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Book Review: The New Color Line

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The New Color Line: How Quotas and Privilege Destroy Democracy
by Paul Craig Roberts & Lawrence M. Stratton (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1995)

In 1944, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal published a massive work entitled An American Dilemma . His thesis was that the United States was a fundamentally racist society in which the white majority would never voluntarily surrender legal discriminations against blacks. If America was ever to become something closer to a color-blind society, Myrdal argued, it would never come through the democratic process; it would have to be imposed through the intervention of an activist judiciary that overthrew segregation and other discriminatory laws and forced integration upon the American people.

Gunnar Myrdal’s prescription for changing race relations in the United States became the basis for the civil-rights judicial decisions and the laws passed by Congress during the last four decades. How this came about and what the consequences have been for American society is the theme of The New Color Line: How Quotas and Privilege Destroy Democracy by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton.

The bottom line, in Professor Robert’s and Mr. Stratton’s view, is that the United States took a wrong turn when the Supreme Court and the Congress decided to forcefully impose integration on the country. This not only undermined the principles of democracy and the fundamental human right of freedom of association, it also poisoned race relations in the U.S. by introducing coercive social engineering into a delicate and troubled part of American society. They insist that they offer no apology for segregation. They even say that if the Brown v. Board of Education decision “had been only to end public segregation, it would have been a victory.” But more than that happened. “Brown belittled democracy. The decision was based on the belief that democracy could not do the right thing and would not produce a moral outcome. The basis for the desegregation decision threw out the fundamental presumption of any democratic order — goodwill among citizens regardless of class, race, or gender. Without goodwill, there is no basis for uniting different people in democratic self-rule,” the authors argue.

The authors point out that in 1952 the issue of school desegregation had come before the Supreme Court and had been rejected. Not because the Court had endorsed or supported segregation, but because a majority of the Court at that time was reluctant to usurp what they ruled were matters of legislative power and democratic process. In other words, for the Court to impose a desegregation decision on the states would be to infringe on the principles of separation of powers and federalism.

The Supreme Court member most frustrated with this decision was Justice Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter was convinced by Myrdal’s argument that unless the Court overturned segregation, the people would never demonstrate the democratic tolerance to do so through the ballot box and the legislative process. He set out to change the Court’s decision. In 1953, Brown v. Board of Education was put back on the Court’s schedule for reconsideration. In violation of judicial ethics, Frankfurter colluded with Philip Elman, who was responsible for civil rights cases in the solicitor general’s office. Frankfurter and Elman informed each other about the attitudes of the members of the two branches of government and which arguments might be most effective for getting the members of the Court to give the case an affirmative decision. They had clandestine, late-night meetings and telephone calls to work out the strongest strategy. Frankfurter was assisted in this manipulation of the Court’s decision-making process, the authors explain, by Earl Warren, President Eisenhower’s recent appointment to the office of chief justice of the Supreme Court. This unethical conspiracy resulted in a unanimous affirmative Court decision on May 17, 1954.

The decision, Roberts and Stratton argue, opened the door to an increasing judicial social engineering, in which the courts more and more began to dictate race relationships in society over the next several decades. This trend was reinforced by the civil rights acts of the 1960s, they also emphasize.

At the foundation of (classical) liberal thought, the authors explain, is:

“Freedom of conscience [which] lets individuals sort out their affairs on their own. It also recognizes that individuals have the right to be wrong. Instead of coercing people to change their minds, liberalism favors patience and persuasion. Ultimately, society is transformed as persuaded individuals vote their conscience.”

The tragedy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they say, is that while it was proposed as an appeal to conscience — that men should not be judged and dealt with in terms of their race but as individuals — the act “ripped freedom of conscience from the body politic and replaced it with regulatory coercion.”

And in spite of what may have been the actual wording in the Civil Rights Act, once the government took on the coercive responsibility to assure that private individuals no longer discriminated in their relationships with others, the political authority responsible for the law’s enforcement had to establish some benchmark to judge whether the law was being complied with. Hence, the system of racial quotas as practiced under affirmative action was practically inevitable. And, perversely, a law that it was claimed was meant to be an instrument to diminish racist behavior has ended up raising race consciousness as individuals have come increasingly to be classified and thought of in terms of whether the racial group to which they belong has received its “fair share” of jobs and places in institutions of higher learning.

Indeed, the authors point out that affirmative action has become the most recent variation on the Marxian theory of class conflict. Marx had argued that society is divided into irreconcilable and antagonistic classes, with each individual only having a real identity and relationship to other human beings in terms of his class affiliation. Now, increasingly, government policy and intellectual and academic discussions start from the assumption that society is divided into irreconcilable and antagonistic race and gender groupings, and that individuals only have identity and relationships with each other in terms of their race and sex.

Just as traditional Marxist analysis led to the conclusion that society was trapped in an inescapable and violent class conflict, the new variation on the Marxian theme is leading to the conclusion that society is trapped in inescapable race and gender conflicts. The end result, the authors warn, may well be societal decay and the end of the free society.

How to reverse this dangerous trend? The authors say there is only one way: to retrace our steps to where we began going down this wrong road. All laws imposing coerced racial relationships must be repealed, and the premise of the American society must be returned to its original roots in the concept of individual rights and freedom of association.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).