My book, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America, is about our turning away from a central idea that animated the work of the great civil rights leaders of the twentieth century: color blindness. The principle of color blindness does not mean that we pretend we don’t recognize race. The definition I espouse is that we should treat people without regard to race, both in our public policy and in our private lives.
But our society keeps failing to enshrine color blindness as its guiding ethos. It is this ongoing failure that has allowed state-sanctioned racism to emerge again and again in new and different forms—most recently through the movement I call neoracism.
Neoracists and white supremacists are both committed to different flavors of race supremacy. They both deny our common humanity. They both deny that all races are created equal. They both agree that some races are superior to others, and they both agree that not all people deserve to be treated equally in society. The animating feeling behind neoracism is that people of color are morally superior to white people—that people of color are better at being good people. That’s at the core. The truth, which should be obvious, is that no race is morally superior to any other.
Martin Luther King never wavered on the importance of our common humanity and the goal of transcending race. Nor did he waver on his preference for class-based policy over race-based policy.
Today’s neoracists sound nothing like Dr. King yet they claim his mantle. They enjoy the moral authority of being seen as the carriers of his legacy while simultaneously betraying the very ideals that he stood for. It is the rise of this race consciousness that’s turned elite American institutions into neoracist strongholds.
I will lay out here some of the reasons I think neoracism is a detrimental ideology that undermines social progress and that harms black people in specific ways. First, I will illustrate this with a story about my paternal grandfather.
Warren Hughes was born to a poor family in segregated Washington, D.C., in 1933. After receiving a degree in engineering from Ohio State University (one of the few blacks in those days to receive such a degree) and serving in the Korean War, he secured a job as an engineer with General Electric. For his ninetieth birthday, he wrote a short memoir, which included his reflections on navigating General Electric as a black man:
It was in September 1959 that I got a more permanent position in Cincinnati, Ohio, working for General Electric. That’s when I began to recognize that the outlook for a Black engineer in those days was different from that of a White engineer. I was told, in fact, that General Electric allows you to advance two ways: one is the management way up, and the other is technical.
I was told by a well meaning White engineer that I should not strive to go the management route because the White guys who were the technical experts (welders and welding specialists) would not work for a Black manager.
My grandfather accepted this advice and concentrated on his technical expertise, and while he was recognized for his excellence, after ten years he began to be frustrated when white managers, people who were not as skilled or experienced as he was, were placed over him. When it was about to happen again, he decided to finally ask for a management job.
I decided to go ahead and talk to my boss about the position. My boss was genuinely shocked that I asked because I had never given him the impression that I was interested in management. Well, he gave me the job immediately. Interestingly, I found that the White guys—yes, they were all specialists in their fields—liked working for me. In fact, I had no problems whatsoever with them.
My grandfather went on to have a stellar career, eventually reaching the executive level by the 1980s. Had he continued to believe the advice given by his white colleague, who overstated the amount of racism at General Electric, he would never have sought out the management position that led him to greater success. He may have lived his whole life telling himself that racism had held him back—and his experiences would have given him ample reason to believe this story.
Just as there is a danger in not recognizing and understating the amount of racism in society, there is a less obvious (and therefore more pernicious) danger in overstating it. To exaggerate the extent of antiblack racism in society is to reduce every black person’s incentive to reach higher.
Neoracism is a dangerous ideology that seeks to ignore and subvert reality.
Neoracism takes grains of truth and builds them into a powerfully seductive narrative. The neoracist narrative is this: