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In their victory speeches, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pledged to make fighting “systemic racism” a priority of their administration. But what does “systemic racism” mean — and how should libertarians respond to it.
The term “systemic racism” has become politically contentious. There is widespread misunderstanding that leads some to take it as an indictment of themselves. They conclude that systemic racism means a system full of racists, but in fact the term means almost the exact opposite.
Most Americans, themselves, harbor no bad intentions toward people of color, nor do most people they know. They’re not wrong about that. Of course, they recognize that there are actual racists out there and that there are sometimes racist incidents, but they see those as occurring on the fringes of society, not something that implicates them.
But systemic racism is not about individual intent or behavior, nor even about whether someone is a good person or personally prejudiced. Indeed, it has little to do with us as individuals at all. Rather, as NAACP president Derrick Johnson explains, systemic racism is “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans.” Or, as the Aspen Institute puts it more broadly:
[Systemic racism is] a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity….Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.
History Informs the Present
America’s 400-year history of racial abuse, from slavery, to lynching, to Jim Crow, and beyond, is undeniable. But even more insidious was the philosophical, cultural, and even theological development of an ideology of black inferiority and white supremacy in order to justify behavior that was so sharply at odds with this country’s professed beliefs. This set of beliefs became deeply embedded in the law and social fabric of our country.
The key insight of systemic racism is that current laws and policies can perpetuate this legacy even in the absence of deliberately bigoted intentions from individual actors. The racial disparities of today are a result of the explicitly racist oppression that preceded it, which is still well within living memory and directly affected many individuals still alive today. And worse, many government policies today that are not intended to worsen and prolong these disparities built on injustice, have that very effect.
The effects of America’s mistreatment of African Americans and other people of color did not suddenly vanish with the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. Even if one believed that racial animus evaporated with the stroke of a pen, the consequences of past policies and attitudes remain with us. You cannot have a race in which one runner is loaded down with weights and chains, remove them before the final lap, and suggest that from there on is a fair contest.
Simply put, therefore, systemic racism is a combination of historical and cultural legacies that continue to put African Americans and other minorities at a disadvantage. Systemic racism is an indictment of the government policies that created that injustice as well as the government policies that continue that injustice today. It is a quintessentially libertarian explanation of how the effects of government policy do not always align with their intentions. The second and third order consequences of bad laws must be considered. Injustices inflicted by the state on a vast scale can have wide-ranging and long-lasting negative effects on a society.
Systemic Racism in Practice
The evidence for systemic racism is easy to see in disparities large and small. These disparities include such examples as job applicants with black-sounding names being less likely than those with “white” names but identical resumes to receive callbacks for positions, and black hairstyles frequently being considered uniquely problematic for work or school. It shows up in our health care system when doctors are less likely to believe complaints from black patients and when some medical textbooks continue to teach that African Americans feel less pain than whites. It is apparent when schoolbooks leave out large swaths of African and African American history. Likewise, it is visible in the indignity of security guards who follow young black men and women around stores, and hundreds of similar slights.
None of this is to strip African Americans of agency or to suggest that they have no responsibility for their own life choices. Nor does it imply that there has been no progress towards equality. But it does mean that people of color face very different circumstances than do white Americans. And the consequences of those circumstances can be both large and ongoing.
Consider just two areas where systemic racism puts African Americans at a disadvantage: criminal justice and housing.
Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System
As Radley Balko has amply chronicled, dozens of studies show that the criminal justice system treats African Americans differently throughout the process, from street-level law enforcement, to arrest, to trial, to incarceration. For instance, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates, African Americans are arrested more than three and a half times as often for marijuana possession. In some states, the arrest rate for African Americans is nearly six times higher. And, of course, black drivers are stopped for pretextual reasons far more often than white drivers. While some have attempted to explain this away by suggesting that blacks speed more often, the disparity mysteriously diminishes at night when police have a harder time determining the driver’s race.
Nor are inequities in the criminal justice system strictly a function of the drug war. For a wide variety of crimes, prosecutors charge black defendants with more severe offenses for the same underlying act. African Americans are sentenced to longer prison terms than whites convicted of the same crime and with similar criminal records. And, once incarcerated, blacks are likely to wait longer for parole.
Disparities in the criminal justice spill over into many other areas. A criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment post-incarceration. Admission to a university or student aid or even renting an apartment can all be denied because an applicant has a conviction on their record. It is estimated that involvement in the criminal justice system has contributed to removing nearly 1.5 million young black men from the marriage pool, thereby increasing non-marital births and the poverty associated with that.
Systemic Racism in Housing
Housing is another area where the results of systemic racism can be easily seen. Just 47 percent of African Americans own their own home, almost 30 percentage points lower than white home ownership. This is not an accident. For decades, housing segregation was the explicit policy of the federal state, and local governments. For example, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency that provided low-interest mortgages to first time homebuyers, insisted that any property it covered must include a clause in the deed forbidding resale to non-whites. Even when government agencies weren’t directly involved, redlining, restrictive covenants, and other practices that limited homeownership on the basis of race was all too common. For example, Levittown, the quintessential American suburb of the 1940s and 50s, in its lease documents a provision that property in the community could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”
Even after such explicit segregationist restrictions were outlawed in the 1960s, zoning ordinances and other government regulations continued to make it difficult for minorities to integrate largely white suburban communities. A quick look at overlaying demographic maps of most major cities shows little change since the explicit segregation of earlier decades. Today’s regulations have locked in the patterns of the past.
Housing is not just a question of whether black people live next to white people. Educational opportunities, for instance, are too often distributed by zip code and tied to property values, especially in the absence of meaningful parental choice. Exclusionary zoning too often forces the poor and people of color into neighborhoods with few jobs, high crime rates, and bad schools. And, perhaps most significantly, housing discrimination has had a significant impact on black/white wealth disparities For most families, their house is one of their largest and most valuable assets. Moreover, it is an asset that can be passed along to future generations. But African Americans were deliberately locked out of this intergenerational wealth building.
A Libertarian Approach to Systemic Racism
What then should libertarians do about systemic racism? Recognizing that people of color do not compete on a level playing field does not mean that we must embrace big government to solve those problems. Simply looking at both history and current practices tells us that, even when the government hasn’t been actively discriminatory, it has far too often served as a barrier to racial equality and achieving justice for past policies of explicit racism. Similarly, there is no reason to abandon support for free-market capitalism. Free markets are antithetical to racism, breaking down artificial barriers, and generating the wealth needed to bring about more genuine equality. Much racially disparate legislation stems from efforts to prevent people of color from participating in the free market.
Libertarians are well situated, then, to help tear down the structures and institutions of systemic racism. Notably, libertarians should continue to push for criminal justice reform, including an end to the wars on drugs, to open educational opportunities through increased choice and competition, to remove zoning and other restrictions on housing, and to free up labor markets.
At the same time, libertarians have long recognized that private action and civil society are the most effective remedies for many societal problems. Libertarians should cheer, therefore, the many private actors—from businesses to mutual aid organizations to activist groups—that are taking action to remedy extant racial disparities.
At its heart, libertarianism encompasses the idea that every human being is of equal worth and dignity. Racism is a pernicious form of collectivism that is contrary to all that libertarianism stands for. It is not enough, therefore, for libertarians to simply be passively “not racist.” They should actively embrace anti-racist ideas and policies. That means understanding, rejecting, and fighting systemic racism everywhere we find it, as we do all the other harmful consequences of unjust laws.
OK, everybody, time to put myself on the line with 2020 election predictions. Take this for the little it’s worth. I’ve been wrong before (I was in 2016) and will be again. But us pundits will pundit, so here goes.
In the big one, Joe Biden will defeat Donald Trump in the race for president. I don’t think we will have to wait days to know who won either. We may not have official results for a while, but when we go to bed on election night, we will have a pretty good idea who won. Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, for instance, will have most of their absentee and mail-in ballots counted. If either candidate wins two out of three (or even all three), that will give us a good idea what is happening nationwide. The crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin don’t allow any ballot counting until election day, so official results may be a few days away. But we will know how many absentee and mail ballots are out there, roughly where they came from, and some idea of how they are likely to break.
After that, if its close, we will have to wait for the lawsuits, but historically they are not likely to swing anything. If it’s a big victory, we can largely ignore them.
And I do think it will be a “big enough” victory. Going out on a limb, I have the electoral college at 335-203 for Biden. Of the swing states, I think Biden carries Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. I’m least sure about Florida and North Carolina, but in the end neither changes the Biden victory. And, he has the potential to pick up Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio as well, although I think in the end the those states barely stay Republican. Texas is a perineal pipe dream for Democrats.
The popular vote margin will be something like 52-46 (with around 1.5 percent for Jorgensen).
Of course, the polls could be wrong, but I don’t think so. First, they were less wrong in 2016 than most people believe. The final RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Trump trailing but within the margin of error in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Trump won those states by a combined total of less than 80,000 votes.
Second, its hard to see many Hillary voters switching to Trump this time around, but I expect more than a few Trump voters (and Johnson voters) to switch to Biden.
Third, Biden is at or above 50 percent in most polls. Hillary was always short of that. Trump is stuck in the area of 42-45. Biden goes up and down a bit, but Trump’s share has been remarkably stable. Fourth, there aren’t many undecided voters left. Trump, therefore, he must either win over Biden voters, or more plausibly vacuum up a lot of people who didn’t vote in 2016.
And finally, this time Trump is the incumbent. In 2016, he was the outsider alternative. People were willing to give him a shot as an alternative to more of the same. This time, he’s in charge. Moreover, Biden, for all his faults, is simply not as disliked as Hilary was. Undecided voters tend to break against incumbents, and I expect that to be true this time as well. As I noted, there aren’t many of them left, but those that are will not likely boost Trump.
I think Democrats take the Senate too, though not by as big a margin as they hope. They will easily lose a seat in Alabama, but win seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina. That would give Democrats a technical majority if they also win the presidency (Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking votes). Democrats would need one more win to make for a clear majority. Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina are all in play, and I expect the Democrats to pick up one of them. The Purdue seat in Georgia is probably most at risk, but remember that winning in that state requires 50 percent plus one of the vote or there’s a runoff. Democratic gains will be smaller that hoped because I think a lot of voters may decide to hedge their bets, voting for Republican senators to check a Biden administration’s potential swing to the left.
Finally, in the House, I expect the Democrats to pick up 7-10 seats. That doesn’t sound like many, but few House seats are really competitive anymore, and Democrats already picked up most marginal seats in 2018.
All this adds up to, if not quite a Blue Tsunami, at least a Tall Blue Wave. Not, I think, much of a mandate though. Mostly, this election will be a rejection of Donald Trump and Trumpism within the GOP, not an endorsement of a particularly left-wing Democratic agenda. In factI may have more to write about this post-election, but it is fair to say that the biggest promise of the Biden campaign was a return to normalcy, a no drama presidency, not a new adventure in divisive politics.
With the presidential election just three months away, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from friends and associates about how I assess the current state of the campaign. I’m no political strategist or polling expert, but I think that the trends are pretty clear.
Although Trump’s free fall has slowed and maybe even stabilized, nearly all polls show Joe Biden with a substantial lead, both in the national vote and in critical battleground states. Even Rasmussen, a notoriously pro-Trump poll has Biden up by 3 points.
Trump supporters will be quick to dismiss most polling, pointing to his victory in 2016 despite polls showing him tailing Hillary. But there is more than a little bit of mythology to such claims. For one thing, Hilary actually did win the popular vote, pretty much in line with polling. Polls did largely miss Trump’s narrow victories in key battleground states that gave him his electoral college victory, but even here they weren’t that far off. The final RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Trump trailing but within the margin of error in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Nothing suggests that polls are so far off the mark that they can be safely ignored this time around.
It is also important to realize that Trump’s 2016 victory was narrower than his electoral vote count suggests. Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a combined total of less than 80,000 votes, and without those three razor-thin victories, he would have lost the election. To win reelection, therefore, Trump must repeat his victories in each of those states, while also defending all the other states he won, or switch one or more Hilary states to his column.
Looking at the map it is hard to find Hilary 2016 states that look vulnerable to Trump in 2020; maybe, if you squint real hard, Minnesota. On the other hand, a surprising number of Trump 2016 states appear to be in play. In addition to the aforementioned Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Biden is at least competitive in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, with an outside shot at Georgia and Ohio. (Democrats will talk a good game about Texas like they do every year, but it remains out of reach). That’s a lot of places for Trump to defend and a lot of paths to victory for Biden.
Obviously, we are a long way out and a lot can happen between now and election day. The debates, the ultimate progress of the pandemic, whether or not the economy recovers, continued racial unrest, and dozens of other things that are totally unknown today (2020 hasn’t been exactly predictable).
Both candidates are tremendously flawed. It is remarkably easy to imagine Biden doing or saying something stupid that antagonizes swing voters or raises further doubts about his competency. He is already being pulled to the left in ways that undermine his “return to normalcy” message. If he scares moderate voters who have soured on Trump, especially in the suburbs, things could unravel quickly.
And Trump is, well, Trump. There is no indication that he has either the desire or the discipline to expand his appeal outside his base. He would love to turn the election into a choice between him and Biden (or Biden as defined by Trump), but increasingly the election seems more like a referendum on Trump. That’s not good news for the president.
In the next few weeks I will offer my thoughts on the merits of both candidates from a policy perspective. But strictly from a horse race point of view, one has to say that things are trending solidly in Biden’s direction.
I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, so I’ve refrained from getting involved in Coronavirus debates that I’m clearly not qualified to comment on. Moreover, when it comes to the current “keep it closed” vs “open it up” debate, I genuinely have mixed feelings. I don’t think the case is as iron clad as either side would have you believe.
However, I do have a few thoughts:
- First, condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. I have friends who have lost family members, and other friends working on the front lines of this pandemic. There is no minimizing their pain.
- Can we stop with the conspiracy theories? The virus is real and at least somewhat deadly. It is not just like the flu. While there are undoubtedly errors in reporting, the deep state is not plotting to inflate case numbers. In fact, the number of deaths from COVID-19 are more likely to be underestimated than overstated. The mortality rate may turn out to be relatively low, because of a more widespread infection rate, but that same high infection rate means the total number of deaths will be high even if the infection mortality rate is low. Comparisons to other causes of death are usually apples to oranges, for example comparing flu deaths over an entire year to COVID death’s in one month.
- The need to “flatten the cure’ in order to prevent overwhelming our health care system was real and vital. As it was, the health care system did not have the capacity to deal with the pandemic in many hot spots. (We can debate reasons for this at a later time). The cost to healthcare workers has been unimaginable. Had caseloads continued to spike, the result would have been truly catastrophic.
- Shutting everything down as hard as we did might not have been the optimal strategy for fighting the virus. But given how badly we underestimated the original threat and how much time we squandered, our lack of testing capability, and how littler information we really had, a blunt object like “stay at home” might have been the only realistic option we had under the circumstances. We no longer had time for fine tuning. There is plenty of blame to go around for that: China, the government healthcare bureaucracy, the media, politicians from both parties at all levels of government, and the Trump administration. We blew it and we are paying the price for that.
- And our government, especially the federal government, continues to fail. We still lack the testing capacity necessary to truly estimate risk in different areas. There also continue to be shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). All of this makes any effort to relax stay at home orders a roll of the dice.
- Some governors and mayors clearly went overboard. Mowing your own lawn or buying plant seeds were not really major risk factors. Banning drive-in church services or shutting gun stores was gratuitous. In overreacting, these officials undermined support for more legitimate stay-home demands.
- Many “open it up” proponents overestimate the speed at which we can bounce back economically. And, they overstate the number of deaths caused by the shut-down and the shut-down induced recession, especially in the short-term. Still, years of research do show that prolonged economic downturns do cause deaths. It is not “lives vs. the economy;” it is” lives vs lives.” The question, therefore, becomes one of balancing risks. That is something we don’t like to talk about, but we do all the time. We don’t ban cars because of traffic fatalities. However, we also don’t allow you to drive 100 mph through a school zone.
- There does seem to be gradual morphing of the rationale for shutting down, from “don’t overwhelm the health care system” to “no one should die from COVID-19.” That would be a shift with profound implications. Are we really willing to stay shut for a year or two until there’s a vaccine? And what if a vaccine is never developed?
- On the other side, what are “open it up” advocates prepared for what might happen if we open to fast or too soon and the course of the infection resumes its pre-shutdown geometrical rise? Is there any level of deaths that would be too high for them? What happens if we go back to levels that overwhelm the health care system? Even the strictest interpretation of libertarian theory suggests that my right to swing my fist ends at your nose. With a highly contagious virus, we are all fist swingers.
- Still, we are going to open. This is partially because there are limits to how much economic damage we can sustain. But equally important, there is a growing “shut down fatigue.” We are just not made to be able to handle prolonged isolation. As the weather improves, people are going to become increasingly restive. Ultimately, stay at home orders can only last as long as people are willing to comply. That consensus was very strong early on. It is becoming less so. The question therefore should be how best to open. That is a question that could benefit from a bit more good faith discussion and tolerance. Those on the other side of these questions are not either trying to kill people or ruin the country. We are all stumbling in the dark, trying to find the best solution (not the perfect) to a bad and unprecedented situation.
No, not in our basic beliefs and principles. The concepts of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace should remain the core of what we are. Those ideas, after all, are essential to human flourishing. If widely implemented they would make for a better and more prosperous world, one in which most people thrive.
But we do need to change how we express, prioritize, and apply those principles.
In part, this is simple pragmatism. If we hope to achieve political, cultural, or societal change we will need to reach a much larger audience, an audience that is not predisposed to agree with us. Libertarianism has been – and remains today – overwhelmingly a movement of middle-class white men. But a majority of our larger audience, the audience we must reach to be effective, is made up of women and people of color. White men currently make up just 31 percent of the U.S. population. By 2050, that will be closer to 20 percent. There is no way to become an effective political or social movement without attracting women and people of color.
It is not surprising that as a white male middle-class movement, we have tended to stress those issues of importance to middle-class white men, things like tax cuts, deregulation, gun rights, and so forth. Of course, those issues remain important. But too often the privilege we enjoy blinds us to other issues that have a higher priority to women, the poor, or people of color. Thus, we prioritize a change in marginal tax rates over police misconduct. We treat the use of tax dollars for welfare as worse than the use of tax dollars to hold immigrant children in cages.
It is this prioritization of issues that are important to us – or to people like us – that makes it possible for some libertarians to say idiotic things like “Americans were freer in the 1800s than we are today.” African Americans, women, and LGBTQ Americans, among many others would strongly disagree.
This is obviously not to say that high taxes or welfare programs are good. I’ve spent my career arguing that most government programs are counterproductive, that high taxes reduce economic growth and leave us all poorer, and that social welfare programs fail to lift people out of poverty. But on the vast scale of bad, even immoral, public policy, we should be careful in weighting our priorities.
Second, we should recognize how our policy preferences impact less advantaged groups, or at least how they will perceive that impact. Property rights are clearly an important concern, as is the freedom of association, and free speech. We should always be wary of government infringement of those rights. But when we use those concerns to oppose civil rights laws or champion speech by neo-Nazis, we are missing the forest for the trees.
And speaking of speech, we should understand that words matter. We should show empathy not contempt for those in need. We should explain how government intervention has contributed to their marginalization, not criticize them for the situation in which they find themselves. We should understand that the playing field is not level. The poor and minorities don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else. We should reflect this in how we talk about issues.
Along those lines, we should understand that just because government should not censor speech does not mean that we should therefore welcome racist, misogynistic, or other hateful speech. Yes, we want a big tent, but there are limits to the size of that tent. Racists, incels, and xenophobes have no legitimate place in our movement.
Perhaps we are so accustomed to being outside the political mainstream that we take a perverse pride in sticking it to that mainstream. Or maybe, as a political minority, we instinctively feel solidarity with other political minorities. But all non-mainstream political movements are not created equal. We are not standing up for free speech or daringly transgressing social norms when we allow those who hate to use our movement and our platforms. We can oppose government policing of speech, while also policing ourselves.
There’s a practical point to this, of course. As my friend Adam Bates has pointed out, if you invite both Nazis and African Americans into your movement, you are not going to have very many African Americans. But more important is the moral point: Our goal as libertarians should not be winning esoteric academic debates but in creating a society in which every human being can flourish. That is not a society that openly tolerates racism and other forms of hatred.
I became – and remain – a libertarian because I believe in the inherent equal worth of every person. Liberty is important, not as an abstract concept, but because it is key to the conditions that enable people to be all that they can be – to flourish. But far too often we fail to speak to that ideal. If we hope to become a successful political movement – if we truly want to change the world — rather than maintain an ivory tower status quo or ideological purity – we need to do so more often.
And, more importantly, we should do so because doing so is a measure of our own decency and humanity.