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Lately I hear that all white people are racists, and I feel compelled to examine the intellectual grounding of such an inflamatory claim. Consciousness of race is not racism, as some would suggest. Indeed, solutions to racial division offered by activists usually require that we bear race in mind as a primary differentiator. Insofar as one must consider the worth of another person in any context, people of good faith simply do not care about a person’s race. Rather, they care about traits that count, such as honesty, skills, work ethic and perhaps affability. Should they somehow care more? What would vindicate them?

Inflammatory Claims

There are probably several motives for the charge of universal white racism. On one level, it represents political agitation. Posts carrying the charge on social media always involve a measure of “virtue signaling” to like-minded friends, or perhaps before the Gods. (I’m sure the posters will be forgiven.) Such posts might represent acts of social contrition to allay deep-seated feelings of guilt. The posters might fancy that they are raising the consciousness of others, proudly imagining the important lesson they are teaching. The bad news for them is that most people of good faith are rightly skeptical of proselytization like this. In fact, the agitation probably does more to breed skepticism than anything else.

Voluntary Sorting Behavior

What some view as racial division is often an innocent consequence of voluntary sorting based upon the shared subcultures most compelling to individuals at a given time. There are many subcultures into which a person might fit: work, school, profession, sports, music, religion, politics, hobbies, geography, ancestry, ethnicity and race. And there are micro-cultures within all of these categories. These cultural segments differ in many respects, and they may overlap in many cases. The extent of sub-cultural overlap may be viewed as a gauge of assimilation.

In any given context, people tend to voluntarily sort themselves into the sub-culture they find most compelling. This voluntary sorting does not yield a fixed social distribution of individuals across groups. Individuals can choose to associate with different sub-cultures to which they belong on a day-to-day basis.

There is a pronounced tendency for sorting to occur within larger “populations”, such as cafeteria-goers in a large office or in a large school. People from particular work groups might sit together: there is some sorting by age, by gender, and by race. African-Americans often sit together. There is mixing of members of these subgroups as well. People are brought together by work or school, but the shared work or school culture is frequently less compelling to individuals in their choice of a lunch table than other sub-cultures to which they belong.

Isolation or Assimilation

Assimilation does not mean that cultural differences must disappear, but it does mean that subcultures must at least be tolerant of others. A key question is whether one subgroup would welcome a member of another subgroup to join them. There might be reasons to refuse in some circumstances, such as a group of accountants who wish to avoid economists. Lol. However, a group of Caucasians who prefer to remain exclusive, making African Americans feel unwelcome, are guilty of racism, and vice-versa. As for the converse, an African American individual who prefers not to join a group of Caucasians, and vice versa, there is usually a good rationale for presuming the individual to be innocent of racism: they are simply choosing a more compelling sub-culture.

Certain sub-cultures may be especially amenable to selection from across sub-groups. For example, team sports often foster racial mixing, as do music and various professions. Religion and economic stratum can be powerful shared sub-cultures, drawing members across racial groups. In other words, mixing of sub-cultures will occur when a compelling sub-culture is shared. That is a form of successful assimilation.

When voluntary sorting takes place, the parties seek commonalities. That’s a form of discrimination that may be quite healthy and not racist in any way. On the other hand, accepting diversity implies respect for other cultures and subcultures. Voluntary sorting allows those cultures to function, but it does not necessarily imply exclusion of others who might be curious and wish to learn and take part in a culture’s traditions, or who might even wish to become a part of a different community.

Counterproductive Compulsion

The insistence that racism is widespread is often an expression of support for compelled remedies or paying reparations of some kind to alleged victims. In a free society, the kind of voluntary sorting discussed above will always be a reality; any attempt to prevent it would require extreme coercion. Reparations for historical injustices, legal or economic, raise ethical questions about the treatment of those who must bear the costs. They also carry high administrative costs and tend to breed resentment and division. There are well-known downsides to quotas in hiring and in school admissions. Not only do quotas lead to reverse discrimination, they also can place the intended beneficiaries into situations of vulnerability to failure.

Markets Are Not Racist

Then there is the allegation that private markets are a source of “systemic racism”, having “disparate impacts” on certain minorities. However, it should be noted that the market mechanism tends to penalize racism. A consumer who chooses to avoid sellers of a different race will tend to pay a higher price for the privilege. An employer with a “taste for discrimination” must choose from a smaller labor pool and may lose the opportunity to hire the best talent. In other words, racists must pay for their preference. They also forego the creative benefits that diverse organizations tend to enjoy.

Certain minorities have struggled to achieve success in the private economy, but there are much better explanations for that difficulty than market forces, which provide the best opportunity for growth and assimilation. There is no question that institutional obstacles have had extremely harsh effects on groups starting from lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. A few examples: the failed public education has been especially burdensome for urban and rural minorities; various public policies have effectively excluded minorities from markets, including Jim Crow laws, the minimum wage and the Davis-Bacon Act; the so-called social safety net is rife with features that penalize work and reward fragmentation of families, making it as much a trap as a net; the drug war creates illicit market opportunities which present catastrophic but unappreciated risks for both the participants and their families; rent controls, zoning laws and restrictions on new construction limit the stock of affordable housing; heavy regulation makes starting a business difficult for those without the financial and legal resources to deal with it; and the ugly tradition of cronyism tends to reduce social mobility by entrenching privilege rather than rewarding economic value. The deck is stacked in many ways against economic mobility by public policy, and racial minirities have borne much of the burden.

Immigration Hotspot

Another controversy is whether racism is manifest in the negative views of many Americans toward immigrants. These claims allege ethnic and religious discrimination, including the hatred of Muslims. No doubt there are Americans who harbor racist attitudes toward immigrants. Some of this is grounded in unreasonable economic fears. There are also fears that terrorists may be among new immigrant populations, especially refugees, but that fear is hardly unreasonable given the recent experience of Europe and the difficulty of establishing reliable background information on some of these individuals.

Sharing Freedom

Racism still exists and it will never go away entirely. However, our dedication to freedom compels us to protect speech as long as it is not threatening. Racial discrimination by participants in markets can be difficult to detect, but racists must pay an economic price imposed by the market mechanism, and there are often legal remedies if racial discrimination in markets can be proven. Fortunately, racism today is not as widespread as the agitators would have you believe. The best policy for assimilation and acceptance is to promote a shared culture of freedom and economic opportunity.