Coleman Hughes on Colorblindness, Jazz, and Identity (Ep. 211)

Are there other traits besides race we should be blind to?

Coleman Hughes believes we should strive to ignore race both in public policy and in our private lives. But when it comes to personal identity and expression, how feasible is this to achieve? And are there any other individual traits we should also seek to ignore?

Coleman and Tyler explore the implications of colorblindness, including whether jazz would’ve been created in a color-blind society, how easy it is to disentangle race and culture, whether we should also try to be ‘autism-blind’, and Coleman’s personal experience with lookism and ageism. They also discuss what Coleman’s learned from J.J. Johnson, the hardest thing about performing the trombone, playing sets in the Charles Mingus Big Band as a teenager, whether Billy Joel is any good, what reservations he has about his conservative fans, why the Beastie Boys are overrated, what he’s learned from Noam Dworman, why Interstellar is Chris Nolan’s masterpiece, the Coleman Hughes production function, why political debate is so toxic, what he’ll do next, and more.

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Recorded March 6th, 2024

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Special thanks to O’Shaughnessy Ventures, a creative company that inspires creators, for sponsoring this transcript.

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Coleman Hughes. Coleman has a great new book out, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America. But Coleman is more than just a book author. He is a well-known blogger. He has a very famous podcast, Conversations with Coleman. He has been a star in rap music. He plays jazz music — trombone — professionally in New York City nightclubs, and he’s all around a public intellectual and famous person.

Coleman, welcome.

COLEMAN HUGHES: Thank you so much. I have to apologize for stealing the name of your podcast for mine, but I figured I have alliteration, so I have extra reason to do it.

COWEN: If your name was Tyler, it would be bad, but in fact it’s totally fine. [laughter]

Now, before we get to your book, I have just some random questions for you. What have you learned from J.J. Johnson?

HUGHES: What is most interesting about J.J. Johnson is that he was an extreme perfectionist. What people don’t realize about J.J., at least people that aren’t deep connoisseurs, is that most of his solos on his records were prepared. To an extent, that is not true of his other contemporaries like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. Most of their solos were truly improvised. Like if you go to the alternate takes on those records, it’s a different solo. If you go to J.J.’s alternate takes, it’s almost the same solo.

I think that, rather than be a bug, that was a feature of his success. Because if you consider the challenges required to make the trombone into a bebop instrument — which nobody thought was possible before J.J. Johnson did it — it’s a catch-22 because the level of perfectionism you would have had to have in order to be the first successful bebop trombone player would also preclude you from being a truly improvisatory musician, which is generally characteristic of jazz musicians.

COWEN: Are most of your trombone solos prepared?

HUGHES: No. But, in a way, I benefit —

This is why you can’t compare modern players to players of the past. I benefit enormously from having studied and learned all of, or many of, J.J. Johnson’s solos. There were things he had to invent that are now second nature to most trombonists, which make it easier to improvise in that style than it would have been for him.

COWEN: Physically, what’s the hardest thing about playing the trombone?

HUGHES: It’s actually not the slide. The slide, in my view — that’s what attracted me to the trombone, the fact that you push and pull rather than pressing buttons or valves, and that’s what makes it distinct. But the slide motion is not actually the trickiest thing about it. The trickiest thing about it is the same thing that’s tricky about every other brass instrument, which is the embouchure. That’s what separates great trumpet players from poor trumpet players.

In my view, the finger technique is not nearly the hardest part. It’s always the small muscles of the mouth and coordinating those to play the instrument effectively.

On jazz, Puerto Rican music, and Billy Joel

COWEN: How was it you ended up playing trombone in Charles Mingus Big Band?

HUGHES: I participated in the Charles Mingus high school jazz festival, which they still do every year. It was new at the time. They invite bands from all around to audition, and they identify a handful of good soloists and let them sit in for one night with the band. I sat in with the band, and the band leader knew that I lived close by in New Jersey, and so essentially invited me to start playing with the band on Monday nights.

I was probably 16 or 17 at this point, so I would take the NJ Transit into New York City on a Monday night, play two sets with the Mingus Band sitting next to people that had been my idols and were now my mentors — people like Ku-umba Frank Lacy, who is a fantastic trombone player; played with Art Blakey and D’Angelo and so forth. Then I would go home at midnight and go to school on Tuesday morning.

COWEN: Why is the music of Charles Mingus special in jazz? Because it is to me, but how would you articulate what it is for you?

HUGHES: I would wholeheartedly agree that it’s special even within jazz.

The way I would describe it is, there are certain jazz musicians that seem to have created their own autonomous island within the landscape of jazz. Whereas most of the great jazz musicians resided in the same country, certain people were off in Taiwan on their own island. I would put Mingus in that category. I would put someone like Monk in that category. Ornette Coleman, people like that. Mingus’s music is my favorite of all of those because it sounds like Duke Ellington if Duke Ellington had an acid trip and composed things that were broadly in his idiom, but just everything was changed a bit. That’s how I would describe Mingus.

COWEN: Where should a podcast listener start if they don’t know Mingus?

HUGHES: I think you should start with Mingus Ah Um because it’s the album that would most broadly appeal to someone who didn’t know any Mingus. I would also very much recommend watching his interviews, as his personality is part of the experience of listening to him. Then my favorite Mingus is probably — Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is, I think, a masterpiece.

The lesser-known Mingus piece that is a beauty and was part of his several-hour-long composition called Epitaph, which I think he never finished, but it’s a song called “Pinky Don’t Come Back from the Moon Looking for Love, Man.” It’s a beautiful, 10-minute or so, just gorgeous piece. He had a penchant for these — giving really long names and funny names. So he has another one, for instance, called — it’s a contrafact of the song “All the Things You Are.” Contrafact meaning same chords, different melody. He called it “All the Things You Could Be [by Now] If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.”

He had these very funny titles, and I’m a lifelong Mingus fan and blessed to play in the band.

COWEN: I want to be charmed by Puerto Rican music. Where should I start?

HUGHES: Oh, you should definitely start with Héctor Lavoe. I would say Héctor Lavoe’s music is — it’s incredible. It’s incredible to dance to. It stands the test of time. A lot of it is thematically dark, actually. Many of his most famous songs are — for instance, “El día de mi suerte” is an extremely sad song about how his mother died and then his father died and he had a tragic life, but you would never know that because it sounds so damn happy and it makes you want to dance.

It’s also probably the best example of how trombones can be used, because most of that music was performed with Willie Colón, who is arguably the greatest Latin trombone player. Essentially, they could sustain the whole harmony of the band if they wanted to without a piano or guitar, simply by having two trombones playing triple forte. That’s another thing I really love about that music.

COWEN: Is Billy Joel at all any good?

HUGHES: [laughs] That’s a good question.

I love “Piano Man.” I think it’s an incredible song. I can’t really speak to, that much, Billy Joel being great outside of the few hits, but “Piano Man,” I think, is a correctly rated song.

COWEN: I’ve been thinking about him lately because he has immense talent, but I don’t like most of it. That raises interesting questions. But when I hear it on the radio, I don’t dislike it. I actually want to dislike it more than I actually do.

HUGHES: Which aspect bothers you? In what sense does it matter that he’s not talented if you like it most of the time?

COWEN: It feels — dumbed down. I grew up in New Jersey, as you did. It appeals to a particular culture that I feel I ought to be rejecting a bit more than perhaps I do.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, given the topic of your book, but in some ways, it’s too “white” for me. Rhythmically it can be flaccid, but like if I hear “Movin’ Out” and, you know, “heart attack-ack, ack, ack,” I enjoy that. Am I wrong?

HUGHES: Is it that it was so influential that it’s become banal through people —

COWEN: For me.


COWEN: I heard it all the time growing up, probably in a way you did not.

HUGHES: How did it strike you when you were growing up?

COWEN: The exact same way.

HUGHES: Oh, interesting. I was wondering if it’s just that it was so influential it influenced everything else and now sounds banal in retrospect, but it sounded banal at the time.

COWEN: And I think purposely so. But it’s interesting: when I listen to satellite radio, sometimes Billy Joel is on as a disc jockey. He’s an A-plus-quality teacher about music, how he explains things. And I have great respect for that.

HUGHES: Yes. I don’t think there’s much correlation between being able to explain it well and being able to do it well, is one thing I’ve noticed of musicians.

COWEN: Now, you were a philosophy major at Columbia. That’s now a while back. What is it you like most about continental philosophy?

HUGHES: The truth is, I didn’t resonate with much of any continental philosophy. It struck me as not respecting what I value in writing, which is brevity and clarity. I might like to read someone who really gets Nietzsche explain what Nietzsche was trying to say, but reading Nietzsche itself was not a very fun experience for me. So I gravitated strongly towards analytic philosophy.

COWEN: The expositors are often worse, right? You think, “Oh, they’re going to clarify Nietzsche,” but you get something longer and more convoluted.

HUGHES: The ones that are really —

COWEN: “No, please give me back Nietzsche.”

HUGHES: Right. The ones that are hyper-obsessed tend to be very unclear.

COWEN: What would you change in American high schools if you had a magic wand?

HUGHES: That’s a good question. There is research suggesting that longer school days are a good thing. Roland Fryer’s experiments in Texas where he randomly selects schools and extends the school day, among other things, gets good results. On the other hand, there just are a lot of kids that don’t resonate with the structure and skill set of high school or public school and schooling in general, and their talents lie elsewhere.

I know countless musicians that may have even been diagnosed as “ADHD” in school, but the reality is they had no trouble focusing in general, and certainly had no trouble focusing on practicing their instrument for five hours at a time, but had no interest in school as it was structured. I’d be curious what can be done to make school more tolerable for those kinds of kids.

On the practicality of colorblindness

COWEN: We’ll get back to miscellaneous questions, but now let’s get to your book. Again, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America. How would you give us your bottom-line message in the book? I don’t usually do this, but how would you explain it?

HUGHES: Yes. I would basically explain it by saying the idea of color blindness, by which I mean trying to treat people without regard to race and having color-blind, race-neutral public policy: that’s become a dirty word and a dirty concept, in particular on the Left, in the past couple decades — really in the past decade. This book is an attempt to rescue color blindness from the jaws of disdain and argue that it is the best overall philosophy by which to view the idea of race. That we want to raise our children — even if it’s a watered-down version of MLK, we ought to raise our children on that message. We ought to get race out of public policy and, wherever possible, wherever plausible, use socioeconomics where we want to deal with issues of disadvantage.

COWEN: If I understand you correctly, you’re also suggesting in our private lives we should be color-blind.

HUGHES: Yes. Broadly, yes. Or we should try to be.

COWEN: We should try to be. This is where I might not agree with you. So I find if I look at media, I look at social media, I see a dispute — I think 100 percent of the time I agree with Coleman, pretty much, on these race-related matters. In private lives, I’m less sure.

Let me ask you a question.


COWEN: Could jazz music have been created in a color-blind America?

HUGHES: Could it have been created in a color-blind America — in what sense do you mean that question?

COWEN: It seems there’s a lot of cultural creativity. One issue is it may have required some hardship, but that’s not my point. It requires some sense of a cultural identity to motivate it — that the people making it want to express something about their lives, their history, their communities. And to them it’s not color-blind.

HUGHES: Interesting. My counterargument to that would be, insofar as I understand the early history of jazz, it was heavily more racially integrated than American society was at that time. In the sense that the culture of jazz music as it existed in, say, New Orleans and New York City was many, many decades ahead of the curve in terms of its attitudes towards how people should live racially: interracial friendship, interracial relationship, etc. Yes, I’d argue the ethos of jazz was more color-blind, in my sense, than the American average at the time.

COWEN: But maybe there’s some portfolio effect here. So yes, Benny Goodman hires Teddy Wilson to play for him. Teddy Wilson was black, as I’m sure you know. And that works marvelously well. It’s just good for the world that Benny Goodman does this.

Can it still not be the case that Teddy Wilson is pulling from something deep in his being, in his soul — about his racial experience, his upbringing, the people he’s known — and that that’s where a lot of the expression in the music comes from? That is most decidedly not color-blind, even though we would all endorse the fact that Benny Goodman was willing to hire Teddy Wilson.

HUGHES: Yes. Maybe — I’d argue it may not be culture-blind, though it probably is color-blind, in the sense that black Americans don’t just represent a race. That’s what a black American would have in common — that’s what I would have in common with someone from Ethiopia, is that we’re broadly of the same “race.” We are not at all of the same culture.

To the extent that there is something called “African American culture,” which I believe that there is, which has had many wonderful products, including jazz and hip-hop — yes, then I’m perfectly willing to concede that that’s a cultural product in the same way that, say, country music is like a product of broadly Southern culture.

COWEN: But then here’s my worry a bit. You’re going to have people privately putting out cultural visions in the public sphere through music, television, novels — a thousand ways — and those will inevitably be somewhat political once they’re cultural visions. So these other visions will be out there, and a lot of them you’re going to disagree with. It might be fine to say, “It would be better if we were all much more color-blind.” But given these other non-color-blind visions are out there, do you not have to, in some sense, counter them by not being so color-blind yourself and say, “Well, here’s a better way to think about the black or African American or Ethiopian or whatever identity”?

HUGHES: Yes, I think that’s right. I think they’re compatible in the sense that you can push for the soft version of something and the harder version of something, if not at literally the same time, then by turns.

What I’ve been arguing for is a firewall between the cultural versions you’re talking about and the political aspects. But I think you’re right that in practice they may bleed into each other — they might correlate very highly, right?

Maybe I, Coleman Hughes, have no problem separating the fact that I grew up with black and Puerto Rican music and have a special attachment to it. Also I have a special attachment to Puerto Rican food, for instance. I have no problem separating that aspect of me from a demand that the state treat me and my racial group differently, or a political program based on race broadly. But it might be the case that for many people, those are just one and the same, or they draw on the same impulse.

COWEN: Now, I’m Irish American, and sometimes I go to Ireland and other times I go to Scotland, and I enjoy them both. I don’t really think intrinsically one is better or worse than the other. But I would admit that I honestly feel somewhat better about being in Ireland for some weird, arbitrary reason. I think, “I’m Irish American; this to me is just a bit more interesting,” and it’s probably me fooling myself, but some parts of it even feel a little bit more familiar than Scotland would. I fully admit that might be placebo or my own self-delusion.

Should I feel bad about thinking that way?

HUGHES: No, I don’t think you should feel bad about thinking that way. And I think that I know much more about Puerto Rico than I would if I weren’t one-half Puerto Rican. I know much more about it than I know about the Dominican Republic, say.

However, I would ask you a question. I would turn it around. I would ask you if you were to write an MR post about some issue in Irish or Scottish politics, do you think you would analyze them differently, or do you think you would put that little feeling to the side?

COWEN: I think I would know more about Ireland. It would be different. I don’t think I would consciously be biased, but I don’t think I could quite do it neutrally either.

And I’m pretty distant from Ireland: No relatives there. I’ve only been a few times. I’m not an Irish American, sending money to the IRA and drinking in a stereotypical Irish American pub. There’s not really much in my life that would —

HUGHES: You’re not drinking, period.

COWEN: Yes. This is what worries me a bit. If I went to, say, Ireland and Africa, and then when I’m in Ireland, I feel a bit better there because, “Oh, I’m in Ireland. That’s a place with white people,” I definitely would feel bad if I had that opinion — and I don’t, in fact. Actually, if anything, I’m the kind of — prefer to embrace that which is, in some ways, distant from me along those margins.

But it would be wrong, right, if I said, “Oh, well, I’m in Ireland. I’m white. That’s the white people’s place. I can feel a little better about that than being in Ethiopia.”

HUGHES: Then there, again, I would underscore the distinction between race and culture. I don’t think anyone should feel bad about the inevitable fact that we have more cultural attachments to the things that we know and the places we’re from and the foods we grew up with and the music we grew up with. That’s all inevitable. I even don’t begrudge someone saying, “Look, I’m Jewish. I would frankly prefer to live in a Jewish community. I would prefer to marry a Jewish person,” and so forth. All of those kinds of feelings, I would argue, are inevitable, and you shouldn’t fight within yourself.

However, I think there should be a strong firewall between saying all of those things and saying the state ought to treat my group special because of this, that, or another reason.

Like I said, that might be too hard a distinction for some people to draw. It’s not a hard one for me to draw. Maybe I falsely assume it’s realistic to advocate other people draw it, but that seems to me a sensible place to draw the line, given we have to draw it somewhere between “everyone’s a rational individual with no attachments whatsoever” and “any and all expressions of racial and group pride are OK.”

COWEN: I agree fully when it comes to the state, but in terms of separating race and culture, they seem quite intertwined to me. A lot of people’s cultures talk about their race. It can be in quite unpleasant ways in many cases, as we both know. So is there really that firewall there?

HUGHES: I would argue race and culture are fairly distinct. The fact that in America right now, arguably the most bitter difference is between two different white cultures. I think — was it David French who wrote the piece about the great white culture war, something like that, a few years back? Where you have white Americans of a blue culture and white Americans of a red culture — some who grew up with 50 guns thinking it’s normal, and some who literally couldn’t tell you the difference between a shotgun and a rifle — looking at each other and feeling really all of the sociological feelings of tribal hatred towards one another, but are totally of the same race.

I think that underscores the difference between race and culture.

COWEN: Let me try another hypothetical on you. You might ask, “Should we be race-blind?” But should we be autism-blind? If I meet a person who is autistic or I think they’re autistic, I’ll make a point of speaking to that person more directly. You could say I would treat them differently. I think it is efficient. I think it’s welcome. It leads to better outcomes. I wouldn’t say I’m autism-blind.

Now, autism isn’t culture. It’s not race, but it is mostly genetic. It’s a thing you were born with. Should we be autism-blind or ADHD-blind or whatever-else-blind?

HUGHES: No, I don’t think we should be autism-blind. I think insofar as you know someone has a totally different communication style, you know that they don’t read facial expressions well, it makes sense to take that into account in all of your interactions and communications with them. For instance, I don’t argue that we should be gender-blind, at least not in the same sense we should try to be race-blind, because there really just are important differences between men and women that shouldn’t be ignored.

You shouldn’t treat anyone worse, but I also wouldn’t necessarily treat my brother and my sister and my mother and my father the same in every possible conversation or scenario. It’s not about a hierarchy of treatment. It’s simply nonidentical treatment.

My point about race, I think, is that race really is — whatever you think about its constructed nature, it’s much more socially constructed than all of these other categories. If we have autistic people in 1,000 years, they’re going to have the same symptoms that they did 1,000 years ago. The classic differences between men and women today are quite similar to what they were 50 years ago, and there will be differences between men and women in 100 years.

But race is not really like that. What we think of as a racial difference is heavily influenced by culture. In that sense, they’re intertwined. I think it’s much more fertile ground for progress to advocate that people treat those of different races without regard to their race than to treat people with, say, different personality conditions or genders or so forth. Things that are, frankly, less malleable to begin with.

COWEN: In its most fundamental terms, if you had to present the micro foundation for why does race get so much blindness in your view . . .

So culture is extremely contingent, and yet there you don’t want us to be culture-blind. Then autism, say, is mostly genetic, and you don’t want us to be autism-blind. The extreme contingent and the extreme noncontingent, you don’t want blindness, but there’s some point in the middle where blindness makes sense — or how does the whole model operate?

HUGHES: I guess the model operates in the following way. If I meet two people of a different culture, I’m not going to treat them differently. In other words, let’s say, to dissect out the variables. I’ve got an Ethiopian and a black American — same race, totally different cultures — and they’re both applying to work at my podcast. I’m neither going to consider their race nor their culture if they’re editing my podcast, say. I really only care about their competence there.

The sense in which you might not be culture-blind is, I wouldn’t fault the Ethiopian guy for saying, “Look, I want an Ethiopian wife, and I like injera better than I like barbecue.” In that sense, I allow him his non–culture blindness. I don’t make him feel guilty in the sense that I don’t make you feel guilty when you feel a bit of something for Ireland. I would still insist on not treating them differently: not treating them differently where the different treatment might amount to some kind of injustice.

I wouldn’t insist on being deliberately obtuse about the differences between people with different mental competencies like autism or depression or, God forbid, schizophrenia. Schizophrenia blindness is just being obtuse. The problem is that schizophrenia is actually a perfect proxy for having a different mind. Definitionally, that’s what it is. Whereas a person’s race is not a very good proxy for having a different mind at all. It’s certainly not a good proxy the moment you have more information about them.

The only situations where it might be a good proxy: if you picture a quadrant with stakes and information, if you’re in the quadrant that’s high-stakes and low-information — you know that there’s a bomb in Times Square and you’ve only got two seconds, and you have to decide between the guy that looks like a terrorist and looks like the race of most terrorists you know — I’m not going to fault you for paying attention to race in that particular corner case.

In most of our life situations, we’re in the other three quadrants of situations that are either low-stakes, high-information; low-stakes, low-information; or high-stakes, high-information. We’re meeting friends at coffee shops. We’re introducing each other and so forth in scenarios where we can learn about each other. The moment we have that, race falls away as a very useful proxy.

On lookism

COWEN: As you probably know, a disproportionate share of American CEOs are quite tall. How do you feel about “lookism”?

HUGHES: Lookism is another one where I would feel — it’s not that I don’t think it’s an injustice of some kind. It’s that I would feel silly spending very much time trying to budge that particular variable, because I don’t think it’s that budgeable. I’m not saying it’s not movable at all. I would argue that, for instance, in my view, attitudes towards racism have changed pretty dramatically in the past 50 years — in the past 100, certainly.

I don’t know that attitudes towards lookism have, and that leads me to believe that lookism might be something more like closer to a constant. Whereas attitudes towards race are fairly influenceable by, let’s say, those of us who are in the marketplace of ideas. I don’t want to exaggerate our influence as a whole profession, but I would feel somewhat silly trying to budge variables that might not be very budgeable.

COWEN: We worry sometimes that blacks in America face more lookism, even from people who would not typically be considered racist, but when they meet a black person, they really pay more attention to the looks. Obama once said when he was president, “When I’m on TV, the one thing I can’t do too much is to get angry.” You look very friendly. You are very friendly; I know you. How would things have gone for you if you looked more savage? Do you think blacks in America face more lookism?

HUGHES: I think probably yes. It’s interesting. Our friend Noam, who was also on this podcast, said the same thing. He said if I had a look that was more threatening, for lack of a better word, that I might have a different black experience than the one that I have, and that it’s not . . .

We often reduce things to race that aren’t all racial, right? Whether I can say — there’s only one time I’ve ever been accused of stealing something from a store that I did not in fact steal, which is often talked about as a ubiquitous experience for black men, black people in general. It’s only happened once. I’ve been living in New York for 10 years, and I buy a lot of stuff from delis, and I’ve lived in Harlem, and I’ve lived above Harlem in Hamilton Heights and the kinds of neighborhoods where a black teen might be accused of this kind of thing and so forth.

Is that partly because I have a certain look? Even if I dress shabbily, I have a certain vaguely nonthreatening look? Although, for some reason, it’s enough to make employees at TED feel unsafe, but not deli owners in Harlem. I think there’s something to that. Absolutely.

On being biracial and pegged as young

COWEN: Do you think being half Puerto Rican has given you additional or different insight into racism? If so, what?

HUGHES: It’s a good question. I think there may be something to the idea that kids who are products of interracial unions are more drawn towards the idea that race isn’t all that important. Because if you grow up in a scenario, especially if you grow up with two happy, loving parents, as I did, who are clearly of different races and different cultures and so forth — my mother grew up speaking Spanish, and my dad was as American as you could get — it becomes difficult to believe that there are deep dividing lines between groups of people, because your immediate context says otherwise.

The two people that are most important, your parents, have formed the deepest union any two people can form. It belies the notion, it belies the people that would want to tell you that there are important divisions between the races. Insofar as that’s part of my experience, I think it’s possibly influenced me.

COWEN: The white conservatives who are your fans, what do you think they’re most likely to get wrong about race?

HUGHES: That’s a good question. That’s a very good question.

COWEN: And then I’ll ask you about the libertarians and whether the conservatives and libertarians get the same things wrong.

HUGHES: That’s a stumper.

COWEN: Is there some way in which you feel uncomfortable by their embrace of you? They haven’t quite earned the opinion in a way you might feel you have? Or that doesn’t enter into it?

HUGHES: No, I feel that sometimes. I feel a kind of undeveloped discomfort and inarticulable discomfort with some of the people that like me. I couldn’t exactly say why, but yes, it does come from some sense that the opinion is unearned, or that what is an opinion I’ve come to with great emotional weight and, frankly, psychological wrestling is an opinion that they’ve come to reflexively. That doesn’t sit well with me.

In some sense, I would prefer — it makes me feel better about my message if I feel people who wouldn’t otherwise come to the views that I have are coming to it, not reluctantly, but knowing the counterarguments against it and taking them seriously.

I feel a kind of undeveloped discomfort and inarticulable discomfort with some of the people that like me. I couldn’t exactly say why, but yes, it does come from some sense that the opinion is unearned, or that what is an opinion I’ve come to with great emotional weight and, frankly, psychological wrestling is an opinion that they’ve come to reflexively. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Taking, for instance, just the fact and kind of sanctity of the legacy of racism in black culture as a meme. Taking all of that seriously and, nevertheless, coming to the opinion that basically the dominant narrative on race is importantly wrong sits better for me than someone that takes it reflexively and without fully appreciating the counterargument.

To the extent that white conservatives over-index on that way of engaging with me, it does make me uncomfortable. However, if I had stopped doing things that made me uncomfortable, I never would have gotten to where I am right now. I think that is one of the biggest things stopping many black people, and people of color in general, from agreeing with me publicly, is not that they disagree with me privately, it’s that they don’t want to tolerate those same feelings of discomfort from the white conservatives who will agree with them.

I’ve made the choice that I’m willing to tolerate that discomfort, and I think that’s the right decision.

COWEN: How do ageism and racism interact? It’s a common racist trope to take a young black male and call him “boy,” historically.

I’ve noticed sometimes when people talk about you, maybe it’s me that’s off, but they say pretty often that you’re “young” or “very young.” You’re not actually that young anymore. Do you feel people see you as too young in part because of racial issues, or is there some underlying condescension when people refer to you as “young”? Or you just don’t notice or don’t think any of that’s there?

HUGHES: I don’t think that it’s a racial issue. For example, when I started playing with Mingus Band, which is on most nights a majority black band — it certainly was in those days — I would always be introduced as “young,” even up to the point when I was like 24. I guess it was a relative thing because most guys in the band were older. But there was just this general phenomenon of youth worship that I do dislike about — I don’t know if it’s American culture or if this is the same everywhere. I don’t really like that we put 17-year-old activists on TV if their school was shot up. I think it’s a disservice to them.

To that extent, I don’t really like being praised because I’m young, because there’s a part of me that worries that people are correcting, giving me a mulligan on certain things because I’m younger. I don’t like even the intimation of false praise. So there’s that.

However, I don’t think it’s a racial issue. In fact, I would — probably it’s the opposite, in the sense — I hear many more people complaining that black children are viewed as older than they in fact are. Like the case of Tamir Rice, who was 12 but actually did come across as much older than 12. In other words, teenagers being seen as adults is probably the bigger issue.

On things over- and underrated

COWEN: Are you game for a round of overrated versus underrated?

HUGHES: Of course.

COWEN: These are easy ones, of course.

HUGHES: Easy to you, maybe.

COWEN: No, very easy.

The West Village: overrated or underrated?

HUGHES: Underrated based on how much time I spend there, though a lot of that time is admittedly spent at the Comedy Cellar.

It’s an amazing, culturally vibrant place. There’s still great music, there’s great comedy, and there is a really beautiful cacophony that goes on there. I wouldn’t trade that for anything; it’s beautiful.

COWEN: The Beastie Boys.

HUGHES: Overrated.

COWEN: To me they’re just a bunch of whiners. I’m very glad to hear you say that.

HUGHES: I think that they — have they even made really a mark in the history of hip-hop?

COWEN: I think they came around at a time when people were looking for white rappers and Eminem wasn’t on the scene yet.

HUGHES: That’s right. However, Eminem made a very important mark in the sense that I don’t think you could find a single great rapper from the past 20 years that doesn’t cite Eminem as an influence, especially early Eminem. All of the great black rappers would absolutely give him his due in the lineage, whereas almost no one would cite the Beastie Boys.

COWEN: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, overrated or underrated?

HUGHES: I would say overrated as a commentator. Perhaps it’s because he’s often writing about things that were within my pet purview, and because we may have disagreements that are small in the big picture but seem large to me. He’s much more likely to jump to racism as an explanation for phenomena in the media.

I do think, in the same way that some people have probably given me some false praise for being young or that’s added to their opinion of me, I think the fact that he’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a former basketball player who happens to have this other skill might lead people to rate his output in that other domain somewhat more highly.

COWEN: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

HUGHES: I will go overrated, only because I think it’s been played to death on airplanes, and I think in some way the worst thing that could have happened to it is for it to become the anthem of whichever airline it’s the anthem for.

COWEN: Frantz Fanon.

HUGHES: I would say overrated, in the sense that I really don’t like his idea — I remember almost being offended at the idea of the colonized mind. The idea that a colonized people — that the colonization infects the mind in a way that a colonized person must constantly interrogate whether they are parroting the words of the colonizer or whether they’re actually holding their beliefs in good faith. I remember rejecting that in a very knee-jerk way because it is so easily used as a way of shutting down a person like myself, and I knew from introspection that my own views were not coming from a love of whiteness or white supremacy or something.

In fact, I remember as a kid — I remember there’s this meme of the self-hating black person. I recall as a kid looking in the mirror and being very happy at what I saw, being very happy that I was black and thinking that, had I been white, that it would look wrong. I remember having, frankly, high racial self-esteem as a kid, and I knew that’s not where my opinions were coming from.

COWEN: What have you learned from Noam Dworman, [laughter] who’s also been a guest on Conversations with Tyler?

HUGHES: I’ve learned a lot from Noam Dworman. One thing I’ve learned is that if you have warmth and humor and charisma, you can get away with being a lot more “disagreeable,” in the psychologist sense, than otherwise.

I’ve also learned that there’s such a thing as a bullshit detector, and some people have it in spades and others don’t.

COWEN: And Noam does, you’re saying?

HUGHES: Noam has the best bullshit detector that I know. The highest batting average of knee-jerk responses to emerging stories being correct, say — both in personal life and in the media. Knowing when people are lying without strong evidence.

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie?

HUGHES: My favorite movie of all time or my favorite recent movie?

COWEN: All time. Well, both. All time — start with that.

HUGHES: I’ll say probably my two favorites: I’ll give you two. One would be Interstellar, and one would be Little Miss Sunshine.

COWEN: Why are those two special?

HUGHES: Interstellar I think is [Christopher] Nolan’s masterpiece. I’m a big fan of Nolan. Many of his movies are the same, but I think he perfected his — calling it a “shtick” is not the right thing, but he perfected his thing with Interstellar. It was just a marvelous movie in its marriage of emotionality and the humanity of Matthew McConaughey’s character and the abstract playing-with-time thing that Nolan likes to do.

For example, his early movie Memento I think over-indexes on the fun of the playing with time without enough real raw human emotion, and I think Interstellar strikes the perfect balance.

Little Miss Sunshine I would say is a perfect film, in my view. It’s hard to say why, but it makes me cry almost every time I watch it. It’s a story of a lot of shitty people. I guess that’s one thing that’s interesting about it.

Basically, everyone except for the young girl in the movie is kind of a shitty person. The mom is constantly angry for no reason; the husband’s a fraud and a bit of a car salesman and a fake success. The son is an asshole who only cares about himself. Steve Carell’s character is maudlin and depressed. They all have character traits that you should 100 percent avoid, but by the end of the movie, they have to come together around this thing that — it should be totally meaningless, and then it erupts in a totally inappropriate dance at the end. It’s just a perfect film.

On why black Americans are voting more Republican

COWEN: I have a few questions about politics. Why are more blacks voting Republican these days? Is that mainly a Trump thing or a more permanent shift?

HUGHES: Well, this is a very tricky issue. I’m not actually sure what the trend is.

One thing is that it predates 2020; Trump got more of the black vote in 2020 than he did in 2016. Something was going on in the first term that started the trend. It could have just been the economy was great. It could have also been a Trump effect in that people on the Left talk about Trump’s racism as one big phenomenon, but really his problem was always with immigrants. And his denigrating comments, at least the ones that are confirmed and on the record, almost all of them were directed at immigrants, not black Americans.

Black Americans are roughly as broadly anti-immigration as white Americans, and so the apparent paradox is that Trump is this “racist,” but black people seem to be going towards him in greater and greater numbers. Well, his racism, to the extent you’d agree it’s racism, has always been directed at immigrants, not at black people, by and large.

He passed lots of policies in his first term that on their face seem very pro-black. The First Step Act was very progressive criminal justice reform; making funding for historically black colleges automatic. These are things that, had Obama done them, he’d have been lampooned by the Right as playing identity politics — and, in a way, that’s why Trump was able to do them and Obama wasn’t.

There’s all of that, and then there’s just the fact that Biden is a uniquely especially weak candidate. Then there’s this theory, of course, that the indictments have led to a rallying around Trump from within the black community because he seems to be unfairly persecuted, and being unfairly persecuted by the criminal justice system may be something that resonates with black people.

I don’t actually know that that’s true, but you put it all together and you can see how such a trend might ensue.

COWEN: Do you think there are any common patterns of political views amongst black jazz musicians? Obviously, a lot of diversity, but on average, what do you observe?

HUGHES: On average, black jazz musicians that I know are frankly probably more in the conservative Democrat domain than many people would assume.

This is not always widely talked about, but black Americans in general are the most conservative wing of the Democratic base, in the sense that almost all black people vote Democrat, but there’s quite a high degree of social conservatism, conservative viewpoints on things like immigration and so forth.

If you’re white and you have those views, you go to the Republican Party. If you’re black and you have those views, you probably don’t go to the Republican Party; you probably just vote Democrat with basically a conservative ideology — and that’s a third of black Americans.

I would say that there’s a lot of black jazz musicians that fall into that category, quiet as it’s kept.

On the mores of black hip-hop

COWEN: In black hip-hop, there seems to be a lot of gender conflict and gender divides. Is that reflecting something real, or it’s just an aesthetic in the art? What do you make of that issue?

HUGHES: What do you mean by that?

COWEN: Men talking about women in a way that many women would find very objectionable. I think it’s higher in black hip-hop than white hip-hop, but feel free to contradict me.

HUGHES: Yes, I would agree it’s higher in black hip-hop. I was always amused when I was in college that there was a very intense variety of feminism around, but some of those same women would go to, say, a Trippie Redd concert or an XXXTentacion concert and hear some of the most brutally misogynist lyrics that have ever been written in any song, without any contradiction [laughs]. There was, I guess, this unspoken sense that if you’re a black man, it’s OK to say those things, or that it’s not really meant, or that who cares. Whereas if a white artist had said the same thing, there would be a bevy of articles the next day.

I’m not exactly sure what is behind that trend, but I have to think that the success of someone like Drake is partly because he bucks that trend. Like, women love Drake. Drake is the most popular rapper to ever exist. I think one thing that makes him popular is the very fact that he was squarely within the tradition and school, being a disciple of Lil Wayne — the school that said the worst possible things, the most dismissive, misogynist possible things. He was accepted and loved at that school, but the route he went was to say things — to make music for women. To say things that were sweet to women.

Not to say that that’s all he says, but he really bucked the trend and in that sense was vulnerable to the critique that he was soft and feminine, which is the greatest possible sin, you would think, in the rap world, but actually led to the greatest possible success.

COWEN: In the 19th century, it seems that Beethoven and also Queen Victoria were especially popular with a lot of black communities in the United States. Should we think that strange, or you find that intuitive?

HUGHES: I’ve heard it said among the conspiracies in the Hotep world that Beethoven “is black.” That’s something that some people believe. [laughs] I’m not putting my name to that. I have nothing else to say about that. That’s interesting, though.

COWEN: Here’s a reader question, and I quote: “For other men who share your political views, what’s your advice on dating women? It’s hard to find ones who are not woke and not socially ignorant, crazy conspiracy theorists at the same time.”

HUGHES: My advice would be, do not talk about politics on the first date. In fact, I would say don’t raise it at all. It will inevitably come up, but delay the time that it comes up as long as possible.

You’re not there to discuss politics. You’re there to meet a woman that might potentially be a life partner, right? Insofar as you go on a first date and a second date and you begin to like each other’s nonpolitical attributes, once politics comes up and there are differences between you two, you may be surprised in her ability to tolerate those political differences once she’s realized that she likes a lot of your nonpolitical attributes. And in fact, she may surprise herself in her ability to tolerate different opinions, and you may surprise yourself.

On the Coleman Hughes production function

COWEN: Let me now turn to the Coleman Hughes production function. I hope you don’t feel this is unmerited praise, but what makes you so good at so many things? What’s your simplest theory of that?

HUGHES: I guess I’ve always had a monomaniacal focus on the things I do like. I’m bad at a lot of things that I just never do.

COWEN: You think you’re good at learning curves for the things you do?

HUGHES: Yes; however, it’s not really — that’s a false way to frame it. The way to frame it is that I’ve invested heavily in the things where my learning curve was naturally the best.

For instance, I tried to switch to trumpet when I was 17, but I was no good at it. When I started playing trombone, I got good fairly quickly, and so I invested and tripled down in the areas where I was learning fastest. I used to be very into languages. I was good, not great. I ditched it completely when I was 12.

I guess I’ve tripled down on the areas where I have the highest natural genetic advantage as an individual.

COWEN: This extreme willingness to specialize, where do you think it comes from? You were born with it? You developed it? Your parents taught you, or —

HUGHES: No, born with it, 100 percent. I’ve always had just an intense natural desire to focus on whatever I want to get good at, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

COWEN: You think your jazz education and background has helped you when you have to improvise — when you’re podcasting, giving a public talk, or otherwise in the public arena?

HUGHES: Not at all. Hasn’t helped me in the speaking domain one bit.

What it did do, I think, is that growing up so deeply in the jazz world — which is very diverse, multiracial, multinational — advertised the possibility of true deep interracial friendship and interracial working with people of different cultures and not seeing anything weird about that, towards a common goal and towards a common passion. I think not everyone has that.

COWEN: What is your most unusual successful work habit?

HUGHES: Most unusual successful work habit. I don’t know if I have any unusual successful work habits.

COWEN: They’re successful, but they’re not unusual? Or they’re unusual, but they’re not successful?

HUGHES: Like I said, I can be very monomaniacally focused on things. It’s possible, for instance, for me to accidentally skip meals because I’m working, and I don’t get hungry. It used to be very hard for me to stop or get interrupted.

I’ve gotten a little bit better at that and become a more balanced person, but I would say working for long stretches of time with no break at all — as opposed to what might be more common advice, which is every hour take a 20-minute break.

COWEN: What do you think you optimize for?

HUGHES: When I work?

COWEN: No, in life.

HUGHES: Oh. I like to think that I optimize for happiness broadly construed: not just pleasure or joy, but a balanced amount of that mixed with meaning. I’m definitely of the school that, though I work a lot, I don’t think that work is life. I would like to have a family and do all of that. I try to optimize for being a balanced and happy human being. I think that’s a good thing, because to get too into the world I’m in with politics and debate and so forth can be taxing and toxic without balance.

COWEN: What do you think is the fundamental reason why that world can be so toxic?

HUGHES: I guess where other things in life value or incentivize a relaxed, open-minded, and loving attitude — things such as music — the incentives in the domain of public conversation about politics are towards nastiness, in a way, towards dissatisfaction. You’re supposed to point out the thing you’re pissed about. Whereas in other domains in life, such as at church or with your family, you are supposed to think about the thing you are grateful for.

It’s a kind of precise turning on its head of the wise lessons about how you should spend your time and attention for your own happiness, inverted to maximize the toxic things.

COWEN: Could you imagine a world where you just say “goodbye to politics,” do something else, and you’re simply happier?

HUGHES: I think the truth is, if I wanted to do that, I would have done it. And vice versa: If I wanted to not do music at all and just go fully into it, I think I would have done that too.

I think the truth is, when I was a full-time musician, gigging trombone every night, I had an itch to scratch that was not getting scratched. For instance, when I was at Juilliard, I would go to the music library and try to pull out books about philosophy, and when I was at Columbia, I was always itching to get off campus and go play some music. They’re just two sides of me that both need to be fed.

COWEN: Before the final question, let me just repeat: Coleman Hughes, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America, which I enjoyed very much. Very last question, Coleman: What will you do next?

HUGHES: What will I do next? Well, I’m going to keep doing my podcast. I’ll probably write another book, and I will continue to play music, perhaps take up a new instrument, and continue optimizing for happiness.

COWEN: Coleman Hughes, thank you very much.

HUGHES: Thank you, Tyler.

Photo Credit: Evan Mann