March 5, 2024 - 8:00pm

With The End of Race Politics, Coleman Hughes has arrived as one of the most acute observers of the Western condition. Commentary on the book has focused on its critique of identity politics and advocacy of colour blindness, yet has overlooked its true significance.

Indeed, Hughes has mounted a full-scale assault on contemporary progressivism’s founding myth of white guilt and black pain, the fount of our moral order. He attacks the hallowed idea that white people carry blood guilt for the crimes of their ancestors while black people bear a hereditary trauma inherited from slave ancestors. “I myself am the descendant of slaves,” he writes. Noting that the practice was the norm in human history, he adds: “If it were true that people inherited the trauma experienced by their distant ancestors […] virtually all people would be suffering from it.”

Hughes debunks the notion that black people, due to their lived experience, have superior moral, spiritual or existential insight than whites. For him they are not powerless victims, just people like anyone else.

Our misplaced “black good, white bad” morality tale leads white liberals to patronise, infantilise and walk on eggshells around black people. The pre-civil rights era fixation on race has merely flipped its valence from negative to positive. What Hughes terms “neoracism” has seamlessly taken over from the old-fashioned variety, fuelling cancel culture and polarisation while obstructing black progress. A conspiracy theorist would argue that whites hit upon these ideas to trap black people in a mental prison designed to cripple their self efficacy — truly “systemic racism”.

This might come as news to the Church of England, which is mooting a £1 billion fund to address the legacy of slavery. According to Right Rev. Rosemarie Mallett, chair of its working group, slavery’s effects are “measurable and apparent in everything from pregnancy and childbirth outcomes to life chances at birth, physical and mental health, education, employment, income, property, and the criminal justice system”.

Google’s Gemini AI, which has been accused of being “woke” for seeking to depict history as more racially diverse than it really was, presents another case in point, in which elite symbolic squabbles suck money and attention away from actually fixing racial inequality. Hughes decries this obsession with the politics of past wrongs, which disempowers black people, conceals actual causes and divides various groups.

Whether they admit it or not, the worldview of many modern progressives is anchored by sacred romantic myths about black people, alongside the castigation of whites. Writer Shelby Steele located the arrival of this outlook quite precisely, to the mid-Sixties. Witness the Left-liberal Susan Sontag who in 1966, having had little say about race, suddenly gushed in Partisan Review:

“The white race is the cancer of human history […] Only a minority of white Americans, mostly educated and affluent [are committed to racial equality] […] This is a passionately racist country; it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future […] ‘the Negro’ is fast becoming the American theatre’s leading mask of virtue […] for sheer pain and victimage, the Negro is far ahead of any other contender.”

Hughes, like the academic Remi Adekoya, observes that this sensibility gives black people great cultural power. It also endows white liberals with vicarious authority: by associating themselves with black grievance narratives, they acquire a weapon to guilt-trip the rest of society and assert the moral superiority of their political tribe.

One shortcoming is the book’s treatment of the anti-racism taboo — the idea that there should be extreme social penalties for expressions of racism. Hughes wants to see the norm extended to protect whites and others. Fair enough. But a different perspective, which informs my new book Taboo, is that encouraging an unbounded moral disgust reflex creates the very sacredness that underpins neoracism, cancel culture and the religion of anti-racism.

Might it not be better to retain an anti-prejudice norm, but transform it into a more rational, proportional rule like that against class or religious prejudice? Decentring race also means building up minority pride and resistance to slights, in line with Hughes’s project of strengthening the black subject.

Hopefully this book can steer us away from the politics of therapeutic revenge, and toward a productive fact-led approach to inequality.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities. He is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.