Against Colorblindness


In 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” While one of his most frequently quoted remarks, it also is one of his most hotly debated. The writer and pundit Coleman Hughes has been making waves with his recently released book entitled The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America, a polemic which takes King’s statement as its point of departure. 

A highly original thinker and a breath of fresh air in a sea of unimaginative conformists and pharisaical moralists, Hughes is rather hard to pin down ideologically. He claims, on one hand, that he thinks policy should not consider skin color, but also that he is not arguing that we should “not see race” – an unrealistic and undesirable goal, in his eyes. He insists that he is “not a conservative” – he is an independent who has mostly voted for Democrats, and would consider voting for a Republican…just not Trump, but has written and worked for largely right-leaning libertarian publications and organizations (The Free Press, Quillette, National Review, Manhattan Institute, et al.), and makes unapologetically bold arguments against “wokeness” and its proponents like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.

Hughes is linked to an emerging cadre of libertarian bootstrappers hellbent on defeating wokeness and DEI – think Candace Owens, Andrew Tate, Glenn Loury, Amala Ekpunobi, Ben Shapiro, and of course Jordan B. Peterson – though his rhetoric is much more nuanced than theirs. He challenges “race-and-race-alone” identitarianism, whose vision of black liberation has little to do with lifting up working-class proletarians and is more about inserting (a minority of) minorities into the matrix of neoliberal technocratic power. Yet he also acknowledges how de jure systemic racism has disproportionately disadvantaged Blacks when it comes to economics and employment. Thus his insistence on a “class-first, race second” approach to social justice. 

I share plenty of Hughes’s concerns about the predominant identitarian narrative: namely its tendency to adopt a relativistic attitude toward personal morality, its reluctance to afford “problematic” persons due process, its deterministic harping on victimhood narratives that downplay the role of personal agency, and above all, its deceptive ploy for greater diversity while pushing for an globalist monoculture – with superficial elements of BIPOC cultures sprinkled on top. And I agree that social justice initiatives ought to focus primarily on class-related disparities.

Yet the notion of “colorblindness” – even Hughes’s measured form of it – gives me pause. Is this really the best alternative to identitarianism? As a person of faith and theologian, I question the growing trend of Christians misusing King’s “by the content of their character” line and borrowing arguments from libertarian-adjacent figures and wielding them as tools against the “secular,” “liberal” values of the woke hegemony. Perhaps in their effort to counter the errors of the identitarian left, Christians would do better to look not to its right, but to its left: the Black radical tradition. 

A Theological Framing

Some argue that identitarianism – despite its co-opting Christian arguments for the preferential option for the poor and underprivileged – is pagan in its roots, with its elevation of racial identity to the level of a sacred idol. In this regard, it is a mirror opposite of the blood cult of White supremacy, and a cousin of Black nationalism. Yet the colorblind narrative risks offering a mainly reactionary response that lacks sufficient weight to fill in the holes left by progressive identitarians. Colorblind libertarianism seems to be rooted more in a pagan cosmic imaginary than a Christian one, swapping the idol of race for that of individual strength and self-reliance, stopping at the “natural” virtues at the cost of shutting the door to “supernatural” ones like faith, hope, and love. 

Christianity distinguishes itself from paganism and other forms of monotheism in that it believes that God entered into the flesh, into the realm that humans inhabit. In other words, that which is universal communicated itself through the particular. And so Christian morality – adherence to the Creator’s will – is achieved not by a stoic force of the individual’s will, but by living in communion with others, enmeshing oneself with the Body of Christ and the larger Body of believers. 

Thus, one’s character is not developed in a vacuum – independent of one’s cultural context or of the people to whom one belongs. While Christians ought to be cautious not to sacralize our cultural heritage into a form of tribalism, we also ought not dismiss or neutralize its value. In this sense, Blackness holds weight in a Christian context more as an ethnic category than as a racial one. While we cannot afford to ignore the extent to which one’s phenotypes were morphed into a socially and politically “real” category by slavery and Jim Crow laws, it is ultimately ethnicity as a cultural point of reference that should interest us, insofar as it consists of a set of beliefs, traditions, and rituals through which metaphysical truths can be transmitted, and which gives substance to a people’s identity (something “race” can only do in an abstract way).  

Our roots may not be a “god” in themselves. Yet to live as assimilated automatons would make it nearly impossible for the ideals of the Gospel to sink their roots into the soil of our lives. King’s brand of liberal Protestant theology often ran the risk of falling into a form of gnostic idealism that is flesh-phobic, bypassing the particular and launching itself into the universal – a pitfall that material-loving, sacramental forms of Christian theology are less prone to. 

While Black radicals often fell into the error of propping up race as a false idol, and of excusing violent means in the name of noble end goals, its recognition of Blackness as a point of pride – as a gift – provided a much-needed celebration of the particular, offering an antidote to anti-Black sentiment that liberal Christianity and colorblind libertarianism gravely lacked. 

Subsidiarity and Garvey’s “Rooted” Christianity

Though significant scholarship has been published about the religious dimensions of Marcus Garvey’s legacy, the faith of the godfather of Black nationalism is unfortunately forgotten or blatantly ignored by many. Born in Jamaica in 1887, Garvey’s Pan-Africanist movement was premised on affirming and retracing the roots of descendents of the African diaspora, spurred by the recognition that a rootless person can only feebly attempt to claim his or her dignity. In contrast to most social movements today, Pan-Africanism offered a thorough, comprehensive vision – encompassing the metaphysical and material, the aesthetic and political.

Disillusioned with the limited Protestant theological imaginary of the Methodist tradition with which he was raised, Garvey converted to Roman Catholicism, while also maintaining a close relationship with Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Rastafarian theology borrows many ideas from Garvey – and hails him as a John the Baptist-type prophet for “predicting” the rise of Haile Selassie as emperor of Ethiopia. Yet Garvey “scorned” Rastafarianism, and dismissed the claim that Selassie was the second coming of Christ as “blasphemy.”

His fidelity to Catholic doctrine was loose, as he often spoke of forging a new form of “Black Christianity” – yet expressed that he wanted it to be as close as possible to Catholicism. He affirmed that God transcended race, but that “it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles.” Thus his insistence on black people praying to images of Black Jesuses and Marys, perhaps a reflection of the stronger emphasis on particularity found in Catholicism.

Essential to his ideology was the idea of blackness as a gift from God to be celebrated and enjoyed, constituting a rich legacy upon which Blacks should draw inspiration for their endeavors. Without such an awareness of blackness as gift, it would be impossible to restore the Black man’s sense of dignity and worth. Upon his visit to Garvey’s grave in 1965, Martin Luther King shared his esteem for “the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny on a mass scale and level. And he was the first man to make the Negro feel that he was somebody.”

It goes without saying that Pan-Africanism has an unmistakable dark side, clearly deviating in many ways from its Christian roots. Garvey promoted extreme separatism, to the point that he imagined diasporic Blacks moving “Back to Africa” – and considered enlisting the support of the KKK to do so. A fierce anti-assimilationist, he was so committed to the cause of strengthening Black people’s roots that he condemned miscegenation. His skepticism toward government intervention in the affairs of individuals made him an intense advocate for Black self-determination. A staunch capitalist and anti-communist/socialist, at times he waxed fascistic (he claimed he was one of “the first fascists” and that “Mussolini copied Fascism from me”).

That being said, unlike today’s libertarian bootstrappers, Garvey was hardly an individualist. His self-determinist and anti-big government musings were tempered by his communitarian vision – centering the people, the community as the locus of agency. This is where Garvey and the movements he inspired most echo Christianity. Central to the Catholic Church’s social tradition are the complementary principles of subsidiarity – that neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies, and solidarity – a sincere commitment to the Common Good. Ideally, the two principles temper each other, with subsidiarity protecting smaller entities from being overpowered by larger, distant ones, and solidarity ordering the smaller to the large, the particular toward the universal, aiming to foster loving unity among all peoples, reconciling differences and forgiving offenses. 

Subsidiarity was certainly Black nationalism’s strength, as its scope toward solidarity as a broader, universal ideal was limited by its skepticism toward the government and, well, non-Blacks. This sensibility shaped Garvey’s anti-colonialist rhetoric – borrowing heavily from Irish anti-colonial discourse, which went on to inspire Frantz Fanon and the postcolonialist movement. While Fanon’s postcolonial musings have been appropriated by contemporary identitarians, one can recognize the subsidiarist and thus distinctly Christian underpinnings of his ideology, as Irish Catholic writer John Water highlights.

It also inspired initiatives like Garvey’s Black Star Line, a shipping company that shipped goods between black-owned businesses. Later, the subsidiarist impulse would reemerge in initiatives to bolster Black land and business ownership, and in critiques of the “busing” method of school integration in the 1960s. The numerous Black nationalist movements vary in their relation to Pan-Africanism’s Christian roots, but in the least retain its subsidiarist tone and esteem for roots: take the Nation of Gods and Earth’s assertions about the “divinity” of Blackness, The Black Panther’s People’s Free Food Program, Amiri Baraka’s Ujamma art movement and Free Black Schools. 

Unlike contemporary DEI discourse, which merges the causes of Black liberation with an individualistic progressive cultural agenda, most Pan-Africanist adjacent movements merged progressive political and economic ideals with traditional cultural values – a marriage unthinkable in today’s secular neoliberal paradigm (but more common in circles inspired by Catholic social doctrine, like the various Christian democratic movements, forms of Catholic socialism found in Latin America, the Catholic Worker movement, and contemporary “postliberal” discourse). 

Often deeply pro-natalist and in favor distinct gender roles, several of these movements often bordered on the virulently homophobic and misogynistic, and took anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive stances – claiming that for Blacks to avoid conception is to capitulate to the agenda to sterilize (and eventually eliminate) the Black population. Further, the spread of libertine sexual practices like non-procreative sex, sodomy, and gender fluidity was often associated with the elitism and decadence of white colonial powers (see reggae-dancehall songs like Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow”) – prophetically warning of what Pope Francis would later condemn as “ideological neocolonialism.”

Blackness as Gift

New Jersey-based grassroots organizer Lawerence Hamm – a follower of Amiri Baraka back in the 1970s – recently shared with me how transformative the Black Power message was when he first encountered it in James Brown’s 1968 song “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”. For Hamm, the song’s message was a much needed antidote to the anti-black sentiment he had come to internalize, and would go on to motivate his lifelong efforts to advocate for the needs of Black people in Newark, NJ. 

Unlike for today’s libertarian right and identitarian left, for Pan-Africanism, the material and political were not divorced from the aesthetic and metaphysical, but were intertwined with each other…which is perhaps why we suffer from a loss of great art in today’s age. Black power messaging can be found in the music of countless musicians of decades past – Bob Marley, Buju Banton, NWA, Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, Nas, Erykah Badu, Sounds of Blackness, Marvin Gaye, Mtume, McFadden and Whitehead, Lauryn Hill…just to name a few – ranging from the more militant and separatist to the more “ecumenical,” spiritual, and even the explicitly Christian. 

The Black Power slogan – first popularized by Stokely Carmichael in 1968 – took on a variety of iterations during the Civil Rights era, from separatists like Malcolm X to universalists like Martin Luther King. Though quick to condemn its excesses, King went on to express greater esteem for Black Power rhetoric as his life neared its end thanks in part to his growing relationship with Malcolm X (who also expressed more openness to universalism and integrationism thanks to his relationship with King, and largely to his pilgrimage to Mecca, as witnessed by his conversion from Black Islam to traditional Abrahamic Islam). 

Malcolm X’s insistence on the need for Blacks to hold firmly to their sense of dignity and, when necessary, to defend themselves, is echoed in King’s clarification of the relationship between love and power in his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”. Taking up Nietzsche’s claim that Christians too easily allow the exhortation to love one’s enemies to lead them to forego any sense of their self-respect, King insists that his call to non-violence should not be read as a call to let people “walk all over you.” And that while power alone corrupts and leads to violence and division, power when joined to love leads to productive change and reconciliation between enemies. 

This clarification highlights the incontrovertible fact that one cannot love others if one does not love him or herself – not in a sentimental sense, but in the sense that one recognizes one’s existence – one’s Blackness – is good, a gift to be cherished and valued. Put more concisely, one cannot love others if one does not recognize that “Black is Beautiful,” as Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a Black American nun, proclaimed in front of a meeting of the US Catholic bishops in 1989.

Since the 1960s, numerous other non-Black Christian social justice activists similarly recognized the value of ethnic identity as both a locus of cultural enrichment and political organizing, including Daniel P. Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Father Geno Baroni, and Michael Novak, the latter of whom eloquently wrote that our roots “are our material, our concrete limits, our purchase on a finite, real, earthy earth – our liberation from the land of pure spirits, disembodied presences, and gnostic hoverings…every human being is ‘rooted,’ and that each one’s social history is important. Each of us is born from the womb of a single woman into a particular segment of human experience, at a time, in a place, within a language and a particular set of cultural symbols, beliefs, rites, gestures, emotional patterns, and a not-universal sensibility.” 

And despite the monopoly poststructuralist identitarianism currently holds over public discourse, there are plenty of original voices who speak to a more multifaceted understanding of the role of race in public life. Take Dr. Cornel West, Albert Thompson of the American Solidarity Party who writes about race through a localist, distributist lens; Justin Giboney, the founder of the &Campaign which advocates for bridging the divide between progressives and traditionalists; and Gloria Purvis, a media personality who brings attention to the beauty and richness of Black American history in the Catholic Church.

In our rootless, disenchanted age, neither the highly elitist, bureaucratic program of liberal identitarians, nor the bootstrapping rhetoric of colorblind libertarians–both steeped in materialist individualism–provide a way out of our social deadlocks. While Black radicalism may have plenty of pitfalls, it offers us a nuanced vision of the polyvalent elements that make up society–and above all, envisions society as fundamentally rooted in something greater than the atomized individual. If we insist on being “colorblind,” then let us refuse to be cultureblind, because culture is beautiful. As Dostoyevsky famously quipped, “beauty will save the world.” Consequently, a world bereft of substantial aesthetic underpinnings is beyond salvation, let alone “liberation” from oppression.