Playing the racism card

Try, for just a minute, to imagine the following scenario. The New Republic, or some other stronghold of neocondom, has just discovered the website of the church Ron Paul has been attending for the last 20 years. At the very top of the site's home page is the following statement:

We are a congregation which is Unashamedly White and Unapologetically Christian…Our roots in the White religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting and permanent. We are a European people, and remain “true to our native land”, the mother continent, the cradle of civilization…We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a White worship service and ministries which address the White Community.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to guess what would follow. The story would be on all the evening newscasts, the neocon and Beltway libertarian talking heads would be all over the cable news channels expressing their disgust, and even the paleolibertarians would jump ship. No explanation he could offer would be acceptable. Ron Paul's campaign would be dead.

But if you just change “White” to “Black” and “European” to “African” you'll have the exact words that appear at the top of the home page of the website of the Trinity United Church of Christ, the Chicago church that Barack Obama has been attending faithfully for the past 20 years. Yet, so far the media — with the exception of a few conservative columnists — have given Obama a pass on his connection with this church.

The terms “racism” and “racist” are thrown around so much these days that they have effectively lost all meaning. Well, not all meaning. In fact it's very simple if you just remember that racism is what lies at the root of one's opponents' thoughts and actions, while one's own thoughts and actions arise from only the purest of motives.

The charge of “racism” is most often made by the Left against the Right. However, increasingly — and distressingly — conservatives are hurling the “racist” epithet at their opponents on the Left. There are so many examples of this, it is not necessary to provide links to them. Just Google “Alberto Gonzales” and “racist” to find some examples. Or go look up what some neocons have said about Ron Paul.

When Wolf Blitzer was questioning him about his old newsletters on CNN last week, Dr. Paul said “Libertarians are incapable of being racists, because racism is a collectivist idea”. I don't know that I agree with the first part of that statement, but Dr. Paul should be forgiven because he was being ambushed with a question and had only a few minutes to answer it. (A much better exposition of his views on racism can be found on his campaign website.)

I think a libertarian can be a racist because I think anybody can be a racist. I don't mean a hooded, cross-burning, night-riding racist; just someone for whom race is a factor, however minor, in his or her personal decision calculus. Most people naturally prefer the company of people who are like themselves in most ways. They might not require the exclusive company of others like themselves, but they also don't want to associate exclusively with people who are very different.

Thomas Schelling, a Nobel laureate in economics, once proposed a game. Get a roll of pennies, a roll of dimes and a large sheet of paper divided into one-inch squares. Distribute the coins one per square on the sheet of paper, leaving about a third of the spaces empty. Adopt a rule: assume each coin wants at least some proportion — say, a third — of its neighbors to be of the same kind. Now find a coin for which the rule is not satisfied — i.e. less than a third of its neighbors are of the same kind — and move it to a square where it is. Repeat this step until all coins are on squares that satisfy the rule. When you get to this point, you'll find that the pennies have tended to cluster with other pennies, while the dimes are clustered with other dimes.

Under the rule adopted, these coins are very open minded — each is willing to live where up to two-thirds of its neighbors are of another “race”. Nevertheless, the end result of this “invisible hand” process is that most end up living where all of their neighbors are the same.

The point of the game is to demonstrate how a pattern of racial segregation can result from the individual decisions of people whom hardly anyone would accuse of being racist. Which is one of the reasons the charge of “racism” is one that is almost impossible to defend against.

A person accused of being a racist can usually clear his or her name with the accuser only by agreeing with the accuser. Last week on The Huffington Post Earl Ofari Hutchinson demanded that Ron Paul issue “a clear and direct public statement…that says I fully support all civil rights laws, will work hard against racial and gender profiling, and will push government economic support initiatives to boost minorities and the poor” as the price for being absolved of the charge of racism.

In other words, the only way the libertarian Dr. Paul can prove he's not a racist is to abandon libertarianism and adopt Hutchinson's statist policy prescriptions. That's like telling a Christian televangelist whose assistant had swindled viewers that repentance and restitution are not enough — he has to renounce Christianity if he wants to be forgiven.

The significant point about libertarians and racism is not that a libertarian can't be a racist; it's that, in a true libertarian society, racism is irrelevant. A libertarian government would not have the authority to enact legislation that favors one racial or ethnic group at the expense of another because it would not have the authority to enact legislation that favors anybody at the expense of another.

Nor would the government have the authority to enact legislation to correct the results of “invisible hand” processes like Schelling's game. In fact, the mere attempt to do so would be not only racist, but futile as well.

An example of the futility and racism inherent in using the police power of the state to correct racial discrimination — intended or otherwise — resulting from individual decisions are laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment. Since the hiring decision is multidimensional, a racist manager could claim any number of reasons for rejecting an applicant of the “wrong” race. Hence the need for affirmative action if the law is to achieve its desired effect. But, since affirmative action requires basing the hiring decision on race, it is itself racist (and most probably in violation of the law it is meant to enforce).

One of the silliest things a politician or pundit can say is that she/he opposes affirmative action, but supports laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment. You can't have one without the other. If you don't believe it, consider this: age discrimination is against the law, too, yet it's rampant in the workforce. Just ask any computer programmer over 40. The difference is, there's no affirmative action based on age. Ron Paul is probably the only Presidential candidate in either party who understands this.

There are, of course, people whose attitudes about race go far beyond just feeling more comfortable around people who are like themselves. But is that necessarily something to get alarmed about? As long as they're not harming or threatening anyone else, why should we care? If they choose to act out their hatred by harming people of another race, then the government can act. Otherwise the government is trying to read minds.

Racism and racist are words that, through overuse, have lost their sting. They are what you say when you have nothing else to say. Probably the best thing for all of us would be to banish them from the language. Certainly, they add nothing constructive to political discourse.


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