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What an Honest Conversation About Race Might Sound Like

Ever since George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin hit the national headlines last year, calls for an “honest conversation about race” have been heard throughout America. (Up until then, apparently, we’ve had only conversations about having a conversation about race.) However, one need not believe that the Zimmerman shooting and verdict were about race — I watched the trial and I don’t — to think that an honest conversation about race is indeed long overdue.

First on the agenda should be the many ways that government policies — either by intent or by palpable effect — embody racism. Let’s call them vehicles for official racism. I have in mind things like the war on certain drug manufacturers, merchants, and consumers; the crusade against “illegal” guns; the minimum wage and related laws; and the government’s schools. All of these by far take their greatest toll on people of color.

Private racism, whether violent or nonviolent, is evil and abhorrent; it is also unlibertarian — yes, even nonviolent racism is unlibertarian, as I point out in “Libertarianism = Anti-Racism.” There I wrote,

What could be a libertarian reason to oppose nonviolent racism? Charles Johnson spelled it out in The Freeman. Libertarianism is a commitment to the nonaggression principle. That principle rests on some justification. Thus it is conceivable that a principle of nonviolent action, such as racism, though not involving the initiation of force and contradicting libertarianism per se, could nevertheless contradict the justification for one’s libertarianism.

For example, a libertarian who holds his or her philosophy out of a conviction that all men and women are (or should be) equal in authority and thus none may subordinate another against his or her will (the most common justification) — that libertarian would naturally object to even nonviolent forms of subordination. Racism is just such a form (though not the only one), since existentially it entails at least an obligatory humiliating deference by members of one racial group to members of the dominant racial group.  (The obligatory deference need not always be enforced by physical coercion.)

Seeing fellow human beings locked into a servile role — even if that role is not explicitly maintained by force — properly, reflexively summons in libertarians an urge to object. (I’m reminded of what H. L. Mencken said when asked what he thought of slavery: “I don’t like slavery because I don’t like slaves.”)

Another, related, libertarian reason to oppose nonviolent racism is that it all too easily metamorphoses from subtle intimidation into outright violence. Even in a culture where racial “places” have long been established by custom and require no coercive enforcement, members of a rising generation will sooner or later defiantly reject their assigned place and demand equality of authority. What happens then? It takes little imagination to envision members of the dominant race — even if they have professed a “thin” libertarianism to that point — turning to physical force to protect their “way of life.”

It should go without saying that a libertarian protest of nonviolent racist conduct must not itself be violent.

But as bad as private racism is, official racism is worse, since it is committed under color of law and leaves its victims all the more vulnerable.

No one with open eyes can possibly believe that a black or Hispanic male walking down the street at night — or even during the day — faces the same hazards presented by the police that a white person does. The criminal justice [!] system — from the police to the courts to the prison complex — is far more entangled in the lives of men of color than of white men. Blacks and Hispanics are stopped disproportionately under New York City’s abominable stop-and-frisk policy. (See David D’Amato’s article in the forthcoming August issue of Future ofFreedom.) What are the cops looking for? Drugs and guns. Police can stop virtually anyone because the official standard for suspicion is low and subjective — and that gives racist cops plenty of scope to harass (and worse) people they dislike. It’s a vehicle for official racism.

The drug laws were originally inspired by racial and ethnic animus against blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese. (See Thomas Szasz’s books Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drugs, Addicts, and Pushers and Our Right to Drugs: The Case for a Free Market.) Since drug prohibition is a crime by the standard of natural law and justice, and since it was motivated by racism and is racist in effect, those who passed and those who now enforce those laws are arguably guilty of hate crimes.

Prohibition — and the violent black markets and gang culture it spawns — makes the inner cities barely livable, while chasing legal businesses and jobs away. (Other government regulations contribute to this devastating result.) The cost to young people in terms of their futures is incalculable.

What about the war against “illegal” guns? It’s much the same story. As gun historian Clayton E. Cramer writes,

The historical record provides compelling evidence that racism underlies gun control laws — and not in any subtle way. Throughout much of American history, gun control was openly stated as a method for keeping blacks and Hispanics “in their place,” and to quiet the racial fears of whites.…

It is not surprising that the first North American English colonies, then the states of the new republic, remained in dread fear of armed blacks, for slave revolts against slave owners often degenerated into less selective forms of racial warfare. The perception that free blacks were sympathetic to the plight of their enslaved brothers, and the dangerous example that “a Negro could be free” also caused the slave states to pass laws designed to disarm all blacks, both slave and free. Unlike the gun control laws passed after the Civil War, these antebellum statutes were for blacks alone.

While the drug and gun laws today may not be racial in intent (though they may be), they are such in consequence. Again, they are vehicles for official racism. Whose neighborhood has more to fear from a local militarized police SWAT raid?

The government’s schools for decades consigned black children to ramshackle custodial institutions  misleadingly called “schools,” where the kids’ future choices were systematically narrowed to a demeaning few. With white-controlled elitist school boards depriving minority communities of resources (through taxation), it took heroic family and neighborhood action to help kids to overcome these official barriers. Things are little different today. Even though a great deal more tax money is spent on inner-city schools now than previously, the results are not much better.

These handicaps on minority children are reinforced by the minimum wage and related laws, such as the Davis-Bacon Act. By pricing low-skilled, poorly educated workers out of the market, these laws make getting a first job especially hard if not impossible. For many unfortunate victims of the law, their lives are stifled in ways that cannot be reversed without herculean effort.

Tragic coincidence? No. The laws were racially motivated — intended as barriers against black workers aspiring to compete with exclusionist white unions. (See “Eugenics: Progressivism’s Ultimate Social Engineering” by Art Carden and Steven Horwitz.)

And to this list of offensive interventions let us add immigration controls, zoning laws, occupational licensing, and restrictions on street vendors and taxi drivers, all of which impose their heaviest burdens on people of color, who are thwarted at every turn, as my account here indicates. Most tragically, all these government inventions, which serve to create dysfunctional communities, feed the private racists’ poisonous narrative.

This hardly exhausts the discussion of official racism. So, yes, let’s have that honest conversation about race. And let’s begin with the biggest enabler of racism of all: the state.

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached through his blog, Free Association.

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Sheldon Richman, author of America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

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