Jonathan Blanks returns to our show to discuss how different versions of liberty were promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X was very weary of trusting authority, which is seen as a favorable trait by libertarians. The discussion then shifts to whether or not racism has improved since the Civil Rights Movement and how that affects how we view law enforcement.
How is Malcolm X portrayed to the American public? Is the American government hypocritical? Was Malcolm X a libertarian? What type of liberty did Malcolm X promote? What qualifies as police harassment? Why do police have a higher presence where more crimes are committed? Do people generally trust the police? Have we made any progress when it comes to racism?
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us is our colleague Jonathan Blanks. He’s a Research Associate in Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Jonathan.
00:16 Jonathan Blanks: Thanks so much for having me, guys.
00:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Cato’s scholars all have an origin story of how they got into this stuff, this stuff being either libertarianism itself or their specific policy area that they focus on, but your origin story is particularly personal, so can you tell us how your background led you to do the kind of work you do today?
00:41 Jonathan Blanks: So, for those who don’t know, I am a criminal justice researcher on our Project on Criminal Justice. I focus mainly on policing, in what we call self‐defeating policing, which is the fact that police officers are often asked to do things that antagonize the communities they’re supposed to serve, and particularly in minority communities. I got into this partially because my father was a police officer for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and he taught me all sorts of things about the job and his experience growing up in Indiana, and the reason why that’s particularly pointed to what I do is because my father, while I look very European, like my mom’s Irish heritage has come through very strongly in my facial features, my father is black. And so, while I appear to be white to most people, my father was an African‐American cop in Indiana in the late 1950s through the 1970s. And so, I had this very interesting understanding of how police worked. My dad always covered his car with law enforcement support stickers, which basically signaled to say, “Don’t pull me over, [laughter] I’m one of you guys,” right?
02:00 Jonathan Blanks: He never thought that the system was necessarily fair. One of the thing… I remember very young… At a very young age my father told me, he said, “Because of who you are and what you are, basically, because you’re black, you might have a harder time than other people, but you just have to move through it and get through it and move on.” And so, that stuck with me for a very long time and I started, as everyone in the building does, just read a lot of stuff and while I never came into Ayn Rand until later in life and really didn’t dig it, frankly, I started reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and that book changed the way I looked at everything. Here we always hear about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement and everything that’s non‐violent, and here is a man standing up for what he believes, he talks about personal responsibility, just like my father told me, right, and it’s like you have a right to self‐defense. If you’re aggressed against your family, you’re threatened, you don’t turn the other cheek, you fight back, because that’s your right.
03:08 Jonathan Blanks: And it’s very tied closely to what we are also taught outside of what we call Black Studies or Black History is the American way, right? You’re supposed to take care of yourself, you’re supposed to take care of your family. You’re allowed the right to self‐defense and you just have these parallel streams, which when you think of how like Malcom is portrayed in American culture, it’s completely different. He scared the hell out of white people. He was against the system, he was for violence and it’s absolutely not true. His complaint mostly with the American system wasn’t so much that the Constitution is wrong, it was that the American public was… Excuse me, the American government was hypocritical by not applying the laws and the rules to black people that everyone else had. And he’s like, “These are the same rules that you… That white people have, why don’t we get to have them?”
04:02 Trevor Burrus: Now, Malcom X, I don’t know, I mean, if he ever wrote anything about libertarianism, I imagine that he probably did not, and I would not generally consider him a libertarian, but he did understand something that I think is core to understanding of libertarianism, which is power and its misuse and how people who are beaten down by the state, especially African‐Americans in American history, need to be able to defend themselves and you have rights to protect, and all the things that you just mentioned, so nothing would… He might not have been a total libertarian, but he understood standing against the state.
04:34 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, I never would want to say that Malcom would be a libertarian if he was alive today. I generally don’t like applying the label to people after they are dead, but it was the way of looking at the world that even though that… And this is where I depart from a lot of black conservatives, where a lot of people tend to think that, “Well, you will succeed if you work really hard and you let everything else go, and it’ll all work out in the end, or it should work out in the end,” right? Malcom was never denied… Like, the system was stacked against him, it never ignored that there were actual real systemic road blocks to people having individual success. And I think that’s very important to think about when you’re just saying, “Oh, you come from the right perspective, you come from more of a free market thing,” which also is something that Malcom cared a lot about. Well, not so much the free market, but individual… But black‐owned businesses and basically starting, entrepreneurship and that sort of building the economy within the communities. And just that disconnect between his reputation and what he was actually trying to say, it’s actually much more aligned with the American dream than I think a lot of people realize.
05:54 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there… It seems like there is this kind of stories of liberty and the way that people can approach thinking about it. And so, for a lot of libertarians who happened to be, just demographically, there’s a lot of white people in libertarianism, it tends to be people who are more educated, not lower class and so on, because these are just the kind of the people who get really interested in ideological politics and what not.
06:24 Aaron Ross Powell: That the story there, and the kind of liberty that gets talked about there and the perspective on the relationship with the state is the state is kind of taker, that the state wants to take from me, the state wants to kind of restrict the options that I have in front of me, whether that’s like I wanna open a certain kind of business and the regulations say no, or I wanna run my business in a certain way or I want to take a certain substance, or I wanna keep most of my paycheck or whatever, but it’s kind of the state as this limiter, but there’s this other strain, which I think is what you talk about, that gets a lot of the times left out and I think it’s… I don’t know that it’s consciously left out, but it’s just that we tell stories from our own perspectives, right. And so it’s this strain of the state as oppressor, which is different from somewhat from the state as simply taker and restrictor, but the state as like this thing that has had its boot on your neck for all of your life, for the prior generations of people like you and that’s a… I think it’s a different and like a valuable perspective and one that particularly resonates with the kind of work that you do.
07:29 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, I think that not trusting authority was something that was very… And the hypocrisy of the people who are in charge was very prevalent in Malcolm’s writing and his speaking and that sort of thing, where he said, “Well, you’re gonna have to get through… You’re gonna have to fight back now.” He was a black nationalist from much of his public life, and I’m not obviously advocating for that. But in so far as that it was the responsibility of the people who were oppressed to say, “Okay, you’re gonna have to take your freedom, you’re gonna have to go and you’re gonna have to do this.” Even though they actually owe you, they owe you more than this, they owe the rights that they say that you have on paper, the constitutional rights, these are supposed to apply to us, but they don’t. So it’s not so much that the response that just because the justice, injustice, excuse me. In a just society, the government would provide the rights that they’re supposed to give, but unfortunately, that’s not the way it is. So you have to build up from within your community and your family and take care of it yourself.
08:44 Trevor Burrus: One of the aspects I think that African‐American history is pretty pointed on, and I use when I do gun debates, I use this, it’s something that, a point Malcolm was well aware of. Very common for big NRA conservatives to say guns are there for me to protect myself against the government. I don’t usually make this argument, because people regard it as crazy if you’re gonna fight the US army, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that. And African‐Americans have a pretty good story of why they needed guns at a specific time, and then even Malcolm X.
09:17 Jonathan Blanks: Well, yeah, well before that, my most prized possession is my grandfather’s 38. I was told, I was probably in my early 20s, I was at my aunt’s house, and it was me and my father and my aunt, and they were telling me about how at the time in Fort Wayne, the black families basically lived in a three‐block area, there were three blocks they could live on, and it wasn’t by law, but various… Yeah, restrictive covenants, that sort of thing we can maybe get into later. And because the Klan was home to… Indiana was home to the second resurgence of the Klan in the early 20th century, they were very popular. They’d never run the government in Fort Wayne, but they ran most of the state at some point, and most of… Both the State House and the governorship. But anyway, years later they would march up the black streets just as like a show of power. And so my grandfather would stand at the door of the house and call the kids in, holding the gun.
10:18 Jonathan Blanks: You know, that this was something that he was gonna protect his family and that sort of, you know, the… Yeah, the government’s supposed to help you, but you’re gonna have to defend yourself if not, and that sort of thing, and it’s like… So, that’s my most prized possession, I won’t sell it for anything. It’s because that’s something that was used to protect my family and it’s part of the reason why I’m here today. As far as I know, he never engaged in any firefights, but it’s that sense of responsibility, that made that happen, but in that… That was early 20th century. My dad was born in 1928, right, so this is a long time ago. But even more recently, you have basically the birth of gun control, which was California’s crackdown against the Black Panthers, and what the Black Panthers did was like they read the Constitution too and they said, “You know what, we’re gonna take our streets back from the police because we don’t trust them, and they’re gonna oppress us.” And so they’re walking around legally carrying rifles. And Ronald Reagan, the governor at the time, and the legislature passed laws to make sure that that doesn’t happen anymore.
11:24 Jonathan Blanks: So it’s kind of funny to hear the NRA kinda turn around on this, and whatever is left of the mantle of Reagan that’s in that party, it’s like, “Well, no, actually you guys kinda started this.” But that’s again, the Black Panthers were obviously socialists, but in many ways they were sort of the… And I’m not gonna call them libertarian, but they acted in very libertarian ways. They provided… They raised money to provide a school, a before school lunch program. That’s private, that’s private charity, right? They were for Second Amendment rights, they read the Constitution, like this is something that we’re allowed to do. And again, it’s that other, this other kind of liberty that I think often gets overlooked in our discussions in the libertarian policy world, because it’s just like, “Oh, we just think of what’s going on here instead of how it’s actually worked out through American history.”
12:16 Aaron Ross Powell: Why is it then that that sort of liberty, that sort of liberty of the oppressed pushing back, gets so kind of poo‐pooed almost by a lot of conservatives and libertarians who look at it as kind of… If you just… It’s the pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you just went out and got a job and you just got an education and you just stopped dealing drugs and stopped muggings and shooting each other and the carnage of Chicago, or whatever it is, things would be better. There’s this kind of pushing back against that, the experience that you just articulated, and saying instead that, “We’re not going to acknowledge that and we’re not gonna acknowledge the reaction to the lived experience of oppression.” ‘Cause you’ve spent a lot of time talking to libertarians about race and the intersection of race and police issues. So what’s going on there? Why isn’t that story seeming to resonate?
13:28 Jonathan Blanks: I think, to back up just a little bit, I think part of it is how we look at the past and civil rights movements and liberty in our country. In one way, we idealize the founders, but kind of overlook the slavery that they brought with them into the Constitution and to the United States government. You look at the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, skipping a whole bunch of stuff [chuckle] that went on beforehand, ’cause a lot of the times people think it’s like, “Oh, there was slavery, there was emancipation, then Martin Luther King, and then everything’s fine.” But even in that very simplistic… Very over‐simplistic formulation, we look back at Martin Luther King with this reverence that he was this great man, that he was a great leader, and he brought the moral core to a noble fight, and that of course, we should celebrate his birth every year and all that, when actually, at the time, he was looked at really no better than Black Lives Matter is today. That this is… It was America’s… White America’s general reaction to any sort of non‐white‐led liberation movement is reflexive and negative. And so, I think that’s why when the Panthers were doing what they were doing, and obviously the government cracked down on them, and not only did they create gun control, they were the origination of the first SWAT team, was California’s reaction to their existence.
14:56 Jonathan Blanks: That generally, no one wants to wrestle with what our country has done in the name of freedom, the hypocrisy that has been implemented from the government in the name of freedom. Today, I think it’s really no different. You’re just sort of like, “Oh, it really can’t be that bad. The laws aren’t that bad. My experience with the police is great. But what are they complaining about? I bet you they’re just… These kids get shot, and clearly, they must be acting up,” because it doesn’t register to a lot of people, and to white people who live relatively comfortably, that the system could still be screwing individuals as much as it does. I was talking another policing… A guy who’s on the other side, about traffic stops. We were on a panel together, and I was just talking about how when black people get pulled over, like Philando Castile, for example, got pulled over 49 times before he was shot and killed. He was getting abused before that happened. And only one of those, I think, was for a legitimate speeding violation and I think one was for blowing a stop sign. Everything else, just about everything else he got pulled over for was some really specious violation.
16:12 Trevor Burrus: Weaving, turn signal, yeah, that sort of thing.
16:13 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, just really weak stuff. And the idea… He was like, every time… He told me he’d never really thought of it that way, ’cause he’s an older white guy, and he was just like, “Every time a police officer’s pulled me over, he had me dead to rights, I was doing something wrong. It never occurred to me that I would be pulled over and harassed for something I didn’t do, for no good reason.” And so, even he, who opines on policing issues pretty regularly, it hadn’t really occurred to him that there’s a different way that both society and the government, and policing in particular, are viewed by people who live completely different lives in this country.
16:54 Trevor Burrus: You’ve said before, and I clearly agree, that if you wanted to stop certain policing practices and the drug war, for example, or at least mitigate the drug war, it would be good to take the police who go to Anacostia, which is a very African‐American neighborhood, and have them go shake down Georgetown for a week and a half, throw people up against the walls, do some random stops and searches. And you’d find about as many drugs, it’d be much more cocaine and high‐end drugs, perhaps, but you’d find just as many drugs. Then suddenly, everyone would say, “Let’s end the drug war.” But on that point, what is the reality in these heavily policed neighborhoods that are in inner‐city neighborhoods? How are the cops viewed in these neighborhoods?
17:38 Jonathan Blanks: Well, I don’t think I ever suggested that the officers go to Georgetown do it, but… [laughter]
17:43 Trevor Burrus: No, no, no. But being facetious…
17:47 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, yes, of course.
17:47 Trevor Burrus: I don’t think they should throw anyone up against the wall, including people in Georgetown.
17:50 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, exactly. So, just realize that different neighborhoods in America get policed differently. And the fact of the matter is our cities are very segregated. There’s a bunch of reasons going into that, a lot of government policy, whether it was racial zoning in the early part of the 20th century. You have redlining, which is the use of lending that had city maps and basically demarcated where people of color would live, and they wouldn’t support loans there, they’d only support loans for black people to live in those areas, as opposed to in the white neighborhoods, and so, they artificially inflated property values in the white neighborhoods and all that. But anyway, the legacy of that segregation exists today, and within that, you have policing in different areas. And in the poor black areas in very many cities in this country, whether it’s DC, Baltimore, Chicago, you have a very aggressive police force. They understand that there is a higher crime area there and there is violence very often, but instead of doing… Putting forth policies that have been proven to work, which is very often something along the lines of just high visibility policing, where you’re just there but you’re not actively harassing people, but that’s not… It’s really hard to measure.
19:10 Jonathan Blanks: And so, part of this gets into how a police department works, where they get measured on output, just like pretty much every other job that you have, and if you’re just standing there or just sitting there, there’s nothing to show for it, and so what you gotta do is you make contacts, and at the end they say that this is getting intelligence from the community. And they don’t mean it to be harassing, necessarily. But that’s what ends up happening, right? And they start talking to people, and they ask them, “You don’t mind if I search your car. Do you mind if I search you for weapons or whatever?” And so people are being stopped for very little, very minor, hardly, almost made up reasons sometimes, and they resent it, and so they’re shaken. When the New York City stop‐and‐frisk happened years ago, where in one year they stopped more young black men in New York than lived there, that means they were stopping a lot of guys multiple times. That’s harassment, straight up. And that there’s no redress from that, ’cause it’s policy, it’s not… They didn’t violate the Constitution. Depending on…
20:17 Trevor Burrus: As it currently stands.
20:17 Jonathan Blanks: As it currently stands, right. So there is very little redress. And so the police have eroded whatever trust in those communities, and so when violence does happen, there was the 10‐year‐old girl shot in DC summer of last year, and they had television interviews with people in that neighborhood, it was like, “We’re not gonna cooperate with the police, because it’s just like talking to another gang.” It was like, “We don’t know what happened, but even if we did, we wouldn’t talk to them.”
20:48 Jonathan Blanks: And that’s a broken relationship where you’re basically punishing people for being young and black, ’cause that’s who gets stopped more often than not, and you’re not actually solving the crimes that are actually making those places worse places to live, and so it’s just like a vicious cycle that perpetuates problems within those communities.
21:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Is that then the answer to a lot of, to do with… Conservatives look at this, and say, “But the reason the police are… ” to use your word, harassing people in these neighborhoods, the reason that they’re pulling over black drivers, the reason that they have a stronger presence there than they do in Georgetown is because that’s where the crime is. You look at… There’s maps of DC that have dots for wherever there was a shooting, and it’s all concentrated in the Northeast and Anacostia, which happens to be the predominantly black neighborhood of DC, black Americans are over‐represented in prisons for violent crimes. So, that’s just kind of… That’s what happens when people are more violent. So how do you respond to that? And how does that fit into this narrative? Is it all simply this kind of cycle of the cops are harassing people, and it makes people don’t wanna trust the cops, and the oppression kind of breeds discontent that manifests in certain ways. Are there… What’s going on there? ‘Cause it does from an outsider’s perspective, you look at it, and you’re like, “Well, yeah, these areas are more violent.”
22:22 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, so two different things going on. The first part where you’re saying the officer, the officers are there, because that’s where the crime is. That’s true. But it’s being able to say, “Alright,” and so I think, yes, of course, you do police Georgetown, which is a rich white shopping district differently than you police in Anacostia. But that doesn’t mean anything you do in the name of that policing in Anacostia is okay. And because, as Trevor alluded to earlier, where it’s like, they’re not stopping kids, and pulling guns on them, and asking them for consent to search them at gun point. They’re not doing that in Georgetown, because they would never get away with it. But the Supreme Court says, “Well, it’s still legal.” And so you have this separate unequal policing that’s going on there that is judicially tolerated. So it’s the style and the sort of lack of substantive rights that exist in those high crime areas.
23:27 Aaron Ross Powell: And the second part?
23:31 Jonathan Blanks: The reasons why there is more violence in black communities, and that’s very often not in every single one and all that. Even when it… The reasons are complicated. You’ve got histories of oppression. You’ve got legacies of segregation. You have lack of access to transportation. You’ve got substandard schools. All these different…
23:53 Trevor Burrus: The drug war.
23:54 Jonathan Blanks: The drug war, policing. I was trying to, like all the things that are…
24:00 Trevor Burrus: Beyond that, okay.
24:00 Jonathan Blanks: That are not that, and then you add the imposition of hostile policing, and a de‐legitimation of what their rights are, what they think their rights are supposed to be, right? The system doesn’t work, and if they leave their neighborhood, and come into China Town, all of a sudden, the cops gonna be all on them, just like, “What you doing around here?” that sort of stuff. They get trailed wherever they go, they get trailed in the mall, they get trailed in stores. So it’s not just a government thing, it’s just like they get treated as a foreigner in their own city. And not that you should treat foreigners like that, but you know what I’m saying. And so it’s like a system that doesn’t work, opportunities that are not there, mental health issues that aren’t addressed, like a whole, just a cascade of reasons why that stuff’s going on.
24:39 Jonathan Blanks: But all that said, most of the people in those neighborhoods are law‐abiding citizens. It’s police who are on the beat there. I’ve talked to them, I’ve done a ride‐along. They know that it is a very small minority of people who are still exhibiting these pretty nasty problems, right? But the fact of the matter is, but their response too often is, “Oh, well, we’re gonna just look for them. And so we’re just gonna stop everyone and search for drugs or weapons or whatever.” The hit rates on stop‐and‐frisk or similar programs, like there was a proactive traffic stop detail that was done in Little Rock, Arkansas to get 50 weapons, they didn’t even say they were guns, after a spate in violent crime. They had to make over 6,000 traffic stops in six months. That was just like you say.
25:28 Trevor Burrus: We also have, I think, the interesting observation made in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside which is that the honor culture, and retribution killing, and the cycle of violence that happens in some of these inner cities, because the state is not doing a good job of actually solving murders of black youth in particular. I think the astounding number was 38% of the 2,500 murders of black youth in LA over a 13‐year period, only 38% they even made an arrest. And so there’s no way to get… They’re kind of lawless in a sense where someone killed this person, so you have a retribution killing, and then you have a snitching killing, and then you have a fighting killing, and then you have all this stuff. And the state’s not doing a good job of being the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a geographic area to mitigate those circumstances.
26:18 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, and what I call the Leovy paradox, when she wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal to promote her book. And she was like, “The police are very good at over‐policing small stuff and really terrible at doing the big stuff.” And the thing is, is like the homicide detectives aren’t the ones out there that are shaking people down and looking for guns and drugs and harassing people. They’re honestly trying to do the right thing, but…
26:39 Trevor Burrus: But they have a stack of cases on their desk a foot high.
26:42 Jonathan Blanks: They have a stack of cases on their desk, they don’t necessarily have the funding that, say, an ARC squad does, because there’s no money in solving murder, there’s money in big drug busts, civil forfeiture, all that sort of fun stuff. So it’s this institution that’s just like, “Okay, well, we’re responding to our incentives, which is to get stuff done and make sure we’re looking at stuff. We’re getting stuff done and making arrests, and all that,” but it’s not actually the arrests that count.
27:10 Aaron Ross Powell: How much of that difference that those low clearance rates on the homicides are about the nature of the crimes?
27:19 Trevor Burrus: Increasingly more, I think, because…
27:23 Aaron Ross Powell: So it’s one thing if the murder, like a wife is killed in a small town, you can be pretty certain that it was probably someone she knew and very likely her husband. The pool of suspects is very small and is localized. You can solve these things. I mean, I’m thinking of there’s a wonderful essay by the detective novelist Raymond Chandler called The Simple Art of Murder, where he just goes off on British murder mysteries as he just can’t stand ‘em. And he says, “The hardest mystery to solve is the one that was just a random shooting in an alley where the person dropped the gun,” but that’s what a lot of these crimes are. And so is it just these are really hard crimes to solve and they just happen to be the ones that are concentrated in these communities?
28:08 Jonathan Blanks: Yes and no. It’s difficult to put a number on it, I’m certainly not capable of doing that, but…
28:15 Trevor Burrus: It’s also difficult to know things about unsolved crimes, but…
28:18 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, sure. But in so far as you don’t have that community cooperation, they’re just not coming forward and they’re fearful, but they also don’t trust the police. It’s a reinforcing mechanism. And then when you are solving these other crimes, whether it’s murder or burglary, or some other violent crime, but when you’re not catching the offenders when they’re committing one crime, they’ll be emboldened to do it again, which is just gonna be increasing the cycle of violence.
28:55 Trevor Burrus: In the broader swath of American history, we personally discuss all the time different things that we should be more aware of in terms of Black history as American history. As Aaron alluded to previously, there is a disturbing ability for conservatives and even libertarians to say, “Well, we solved racism and slavery, and we passed the Civil Rights Act, even if some people don’t agree with the Civil Rights Act, but we passed the Civil Rights Act. Now, anything is on them, is on African‐Americans.”
29:23 Aaron Ross Powell: Or to simply say that it’s almost a category mistake to even talk about these issues is the pushback that…
29:30 Trevor Burrus: From the libertarians…
29:32 Aaron Ross Powell: So when we post, particularly your articles that you’ve written for libertarianism.org, which touch on a lot of these themes on Facebook, we get a lot of comments, and a lot of them are angry comments. And a lot of the angry comments take the form of like, “This is just about individual rights. You shouldn’t be talking about issues in Black America,” or we shouldn’t be talking about issues that are about women, or immigrants, or minorities, or whatever, it’s just individual rights, and that’s the only kind of lens through which we should view it. And so, as long as we respect individual rights, done.
30:04 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah. So, these arguments kind of follow a pattern over time, and it’s always sort of like, “Oh, you know,” sort of the conceit is, “Well, if we stop focusing on the fact that they’re black and people like Al Sharpton stop telling people that they’re being oppressed, they will not know it.” Al Sharpton isn’t informing anyone that doesn’t know it that the police treat black people differently. And that is just common everywhere, but it goes way, way back. There’s a movement now that libertarians are pushing up against and…
30:41 Trevor Burrus: Some libertarians.
30:42 Jonathan Blanks: Some libertarians [chuckle] are putting up against, which is talking about sort of American racial capitalism, and that this is sort of in the mold of supporting socialism, which is of course resurgent in American politics, that it’s American capitalism, ’cause it was rooted in slavery and that it affects so much to this day. There is a certain amount of truth to that, that certainly racism developed and was codified in American laws to support the institution of slavery, which got some people rich. Now, the economists can argue about whether or not empirically America got rich because of slavery, or as some libertarians wanna say, it got rich in spite of slavery, and it’s like actually free market capitalism that kept it free, and that slavery is a drag on the economy.
31:30 Jonathan Blanks: But nevertheless, it is absolutely true that American racism is tied to slavery, and that has never really left us. It has become, instead of just like this sort of economic tool of capitalism, that… Or excuse me, the slave economies, it has become a social issue that it’s reflected in so many of our institutions, whether it’s law enforcement, whether it’s where we live. I said the segregation, this is all coming down from people believing that race is either endemic or in the early 20th century you had eugenics and this belief that some races are good, some races are not so good. And it’s just like there was no point in American history where racism stopped being a problem. There’s no date, it wasn’t 1968. It would kind of fly in the face of a lot of libertarian theory if it did, that you’re not supposed to be able to change minds with laws, yet here we are.
32:31 Jonathan Blanks: So I think not understanding how pervasive… Just thinking of race as some sort of issue that is going to change how people think about each other. For example, when I tell people that I’m black, their idea of who I am changes, it’s not necessarily always malicious, they’re not like, “Oh, I don’t want you to date my daughter,” although that has certainly happened in my life, it’s this… It’s just this social force that we have to reckon with. It’s a history, and we can try and get past it, we can be cognizant of it, but too often, it’s just sort of like, “Well, individual rights… We shouldn’t be thinking of… We shouldn’t think about this guy as a black guy,” but it’s like, “He gets treated differently because he’s black,” and we should acknowledge that.
33:15 Trevor Burrus: I think some of the things that conservatives think is that when it’s over‐sold… And from the left, it can be over‐sold. I was hanging out, I was on a speaking date at the Federal Society speaking to it, and I was hanging out with some of the law students, and they were talking about how one of their professors was going on about how it’s never been more dangerous to be a black man in the United States, and they were just like, “It has been more dangerous to be a black man in the United States.” And they were saying… Well, they were trying to argue with her like, “Lynchings, very common, exonerated. Slavery… Just name your period.” But she wouldn’t hear of it, she was saying that nothing has changed, everything is as bad it’s ever been. And sometimes from… More from the left and from Black Lives Matter people, a movement I support, but it does seem like there’s… We’ve made no progress since 1955 or 1935, it’s not the same as it was before.
34:09 Jonathan Blanks: No, no, things have gotten better. But in many ways, it’s… In different ways, it’s gotten sort of worse, right? It’s…
34:17 Trevor Burrus: Or at least more insidious.
34:19 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, more… Yeah, more insidious, yeah. I think the… Obviously, I think your average black American is economically better off than 100 years ago, clearly, but the problem is the number of black people with criminal records from this over‐policing and over‐incarceration that we talk about, that’s not insignificant, right? And then that brings all of its attendant problems with hardships in getting jobs, trying to get places to live and all that sort of stuff. So there are still rules, and there are still problems. Is it Jim Crow South? No, of course not. It’s very unlikely outside of your little, small sects of racist alt‐right groups and that sort of thing that are occasionally engaging in violence. But that’s not the same thing as Emmett Till getting lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman, which he didn’t do. So it’s different, and it’s better, but that shouldn’t be that it’s… That there isn’t still a long way to go, we’re nowhere near the equality and just opportunity that we’re talking about.
35:33 Jonathan Blanks: And I sometimes cringe when I hear libertarians say it’s like, “Well, we believe in equal opportunity, but not equal outcomes.” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure, that makes sense in the abstract,” but the fact of the matter is, it’s not like we’re born with tabula rasa and what… The wealth of your family is necessarily the wealth of mine through intergenerational wealth transfers, through legacies of slavery, all these different issues; where you live, the poverty of that area, the job opportunities, transportation, all that sort of stuff comes into it, and now we have these segregated pockets where we have a growing black middle class, which is great. But the people who get left behind are in somewhat… Are in pretty dire straits sometimes. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t white people in West Virginia that are also struggling with opioid addiction and joblessness.
36:26 Trevor Burrus: They also don’t have intergenerational wealth and they’re also poor and stuff, they also have hardships. Does the racial one make it different?
36:34 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, because it’s the system that doesn’t treat you equally, that it’s… It… Even if you’re poor, and you’re white, sort of like the way they sort of divided the races back in the day, there were a lot of poor whites that were living in that slave economy that were losing jobs because there was a slave economy, it’s like, “Well, at least, I’m not black,” and they obviously would use a different word. And that sort of thing, that still is… That still kind of exists, right? That I think that a lot of people in poor areas, not that the police officers don’t abuse their powers there too, that’s absolutely true, but it’s like they’re not going to get… That the system is set up against them pretty much across the board, I don’t think that’s the same… It’s the same. It’s not that they don’t have their own problems. And just because they are white doesn’t mean like, “Oh, they’re… To be the poorest white is better than to be the richest black,” no, not at all.
37:35 Jonathan Blanks: But in so far as that when you have a systemic problem that is pervasive nationwide, it’s when you start looking at the disparity and statistics of policing and incarceration across the country, you would think there would be some deviation there, that… But no, black people are overwhelmingly, are over‐represented in incarceration all over the place, in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota where they make a very small portion of population, very large… Not super‐large, but a very disproportionate amount in prison. Other places where there aren’t any black people or hardly any black people at all, you learn about the history of being excluded from there. If there’s any place that’s really, really, really white in the United States, something in the past probably made that happen.
38:19 Trevor Burrus: Like Oregon.
38:20 Jonathan Blanks: Like Oregon.
38:21 Trevor Burrus: Oregon where it was illegal to be… Basically be a black person on property there in the Oregon constitution of, I believe, 1849. It was pretty bad.
38:30 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, I was re‐reading… Preparing for this podcast, I looked… Picked up Color of Law by Richard Rothstein again and was reminded of the fact that over time, after the Civil War, black people flocked to many places in the North and the West, including Montana. And there was a point where there were black people… A significant number of black people in every county of Montana, never a majority county or anything like that, but they were out there. And then over time, they got squeezed out, and to the point where it’s like… Yeah, I think in the capital of Montana, it’s one‐half of 1% now, even though it used to be like 3.5%, that that sort of thing, it’s either through social pressure or the law or a combination of the two that black people have been shifted out of places, sometimes when they started trying to make their own communities, like Black Wall Street in Tulsa, right?
39:22 Jonathan Blanks: They were like, “Okay, we can’t live with the whites, so we’re gonna have our own area.” The white people bombed it, and burned it to the ground, and killed a lot of people. That sort of thing, those legacies survive. And while it’s not that the sundown towns that were throughout the North, particularly where towns would have signs outside their city saying, in much harsher terms, “No black people after dark.” That affects where people live and what people there think of black people. And it doesn’t mean that everyone there is a racist, but they don’t stop and think about why there aren’t any black people around here.
40:09 Aaron Ross Powell: One of the other things that would seem to be a barrier to libertarians and conservatives listening to the message of the experience of a lot of the activists and the other people talking, most of the people talking about the kinds of issues that you’re talking about now, is the leftism of these people. So Colin Kaepernick, who I think history will look back on in admiration for starting the kneeling thing and…
40:40 Trevor Burrus: Just like Muhammad Ali.
40:42 Aaron Ross Powell: And that the reaction to his kneeling and other football players’ kneeling has been really repugnant in a lot of ways and a lot of double standards of, “I just wish that they would protest somewhere else. Don’t do it where I have to see it.” But I totally support their concerns about… But even he, I think he was at a press conference wearing a Che Guevara t‐shirt. This kind of hard leftism of a kind that is really anathema to the views of a lot of conservatives or at least what used to be conservatives, ’cause they tend to be economically a lot more left than they used to be now, but a lot of libertarians in particular, it seems to go hand‐in‐hand with much of this stuff. So you said like the Black Panthers were socialists.
41:25 Aaron Ross Powell: So on the one hand, it seems to be confusing that you would… If you’re people who have really experienced how degrading and oppressive the state can be, that you then think we should turn over more control to it over our economic lives and other things, seems like an interesting possible dissonance. But also just that connection that we wanna listen to you, but you’re also saying that we should abolish the free market and that we should do all these things that we in our libertarian hearts know would be incredibly damaging…
41:57 Jonathan Blanks: To everyone.
41:58 Aaron Ross Powell: To everyone.
41:58 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, right. Well, I’m not gonna get into what people like that think, but I will say that part of the reason why it’s the history there is that back in the early 20th century, like before the first Red scare, communists talk a good game. American capitalism was exclusive to white cis‐gendered couples, and mostly the men because the women mostly stayed home and did the cleaning and all that. The communists, on the other hand, were like, “Oh, we believe in racial equality. We believe that… ” Like the reason why people called communists Pinkos was it was a gay slur. And so, it’s that we hear that you are oppressed in in your free society, you know that you’re being oppressed, you know that these things are working against you, come to us.
42:53 Jonathan Blanks: Communism ebbed and flowed in the United States, but then of course you have these labor unions, and the labor unions which were once very exclusively white, that they tried to get the minimum wage passed to price out black workers and all that sort of stuff. But to their credit, they were on the frontlines in the March on Washington. It was the March on Washington for jobs and equality, that they were holding up union signs. And so, they went hand‐in‐hand with modern black liberation. So it makes sense that, as a political movement, that the left is going to be connected to… That people will be sympathetic to the left, because they were fighting against the power that is the American right and its capitalist ways. And you also have the fact that American right‐wing governments would depose African leaders who were trying to throw off the yokes of colonialism.
44:00 Jonathan Blanks: The United States sort of gave a wink and a nod to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, who was a socialist in Africa, that sort of thing. It’s like there is this hostility to the American right. And it’s like the socialists, whether or not their economics actually work, they talk a good game. And so I think, and the belief that capitalism is tied to the oppression, which again has historical roots, but sort of misses the point that racism has grown past just the economic problem.
44:31 Trevor Burrus: But also that capitalism doesn’t have to be tied to oppression. It was, just in the sense that there were businesses that only could have been profitable because of slave labor, or the economy would have been organized entirely differently than what it was if you had to pay for the labor at the prevailing wages. But that’s not capitalism, it doesn’t mean American capitalism inherently and necessarily was built on slavery, it just said, “We had slavery and then people were capitalists about it,” which I think is a misconception on the left in many ways.
45:05 Jonathan Blanks: Yeah, but this isn’t to say that the left always has it right.
45:08 Trevor Burrus: Oh, no, I know you’re not saying that. You still work at Cato.
45:13 Jonathan Blanks: Right, yeah. So you take Bernie Sanders, he’s very much in that old socialist mold: It’s class not race. We’ll talk a good game to get black people into the fold, but then we’re like, “Oh, no, the problem is really the man. It’s capitalists, it’s the power class, and we need to take their money and redistribute it and we’ll be able to support ourselves with our living wages, and healthcare, and all that.” But the fact of the matter is like he was kind of dragged into talking about race issues, ’cause he didn’t wanna do it. And that’s still a problem, if you don’t tackle the race issues and you somehow just make American capitalism go away, do you think American socialism is gonna be as colorblind as they would like to make it? I don’t think so. So it’s really a matter of being able to look at what it is that… Separating the racism from the economics and say, “Okay, economics and free markets should be… ” We should be talking about how to use these to empower black people to take more control of their lives, to being able to say, “Okay,” sort of in this Malcolm mold, where you’re just like, “Alright, the government is not here to protect you, you should be able to have better options to get a job and to save your money, and to do these things that we know you want to do.”
46:30 Jonathan Blanks: And it’s a matter of messaging, it’s a matter of finding ways to make this happen. School choice, obviously, is very popular, that it’s like, “Okay, so the government schools failed you, here’s an option out,” and being able to facilitate that. And being able to say, “This is a market‐driven thing,” you don’t have to call it a market issue; as I said, the Black Panthers, kind of libertarian, but they would never call it that. And if they were just like, “Hey, we wanna be socialists that privately fund these launches,” it’s fine by me. And being able to just really help people empower themselves.
47:23 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed Free Thoughts, please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.