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Racism and Freedom

On public and private forms of discrimination.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 19, 2002

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Racism and Freedom_James Leroy Wilson-On public and private forms of discrimination. Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is in a lot of hot water. At a tribute to Senatorial colleague Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday, Lott suggested that if Thurmond had won the Presidency in 1948 on the segregationist Dixiecrat platform, America wouldn't have so many problems today.
With ineffective damage control, Lott has suddenly become the greatest liability for the Republican Party, because his apologies and explanations since the event have not been convincing. The honorable thing is for him to resign his post as majority leader, yet stay in office so that the Republicans can hold their majority in the Senate. If Margaret Thatcher can get thrown to the backbenches of Parliament, surely Lott should bear it, too. Besides, he wasn't a very effective legislative leader anyway.

But this also goes to show how questions of race can completely shut down dialogue. Two generations of Southern white politicians were raised under Jim Crow laws, and were comfortable with them and supported them. Then, after federal civil rights legislation, they didn't necessarily "grow" or become "enlightened" as they decided to "reach out" to black voters. No, they did like every politician does to stay in office: they flip-flopped. They had supported segregation not because they strongly believed in it (politicians don't strongly believe in anything; adulation, not principle, is their currency), but because it was easy and comfortable to them, and popular with the voters. But they changed once more blacks became able to vote. Thurmond himself flip-flopped, as did infamous Alabama governor George Wallace. And Lott, who was a young man during the Civil Rights movement, obviously no longer approves of segregation. No serious politician does. And while this is good, there is a flip side: no politician opposes forced integration either.

This is unfortunate. Because while some of the civil rights legislation from the 1940's to the 1960's were obviously worthwile, other parts of the agenda attacked the very foundations of personal freedom. To integrate the armed forces, to ensure that blacks weren't fraudulently or physically denied the right to vote, and to overturn by federal legislation state and local laws that forced individuals and privately-owned businesses to treat blacks and whites separately, were right in intention and generally effective in outcome. And of course, denying blacks access to the finest public schools, universites, other public services, and public-sector jobs, was wrong. While the federal courts and federal legislation essentially - and inevitably - botched the job of correcting these injustices, one could at least see some Constitutional justification for their attempt.

But the federal government went further. Discussing a separate issue entirely, Timothy Sandefur writes in the January '03 issue of Liberty magazine that the Supreme Court ruled, in Wickard v. Fillburn (1942), that the Constitutional power of Congress to "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes," actually meant that Congress could - quoting Sandefur - "prevent citizens from growing wheat in their own gardens for personal use."

You see, if you grow your own food, you wouldn't be buying it from someone else. In that sense, it may ultimately affect "commerce among the states." But of course, you would be hard-pressed to think of any sphere of human action that did not ultimately affect interstate commerce. Spending my vacation in my home state means that I'm not spending it in a neighboring state, or Florida or Rome. The Supreme Court gave Congress almost carte blanche to regulate just about anything at all. Congress is slowly catching up, testing the full extent of its powers, and the powers it delegates to enelected regulator/bureaucrats in the executive branch.

So even "commerce within a state," or what you do in your own home or place of business, is fair game for the federal government. But not because the Constitution says so. The Constitution essentially set up a nationwide free-trade zone in which only Congress, not the states, would regulate what can and can't enter into the United States or that can be transported from one state into another. It did not authorize the federal government to limit an individual's freedom of action within his own state, but only to his enterprises that involved crossing state lines.

What you did with, or on, your own property would be your own business. Who you hired, who you fired, and who you served were to be up to you, not the federal government. And even if you manufactured goods that were going out of state, that didn't mean that the federal government could regulate your relationships with employees and customers, only the manufactured good itself.

But since the Supreme Court ruled that the quintessential non-commercial act, growing and eating your own food, is actually federally-regulated "commerce," other acts that don't affect interstate commerce could also be called interstate commerce. Refusing to hire or serve blacks, just because they are black, isn't merely wrong or immoral, it is also an act of "interstate commerce."

Once, Southern business owners were forced by state and local laws to separate blacks from whites, in violation of their natural rights to property and freedom of association. If the federal government had just repealed those laws under the authority of the 14th Amendment, blacks and whites would be much freer today. Instead, the federal government violated those same natural rights in order to compel integration. You own a piece of property, and in exchange for its protection in state law you pay taxes on it. What then justifies the federal government in commanding you who you must allow on your property?

If you decide you'd be happier not associating with some people, because of their color or religion, and your business loses customers and employee talent as a result, who loses? Is it better to compel a bigoted business owner to allow people of certain groups he doesn't like to serve and hire them?

Would an African-American prefer to see a "whites only" sign and know to avoid the place entirely, or enter it in search of a purchase or a job, only to be treated with subtle but noticeable contempt? And would African-American entrepreneurs prefer the freedom of hiring other African-Americans if they so chose, or be bound by laws mandating color-blind hiring?

I don't know. As a white person of Yankee ancestral roots, I don't really give a rip about my own cultural identity or ethnic solidarity, let alone other people's. Everyone has the right to live as they see fit, provided they don't violate the equal right of others. It doesn't matter to me their color, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, or what country they are from or live in now - even if it does matter to them. If I see a sign on a storefront window that said "African-Americans only" or "no Christians," I wouldn't be crying over "reverse racism" or "persecution." I'd actually be glad to know where I'm not wanted. They'd be doing me a favor by not wasting my time.

That's not to say nothing about other people matters to me. I do think there are some ways of thinking, believing, and living that are superior to other ways. I believe things would be better if people weren't "ists" of various sorts: racist, sexist, etc. That's to say, they would be personally happier if they took personal responsibility for themselves and didn't blame their own or the country's lot on the deeds and beliefs of people who aren't like them. Negative feelings obstruct reason and add stress to the body. Bigotry is self-destructive even more than it is socially destructive.

But it is not in my power, nor the power of the government, to restrict the freedom of bigots to live their own lives and do on their own property as they see fit. We'd be better off if all of the bigots of whichever race or creed, had the freedom to disassociate from the rest of us. We wouldn't be wasting our time with them, and perhaps, at some point, at least of few of them will get a clue. But that would be their problem, not mine.

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