On paper, TED seems like exactly the kind of organization a liberal would want in the world. On their About page, they state that their mission is “to discover and spread ideas that spark imagination, embrace possibility and catalyze impact. Our organization is devoted to curiosity, reason, wonder and the pursuit of knowledge — without an agenda. We welcome people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world and connection with others, and we invite everyone to engage with ideas and activate them in your community.”
This mission statement has all the hallmarks of a liberal institution. Seeking deeper understanding of the world via connections between people with different ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives. Doing so without a specific agenda or axe to grind in order to arrive at the truth. A generally optimistic attitude towards all of this.
Enter Coleman Hughes: a young black American writer and podcaster whose perspectives on race issues place him at the center-right of the current debate around such topics. He has taken stances against reparations (except for those alive that were directly affected by Jim Crow) and, after looking at the available statistics, has rejected the notion that police disproportionately do harm to black Americans. Most notably, he has taken a stance in favor of color blindness; the idea that we should strive to treat people without regard to race in our public policy and our private lives. This is the subject of his upcoming book.
Until the recent shift in leftist ideas about race in American political discourse, color blindness was considered the standard liberal perspective on race and a fundamentally anti-racist point of view. Famously, it was the perspective of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “I have a dream that my four little children will 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.” And to be sure, you will find no talk in favor of color blindness or treating people of different races equally amongst white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or other explicitly racist groups.
Left-wing race activists, such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, have taken a very different stance in recent years. From their vantage point, color blindness is effectively turning a blind eye to injustice and racism itself and will only perpetuate systems of privilege that oppress black Americans. Race should be front and center of our understanding of the world, and the more extreme adherents to this ideology even believe that people of different races are so different that they can’t even meaningfully understand each other’s experiences. Notably, they often regard freedom of speech itself as a fundamentally white institution that exists specifically to privilege whites in American society, and generally favor both legal and cultural measures to restrict speech that contradicts their point of view.
This view is at odds with the liberal perspective on not only race but politics and society more generally. It denies that harmonious coexistence of races is fundamentally possible, denies the validity of liberal institutions by declaring them to be toxic oppressive whiteness, and denies the superiority of the scientific method and reason as the means of understanding the world, declaring that these are white ideas.
While this perspective is not held by the majority of the U.S. population, it is held by a significant contingent of academia as well as middle-to-upper-class white-collar America. The result is that some institutions are effectively controlled by such people, often even when those people only form a minority within the institution itself.
And then you have TED; an institution that exists right on the verge of being controlled by this ideology, despite its surface-level agenda being, by all accounts, liberal. In fact, as the story that I am about to tell unfolds, it’s worth keeping in mind just how much confusion has been caused by placing both progressivism and liberalism on the left of the American political spectrum. We’re starting to see the inevitable break occur between these two points of view due to their irreconcilable differences, and indeed, the far left is more than happy to deny their liberalism and declare liberals the enemy.
In keeping with the liberalism of their mission statement, TED invited Coleman Hughes to give a TED Talk on color blindness. At this juncture, I would recommend taking a break from this piece to watch the talk, as it is a great description of, and defense of, a core anti-racist liberal idea. It will also provide context for the story to follow; his talk was so professionally delivered, so clear in its meaning, and so devoid of any right-wing culture war talking points that it would be difficult to reasonably believe it represents a dangerous or racist ideology.
Like all TED Talks, it was delivered to a live audience, but would be primarily viewed online on TED’s website and social media channels. The controversy began after the talk was delivered; an internal employee resource group for black employees called Black @ TED expressed anger at the talk. Other members of TED requested that it not be published. Ultimately, the video was only to be published if Coleman Hughes agreed to do a debate on the subject, despite no other TED speaker ever being asked to do this as a requirement for having their talk published. To his credit, Coleman Hughes agreed to the debate, and as a result, the TED Talk was indeed published.
Once this information came to the surface, an unsurprising backlash began to occur. Notably, blogger Tim Urban, who himself has delivered the most viewed TED Talk of all time, was publicly critical of TED on X:
Evidence that TED was intentionally suppressing the talk was also found; views for the talk on platforms not under TED’s direct control, like YouTube, were on par with other TED Talks delivered around the same time, but on TED’s own website, Coleman’s talk had about 10% of the views of other talks. While this evidence is only circumstantial, the Occam’s Razor explanation for it is intentional directing of traffic away from the video; there just is no other credible reason for there to be such a difference between platforms.
This is the uphill battle faced by liberalism in leftist spaces. There is reason to be optimistic though; after all was said and done, TED did publish the talk, and it’s not likely they would have only a few years ago. Liberals who had just assumed their leftist friends were more or less on the same page are discovering that there are deep, irreconcilable differences of perspective at play.
While the excesses of the culture war left are beginning to wane, liberals should stay vigilant, both of its reverberations and of the inevitable right-wing backlash already in progress. If we want a free, open, and integrated world, we have to stay the course and be wary of becoming too attached to any particular political trend or tribe. The liberal project is long term and will outlive whatever political coalitions exist today.