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The Key to Race: Depoliticize It

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President Clinton has called for an “unprecedented conversation about race.” That’s curious, since we’ve been talking about race nonstop since who knows-when?

Mr. Clinton said that “we have torn down the barriers in our laws. Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, our minds, our hearts.” That’s also curious, because there are probably more one-on-one dealings between people of different races in the United States today than ever before.

Shrouded by Mr. Clinton’s rhetoric is the real continuing problem. The government has gone far beyond simply tearing down legal barriers that imposed disadvantages on blacks. It has gone on to micromanage race relations and, predictably, it has made a mess of things.

Take the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law can be divided into two classes of government action: the nullification of laws that restrict people’s rights (Jim Crow laws) and the imposition of positive obligations on private persons. The first can be said to have enhanced liberty. The second limits liberty and creates racial animosity.

If the government treats some people differently from others because of their race, that violates the rule of law, which includes the idea of equality under the law. The Jim Crow regime violated that principle, so good riddance to it.

If that’s all the federal government did, the last few decades would have been far more harmonious than they have been. But it went beyond that by trying to regulate private conduct. It did not say only that governments may not invidiously discriminate against its citizens. It also said that private individuals may not discriminate, either. When the government tries to outlaw discrimination, it opens the door to pervasive intrusion into private activities. It has been remarked many times that the sponsors of the 1964 act insisted their bill would not impose hiring quotas. Yet it has. Employers have been sued and have paid large damages for having a workforce unreflective of the racial and ethnic composition of the surrounding community. The mere threat of costly litigation has undoubtedly caused employers to hire people they felt were not the best candidates for the jobs. That has created racial animosity among members of unprotected groups who feel they are treated unfairly. Alternatively, since it can be costly to fire an employee who is a minority-group member, an employer has an increased incentive to avoid hiring him if possible. This undoubtedly happens in small businesses.

Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute has pointed out that the move to quotas was an inexorable consequence of the 1964 act. Once the government outlawed discrimination, it had to devise allegedly objective standards because it is hard to know what is in an employer’s mind. But government imposed quotas wear away the fabric of civil society. We know that all too well.

Government’s own hiring policies have also poisoned race relations. Affirmative action programs, or racial preferences, in employment and education are a form of the discrimination that supposedly was outlawed. In the name of nondiscrimination, the government discriminates. That makes no sense.

When California voters approved a ban on state racial preferences, Mr. Clinton objected. He and others now point out that black enrollment in law and graduate schools has dropped because of the ban. If that is so, it means that the critics of affirmative action were correct: people were getting into school solely on racial considerations.

Mr. Clinton says that those who oppose affirmative action should come up with an alternative. How about freedom for all? This is either a free country or it isn’t. Accepting freedom only as long as you like the results is an insult to the great principle that has produced so much good.

If private employers wish to have affirmative action programs, that is their right. The right to discriminate (even if it is odious discrimination) is intrinsic to the right of free association, which in turn is at the core of life, liberty, and property. A limited right of free association is a contradiction in terms.

If we want an end to racial antagonism, the first step is to depoliticize race. We don’t need new commissions or presidential sanctimony from the bully pulpit. We need freedom to work out our own problems without the heavy hand of government.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.