Daniel J. Flynn of the conservative magazine Human Events thinks that American racism could have been whittled away by the power of the free market.
Businessmen motivated by racial solidarity rather than profits won’t stay in business. Landlords limiting tenants by race, storekeepers limiting customers by race, foremen limiting workers by race limit themselves just as they limit those they discriminate against. In a competitive system, this is called a competitive disadvantage. Other landlords, storekeepers, and foremen not hamstrung by bigotry will benefit by widening their pool of tenants, customers, and workers.
This is not an abstract proposition. The Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott is one of many examples of money trumping bigotry during the civil rights movement. In the free market, it’s not about black or white or yellow. It’s about green.
It actually is a pretty abstract proposition, since this is never the way American life, and the crushing racism of the Jim Crow South in particular, actually worked. Flynn’s example assumes a past in which Negroes had economic leverage with whites and their institutions, that some white business owner would have graciously accepted black patronage because, well, money is money. But even the most mundane transactions between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South were proscribed by custom and law, and backed up by the prospect of bloodshed. So who was going to complain that the white
renterlandlord was gauging him on the rent, or that the white foreman cheated him out of a day’s work? And to whom would that person appeal? Which white business owners were willing to risk the loss of their white clientele (or a melee) for suggesting that they dine or watch movies next to Negroes? In this world, the competitive advantage actually lay with the people who never paid their sharecroppers a cent for their labor, who didn’t sully their store’s reputations by selling to niggers.
Indeed, the Montgomery bus boycott succeeded because the city’s bus system was the rare service used by whites that also required black folks’ money to effectively function. Black folks couldn’t have actively boycotted their way into better housing or schools — because, you know, their exclusion from the marketplace for these things was the whole point of segregation — nor were they afforded the means to build wealth independently to create their own comparable institutions. (When folks did carve out pockets of economic independence, they were short-lived and their ends were often very bloody.) Flynn’s free-market answer to American racism only works in a world where a straightforward economic decision — like choosing to send your daughter to the better elementary school closer to your home — didn’t require a National Guard escort to keep her from being killed when she got there. That world was not ours.