Last updated on February 6, 2021 9:11 am
Feb. 2, 2021 Jason L. Riley
President Biden likes to talk about “healing” and “unity,” but he also keeps pledging to prioritize the supposed interests of certain favored minority groups. When is he going to realize that his goals of racial unification and racial favoritism are at cross-purposes?
Last week Mr. Biden signed an executive order on “racial equity.” He said that George Floyd’s death last summer “marked a turning point in this country’s attitude toward racial justice” and is “forcing us to confront systemic racism and white supremacy.” He added that “this nation and this government need to change their whole approach to the issue of racial equity” and make it “not just an issue for any one department. It has to be the business of the whole government.”
Nothing quickens the pulse of progressives like talk of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy,” so it’s hard to know if Mr. Biden is just telling leftists what they want to hear. But if it’s more than that—if the president is serious about focusing on equal outcomes instead of equal opportunities—then heaven help us. Milton Friedman said the “society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither,” while “the society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.” Of course, Friedman had a constrained view of the government’s capabilities that isn’t shared by very many Democrats today. For them, good intentions are what matter most.
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The political left has long used racism as an all-purpose explanation for racial disparities. This ignores that disparities down through history have been the norm, not the exception, and that they exist even in regions of the world where most people are of the same race. The per capita income gap between people in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, for example, is wider than the gap between whites and blacks in the U.S. Moreover, racial disparities have both grown and narrowed over time, even though racism has been constant.
If Mr. Biden wants to change the government’s approach to racial inequality, this history ought to inform his actions.
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The greatest success of the civil-rights movement wasn’t a new government program but getting government off the backs of blacks by defeating Jim Crow. Nothing the government has done since then in the name of advancing blacks has been more effective than simply ending government-sponsored discrimination. Black poverty fell by 40 percentage points between 1940 and 1960. It continued to decline in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society interventions, but at a much slower pace.
Similarly, blacks were joining middle-class professions at a much faster pace in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s than they would after affirmative-action programs were implemented in the 1970s. In fact, we now have evidence that suggests racial preferences have been not only ineffective in helping the black poor but also counterproductive. After the University of California system ended race-conscious admissions policies in 1996, black and Hispanic graduation rates rose dramatically.
Liberals also insisted that more black political representation would translate into more black upward mobility, but the historical record says otherwise. Poor blacks in Marion Barry’s Washington in the 1980s, and Sharpe James’s Newark, N.J., in the 1990s, saw their economic plight worsen. Even under our first black president, racial disparities in income and homeownership widened. It turns out that political clout is neither sufficient nor even necessary for a group to advance economically. Blacks and Hispanics experienced record low poverty and unemployment rates before the pandemic under President Trump, who has rarely been accused of bending over backward to help minorities.
If history is any guide, what blacks most need from the government is for it to get out of the way. Stop forcing poor black children to attend failing schools by denying them school choice. Stop increasing the minimum wage and pricing black young adults out of jobs. Stop implementing occupational licensing regulations that prevent black entrepreneurs from starting a business. And stop pretending that policing is a bigger problem than violent crime in poor black neighborhoods. In 2019 there were 492 homicides in Chicago, according to the Sun-Times, and only three of them involved police.
Mr. Biden surely understands this reality, but he’s also the head of a Democratic Party full of people who worship at the altar of identity politics and held their noses to elect a straight white male out of political expediency. These are people who believe that your race or religion or social background should inform your politics. They don’t want to make nice with their political opponents.
They want revenge for four years of Donald Trump. The president has to decide whether he wants to implement a racial spoils system on steroids to accommodate them, or whether he’d rather focus on racial unity. He can’t do both.