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Coleman Hughes’s TED Talk “A Case for Color Blindness” was posted on July 28. (Photo via @coldxman via X)

Adam Grant and Chris Anderson Respond to Coleman Hughes

Letters from the prominent social scientist and the head of TED.

By The Free Press

September 27, 2023

Yesterday, The Free Press published a piece by Coleman Hughes called “Why Is TED Scared of Color Blindness?”—in which he argued that the organization, whose motto is “Ideas worth spreading,” attempted to suppress his own. Among other things, Hughes wrote that TED head Chris Anderson told him that his talk had “upset” a group of black TED employees, and that some were arguing internally that it shouldn’t be posted online. (Watch Hughes’s talk here if you haven’t yet.) The most challenging blowback, Hughes learned, came from social scientist Adam Grant, who claimed his talk is “directly contradicted by an extensive body of rigorous research.”

Hughes’s essay has elicited a huge response, including letters from Adam Grant and Chris Anderson, which we are sharing below. —BW

From Adam Grant:

At the outset, let me be clear: I don’t belong to a political party, and I don’t have an ideological stance on this issue. As a social scientist, I form my opinions based on credible evidence. My concerns about Hughes’s talk weren’t fueled by the argument he made, but by my perception that his conclusion was inconsistent with the best available data.

In early May, I was asked by TED to offer a confidential assessment of his talk. I responded with a summary of a meta-analysis of research on diversity ideologies, spanning 167 independent samples and 296 effect sizes. It appears that Hughes never received my full commentary—or my reply explaining why the results pose a major challenge to Hughes’s talk. Here are the three points that I made:

(1) The meta-analysis distinguishes between three forms of color blindness (what the authors call “identity-blind” approaches). All three are either ineffective or counterproductive on key outcomes:

a. Ignoring differences (“color blindness”) is associated with reduced stereotypes and prejudice. . . but fails to protect against discrimination. From the authors: “discrimination may be most problematic in organizations where color blindness prevails.” 

b. Minimizing differences (“assimilation”) is problematic across the board—it exacerbates discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes.

c. Meritocracy predicts lower discrimination but fails to shield against prejudice and stereotypes.

(2) To make the case for an identity-blind approach, you would need evidence that one or more of these approaches has greater efficacy than a multicultural approach that acknowledges differences. Unfortunately for Hughes’s thesis, the meta-analysis shows the opposite. As the authors conclude, “multiculturalism is more consistently associated with improved intergroup relations than any identity-blind ideology.”

(3) The most rigorous evidence in the meta-analysis—from randomized, controlled experiments—demonstrates the many ways in which color blindness can backfire in schools, workplaces, and courtrooms. As a team of experts summarized in a review of the research, “Shutting our eyes to the complexities of race does not make them disappear, but does make it harder to see that color blindness often creates more problems than it solves.”

My feedback to TED was not that Hughes’s views should be censored or that his voice should be suppressed. It was that to deliver an idea truly worth spreading, it’s incumbent on speakers to engage with the evidence—especially on a topic with high stakes. In Hughes’s case, I think that would involve (1) acknowledging the research showing that color-blind policies consistently fall short of our ideals, (2) explaining why this might be, and (3) proposing novel ways to solve the problems identified.

To have a thoughtful conversation on those topics, I encouraged TED to host a dialogue or debate between Hughes and one of the researchers who studies color blindness.

Needless to say, I was disappointed that it didn’t happen.

Although multiculturalism generally has more beneficial outcomes than color blindness, it’s not a panacea—it has limitations too. New research makes it clear that it isn’t helpful to make one-sided arguments that “multiculturalism is good” or “color blindness is good.” We won’t increase equality of opportunity without systematic analysis of the risks and unintended consequences of our pet policies.

I would love to live in a color-blind world. As an organizational psychologist, my understanding is that this isn’t the most fruitful path to a fair world. If and when the data support a different approach, I’m entirely open to changing my mind. I hope Hughes is open to changing his based on the data we have today.

From Chris Anderson:

First thing to say is that Hughes’s piece is a reasonably accurate description of what happened. In a nutshell, we invited him to TED to give a talk we knew would be controversial. But the talk ended up causing more upset than we foresaw. So there was pressure from some on our team not to post it. We overrode that.

But nonetheless the talk has had fewer views than others on the platform and Coleman is understandably upset by this. Some additional context. First of all, personally, I’m a fan of Coleman. He’s off-the-charts smart. And he’s a crystal clear communicator. I love his podcast, even when he brings on guests I disagree with. I was excited he agreed to come to TED.

His talk was received with huge enthusiasm by many in the audience. But many others heard it as a dangerous undermining of the fight for progress in race relations.

So yes, there was controversy. When people on your own team feel like their identity is being attacked, it’s right to take pause.

And we concluded that some of the essential issues raised by Coleman’s talk needed wider discussion, hence the decision to supplement the talk with a debate. And in the end, despite internal and external pushback, we did indeed post the talk.

So. . . was anyone censored here? No. The talk is on our platform available to be viewed and shared by anyone in the world. Quite a few other speakers from TED2023 have yet to be posted. What about the low views of the talk? Well, that’s a question we ourselves are trying to answer. It’s true that the other talks Coleman referred to were shared on the TED Talks Daily podcast, which gives a significant audience boost. His talk so far has not been posted there. It may yet be. Many of our talks never make it onto that podcast, which has its own curation team. The bigger riddle is why views on YouTube have been on the low side. Those views are largely driven by YouTube’s algorithms, which are as much a mystery to us as to others.

What we do know is this: the more people who view it and comment on it, the more likely it is that the talk will be recommended to others and take off. But in any case, already more than 200,000 people have seen the talk or the debate. If that’s attempted suppression, we haven’t done very well.

Coleman, thanks again for coming to TED. The hyper-divided world we’re in right now is so hard to navigate. It’s hard to say anything that matters without sparking anger.

I see Hughes as a fellow traveler on that journey, and truly wish him well. And to his critics, I wish them well too.

Many people have been genuinely hurt and offended by what they heard Hughes say. This is not what we dream of when we post our talks. I believe real progress can be made on this issue by each side getting greater clarity and insight from the other. We share more in common than we know. We all ultimately want a just world in which all can thrive.

If I could wave a wand and replace some of the anger that’s been stirred up here (on all sides) with curiosity and a desire to listen, engage, and understand, that would make me really happy.

TED remains committed to its nonpartisan nonprofit status and willingness to embrace the discomfort that comes when you try to navigate the toughest issues.

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