the trap of reinforcing popular misconceptions in an attempt to gain a sense of individuality.
Yet blackness still follows them. The likes of Hughes, Akintola, and Owens are still relegated to building their brands as “black” conservatives, “black” libertarians, or “black” nonpartisans. In Hughes’s “The High Price of Stale Grievances,” he puts it at the center of his worldview:
Yet there we were—young black men born decades after anything that could rightly be called “oppression” had ended—benefitting from a social license bequeathed to us by a history that we have only experienced through textbooks and folklore.
Comparing himself to a white Latino friend denied a prestigious opportunity on racial grounds, Hughes sees hypocrisy and injustice. His immediate impulse—against gatekeeping and exclusion—is correct. If situated in a historical and cultural context, his argument would have to lead him to a critique of a society founded on exploitation and competition. In its absence, his grand theory remains as fallacious as his reading of history. Hughes has chosen to surround himself with white phrenologists rather than the black radical thinkers who would likely agree that inequity only begets more inequity.
Young black conservatives and libertarians are tired of being told they’re victims, or being labeled by strangers, or having assumptions made about their lives and themselves based on the color of their skin, from observers all along the political spectrum. If anything, they remind us of something so obvious that we tend to forget it: We’re black, but that’s not all. The question is, who will we become?
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