July 6, 2021 Reading Time: 14 minutes

Which one of us does not want to be treated with respect and dignity, rather than rudeness and disregard? Which one of us does not hope for empathy and support from those who know us when misfortune or tragedy befalls our lives, rather than indifference or callousness? We all do. It’s normal, it’s human. But what happens if this basic human response is hijacked by political correctness and identity politics? 

Over the last year, unmarked graves of hundreds of children of indigenous tribes have been uncovered in various locations in Canada. Upwards of 150,000 of these children had been forcibly taken from their First American families for compulsory assimilation into mainstream Canadian culture and society between the 1890s and the 1990s. Many of them were placed in the custody of the Roman Catholic Church at what were called “Residential Schools” in cooperation with the Canadian government. There were about 140 of such “schools” around Canada. 

Brutal Canadian Compulsory Assimilation was a Killer

It might be far more accurate to refer to them as “reeducation camps.” Survivors and some accessed records tell of brutal attempts to stop these children from speaking their native languages, worshiping their native religions, or practicing the tribal customs they had already learned among their families before being forcibly removed from the communities into which they had been born. 

Inadequate food, unsanitary conditions, hash daily treatment as part of the “reeducation” process were combined with what appears to have been a large number of cases of sexual abuse over several generations at the hands, allegedly, of Catholic priests running these institutions. Many of the children who died while in their care were placed in these unmarked gravesites, with family members, apparently, knowing little or nothing about the fate of their offspring. A Canadian commission of inquiry concluded that, perhaps, more than 4,000 young people died while incarcerated in these places.

The Canadian government has made a formal “apology” to the indigenous tribal groups whose families experienced this trauma. As of yet, the Catholic Church has not made any formal explanation or apology for the conduct of their representatives over those many years, though Pope Francis expressed his “pain” over the discovery of the unmarked graves. In the newspaper accounts that I have read, I have not seen any breakdown of the financial subsidies these Catholic Church-operated reeducation camps received from the Canadian government for more than a century, at taxpayer expense. In total, no doubt, it came to a tidy sum if it were inflation-adjusted and recalculated in the equivalent of today’s dollars. (See, here, here, and here.)

The stories suggest that, perhaps, not every dollar spent went to a proper feeding, clothing, housing and caring of the affected children, including the burial of those who died while at these places. I hope the reader catches my tone of sarcasm in the last sentence. 

Reacting to Such Government Policies

So, how should someone react to such accounts of mistreatment at the hands of governments and those in the “private sector” who have collaborated with them? At the most general level, as a human being, it seems to me that one should be shocked, angered, and deeply bothered that anyone, anywhere, should be maltreated in this way. There may be little that you or I, as individuals, necessarily can do to remedy such episodes, especially when they have occurred in the past, when many or perhaps most of the perpetrators and the victims are no longer with us. 

At the minimum we should make the mental note and publicly express, I would say, that even if they have all long ago passed away, they were all individual human beings, with hopes and dreams, potentials and possibilities, that were thwarted or snuffed out due to the actions of those with power and control over them, thanks to the social engineering presumptions of the decision-makers in government. And we should insist that governments never implement and fund any such forms of political paternalism. 

Then there are such instances that are more recent or even ongoing at the present time. An example would be the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs in China’s western region of Xinjiang (Sinkiang). Estimates are that that more than a million of these people have been forcibly taken to literal “reeducation” detention centers, where, by all accounts, abuse, brutality, torture, murder, rape, and brainwashing are the standard methods to eradicate an ethnic and religious minority that the Chinese communist authorities are determined to do away with in their implicit drive for a more homogeneous Han Chinese people and culture, and a politically obedient population. (See my article, “The Uyghurs as the Victims of Chinese National Socialism”.)

Certainly, I believe, that when one reads or hears of such current events, the same distinct disgust and anger should fill our thoughts that still “in our day and age,” this should be the plight of entire peoples and the actions of those in governments around the world who should persecute and impose such mass harm on others. But beyond a mental note or a verbal expression, some of us, given all the other personal affairs and commitments and tradeoffs of daily life, may decide that they should speak out jointly with others against such inhumanity. One may give of one’s time and money in support of the victims or their relatives, just as many give of themselves in time and financial resources for other good causes that especially move them.  

The Morality and Effectiveness of Free Associations

All such single and joint actions are the essence of the voluntary associations of civil society. In my view, this avenue is both the most moral one and the most effective one. It is moral because it leaves it up to each of us as a free person to have the liberty – and responsibility of conscience – in deciding to whom and how our sympathies and empathies may manifest themselves in acts of benevolence and a sense of “doing the right thing.” Government coopting of such activities in part or in full through restrictive regulations or tax burdens that diminish the financial abilities of people to undertake such “good works,” themselves, to one degree or another, is a fundamental abridgement of the meaning of liberty in a free society; and the proper cultivating of the quality of an ethical humanity among people toward their fellow human beings. 

In addition, rather than the usual government monopolized way of dealing with “problems,” with an imposed “one-size-fits all” approach, the voluntary associations of civil society also supply the arena for free minds to be set to work in competition with each other to discover and develop what might be, in fact, the best means and methods to better the conditions of those whose circumstances and misfortunes draw us to work for their improvement. Like in the ordinary marketplace of supply and demand, competition for voluntary funding and the offering of rival methods to grapple with the “social problems” for which “answers” are being looked for, is more likely to attract those who most sincerely and seriously want to participate, and to generate the incentives to find and apply what are considered the more efficacious paths to the hoped-for “solutions.”  

Also, unlike the impersonal rules and regulations of the faceless government bureaucracies in faraway centers of political power and decision-making, the voluntary associations of civil society can be and often are more decentralized and localized in being sensitive and adaptable to the actual and differing circumstances of those to whom they are offering a helping hand. It is easier for the concerned and interested participants to listen to and better understand the hurt, frustrations, and, oftentimes, feelings of despair and humiliation of the less fortunate or harmed who are trying to overcome their circumstances, and restoring or having for the first times senses of and abilities for self-responsibility. (See my articles, “A World Without the Welfare State” and “The Secret History of the. Monopolization of Welfare by the State” and “Private Charity versus the Political Grinches”.)

Race Manners for White People About Black People

It seems that it is not enough to show sympathy or empathy or private, voluntary generosity, or listening to the problems and the personal perspectives of the individuals that the concerned charitable persons are trying to assist. No, instead, how concerned and “privileged” people are to think about and give support to the less well-off and “marginalized” groups, is to be dictated by a sense of collective identity defined as representing the “views” of such “harmed” and “hurt” people more or less as a whole. 

At the same time, the “privileged” are to take their cue about what social and political and economic policy views they should hold and to which they should give support based upon how it is assumed that that underprivileged group, more or less as a whole, sees and demands remedies to their collective station and condition in society. 

Is this an exaggeration? Not based upon a new monthly column that will be appearing in The New York Times, with the first installment titled: “Race Manners: Which Black People Should I Believe?” (June 28, 2021), authored by Jenee Desmond-Harris, a Harvard Law School graduate and former columnist for Vox.

To begin with, Ms. Desmond-Harris emphasizes that there is no single or uniform “black perspective” on anything, considering there are over 44 million African-Americans in the United States. And the diversity of experiences and views among them are numerous. But the focus of this first column is a response to a “white person” wanting to know how they should think and act to support “black people” in fighting racism and improving the circumstances of Blacks as a whole within the country. 

Taking Some Black People’s Views Less Seriously

But having said that there is no single “party line” on being anti-racist or supportive of Black people’s betterment in society, there remains an undertone of a presumption that some views and policy perspectives are closer to the under-the-surface, “real interests” of Black Americans. For instance, she says that maybe South Carolina Republican Senator, Tim Scott, is “your kind of guy.” Well, that may be alright, but there is an implication in her writing style that in spite of Senator Scott being black, that does not mean that his views on taxes, or regulatory and redistributive policies are the ones that will “really” improve the Black community in America. 

The innuendo becomes clear when in the next paragraph she makes the point that, “There is money to be made and fame to be had for Black people who are willing to be anti-Black scolds, giving voice to the racist views to the white people who offer them platforms.” Besides, “while all Black people obviously have experience with racism,” that does not make them trained and professional “experts” on race and racial realities and its forms in America. 

A conclusion that could be easily drawn from this: Just because Tim Scott is Black and a member of the U.S. Senate does not mean he knows what he is talking about on race issues when defending freer markets, lower taxes, and less government solutions to social problems, and especially in reference to problems of the Black community. And even more sinister, maybe Tim Scott is one of those Blacks gaining fame and fortune by fronting for white racists and their racist economic policies? A concerned white person probably should not take too seriously the values and views of a Black person like Tim Scott, if they “really care” about Black people. 

Reparations and the Righting of Past Wrongs

The important thing is for white people who care about Black people to listen to what Black people say on things, and take that as an indication of what policies are in the “real interest” of Black Americans, if one is to be a successful “ally” to Blacks. “For example,” Ms. Desmond-Harris says, “a large majority of Black people are in favor of reparations, so it might make sense to defer to them.”  

It is a fact that a sizable majority of Black Americans say they support government cash payment reparations to members of the Black community as a form of compensation for racial wrongs of the past. According to a American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Polling Report (April 2021), reparations are supported by 73 percent of Black Americans and by 16 percent of whites. But this shows part of the problem when injustices are transformed into societal aggregates of group “A” versus group “B.”

An injustice is when one (or more) individuals have violated the persons or property of others in society. For example, it was right and reasonable, I would argue, for European Jews who survived the Holocaust, or their children if the parents or grandparents perished in the Nazi concentration and death camps, to demand lawful return of looted and expropriated properties from those into whose hands Jewish possessions had passed. For instance, houses, land, bank accounts, business enterprises, jewels and gems, and works of art, were reasonably insisted on being restored to their rightful Jewish owners. 

It was not unreasonable when the case was made at the end of the American Civil War that the slaveowners’ lands on which the Black slaves had labored under the threat or the use of the overseer’s lash should have those lands given to them and their families as a “payment due” for lifetimes of forced labor on the slave plantations or other such Southern enterprises.  

It was also not unreasonable, as well, when with the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and, then, the Soviet Union, that those whose properties and private enterprises had been expropriated by socialist governments should have them restored to the previous owners or their clear heirs. There were complexities that made this in most instances untried, but, ethically, stolen property should be transferable back to their just owners through appropriate legal means. 

Collective Guilt Hides Individual Unfairness

But who are the actual individual guilty parties and who are the actual individual victims of a slave society that had its demise over a century and a half ago with the end of the American Civil War in 1865? Unless it is to be claimed that the collective sins of the fathers long past permanently fall collectively upon the sons of the present, who is the guilty party and who is the definable victim? 

What of those “whites” who came to America long after the end to slavery, and who lived in the North or the West? How do we know who they were and what their views on race in general and Black Americans, specifically, might have been? What if they or their descendants had actively opposed racism and racist policies? What if they had been members of some religious or ethnic minority who had been victimized in the “old country” and found that they had to face a variety of prejudices to overcome even here in America? What is their degree of race-based guilt, and what discount do their descendants receive on paying reparations to Blacks due to their ancestor’s own “intersectionality marginalization” in the past? 

What about the white descendants of those who fought for abolition in the first half of the 19th century, and some of whom risked their own lives in helping with the Underground Railroad that brought runaway slaves from the South to the safety of Canada? Do they get a collective group “break” on how much they owe in reparations? 

What about those Blacks whose ancestors due to interracial liaisons had been able to “pass for white” at some point in the past, and whose descendants experienced little or no racism or discrimination, but in the current climate of “race awareness” among “marginalized groups,” now are counted among those “of color?” Is there a reduction in the reparations that they are eligible to receive? 

What about those who have been the children of racially mixed marriages, who may have been brought up in non-racist households and in more “color-blind” community environments? What even classifies such a person as “black” rather than “white?” Are we really still tied to the old Southern prejudice that “one drop of black blood” streaming through a person’s veins makes them for all time marked for a life of discrimination and senses of inferiority? 

What about Arab-Americans who may be the descendants of Arab slave traders who facilitated the transfer of captured and kidnapped Black Africans during the centuries when slaves were bought and sold on the coasts of Africa and brought to the Americas? And for that matter, what is owed by the descendants of those African tribes that happily cooperated and collaborated in enslavement of other Black Africans and whose chiefs sold all those unfortunates to the slave buyers who crowded them into ships for transportation to the “New World?” 

Unless this is “helicopter money” handed out in some proportional amount to all those classified as “black” by the government from taxes collected from all those designated as “white,” with no regard to any of the types of issues and nuances like those briefly mentioned, above, it really will be government redistributions of income and wealth for various programs and into particular organizational pockets based on political power and pull in the rough and tumble of interest group politicking in the drive for election and reelection and the constituent groups needed for support on Election Day. That is, it will be the “business as usual” corruption of political pickpocketing, covered over with the rhetoric of racial justice and reparations for claimed unfairness in the past. 

Whose Measured Injustice for Purposes of Compensation?

But it might be said, has not just being “white” given you and yours “privilege,” with privilege implying at someone else’s expense? But what does that “privilege” really mean in terms of form and content that has any “operational” or quantitative meaning? My mother’s father came to the United States as a small boy from Imperial Russia due to his family’s desire to escape from the violent anti-Semitic attacks to which their villages were periodically subjected. My grandfather wanted to be a medical doctor after graduating from high school with the grades to generally qualify for admission to a medical school. But American versions of anti-Jewish sentiments among “Christians” meant his being excluded from acceptance. So, instead, he became a pharmacist, and owned his own drug store until it went bust during the Great Depression.

 A dream denied due to prejudice. So, some “Christian boy” was accepted for the admission that might have been my grandfather’s. American male, white Christian privilege at the expense of a “marginalized” Jew. Who knows what it cost my family in lost life chances and opportunities for my mother and myself as a result of American anti-Semitism experienced in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Do all white Christian Americans whose grandfathers were medical doctors owe me a debt of reparations, since I am the descendent of a victim of that past bigotry and invisible quota discrimination that kept my grandfather out of medical school? And if so, in what amount and for how long? I will accept cash or credit cards; direct deposit into my bank account would be convenient, if possible. 

Ending Government Policies that Create Group Disadvantages

If we honestly and sincerely care about the well-being of and opportunities available for others to have better chances, the type of “advice” for “white people” in their words and deeds toward “black people” as offered by Jenee Desmond-Harris is all wrong. The only government policies needed is for the political process to abolish all existing market barriers to entry and competition that often have unintended consequences on individuals and groups. 

The minimum wage is one such handicap in the way of young members of the Black community having a chance for their getting a foot onto the bottom rung of a ladder to success. You do not help low or unskilled people who may face prejudices by having a minimum wage that prices the low and unskilled out of the market. (See my article, “Freedom and the Minimum Wage”.)

Government licensing and regulatory restrictions make it that much more difficult for those in lower income situations from being able to be self-employed, start a business, and hire those desiring for work. This works against members of the Black community in America looking for employment, often in their own neighborhoods. 

Ending the drug war is another abolitionist cause that would help, almost immediately, in reducing crime, street violence, gang warfare, and hostile confrontations with police in Black communities. A criminal record due to some youthful mistakes and involvement in drug-related activity or use ruins people’s lives with lost time in the harsh setting of prison life and the difficulties of getting an education or a job after release from prison, since that “record” shadows someone for the rest of their life.  

Our task should not be to “raise race consciousness,” including being fearful and obsessed about failing to use the right word or avoiding the insensitive phrase, or not showing the right “solidarity” to “people of color,” particularly when nine times out of ten it only succeeds in intensifying the racial distinctions between people more than they already exist. 

Our approach, in my view, should be to go beyond and away from thinking about and acting in terms of how people look, and more about what they are as individuals. We cannot ever fully escape from our ancestry, its history, and its legacies and residues in the society into which we are born and, then, live out our own lives. Our concern, however, should not be about how “white people” should act or what “black people” think or want, to which “white people” are to collectively defer. That just keeps us in the same tribal group mindset that has been part of the problem and from which we need to escape.

We need to think about and act toward each other in terms of the ideas and ideals upon which the country was founded, as expressed in the American Declaration of Independence. We are individuals with those unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The ideal world, I believe, is one in which there are no “white rights” versus “black rights;” or intended or unintended consequences positively benefitting or negatively falling upon people from “activist” government policies that inescapably target groups or subgroups in society in various ways.  

The real task of “race manners” is for people to start looking at each other as individual human beings, with the goal of reaching the point when the color of a person’s skin is looked at and weighed in a way that means nothing more than it does today when we happen to notice that someone’s eyes that are blue rather than green, or that a person’s hair is blond versus brunette. Something noticed, sometimes, but usually not something that weighs too heavily in affecting most people’s actions and reactions just because the other is left-handed rather than right-handed – which once was a mark of disapproval, discrimination, and “reeducation” in forcing someone to write with the right hand.

But this will be made that much more difficult to achieve a properly color-blind society, if we are pressured and prodded, even scolded, if we don’t think about and act towards others in tribal terms that is easily manipulated into mythologies of collective group consciousness and “interest.” Such group-based “race manners” as are being called for only undermines and even subverts proper senses of sympathy and support for others who may truly need and benefit from a helping hand in a freer society.

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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