Towards a Libertarian Theory of Anti-Racism
The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner offers the contours of a libertarian anti-racist policy agenda
I recently welcomed the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner back to the show of ideas to discuss his recent blog post sketching the contours of a libertarian “anti-racist” policy agenda.
Last time he joined the show, we discussed his book The Inclusive Economy, which I called “the definitive book on libertarian anti-poverty policy.”
This time, we will focus specifically on those laws which disproportionately harm minorities in the United States, and why a subtractive approach that leaves people “free to choose” is superior to new policies rife with unintended consequences. Tanner explains why libertarians should embrace the banner of anti-racism, albeit by proposing alternative means to achieve it than the usual Social Justice Warrior’s approach.
Join our conversation live this Sunday (12/6), at 8am PACIFIC time. As always, your calls are welcome.
Bob Zadek: Welcome show the longest running live libertarian talk radio show in all of radio. Thank you so much for listening this Sunday morning. This show is in some ways a public service. I would like to spend the hour preparing my friends and listeners this morning for a phrase you will be hearing ad nauseum perhaps for the next four years: “Systemic racism.” Is there racism in America? If so, what institutions are racist? And if there is racism in America, is it systemic? What does “systemic” even mean? What does “racist” mean? These words are used all the time in public discourse, without any common understanding of their meaning.
To help us understand this, I’m happy to welcome back to the show, Michael Tana. Michael is a Cato Institute senior fellow who works extensively on issues of public policy, welfare, social security, health care, and poverty. Michael wrote a book and elements of the information gleaned from his book will be relevant to this morning’s conversation. We must understand systemic racism so we don’t allow those in public office to pull the wool over our eyes and run on a platform somehow related to systemic racism. Michael, welcome to the show this morning.
Michael Tanner: Thank you. Always a pleasure to be with you.
Systemic Racism Defined
Bob Zadek: Thank you kindly. What our friends out there will learn is that when we libertarians discuss phrases such as racism, we have a far less emotional, more rational, more careful use of the terms. After all, as I am fond of saying, in my professional life, words do matter. When you hear the phrase and you want to help somebody understand the objective meaning of systemic racism, what should people be addressing when they use the phrase? What does the phrase mean?
Michael Tanner: It is commonly misunderstood. And it really gets divisive, because people hear the term systemic racism, and they think that that means that, therefore the system and the country are full of racists, and that they are personally being accused of racism, of having ill-will towards people of color. And that is almost the opposite of what systemic racism actually means. Most people are not racists, their friends and family are not racist. They recognize that those people are on the fringes of society. There’s not a lot of racism in my life, I don’t see it.
Therefore, to say that I’m part of a system of racism is wrong. The reality with the system of systemic racism we are talking about is not racism of intent. It’s not about people going out and trying to do harm to people. color. There are things that are baked into the system because of our history. And that history develops certain stereotypes, certain laws, certain behaviors, and that these laws, systems behaviors means that the playing field today is not level.
Bob Zadek: Therefore, systemic racism really can be addressed. You can break it down a bit, and examine whether a policy has the intention of harming one race versus another, or whether it has the result of doing so even though that’s not the intent. Isn’t that an important distinction to make the result versus the intent? And is one more benign than the other?
Michael Tanner: Obviously, having the intent to harm somebody is more evil than doing it by accident. I think we acknowledge that in the law. However, if you are on the receiving end of it, it doesn’t really matter whether that car ran over you by accident, or whether somebody aimed at you. You still get hit by the car. So from the point of view of people of color, I think they see the results as the key here. But I do think we need to take into account the fact that people don’t intend to be racist.
Bob Zadek: An obvious example are the Jim Crow laws in the south. They had the intent of being racist. No colors here. Whites only drinking fountains. Those have no intent. There is an example of intentionally racist laws, but many of the racist laws on the books seem to have a non-racist purpose but are in fact racist. And you mentioned many of them in the book. Give us one stellar example of a law which is not obviously intended to punish one race and elevate another, but has that effect?
Michael Tanner: Sure. Take zoning laws, for example. In the 1950s, housing was explicitly segregated. 11 town, the famous suburban community had explicit in the deed that no person of color could actually live in that community. We still see that many communities that were created in California and elsewhere. They were explicitly segregated. Those laws against blacks living in suburban communities have long since been thrown out. We have the Fair Housing Act. But now we have zoning laws that people passed with government help.
The government had explicitly blocked African Americans from participating in loan programs. They bought those houses, their kids and grandkids now live in those houses, property values have gone up because of the passage of time and because of the title of zoning that’s gone on, and now African Americans simply can’t afford to move into those suburbs. We still have huge racial segregation and housing. It’s just no longer done because of an explicitly racial motive. It’s a neutral law in terms of zoning, but it still has the same impact and perpetuates the segregation and housing that used to go on.
Bob Zadek: So that makes the problem of discussing systemic racism far more difficult, because here we have laws which were clearly racist when acts enacted get repealed. But there is a residual result, so that blacks are measurably, as a group, harmed. You can’t identify, obviously a specific black, who was harmed, it is impossible. But you can make an accurate economic inclusion, that as a class, blacks were harmed by those laws and that harm visits upon the grandchildren of the blacks actually harmed today. We don’t have systemic racism today in housing, but we do have the adverse results of it. So it is a lot murkier.
How to Address Perceived Systemic Racism
Bob Zadek: Today, while we accept that the government was racist in enacting those laws, what do we do about it now, if anything?
Michael Tanner: Well, I think what we have to do is start by acknowledging the fact that he was that the playing field is not level and not equal. I think a lot of libertarians and conservatives and moderates are reluctant to do so because they think that as soon as you acknowledge that the playing field is that level, it means you have to endorse some sort of big government program and all that goes with it– a lot of social welfare spending, and a lot of new bureaucracy and all that.
But that’s not at all the case. In many cases, you can simply undo the policies that are holding up people of color from advancing. Get those policies out of the way, reduce the actual impact of government, and that will go towards rectifying the problem. It is not necessarily an invitation to say that we need bigger government. It’s simply a recognition that the playing field is not level today.
Bob Zadek: Now of course, many in the audience will observe that I was inching towards talking about reparations. We did it with the Japanese internment in 1943 when, to his shame, President Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans, and to their collective shame, the Supreme Court found that to be constitutional. Shame on them, shame on him for ever. Let’s give some discussion to reparations and where this fits in.
Michael Tana: I think you need to make a distinction here between private reparations and public reparations, reparations out of the public purse. I think that those are much more problematic. In terms of private reparations, you can identify people who benefited from slavery. Certain banks, certain insurance companies that started by selling insurance. Universities like Georgetown and Harvard, whose legacies were largely built with endowments built on the sale of slaves and so on. And they can take steps to rectify that by giving scholarships to the descendants of some of the slaves that they know that that they bought and sold.
How do you prove that somebody descended from slaves? There is very poor record keeping. What about people who immigrate to this country post slavery but then had to go through Jim Crow? What about people who have to pay? Do people pay whose forefathers were not involved in slavery? What about those who just emigrated recently? What about people who weren’t descended on both sides because there’s such widespread rape during slavery? Many African Americans have white ancestors. They are going to pay themselves. So I think on a practical basis, you have to rule out the idea of reparations. But there is a moral debt we should keep in mind.
It was only recently that we got around to actually issuing an apology for slavery. So I do think there’s a lot we can do in that regard of recognizing the problem of memorializing the problem of understanding, that there’s still a continued result of the problem, that that is still out there, but it does not call for something the government should do.
Reviewing Specific Legislation that had Disparate Impacts
Bob Zadek: The progressives primarily complain that America is rife with systemic racism. We are not plagued with racism. But there are examples of laws today in the books today, not history going back to the Eisenhower years. Give us a few examples of laws that in terms of effect are racist. You have mentioned many in your book. There are laws today that appear to be non-racist. Are they really racist?
Michael Tanner: Education, for example. In most places, it is illegal to go to a school outside of the district you’re assigned to. If we go back to the fact that our housing is highly segregated in this country, the fact that African Americans have historically been pushed into low-income neighborhoods where housing values are much lower, the schools are funded primarily on the basis of property taxes. So schools of African American neighborhoods are inherently less well funded. And then we make it illegal to send your child to a school outside of the district in which they live.
Bob Zadek: What about minimum wage laws? Aren’t they inherently racist in their effect? Not in their words but in their effect? Aren’t they a perfect example of governmental systemic racism? Although proponents of minimum wage laws would vehemently object because it’s the same group that is complaining about systemic racism. But isn’t that same group, inherently systemically racist in their increased enthusiasm for higher and higher minimum wage laws?
Michael Tanner: We should recognize the fact that minimum wage laws were historically intended to block African American participation in many labor fields. If you go back to the people who sponsored this legislation, they were explicit about the fact that they were worried about African American laborers undercutting white wages. They wanted to prevent African workers from getting into these labor fields. When Africa, Americans couldn’t belong to the unions, they created the minimum wage laws that simply priced out a lot of African Americans from the labor market. Advocates of minimum wage certainly are not racist. Nobody is out there trying to keep African Americans out of the labor force. But it still has the same impact of doing so. Particularly for young African American men, particularly those who don’t have a lot of attachments and labor force or a big skill set. It blocks entry level into the labor market. And that’s a big problem in the African American community.
Bob Zadek: In preparing for shows on minimum wage laws, I found a Senate hearing, there was a discussion among JFK and Jacob Javits who was a Republican, a very progressive Republican at a time when they were such things. They were discussing a federal increase in the minimum wage. JFK insisted the minimum wage be increased, because his constituents–the Irish, in Massachusetts, specifically. His constituents were complaining that blacks were taking their jobs. He said, “I need an increase in the minimum wage laws to protect the white people’s jobs.” Another issue was minimum wage laws clearly had as its purpose preventing blacks who were willing to work for less, because they needed the money and had less skills and knew they weren’t worth so much.
Blacks were willing to work for less undercutting the whites, who were not willing to work for less. The best way to get rid of that competition is to keep the minimum wage laws high. The theory was, if an employer had to pay $3 an hour, then he might as well pay a white person rather than pay a black person. So there is a perfect example of a systemically racist statute on the books today, which ought to be complained about by those people who complain about systemic racism. But of course they don’t.
College Admissions and Race
Now Michael, the conversation gets even more difficult when you look at college admissions because it raises so many interesting issues about systemic racism. If we were to examine the SAT, a test designed to help colleges figure out who among their applicants are going to make it through four years of college.First question to you. if you went to examine white versus non-white performance in the SAT, as a statistic, I’m going to ask you the easy question. Which group does better as a race? Whites or blacks?
Michael Tanner: Whites in general the school outscore African Americans on SAT and other standardized tests.
Bob Zadek: Does that mean that SAT itself is inherently racist? Is the test itself racist? After all, the result is blacks can’t compete. They don’t get admitted into college as much as whites do.
Michael Tanner: It’s definitely more complicated than that. The idea of the SAT itself is not racist. The LSAT questions are much better than they used to be. They certainly are problematic in the sense that the type of questions they ask on literature or the type of analogies they make, tend to be things that are essentially middle class white, educational things that are taught in their schools as opposed to things that African Americans might be more apt to learn.
But we’ve done a lot of stuff to change that. We put more Maya Angelou in there, as well as Shakespeare, for example. So there have been changes that have made it a more inclusive test. The bigger problem is the fact that African Americans are generalized into poor schools that have fewer resources, don’t have the ability to prepare for the SAT and aren’t able to go out and find the people who will take these extra courses. And how do you take an LSAT test? They are in many ways disadvantaged before they ever go into the room to take the test.
Bob Zadek: Do you adjust the SAT, which is a tool used by college admission offices to force more blacks into higher education, even though if the test is competently prepared it means less college students will be admitted to college? Or is that not an example of systemic racism. But it really shows that other areas of society created the problem. And that’s what makes a discussion of systemic racism so difficult.
Because it’s too easy to say, let’s change the SAT, let’s have affirmative action, for example. That will even everything up because once you go to college, you have an advantage in the labor market. But that doesn’t fix the problem, it just kicks the can down the road. So now the problem may be foisted upon society or upon employers who cannot sort out who is a good employee. Assuming college admissions are itself a good example of that.
We have to drill down. We have to fix at the root cause of the problem and do the hard work of fixing areas like school choice, minimum wage, and many, many others, that will fix the core problem so that over time, the essays and other objective tests will not have a disproportionately negative effect.
Michael Tanner: I think that’s a very good way to understand it. I think both sides in these debates are often simplifying, kind of missing this point. Simply throwing out the SAT or mandating that a minimum number of African Americans go to your college does not make African Americans more prepared for university life and university core classwork. We do know that there have been problems with a number graduating.
On the other hand, I think that far too many people on the other side of this simply say that they don’t do as well on the LSAT and that is their problem. You do have to go back and look at the core problem of how society has underserved the educational needs of African Americans historically, and continuing on to today. So you do have to go back and sort of get to the bottom of the problem and work from the bottom up. Working from the top down, they make us feel good, but it’s not going to fix the problem.
Racism in the Police Force: Reality Myth, or Somewhere in-between?
Bob Zadek: There has been a lot in the news lately about white police behaving violently. George Floyd, and the like. You and I both know that this is not an example of systemic racism. If systemic racism does exist in police behavior, which it probably does not, how bad an example of it is when we look at the George Floyd type of events?
Michael Tanner: Well, I think there’s very little doubt, that if you look at study after study at every level of the criminal justice system, from the type of things that we make illegal, many of them were explicitly started off for racial reasons. Go back and watch “Reefer Madness,”the 1940s film on how terrible marijuana was that led to a lot of marijuana laws. Go back and look at where a lot of these things originated in terms of the laws themselves, from traffic stops, to sentencing, to parole. And at every level African Americans fare worse in the criminal justice system.
That does not mean that individual police officers are racist. Very few police officers hate African Americans. What you have is stereotypes about the black thug, that leaves police reacting in a certain way to young African American men that they would not react in my neighborhood with white middle class.
Bob Zadek: You distinguish in conversations and in your writing individual acts that may be racist versus systemic. That’s an important distinction. Even if a police officer herself was racist, you can’t jump from that to there being systemic racism, and then jump from that to defund the police, to don’t arrest people who commit crimes if they’re black. Or, as Oregon has done, to not enforce minor acts of shoplifting and the like.
Michael Tanner: I think you have to look at both sides of this in terms of the individual act. You can’t generalize from an individual act to the behavior of all police, for example. If you have a racist cop, they should be thrown off the force. I will say that the police unions have far too much power, they block reforms, they block those types of officers from being thrown off the force. That said, we also have to take a look at the larger systemic issues, which are things like what is illegal? How do judges deal with the African American defendant? What do parole boards take into account? How do we assess bail? These are different things from simply saying that all police officers are racist.
Bob Zadek: When you point out the police unions and the ineffective civilian police review boards, that’s an important point to make. What happens there is that assuming we have racist behavior by a single policeman. That becomes solely an individual act until the system protects that policeman. Now the system becomes appropriately subject to the accurate accusation of systemic racism, because now the system protects the racist act. That’s where the systemic racism comes in. Not from the act by the policeman in the George Floyd case in Minnesota.
We should point out that the most effective racist organization is government itself. Most of the examples of heinous racism were governments, states, municipalities, and the federal government as well. So it is governmental action, not individual action that is the primary source of the problem. And that ought to be easier to fix once we understand that the problem is the law itself in their effect. That is kind of easy to affect to change. You just repeal the law.
Hollywood: A Brief Side-Bar
Bob Zadek: You have mentioned movies. The effect of the entertainment industry has been critical in fostering racism. Please explain to the audience how, by the movies and indeed by training films, policemen are almost embedded with racist training by media. Media portrays certain actors in stereotypical ways.
Michael Tanner: They have made a lot of improvements over the years. We see them actively trying now to foster minority role models and people in nontraditional roles and so on. In the past, if you wanted to show that somebody was going to be a criminal, it was an African American young black man wearing a leather jacket or a hoodie or something like that. You begin to absorb those stereotypes.
Now, if you’re a police officer and you’re at a traffic stop, and you’re worried before your life, because these things potentially can go wrong, and you got a gun in your hand. In that last in a second, you, “Oh my god, this is probably a criminal because he’s a young black man wearing a hoodie,” and you’re that much more likely to pull that trigger, than if it was somebody who was a white kid in a suit who got out of that car.
These police officers are to some degree the victims of the training and of what the media historically has done. If their occupation was such that they had the benefit of quiet reflection on their behavior, they could adjust it. As you pointed out, they have to react too fast. Therefore they’re left to their instincts. And the instincts are the result of what they’ve been trained for. To some degree, when you rail against policemen who behave in what appears to be a racist way, you have to ask why they are racist?
Has the government or society contributed to that? Are we collectively at fault, which is difficult. It is a lot easier to say, discuss a police officer, string them up, fire him, put him in jail. That is kind of easy, and in a way satisfying, but it’s more difficult to say, let’s drill down and let’s cause an examination of the training program.
Michael Tanner: I do think that we often go for the headline grabbing answer and accuse individuals rather than to look at what I think is far this larger system-problem. IAs libertarians, we understand the consequences of bad laws. We understand that you have to undo the bad laws, and the bad policies, and fix the fallout from the bad policies. When it comes to other races we tend to get our hackles up and just be unwilling to look at it.
Moral Character & Occupational Licensing
Bob Zadek: In your book, Working Your Way out of Poverty, what are the lessons? What are the libertarian suggestions as to how best to reduce what appears to be racism in America? What is the manual that libertarians would present to society about how to go about fixing whatever appears to be, but is not systemic racism?
Michael Tanner: We should cheer on private action and libertarians. Traditionally we said that private actors can fix problems without government involvement. So with private businesses, or private universities, or private schools, or Hollywood can take action to fix these problems of racism. We should be cheering those on. That’s exactly the type of action that we want to see taken. We want to see private actors not relying on the government to do things that are out there. Second, we should look at those government policies that were racist to begin with, or simply had a racial disparate impact today, and we should be striking down those policies actively. We should put as much emphasis on policies that disadvantage minorities and women and the LGBTQ community and so on, as we do policies that disadvantage businesses.
Bob Zadek: You mentioned in your book the occupational licensing laws, which is one of the best examples of how systemic racism does exist in society but is hidden. Licensing laws seem on the surface. Speak to that including the good moral character issue you have written about.
Michael Tanner: These laws often make very little sense in terms of protecting health and safety. When it takes longer to become a beautician than it does to become an ENT, you have to wonder what the logic behind that is. Historically, you look at the purpose of these laws, and you look at things like in addition to being able to pass all the tests and prove that you know the chemicals and all this sort of stuff, you had to have a “good moral character,” which allowed the board to kick out anybody they didn’t want. Those things were never applied in a race neutral way. Today they still block entry level into business entry level into the labor force. That tends to hurt people who have higher levels of unemployment. And, you know, in the wake of COVID, which is going to disrupt a lot of low income and low skilled jobs, we certainly should be re-examining that.
Bob Zadek: An example which I read about just recently was a story about a prisoner in state prison who was trying to turn his life around and acquire this skill of haircutting. He was a barber in prison. He worked in the prison barber shop and he was great at it. He got released from prison. He applied for a barbers license, why anybody needs a license is absurd. He was denied the license because of bad moral character due to the felony. A good example of racist licensing laws. Tell us about the Inclusive Economy you write about.
Michael Tanner: The inclusive economy looks at the problems of poverty in this country and why people are poor. We basically go right back to the beginning and diagnose the problem to fix the disease. Some of it is individual behavior and individual choices. Some of it is also structural issues such as racism and gender discrimination and economic dislocation that comes from various reasons. Too often when you bore down on both sides of that equation, both in terms of individual incentives, and in terms of larger structural issues, the culprit ends up being the government. If we really want to create this type of economy, it means we have to get government out of the way, have the government stop doing things that put people into poverty or make it harder to get out of poverty.
- The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor, by Michael Tanner. [Amazon]
- Michael Tanner (@MTannerCato) | Twitter
- About Systemic Racism « TannerOnPolicy
- Libertarian Anti-Poverty Policy with Michael Tanner’s, March 21, 2019
- How Bail Traps the Poor in Jail with Scott Shackford, July 27, 2018
- Economic Freedom is Poverty’s Only Remedy, with Hadley Heath, July 2, 2014
Originally published at http://bobzadek.com on December 2, 2020.