Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is the Civil Rights Industry Obsolete?

Are NASCAR fans racist? Michael Yaki, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), thinks so (membership required). He argues that the entry of Toyota into NASCAR has brought to the surface all manner of suppressed racism among NASCAR fans, even invoking (contradictorily) the organization's Southern roots as permissible evidence in bolstering the argument. Most chillingly, he reminds us of a murder almost a quarter-century ago that centered on hate and cars:

More than 20 years ago, this country feared that Japan would take over American industry. It didn’t happen. But today the Big Three are still on the ropes and, combined with Chrysler’s recent layoffs, a Toyota victory in one of Nascar’s events could reawaken latent fears of Japanese domination. We cannot forget that in 1982 a young Chinese-American, Vincent Chin, was killed in Detroit because two autoworkers assumed he was Japanese. Apparently there remain embers just hot enough to re-ignite the flame of racism.

NASCAR's silence on this matter, he further pronounces, is "unacceptable." And so the structure of the conversation he wants to impose on us – American institution plagued by racism in need of guidance by a duly appointed governmental authority – is in place. That the evidence for his proposition that NASCAR has a big hate problem is derived mostly from Internet chat rooms, hardly the Oxford Union as a forum for reason or moderation, makes the case to begin with already dubious, but I don't think that is the most important issue raised by Mr. Yaki's piece.

Rather, it is worth asking whether the entire civil-rights establishment has outlived its usefulness. Established in 1957, after Brown v. Board of Education, at the time of Little Rock and before Selma, the USCCR's mission reads as follows:

To investigate complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote by reason of their race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or by reason of fraudulent practices.

To study and collect information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.

To appraise federal laws and policies with respect to discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.

To serve as a national clearinghouse for information in respect to discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin.

To submit reports, findings, and recommendations to the President and Congress.

To issue public service announcements to discourage discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws.

It is, in other words, an agency with no regulatory powers, merely a talking shop designed to seek out discrimination in American society. It is built on the premise that racism is out there, and the task at hand is to go find it. This is a task also carried out by public intellectuals, law schools and all too many university departments, people in the media and others who undoubtedly really believe that the U.S. is a profoundly racist society but who would have to find something else to do if it turned out not to be. Lo and behold, if you are charged with finding evidence on "discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws," you are likely to see it everywhere.

The time for this way of thinking about prejudice - government and activists identify it, the rest of us comply - is long since past. The civil-rights/multiculturalism industry is fond of evaluating American racial shortfalls relative to an ideal world where prejudice does not exist. Up to a point, there is nothing wrong with this kind of thinking; we are an idealistic country, and measuring ourselves against perfection is what we do. But everyone who sees racism as a primary characteristic of America needs to get out a little more. The world is full of countries with authentic tribal strife, not the manufactured differences that so preoccupy us here even as we comfortably accept handing out citizenship to anybody on the planet, whatever his tribal origins.

On this issue we are long past the point of diminishing returns. If you accept that people everywhere are prone to prejudice, but that these tendencies can be overcome and that some people do not like to be publicly and selectively hectored, a good argument can be made that organizations like the USCCR, by crying wolf all the time, do more harm than good. They make people falsely accused of racism angry, they have little effect on those who are truly racist, and they cause people to discount actual consequential prejudice when it occurs.

The task at hand for any multitribal society, as with any society where people are different for any reason, is to make everyone more likely to cooperate for mutual gain, less likely to fight zero-sum style. Managing tribal relations through politics (already philosophically troubling because it requires us to think not of individuals but groups) is troubling in practical terms too because it weakens the incentive to work together across tribal lines. The Nobelist economist Amartya Sen’s latest book is called Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Despite my disagreement with much of his economic philosophy, it is an extremely provocative read. Indeed, he emphasizes a theme I have talked about for awhile – that identity is not preformed, but is formed by the individual himself in response to external stimuli. I would add that it responds to incentives in particular. To put it into terms I like to use, in their relations with others people may choose to emphasize their occupation, their moral beliefs, their nationality, their passions, or anything else that defines them. Identity is like a financial portfolio, with each of its aspects like a financial asset. People will emphasize different identity assets based on their expected return. But tribal identity is much more difficult to alter – if you and your wife define yourselves primarily as "white" or "Hispanic,” your children too are likely to so define themselves.

And the civil-rights industry, like all government entanglement with tribe (whether mandated segregation or mandated affirmative action) encourages us to emphasize sources of identity that are more difficult to dislodge, and more easy to exploit by demagogues. The more Mr. Yaki talks about racist NASCAR fans, the more likely NASCAR fans are to imitate him in seeing the world as "us" versus "them." Far better to live in a society where people have the incentives to cooperate (e.g., through free commerce), and not the artificial incentives to separate.



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