Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 5 of 9)

Finding Systemic Racism in Employment, Housing, Education, Access to Government.

It seems to me that systemic racism should (almost by definition or lack of it) bear upon all aspects of life, with four having special importance. First, I see employment, which affects often profoundly, the quality of one’s life. Second, I would consider housing, same thing more or less, plus it’s a normal way to accumulate a nest egg for many or most of those who are not born rich in America. The third area where systemic racism should have many and far-reaching negative effects is education. Unequal access to the government might be the fourth large area where systemic racism manifest itself. Finally, the hypothesized systemic racism if the words have any meaning, should be operational the delivery of justice and of police services. These sectors are important because of their direct potential to to take away one’s freedom and even one’s life. I give this last area of concern a separate treatment.

I offer my superficial contribution as an observant citizen to the first four areas. I think that is all that should be expected of me if systemic racism is truly widespread. If it were as common and as general in its applications as is being currently alleged as I write (June-July 2020), I should see it without much effort once it’s been pointed out to me. (It’s being pointed out practically every minute of the day by radio and by television, and even by the moderate WSJ for the past three or four weeks, even by Fox News.) I should even be able to stumble upon it without a conventional study. It seems to me that if I have to move furniture and lift every carpet to find traces of systemic racism, it’s just not that important, or, it does not exist at all.

If systemic racism is both said to be pervasive and it’s impossible to detect, it’s just another fairy tale in reverse, or fetishism. Or it’s a deliberately fallacious concept designed to affirm a social fact while avoiding the empirical burden of demonstrating its existence. This is true although it’s obvious that, as a white person, I cannot be made aware of any kind of racism the easiest way possible, by becoming its target. But this most obvious path to awareness is also the most subject to error, of course. The anger that accompanies being a target of presumed injustice induces a subjectivity inimical to sound judgment. The anger must impair or destroy the capacity to think rationally. These statements, together, imply that a dozen infamous and well documented cases of what might be racially inspired possible police crimes against African Americans spread over five or six years stops short of establishing the case for the existence of systemic racism. “It happens” does not mean the same as “it’s everywhere.” Incidentally, by making these self-evident statements, I feel as if I were ringing a bell to wake my fellow citizens from their stupor.


Racial discrimination in employment used to be pervasive. So many laws have been passed to eliminate it that one is tempted to believe that it hardly exists anymore. At least, gross racial discrimination in employment is a risky legal game for large companies, those with deep pockets. The nature of the anti- discrimination suits showing up in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) nearly every day makes it difficult for me to believe that much of a problem remains in this area. The suits sound almost all frivolous, capricious, and arbitrary. This is not a judgment on the sincerity of those filing the suit. They may truly believe they are the victims of discrimination. Yet, belief is not evidence of anything. It’s possible nevertheless that real racial discrimination in employment persist in companies too small to be worth suing.

What I know personally about work and race corresponds well with most of the news I obtain from the media in general (including National Public Radio to which I listen – less than religiously – every weekend). Affirmative action, or positive discrimination in favor of African Americans, or negative discrimination against Asians and whites, seems to be the rule in every employment locale of which I am aware. I am especially aware of academia, of course. The last time I was involved in hiring in my university, for example, the new 30-year old hire came in at a salary equal to mine after 24 years and a respectable academic career. The recruit was a woman, and perhaps, just probably, a person of color of some kind. (My chairman, a man with a Spanish surname, asked me confidentially my opinion about whether she was black or Hispanic. I couldn’t make this story up up!) I hasten to say that the recruit in question was more than qualified enough for my department (like me, in fact). This is merely an anecdote, of course. I think though that it’s just as valid as anyone’s anecdote. Still in academia, it would be possible but difficult to find a French person (from France) hired by a Department of French in an American university in the past twenty years. The new hires are overwhelmingly “people of color,” or almost, from former French colonies or from Zaire (a former Belgian colony). Such uniformity in hiring obviously does not happen by chance. I would almost call it “systemic.” (Incidentally, as a native French speaker, I have nothing against the different varieties of French used outside of France.)

So, at this point, as a keen observer but as someone who has not conducted a real study of the topic, I am not persuaded that there exists any discrimination against African Americans in employment in the US that is not an isolated, willful act and thus, not systemic racism. It’s self-evident however that there exists in many economic areas discrimination in hiring against whites and Asians and that this discrimination is systemic. That is, it’s not the result of any specific individual or corporate action directed against whites or Asians but baked in. Note that I did not say anything about the possible historical, ethical justification of this kind of discrimination.

Some will object that, in fact, in spite of affirmative action programs, African Americans have on the average, worse jobs than white Americans. Here is a good point to re-iterate a principle that should not even have to be mentioned: The widespread (and unfortunately judicially validated) practice of establishing proof by outcome is deeply illogical: If I go hunting with my friend and he bags five rabbits to my one, it may be because my rabbits were faster than his or better at zig-zaging, or that my gun barrel is curved (as I may claim), or it may be because he is a good shot and I am not. Similarly, the vast numerical preponderance of African Americans in those powerful millionaire-making machines that are professional football and basketball does not establish the existence of systemic racism against whites and others in those sports.


The practice of redlining included informal and sometimes formal discrimination against members of racial minorities. It used to be widespread everywhere in the US, including in the northern states. One of the practical consequences was to deny African Americans the ability to purchase housing in certain areas and even in whole towns. This was hostile treatment in its own right. Redlining also had negative implications for education because in most of the US the public schools are district schools. Children attend the schools tied to their residential neighborhood. Poor neighborhoods are thus often associated with inferior schools The very detailed Fair Housing Act of 1968 tried to put an end to the most egregious redlining practices. Violations of the Act carry heavy penalties.

I don’t know to what extent the prohibited practices have been extinguished nor if they have been replaced by other nefarious practices with similar consequences. I would not be surprised if redlining did subsist but on a small scale, between small local banks, for example, and small, equally local real estate firms, both situated far from the limelight. I suspect the research exists to answer these questions. Remaining or renewed redlining would be fair candidates for systemic racism. I regret that I cannot look for the relevant material. I hope others will.


Affirmative action to the benefit of African Americans is the rule in admission to American universities. Even in universities where racial preferences were formally eliminated, as was the case at the vast University of California about fifteen years ago, the prevalent political forces are working to re-establish them. That is, of course, systemic racism. Affirmative action for black unavoidably works to the detriment of white and Asian students. That’s absent any racial animus against the latter. No surprise there, it’s expected to do so. (There was a famous lawsuit against Harvard University by a coalition of Asian-American groups in 2016-2019 for discriminating in admission against applicants of Asian extraction. The suit was eventually dismissed in spite of what looked like strong evidence of discrimination, based on SAT scores among others.)

As far a K-12 is concerned, unequal education for African American children used to be the rule and it was supported by law – that is, by the armed power of the State- in much of the country. This fact mattered in its own right but also because of its consequences on employment. Education is a precursor to employment and a partial predictor of its quality; it determines the width of employment choices available. Formal obstacles to a good education for African Americans have been eliminated by multiple court actions and the painful remedy of busing, practiced for many years with and then, without federal subsidies. Yet, it’s likely that African American children still attend schools that are, on the average, less well funded than the schools of average white children because of the largely local funding of American schools in general. (This may be a fact of “institutional racism,” a close cousin to “systemic racism.”) Notably though, where African American students happen to attend schools that are richer than the average school in America, as is the case in Washington D.C., good educational results don’t measurably ensue.

One thing that has been shown to improve strongly black children’s educational performance, controlling for income and living address, is charter schools. The opposition of teachers unions is the only significant obstacle to enrolling more children and, by logical implication, more black children in charter schools. No one believes that this opposition is dues to the racial motivations of either individual teachers or of their unions. It looks like a good example of pure systemic racism against African Americans. It seems to me that there is no other such example in the area of education. For a measured approach to this form of systemic racism by a respected African American conservative, see Thomas Sowell’s “Charter Schools’Enemies Block Black Success” (WSJ 6/19/20).

Access to government

I have little to say about systemic racism as it may affect access to government, for two reasons. First, it seems obvious that African Americans have met with great success in achieving elective office, going from about zero in 1960 to tens of thousands in 2020. (During the Floyd crisis, black elected officials intervened everywhere in the media, including on conservative Fox News.) I think also that the Congressional Black Caucus exerts power much beyond its numbers. This is true when the Democratic Party dominates. I suspect I think it’s almost as true with a Republican Congress. Its influence corresponds to the same seniority rules that gave any white elected southern Congress people disproportionate power for many years. Black congresspersons keep getting re-elected, acquiring both experience and seniority which multiplies their effectiveness.

Separately, I often wonder why black voters do not more often provide the swing vote in nation-wide primary elections as they apparently did in the 2019 Democratic primaries. It seems to me that they could if they would and thus, exert an influence out of proportion to their numbers. But they would have to be seen looking outside the Democratic Party to become credible. (On a personal level, I have little sympathy toward opportunities not seized.)

Secondly, I am persuaded that the power-wielding jobs in the federal bureaucracy are afforded to black applicants at least fairly, and probably preferentially, given equal (and often mysterious) formal qualifications. I have no hard evidence to present in support of this impression. The relevant research may exist and I don’t know about it. I am less sure about local bureaucracies’ openness, but I never read anything about unfairness in connection with black employment in local government. It’s true that I may not be well positioned to perceive it if it exists. I may be in the wrong part of the wrong region of the country.

A shortage of African Americans in the bureaucratic apparatus of local and state government could itself be a source of systemic racism. It could be enough to account for government neglect of what happens to be issues affecting African Americans preferentially. I am open to learning on this point.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 4 here, or read the whole essay here.]

2019: Year in Review

It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.

As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.

Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.

Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”

Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.

Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.

Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.

Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.

Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.

Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.

Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.

Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.

Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”

Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.

Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.

Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.

Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.

Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.

Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.

Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.

Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).

Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!

I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.

Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.

Three Short Stories on Housing Economics

Do you love housing economics but have struggled to get the basic ideas across the younger generation? Yes, you get excited about reading 60-page reports, but kids these days have better things to do. 

That’s why I wrote these three, action-packed, short stories which you can read to any child (or child at heart). 

So without further ado, here are three stories about how the supply of housing affects the prices of housing.

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Rent isn’t a four-letter word

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Inspired by the publication this week of NYU scholar Alain Bertaud‘s critical new book Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (MIT press), Sandy Ikeda‘s pre-book development series Culture of Congestion over at Market Urbanism, and London YIMBY, here is a note on housing reform.

Classical liberals see the economic solution to housing as relatively simple: increase supply to better meet demand. By contrast, the political economy of housing is almost intractably complex. The reason for this is that there are endless externalities associated with new housing: access to light, picturesque landscape, open space and uncongested roads just for starters. These gripes and grievances are the bread and butter of local politics. Unlike consumer product markets, housing cannot be disentangled from these social, political and legal controversies. A successful market-based housing policy must establish institutions that not only encourage housing supply growth but navigate around these problems while doing so.

Policy reform proposals that deliberately favour increasing owner-occupied single-family homes, as tends to be the focus among market liberals in the UK (and to some extent in the US), are currently self-defeating. As justified as they were in the past to achieve a more market-friendly political settlement, they are now a barrier to achieving plentiful, affordable housing. This is because every new homeowner becomes an entrenched interest, a potential opponent to subsequent housing development in their area. They impose more political externalities than renters. I propose we cut the link between support for home ownership and housing supply policies. This would free up policymaking to focus on expanding provision by all available market-compatible means.

This should include greater encouragement of institutional landlords, especially commercial enterprises. Commercial landlords have more incentive and capability to expand supply on estates that they own, while long-term renters (unlike homeowners) have an interest in keeping rental costs low. The lack of private firms dedicated to supplying housing in England compared to much of the rest of the world is startling and yet often overlooked even by friends of free enterprise.

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