Separation of race and state: a response to Coleman Hughes and Jamelle Bouie

The most delicious thing in the world is a good discussion of a critical issue.

That’s what we got in Open to Debate’s conversation between Coleman Hughes and Jamelle Bouie on the topic of color-blindness with regard to race.

It was a great debate. I think Jamelle was most effective in pointing out that civil rights movement leaders’ views on color-blindness were not unitary. Coleman’s quotes were the most convincing to me, but I would still like to see a thorough historical assessment of the question, preferably in book form.

Disparities between racial groups function largely as embarrassing reminders of past injustices. But beyond that they are a distraction: for every race-based disparity, there is a more general issue—poverty, health, neighborhood quality, etc.—for which people deserve help regardless of their phenotype or the racial group with which they may identify (if any).

Or is one to believe that a person’s suffering is somehow more deserving of help because their racial identity lines up a particular way?

Such disparities also exist for religious groups, and yet it would be offensive to American sensibilities (not to mention the First Amendment) for government programs to target members of certain religions.

So it should be with race which, like religion, is primarily a social construct.

We need separation of race and state.

But more than that, we need to untrain ourselves from thinking in racial terms, from seeing each other through the narrow lens of the Census form’s categories.

Unconscious bias is usually brought up at this point in the discussion: because we hold prejudices subconsciously, so goes the argument, we must build race-based social and political structures to counteract our deep-seated antipathies.

But again, the same could be said of religion. But the answer to anti-Catholic or bias was not to create government programs favoring Catholics; in fact, it was the opposite: the answer was to dismantle any program that discriminated on the basis of religious identity.

The United States pioneered a liberal order in which religion was privatized and the state gotten out of the religion business altogether. This has been a wonderful success, freeing us from the sort of religious animosity that killed millions in Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries.

We have partly achieved a race-agnostic political order as well, but this transformation is incomplete. Race is not yet fully privatized, and many intelligent people, like Jamelle in the above debate, are working to maintain racial considerations by the state in a belief that it is the most effective, or perhaps the only, way to correct historical wrongs.

But we don’t live in history, and history, no matter how offensive, is never justification for injustice right now.

In such questions, the racial identity of the sufferer is incidental; alleviation of suffering is primary. It is dehumanizing and illiberal to categorize people by race even under the noble banner of help, because it nevertheless reduces them to a socially-constructed and obsolete category, with which they may not even identify; not only that but by implication it reduces, dehumanizes, and on the basis of the same category refrains from helping everyone else.

In personal life, the same should apply: if we refrain from an activity, or a relationship, out of racial considerations, we are contributing to and strengthening race as an institution. And so we should (and I believe most Americans do) strive to act without regard to race, to acquaint ourselves with a wide variety of life experiences regardless of the list of categories.

On that, both of the debaters agreed, differing only as regards state policy. That is the bone of contention, the thing we should all chew on until we make up our collective minds.

If we all strive for color-blindness in our personal lives, how could we collectively justify “race consciousness” in public policy? Why is color-blindness moral and commendable personally, but wrongheaded, even racist, publicly?






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