All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1996

Private Prejudice, Private Remedy

Racial Norming Makes the Most Elemental Decisions Political

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist. He is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

There may be no more politically contentious issue than race. The federal government has created a vast racial spoils system that often helps those who least need assistance. To be well-educated and well-connected—that is, successful—is to gain the most from a system supposedly intended to help the victims of discrimination.

But the perversion of such programs is not the most important reason to dismantle racial norming, quotas, preferences, and other forms of discrimination against the “majority.” Justice should be based on individual, not group, treatment. To favor someone simply because he or she is black (or Hispanic, or whatever) is morally wrong. Doing so is also, in the long run, socially destructive, causing everyone to look at almost everything through a racial lens. The most elemental decisions about education and employment become political; even private relationships increasingly polarize as everyone squabbles over their supposed “entitlement” by color. Lest one doubt the damage being caused by racial politics in America, one need only turn to two recent books: Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton’s The New Color Line: How Quotas and Privilege Destroy Democracy (Regnery) and Terry Eastland’s Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice (Basic).

Race also underlies most of the other critical issues facing our society: crime, economic opportunity, education, poverty, welfare. Too many political debates quickly descend into vicious squabbles over race, even though the solutions are usually simple to discern. African-Americans are almost invariably the victims of perverse government policies, which, though racially neutral on their face, have a highly disparate impact. The minimum wage disproportionately bars urban youth from the job market; welfare disproportionately disrupts inner-city families and communities. And so on. Here, too, less state control and more individual freedom and community responsibility are the answer.

Yet to criticize government intervention on race, especially the tendency of people to turn every private dispute, no matter how small, into a public crisis—via a formal lawsuit, government prosecution, or federal program—carries with it a responsibility to criticize acts of private discrimination and intolerance. That is, if we really believe that public law should not reach every obnoxious private act, then people who are moral as well as free should practice the alternative: applying social sanctions.

The need for private action is probably greater than realized by most middle-class whites. Imagine stopping by the mall and buying a shirt that you liked. Imagine returning to the shop the next day wearing the shirt. Imagine being accosted by two security guards, demanding to see the receipt for your shirt—which, not surprisingly, you didn’t think to bring with you. Imagine being ordered to strip off the shirt and, even though a cashier remembered selling you one, told to bring in the receipt to retrieve your shirt.

Seem improbable? If you’re a middle-aged white, it’s inconceivable. Any employee going up to such a customer and saying, “Excuse me, sir—that shirt looks like the type we stock. Where’s your receipt?” would earn a quick trip to the unemployment line.

But an Eddie Bauer clothing store in a Washington, D.C., suburb forced Alonzo Jackson, a 16-year-old black male, to literally give the shirt off of his back to store security personnel. He went home in his t-shirt. He did find the receipt, though not without some effort. The store’s management wasn’t entirely satisfied: explained spokeswoman, Cheryl Engstrom, “The amount on the receipt matched the purchase, although the stub didn’t specifically indicate whether or not it was the same shirt.” However, Engstrom added, the store “gave him the benefit of the doubt and let him keep it anyway.” Mr. Jackson was lucky the store guards weren’t checking underwear as well as shirts.

The treatment of Alonzo Jackson dramatically demonstrates why race remains such a painful and divisive issue. Store personnel implicitly accused Jackson of being a criminal and took his property—because he was black. It took a torrent of angry letters and phone calls from whites and blacks alike before the company formally apologized.

That young black males are treated badly because they are young black males is not new. Cab drivers are less likely to pick up and jewelers less likely to buzz into locked shops African-American males. Stores are, as Jackson certainly knows, more likely to suspect young black males of shoplifting.

The fear of African-American men is shared by many African-Americans—black cab drivers also pass by black pedestrians. It was Jesse Jackson, of all people, who once observed that “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see someone white and feel relieved.”

Yet this understandable fear of a small number of predators who commit a disproportionate share of crimes penalizes the vast majority of African-Americans who are not only decent, law-abiding people, but also the primary victims of crime. Explains the Justice Department, “Black households, Hispanic households, and urban households were the most likely to experience crime.” In fact, blacks are 50 percent more likely than others to be victimized by a violent crime. People like Alonzo Jackson are paying twice—they are more likely to suffer from crime and be suspected of being criminals.

And that has a larger social impact. Such treatment can only fan anger, frustration, and resentment. Victimology has become big business, with most everyone wanting to be called, and recompensed for allegedly being a victim. But there are real victims, like Jackson.

What can we do? Some of the answers, as noted earlier, are better policy. Crime must be detected, punished, and deterred, especially in poor neighborhoods, where residents are so vulnerable. The government’s educational monopoly must be broken, giving disadvantaged students a chance to receive a real education. The economy needs to be deregulated and opened to help everyone, rather than controlled to enrich special interests, such as labor unions, which back laws like the Davis-Bacon Act, which restrict the hiring of minorities.

Racism is harder to address, especially through government. Some race-based decisions, like those of cab drivers who pass by blacks, reflect reasons other than prejudice. Are we really prepared to penalize people who, even if wrongly, believe their lives might be in danger—especially when today’s anti-discrimination laws have misfired, creating a quota mentality and encouraging disappointed job-seekers to routinely scream racism?

We especially need to steer clear of the quota temptation that has so entranced politicians in Washington and across the nation. When the high school in Piscataway Township, New Jersey, facing the need to lay off one of ten business education teachers, fired Sharon Taxman because she was white, it compounded rather than alleviated injustice. Cases like this also ensure that anger, frustration, and resentment will rise among whites as well as blacks.

At the same time, the kind of racist behavior exhibited by Eddie Bauer should be criticized and treated as socially unacceptable. As it was when consumers of all races demanded that Eddie Bauer apologize to Alonzo Jackson, else they would take their business elsewhere.

And this is how it should be. As individuals, we need to insist that racism is wrong. That means speaking out and taking action when necessary. The burden for doing so falls especially heavily on those of us who don’t believe that every instance of offensive behavior should be a crime. If political society is to do less, as it should, then civil society must do more. It becomes the duty of every one of us to help shape society’s moral code.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.