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Classical Liberalism and Racial Justice

“If we face America’s racial history squarely, will it mean that the American project is a failure? Conversely, if we think the American project is a worthy endeavor, do we have to lie, downplay, or equivocate about our past?”

These are the questions answered in Rachel Ferguson’s book “Black Liberation Through the Marketplace,” which is a classical liberal response to racial injustice in America.

This week, on the Good Faith podcast, David French and I discussed several culturally critical topics with Rachel, including:

  • What should White Americans do to help ameliorate poverty?
  • Is capitalism inherently evil?
  • How does the federal government affect racism?
  • What local ordinances unfairly burden African Americans?
  • What role has the historic Black church had in the eradication of racism?
  • Are “progressive policies” better than “conservative policies” when it comes to race?
  • How do we get along with people with whom we – even partially – disagree?
  • What is the concept of a “social network” and how can we help those who don’t have this benefit?

David French:  Rachel, we talked about the classical liberal critique of America’s racial past, but then here we’re going to get into how classical liberalism is utterly incompatible, obviously grotesquely, with slavery, with Jim Crow, with all of the massive governmental interventions that you talked about that did in fact, just grotesquely disadvantage, marginalized communities in the United States.

But a lot of arguments essentially say, “Well, okay, wait a minute, because of the severity of the harm, classical liberal ideas don’t necessarily have much purchase when you’re talking about the cure or how to ameliorate the harm that was done by those systematic government atrocities in the past.”

In your book you’re saying, “No, no, wait a minute. There’s a lot classical liberalism has to offer a society that focuses on ameliorating historic racial injustice.” And if you could kind of dive into the prescriptive element: what classical liberalism has to offer going forward after its systematic violations.  

Rachel Ferguson: So of course, right away we have to end all de jure specific systematic forms of oppression. And those are not completely gone. We think of 1964 or 67 as ending the regime of Jim Crow, which it did. But of course we have systems which are not perhaps racist in intent, but have disparate effects on African Americans because they’re an economically vulnerable community and because of lingering racism as well.

Let’s talk about the criminal justice system. We have a real mass incarceration crisis, and this is another area where we can lean into this anti-tribalism. I bring out this book, “A Prison Break” by Steven Teles, where he talks about how conservatives turned against mass incarceration. What’s interesting about this is it actually goes back to Prison Fellowship right? Chuck Colson bringing attention to imprisoned people who were getting worse and not better or who were committing crimes. They were knuckleheads, but we didn’t need to keep them in prison for decades and decades, realizing that a lot of these long sentences weren’t actually incentivizing anybody to avoid committing any crime. 

That doesn’t really work. Looking at the way that, yes, crime went up in the 70s, 80s early 90s, and so incarceration went up. But what happened in that period is the prosecutor gained such an amazing amount of power and really kind of a black box. (We don’t know what’s going on with the prosecutor.). Once crime started plummeting in the mid-90s, you saw incarceration just continue to increase in a way that was really disjointed and unconnected from questions of safety and proper retribution.

So criminal justice reform is a huge one.

We also look at just basic economic freedom and economic growth. This is an area where I think a lot ofpeople have a stereotype in their minds that if you care about economic growth, you care about CEOs, you care about rich corporations or something like that. But look at something like the 2008 financial crisis. If you look at something like this, yes, these corporations are hit hard, but they’re bailed out.

And many middle and upper class people are back to normal by 2015. But the poor are not. The recession lasts longer for them. The recession hits them harder because of the concept of marginal utility.

If the economy is not going well, that’s fewer jobs, that’s fewer opportunities, that’s fewer scholarships for college. That’s things that make life changing differences to the poor that are actually not as significant really to the rich.

And so economic growth is incredibly important. And of course you see things with regard to economic freedom like occupational licensing reform and things like that – small time entrepreneurs who are trying to get started, but they’re getting trapped in these crony capitalism policies that are trying to create regulation in order to shut out the startups.

And so we have to be really passionate about fighting for their economic freedom. The freedom of the barber who doesn’t need a high school diploma or the African hair braider who doesn’t need to go to cosmetology school, we need to say no to these established businesses who are trying to shut out the startups with these unneeded regulations. And there’s many other areas of economic freedom that we could discuss.

I think that we need a narrative that is saying, yes, we can acknowledge our painful history of race, and, yes, we can hold on to the American project. That’s what Frederick Douglass did. That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. They held us to the principles that we stated in the Declaration. That’s the moral leverage that the black community has always had to hold America accountable for its crimes.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.
Image Credit: Stephen Melkisethian on Flickr

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