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Classical Liberalism and Racial Justice
Ben Klutsey talks with Rachel Ferguson and Marcus Witcher about Black American history and how to bridge racial divides
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today in our series on liberalism, we’re talking to the authors of the book “Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.” Rachel Ferguson is a philosopher. She’s a professor at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest, Illinois. She’s assistant dean of the College of Business and director of the Free Enterprise Center. Her research interests include Hume’s classical liberalism, the philosophy of economics and Aristotelian virtue theory.
Marcus Witcher is an assistant professor of history at Huntington College in Montgomery, Alabama. His first book, “Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016,” was published by the University Press of Kansas in 2019. Dr. Witcher is also the co-editor of the three-volume “Public Choice Analyses of American Economic History” of 2019 and is the co-editor of “Conversations on Conservatism: Speeches from the Philadelphia Society” in 2021.
Well, thank you guys for joining us today.
RACHEL FERGUSON: Thanks for having us.
MARCUS WITCHER: Thanks for having us.
The Liberal Revolution and Marginalized Communities
KLUTSEY: We’ll just delve right in. You explicitly employ a classical liberal lens to address the questions of racial justice in the history of Black America. First of all, what do you mean by classical liberalism, and why do you think classical liberalism is a useful lens for understanding the history and future of racial justice in America?
To tease this up, let me lift this quote from your book where you’re referring to John Tomasi’s book “Free Market Fairness,” where you’re highlighting that the liberal revolution is by far the greatest thing that could happen to poor people, marginalized people and oppressed people since it restricts the power of government to oppress you, requires that the law protect you from the oppression of your neighbors and frees you up to participate in really effective systems of voluntary cooperation, whether these be economic or social. Tell us more about classical liberalism.
FERGUSON: Well, this book is written for a popular audience, so we tried to keep it very straightforward. And we really talked about three institutions and two values with regard to classical liberalism. Our three institutions are private property rights, freedom of contract and the equal protection of the rule of just laws. Our two values are a real value for the incredible productivity and liberatory power of a free market, as well as the need for really thick civil society institutions and a culture of cooperation, of voluntary association.
That’s how we’re outlining classical liberalism. And as you pointed out, from “Free Market Fairness,” we go back and look at some of the great thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, and we noticed that they all really were impressed by the way that a liberal society works for regular people. Not just for elites, regular day laborers whose lives are getting much, much better in many ways as a result of living in a liberal society.
We want to respond to the criticism that maybe people get if they value the founding or something like that, that they are in a tradition that doesn’t care about the poor or the downtrodden. We think that that’s coming from a certain narrative that is incorrect, and so we’re addressing that.
WITCHER: I think it’s really important to recognize that the founders were themselves classical liberals. And as a historian, when we look at the long trajectory of human history, classical liberalism and liberalism as it manifested out of the Enlightenment, and then of course in the 19th century and on, has been extraordinarily liberating to people across the globe.
Taking a longer view of history, there’s no wonder why we’d want to apply the values of classical liberalism to Black Americans because classical liberalism has been proven to work at lifting people out of poverty since at least the late 18th century. Like Rachel said, I think we’re pushing back against a narrative that says that classical liberalism or the values of the founding doesn’t have answers for today. It does, absolutely.
At the same time, we’re trying to push back against a conservative doctrine or a conservative narrative that tries to say, “Well, if you venerate the founding, you can’t criticize the fact that we didn’t live up to these values.” One of the things we try to do in the book is say that the problem was not classical liberalism. The problem was not the values. The problem was that flawed men did not live up to the values, that our institutions didn’t live up to the values of our own founding and of liberalism. That’s one of the things we try to tease out throughout the book.
KLUTSEY: Very interesting. One of the critiques we’ve heard about classical liberalism from another scholar and classical liberal himself, who was in this series, Richard Ebeling, did mention that a lot of classical liberals, the prominent classical liberals, did not speak up or were fairly silent with regard to the oppression of Black people—like Mises, Hayek and these folks. I think that fosters a lot of distrust about whether classical liberals really mean that they care about oppression and these types of things. I wonder if that makes it a little bit difficult for you guys in talking about these ideas and promoting classical liberalism?
FERGUSON: Well, one of the things I was actually really pleased to discover as I researched for the book is that there’s an incredibly strong pro-Black classical liberal tradition. I didn’t even know—as a person who’s been in the liberty movement for 25 years—I hadn’t actually been taught, ever, that a major portion of the abolitionist movement was driven by serious classical liberals, free marketeers who were so intense in their views that a person like [William Lloyd] Garrison, for instance, could say that he wished he could shut down every tariff house in the world. He had very extreme free market views, and he was also a very extreme abolitionist.
He and many of his followers were people who saw this all as part of a nonviolent, maybe a Christian nonviolent perspective on the world. And he had a huge influence, of course, especially through Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass is another example of a loud and proud classical liberal who was obviously fighting for the rights of Black Americans, but it goes on.
For instance, two of the major co-founders of the NAACP were serious classical liberals: Moorfield Storey, Oswald Garrison Villard. And Rose Wilder Lane, who’s considered one of the three mothers of libertarianism—and she’s the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder—she wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, which was the biggest Black newspaper in the United States. She was fighting for Black rights from a libertarian perspective and actually trying to educate her white compatriots on what Blacks were really dealing with, because she was shocked herself to understand just how widespread, for instance, the lynching terrorism was and things like that.
You have other heterodox thinkers like Zora Neale Hurston and so forth—highly individualistic, anti-New Deal, anti-communist. Others, George Schuyler, T.R.M. Howard, et cetera, that we could discuss. I think we have to admit that you do have classical liberal thinkers who seem to not notice or not think it’s worth commenting on that a certain group of Americans is being excluded from the basic institutions that underlie economic flourishing. And I think we have to face up to that and call those people out.
On the other hand, you really do have a strand of pro-Black classical liberalism that makes a real difference in our history, in the civil rights movement, in the rise of the NAACP, going all the way back to actually the end of slavery. That was very exciting and a wonderful thing to discover. Then, of course, modern libertarians have been some of the most sensitive to issues like the drug war and the mass incarceration crisis and been willing to face those together with the Black community.
I think that we have a little more to our credit than we often are aware of. But on the other hand, we do have to face the fact that some of our members have been silent where they should’ve spoken.
WITCHER: To add to that, no intellectual movement is without people who didn’t speak up in the face of tyranny, who didn’t speak up in the face of injustice. Progressives cannot claim 100% of everybody who was a progressive spoke out against subjugation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If you look at the history that we outlined in the book, we take progressivism to task. The reality is that progressivism in the 1910s, 1920s was intertangled with eugenics, and it was intertangled with scientific racism.
I would argue that yes, sure, there are some classical liberals like F.A. Hayek, who seemingly doesn’t apply the principles that he espouses to Black Americans, and that’s lamentable. And I think we should lament it, and we should call him out for it. But the reality is that I think classical liberals actually are a lot better than either conservatives or progressives when it comes to calling out past injustices, and I think we need to remember that.
When someone like Ebeling says we need to call out our own, I’m with him, we should. But we also have to keep in mind that we have a better record on these issues than even progressives do. I just want to add, Friedman was quite good on civil rights issues. I also think that Ayn Rand was quite good on this, and it may be just because she was so totalizingly an individualist, that she despised racism because it was the nastiest form of collectivism.
I know that Rachel doesn’t like to give—or she doesn’t talk about Rand very much—but Rand actually deserves some credit here because she was fiercely for individualism. Of course, you can’t be an individualist, at least I don’t think, and embrace collectivist notions such as race and racism. David Beito and I are actually putting together an entire edited collection right now, which hopefully will be out in the spring next year, of Rose Wilder Lane’s op-eds from the Pittsburgh Courier, and they are really quite good on racial issues.
FERGUSON: Yes. Just to second Marcus’ point here, a lot of those progressive eugenicist policies have been the most destructive policies to the Black community ever, historically speaking. When you look at things like the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining policies, the way that the federal highway system was built, projects like urban renewal, these are massive progressive social engineering projects that totally undermined, in many ways, everything that Blacks had worked so hard to build up until the 1960s. They really do need to address that in their own camp.
Rejecting Social Justice?
KLUTSEY: Very fascinating. And I’m glad that you guys are doing this research so that others can learn about this. Now, racial justice seems closely linked to social justice, and readers familiar with the ideas of classical liberalism might be thinking of Hayek’s explicit rejection of social justice. What are Hayek and other classical liberals who reject concerns over social justice out of hand missing? What are they missing?
FERGUSON: The term “social justice” is notoriously difficult to define. We have to take into account what Hayek means when he uses the term, and he’s very explicit. He’s talking about social justice in the sense of trying to achieve perfect material equality of outcomes through massive redistribution. He’s absolutely right to critique that as strongly as you possibly can because that kind of a goal requires tyranny. It would be a terrible thing to try and achieve.
I think that many of our neighbors, people at our churches or just our friends who are loosely using the term “social justice” these days often just mean something like speaking up for those who don’t have a voice, people who get ignored in the system. They’re right about that. That is just the way human society is. There are some people who, because they are poor, because they are forgotten, because they are maybe economically or socially “unimportant,” will need our extra attention in order for their rights to be maintained. That is something which we are arguing we can do through civil society or through reasonable kinds of legislation.
We don’t necessarily think we need to do anything radical to do that, but we do need to do it. And so it becomes a question of not disagreeing on the goal of speaking up for those people, but rather, debating what are the best means of doing so.
WITCHER: Yes, I think one of the things that’s thrown some of the conservative commentators, radio hosts, et cetera, who’ve had us on to speak to them is the idea that we actually agree that systemic injustice exists. We agree with the left on those things, that there is true social injustice that we need to address. We just disagree about the means by which to address those injustices, as Rachel pointed out.
We want to remove barriers to human flourishing, to free enterprise, to people to truck and barter and be entrepreneurial. And we want to address past injustices that have occurred through transitional justice and through neighborhood stabilization and things like that—programs and tactics that might actually bring about flourishing instead of simply hand-waving, creating another government program that will be mismanaged and ultimately won’t help the very people that it was designed to help.
FERGUSON: Yes, and I’ll just add that I hear people say a lot that Hayek really only cares about person-to-person injustice, that injustice is always a matter of individual violation. Of course, his whole idea in “The Constitution of Liberty” is that you have to have a certain infrastructure of law. Within that infrastructure of law, we care about person-to-person injustices, but if you have a system that those rights don’t exist within, then the whole system is unjust. Or you can have a system which excludes certain groups, and then that would be unjust in a systemic way. That’s a totally Hayekian insight. You don’t have to go to Marx to get the idea of systemic injustice.
Unbundling Political Frameworks
KLUTSEY: Absolutely. Now, I’d love for you to elaborate on what you call “unbundling.” In the book you say, “We cannot fruitfully address issues of racial justice without first committing ourselves to a process of unbundling.” I guess the view here is that the issues don’t fit neatly into our political and policy frameworks. Say more about what unbundling is and how it helps us to deal with issues related to racial justice.
FERGUSON: No better time than the present to be discussing this because we’re more polarized and tribalized than ever—or maybe not than ever, but since the mid-19th century. It’s true that when you’re organizing a political platform, you have to bundle ideas together and say, “Well, we’ve got this view on foreign policy, and we’ve got this view on domestic economy.” You’re putting them all together into one party platform.
Oftentimes, these have gone together almost as a matter of historical accident. I always think of certain examples like the first feminists were pro-life, or the first environmentalists were conservative. There’s a lot of things that went a certain way just as a result of historical accident, but that doesn’t mean that those ideas necessarily go together, philosophically speaking.
We have to take ideas or policy prescriptions one at a time and consider them separately, which can be very hard to do because we’re so used to being on an ideological team. And sometimes we have to push back against our team in order to do that.
One of the reasons I especially wanted to emphasize this Black liberation through the marketplace is that Black Americans do not fit well into the majority cultural, political categories. While they tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, they also tend to poll quite socially conservative, tend to be highly religious, quite entrepreneurial, not interested in socialism, et cetera. If we’re going to honor the Black American tradition, we have to step outside of the majority cultural, political lines in order to really grasp what’s going on in that community.
WITCHER: I also just think it’s really essential to emphasize to readers, and to really all Americans, that it’s really hard to communicate with one another if we’re on team red and we’re on team blue. It’s really, really difficult to convey ideas. One of the things we try to get across to readers really early on is that we need you to set aside your team. We need you to put your penny over on the sidelines, take it off, and we need you to think about these issues from a certain set of principles.
Once we apply the principles, which of course are the principles of individual liberty through the classical liberal tradition, I think conservatives can come on board with most of the points we make in the book. And I think progressives also can empathize or can at least understand where we’re coming from in terms of criticizing the centralized state and the things it has done historically.
I think that one of the things that we’re really calling on Americans to do—all Americans, on the right and on the left—is to just address this issue with a sense of intellectual humility, address this issue with a sense of intellectual curiousness and to try and actually learn from one another. What a better world—I’m speaking idealistically now—we would live in if people would actually try to understand one another rather than just reflexively trying to figure out, “Oh, Rachel Ferguson wrote this book. Is she team blue? I don’t know. She capitalized the word ‘Black’; maybe she’s team blue. I should probably not listen to anything else that Rachel Ferguson said because she’s a crazy woke person.” All right. Shut down conversation.
We’ve got to do better in terms of unbundling. We’ve got to do better by getting out of our teams, because I think it’s the only way we can truly begin to communicate with one another. Once we do begin to communicate with one another, most of us—Proud Boys excluded—want the same thing for all Americans. We want flourishing, we want prosperity, we want equal opportunity, we want good healthcare, we want good education.
The question is how we get there. We think classical liberalism, markets, entrepreneurship, civil society is the way. And we hope people will give us an opportunity to convince them of that.
Liberalism vs. Conservative Triumphalism and Progressive Anti-Racism
KLUTSEY: I think you make a great point about team blue and team red. I think that political parties have been incredibly successful in pushing all of us into one or the other camp, such that the political identity has taken on a whole new identity for most of us. It’s almost become a lifestyle for a lot of people, to the extent that one can determine to a certain degree of success by the car you drive, where you get your coffee, where you shop, which team you’re on. That’s incredibly scary. That’s why people are reading so much into whether you’re capitalizing “B” in “Black” or whatever the case might be. I’m glad you guys are doing this.
What are the other major lenses available for understanding the issue? How does the classical liberal approach compare to critical theory or anti-racist approaches on the left and nationalistic narratives that whitewash past injustices from the right, for example?
WITCHER: Rachel, do you mind if I take the conservative view, and then I can flip it to you for the other? As a historian, as someone who teaches history to students who just graduated from high school, freshman college students, I’m always really shocked by what they learned in high school or what they didn’t learn in high school. I know that our high school textbooks today are much better than they were in the 1960s and the 1970s, but they still shy away from controversial subjects.
Most of my students who come into my American Nation II (which is American history since 1865) class, when they think about the civil rights movement or when they think about Black history, they think about emancipation. And then there was something with water fountains where Black people drink from different water fountains, called Jim Crow, vaguely. And then there was civil rights, and then there was liberation.
It’s very basic and vague. One of the things that always shocks them is when we talk about the horrors of Jim Crow, when we talk about convict leasing, when we talk about things like the Tulsa Massacre, which most of them had never heard of until the last couple years, when it started to get some real traction. I think that on the right, there’s this attempt to frame American history—and it’s been pretty successful historically—as a triumphalist narrative in which America is seen as this hero, if you will.
We came forward with the ideas of independence, and then we had to grapple with ourselves a little bit, but we did that in the Civil War and we fixed the Constitution and whatnot. Then there was some Jim Crow, whatnot. We won World War I, we won World War II. People have their back-to-back world war champ shirts that they like to wear around. And then we won the Cold War, and we’ve liberated the world, and America is great.
To a certain extent, there’s some truth to that. I think America is great, but I think the narratives that we get handed down from these textbooks are doing a disservice, to a large extent, to our students. When they get to my class, I’m just always shocked at how much they learned in that first or second semester of American history, how much they don’t know about what you might call the darker aspects of American history.
I try to convince them that what makes America great is not the fact that we were always perfect, but the fact that we actually grappled with our failures and our failures to live up to our ideals. You can’t talk about these things, or you couldn’t talk about these things in, say, Soviet Russia—talk about the failures of Stalin. Khrushchev did, in his secret speech, but it was not something that was really encouraged, a discussion about the failures of leadership.
I think conservatives have presented a narrative of American history that’s triumphalist. And we’re trying to push back against that triumphalist narrative without jettisoning the real liberal values that led to economic flourishing, prosperity, individual liberty, et cetera.
FERGUSON: Actually, following up on that, it follows really well because you also need to appreciate the way that America has sometimes made progress and sometimes moved backward. For instance, when you look at some critical theory or third-wave anti-racist rhetoric, they’re smushing all of American history together into its worst periods with regard to race. But actually, at the time of the founding, things had not really concretized.
Slavery was treated, by many of the founders, as a necessary evil. The idea of it being a positive good isn’t even raised until the late 1820s. That’s not even a concept until, frankly, the Southerners needed to come up with a justification in the face of all the abolitionist criticism they were getting. That’s really what happened. What you see is racism actually gets much worse for a period of time in American history. Then we have to recover from that.
What that gives us, though, is a way of seeing that at the American founding, there was a real sense of tension and lament over the compromise that was made with the South and a fear, actually, that slavery would be the undoing of the American republic because it was totally incompatible with a free society. That was pretty well understood by a decent number of the founders.
The idea that you can go back to the founding for some wisdom on how to create a liberal society becomes a lot easier to accept when you see how much they themselves saw the incompatibility of racial slavery with the American dream, so to speak, the American project.
I think one of the differences I would name with things like critical theory or third-wave anti-racism is that they have such a dark or despairing view of the American project, feeling like there’s no redemption for it because of the role that racism played. Where I think if you do a more careful reading of the history, you can actually separate out the elements that you want to redeem and the ones that you want to leave behind.
Bridging Racial Divisions
KLUTSEY: You’re making the case that we should have a more balanced view of the way things are, the current state of affairs. I wonder if you’ve looked at the data on this in terms of race relations and where we are. When I look at the data that shows that negative attitudes toward interparty marriages are worse than interfaith or interrace, in some ways it’s not a great data point to cite.
But in some ways it’s somewhat positive that we’re no longer as divided on race as we used to be, if you take a long view of history, especially. Maybe, like we saw with organizations fighting racial division, we are seeing something similar now with political division part of things. There’s a rise of civil society groups and organizations that are really trying to push hard on addressing the problem.
If you go to an organization like Listen First that is affiliated with about 400+ organizations that are part of this thing called the bridging movement—we are involved in that effort as well, in trying to connect people and bridge divides—I think the awareness now is important, and people are doing a lot of hard work to bridge divides. We’re not saying that everything has been solved in the area of race relations, but there have been great strides made by civil society institutions fighting back against a culture and government that sought explicitly to divide them by race.
WITCHER: I think that’s a really important point, Ben, and I also think it gets back to the narratives that you asked us about a little bit earlier. I think there is a narrative on the left—and I could be wrong about this; maybe Rachel disagrees, I don’t know if we’ve talked about it—that things are worse than they were in the 1960s somehow. As a historian, I don’t doubt that there’s real bias that still exists; there’s still systemic injustice. But the idea that things are worse today than they were in 1963 in Birmingham blows my mind.
As a historian, if you see the images of the police unleashing dogs and fire hydrants on young Black children—I don’t know. I think it’s important to point out and to mention and to remind a young generation of Americans who have only grown up in this world that we exist in, that we have actually come quite far in the course of 60 years or so. There’s still work to do; we have lots of work to do; there’s injustice that has to be stamped out.
But I do think that’s an important point, Ben, that we need to remember that those numbers show us that there’s been significant progress. I hope you’re right, that political differences prove to be easier to bridge than racial differences were. Hopefully, it doesn’t take us 60 years before young Democratic kids marry young Republican kids.
FERGUSON: I also want to add, I do think that there’s a real value here to some of the heterodox Black scholars, like Wilfred Reilly or Glenn Loury, who are pushing back on some of the narratives like police are hunting down Black men in the street because they’re saying, “Let’s be in reality.” We do this in the book. We show that there is racism in policing, but it’s not racism that really is the primary issue that needs to be addressed when it comes to policing, but rather accountability.
You can talk about similar issues in the mass incarceration crisis with regard to prosecutor accountability and the way that some of these things fall along racial lines, but they can also fall along class lines. And so there is a narrative that makes things seem a lot worse than they are by racializing problems that are really about something else, or maybe are partially racial but partially about something else, but also exaggerating the problem.
You have a problem with police, and we address this very strongly in the book. But there are only 12 unarmed Black men killed in a year. If you go out and poll people, they’ll say 1,000, and so our ideas of reality are really whacked. Just recently, Samuel Perry was saying on Twitter that if you polled Republicans and Democrats, their concepts of one another are way out of line. Democrats think that 50% of Republicans make over $250,000 a year, and it’s 4% or 2%. It’s totally off. Republicans think that 30% of Democrats are LGBTQ+, and it’s 6%. The ideas are just really confused, and that’s our echo chambers at work.
Criminal Justice Reform
KLUTSEY: I’m glad you brought up criminal justice because I wanted to ask you a question about that. It seems as though Black people, particularly Black men, are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system. Are there other explanations besides simple discrimination? What’s the classical liberal solution that can cut across the divide and bring people of different ideological backgrounds to find common ground on this?
FERGUSON: I should say there are explanations that are different from current direct racism. If you go back historically, and you look at what we talk about when we talk about highways and redlining and urban renewal and the way that poor Black Americans were ghettoized almost purposefully, what you see is the creation of a very unstable situation in our inner cities that is just going to lead to high levels of crime. Concentrated poverty is always not only going to create more criminal feedback loops, but it’s also going to create more police surveillance, as compared to the dispersed poverty that you get in rural white America.
I’m speaking in generalities here, of course. There are ways in which poor Black men have been caught up in actual crime at higher rates, because of this long history which includes things like the way that the Great Society and the welfare state undermined family structure by creating deeply perverse incentives. That’s all part of the story. What we see is that the left and the right actually both have very good points about the way that this situation in ghettoized American inner cities was created.
You can show how, for instance, the killing of people by police is actually fairly even between Black and white people, and even the people doing the killing are sometimes Black. Or that Black police have just as high of a rate of police brutality as white police do. It’s a little confusing to describe that as racist, but it could certainly be classist or something else.
But you do see racial discrepancies that persist when it comes to things like getting roughed up, serving longer sentences, et cetera. A lot of that social science is very hard to untangle. We quote Glenn Loury saying, “Social science is harder than physics,” because it really is. There’s a lot of uncontrolled variables there. But what we say is, clearly there is some actual racism still going on here, but there’s actually all of this history and this economic situation that’s been created by nonproximate causes, causes that go way back.
Now the problems that exist are problems like the loss of employment networks and the loss of family structure. Those things may have been caused by serious racist policies, but that doesn’t mean that right now we don’t need mentors for dads and mentors for kids. We need people to come in and help get young kids into jobs and things like that, young teens, so that they’re on that first rung of the employment ladder.
So we can acknowledge the conservative perspective too, which is that this cultural fallout does exist. It’s just that what the conservatives don’t always tell you is what brought it about, or tell the full story. And so we can acknowledge what the left is saying with regard to the story but acknowledge what the conservatives are saying with regard to the cultural fallout.
WITCHER: I actually think that this is one of the areas where there’s the opportunity for real bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. We’ve seen it done in places like Texas and Georgia, this idea that we should end the war on drugs. You might not want to call it that for conservatives, but the reality is that we incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world. It’s not even close. The land of the free has the largest number of people in jails and prisons, and so that costs a lot of money.
Hypothetically, conservatives care about balancing budgets. I’m not sure they actually do in practice, at least at the federal level. But the reality is that they’re supposedly fiscal conservatives. If there’s a way to move to a more of a rehabilitation format, to where we quit incarcerating people, that will ultimately lead to less money being spent by the state in caring for people in perpetuity. I think there’s real ways in which conservatives can get on board with criminal justice reform.
Obviously, progressives can get on board because this is injustice. Black men are being targeted disproportionately to white men when we talk about drug charges, et cetera. I think the left is already there. And President Trump passed the first major federal criminal justice reform during his administration. I think there’s hope that criminal justice reform might be able to move forward in a bipartisan manner.
Now, having said that, we are what? Almost two years into the Biden administration, and we’ve yet to get anything in terms of criminal justice reform from the federal government. But I think that it’s possible. This is one of those areas where it’s possible to remove barriers, to remove bad pieces of legislation that harm, disproportionately regardless of the reasons why, Black Americans. I think we absolutely have an opportunity to do that. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been prioritized by the current administration, but I’m a bit puzzled by a lot of things going on in the current administration.
The other thing I will say just briefly is that I think it’s important to emphasize, when we talk about criminal justice reform, the way it’s framed, it cannot be anti-police. It has to be framed as benefiting police. Criminal justice reform, ending the war on drugs, will benefit police officers because it will quit putting police officers into bad situations in which their lives are at risk through contact.
Police officers are put in really stressful situations where they have to make split-second decisions, because they’re overpolicing these areas. We’ve got to end the overpolicing, and in doing so we should come at it from an angle that talks about the benefits to police. That way it can’t be easily framed by the police unions, et cetera, as being an anti-police reform.
This is pro-police. It’s pro-Black Americans. It’s pro-white Americans. It’s pro-all Americans. It’ll save us money in the long run, and it will put people back in their communities where they can be dads, where they can go to church, where they can be involved in civil society. I don’t see how there’s anything other than positives from criminal justice reform.
KLUTSEY: You document a lot of historic and systemic injustices in your book. I’m wondering, was there one or a couple that really surprised you? You’re a historian and philosopher; you’re familiar with these issues. But was there anything in terms of the things you’re looking at about systemic injustices that completely shocked you that you didn’t know before?
WITCHER: I’m always horrified every time I return to convict leasing in the 1880s and the 1890s across the South. Even though I’ve read about it—I was horrified the first time I ever read about it. I continued to be horrified by the details of convict leasing. But one of the things that most Americans don’t know, and one of the things that I didn’t know until graduate school, when I was reading books like “Slavery by Another Name,” another book called “One Dies, Get Another”—which is quite the title—which really captures the essence of convict leasing, how brutal it was and how systematic the laws were that were put into effect by Southern state legislatures.
Convict leasing, for those who aren’t familiar, existed across the South in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s. What happened is, there was a series of laws known as the Pig Laws that were passed, that basically criminalized and made felonies out of things that previously would’ve been misdemeanors, very small fines. Stealing something like a 5-cent fence post could end up being a felony, and you’d get hit with a big fine. You’d end up in jail.
Then what emerged is that they had such an overpopulation of “criminals” that then the local sheriffs would lease the convicts out to local businesses. It’s corporatism run amok. The government would then lease these convicts to businesses. The Comers owned mines in Birmingham—the mines are always one of these horrific examples. These young Black men, predominantly young Black men who were targeted by things like vagrancy laws . . . If you were in a town and people didn’t know who you were, they’d ask you to prove that you had a job. If you couldn’t provide a letter that said you had a job, or you didn’t have a certain amount of money, you could be arrested and then be hit with a fine. And then you’d be leased out, and you’d have to work off that fine.
In the camps where these men were sent, the death rates are just astronomical. We’re talking tens of thousands of men, predominantly Black men. There were some young white men as well who died in these circumstances, but predominantly young Black men died in these camps—which, I have to say, are not dissimilar from gulags that I’ve read about in thinking about the Soviet Union, their labor camps, their work camps.
It’s really quite crazy, the amount of food they’re given and the lack of care, the lack of medical care, et cetera, that’s provided to them. I think, for me, convict leasing is always shocking. When we started digging into the research for that, I was really, really appalled at the number of people who died and the ways in which they died. In some ways, it truly was worse than slavery.
FERGUSON: Yes, that one was incredibly shocking for me. It’s very disturbing to read the history of eugenicist thought in the United States. I think we casually think of that as a Nazi thing. When you read about just how popular, at the turn of the century and for several decades, eugenicist concepts were—the support of the Aryan male head of household at the expense of immigrants, women and Blacks, the disabled—some of the language that’s used is shocking.
Language in economics textbooks that were read all over the country saying things like, “Well, it’s too bad we haven’t reached the point where we can just chloroform undesirables.” You’re thinking, “What?” It sounds like a conspiracy theory unless you show people the actual quotes. It’s just shocking. It’s only really the rise of Hitler, I think, that caused everybody to back off the way that they did.
How many tens of thousands of people were sterilized by force? Fannie Lou Hamer got what they called a Mississippi appendectomy, which meant that she had surgery, and unbeknownst to her, they tied her tubes. This stuff was done to many Native American women too. It’s shocking. It’s really shocking.
And I was also very shocked by just the straightforward lack of any concern for the rights of Black Americans that was shown with the building of the highway system and the urban renewal programs, even to the extent of not even caring whether they got just compensation for property that was confiscated. Many times it was just forgotten. Then by the time the urban renewal program came along, they weren’t even bothering to compensate people for their property.
The heartbreaking part was that in so many cases, for instance with the highways, you could actually watch the minutes of the town council meetings, where they’re deciding between one route that would work just as well and would disturb no one, and a route that would go right through the economic centers of Black and Latino communities, and choosing that one. It’s just heartbreaking.
KLUTSEY: Now, in terms of thinking about healing, you write about transitional justice as one of the approaches that we can think about. Can you unpack that for us? What is transitional justice?
FERGUSON: I came across this idea through a really short, wonderful article called “Finally Healing the Wounds of Jim Crow” in Fathom Magazine by Anthony Bradley, who’s a Black classical liberal himself at The King’s College in New York City. He was pointing out that, internationally, people have struggled with what to do when you’ve had a society-wide humanitarian crisis, where it’s not like you can just send certain people to jail for committing a crime, because it was done at such a wide scale. And any kind of apartheid-like situation would fall under that category.
What Anthony Bradley argues is that we should borrow from some of the wisdom of the transitional justice movement, which looks at how to heal after these types of crises. You have to start with keeping things hyper-local and very concrete. I just ran across a great example of this the other day, where someone posted on Facebook how there was a Black family named the Bruces that ran a Blacks-only beach in California, because Blacks were run off of all the beaches. They weren’t allowed to be there. Everybody tried to shut them down and disrupt them in every possible way.
Finally, the city just took it; they just took the land and turned it into a city park. Now it’s worth millions of dollars. The city in California has returned the land to the Bruce family. This is a really good example of something that is local, that is concrete, that does not violate anyone’s rights or wealth accumulation. It goes back and restores what genuinely belonged to someone else.
I think the other example that’s really good here is the archeological work that’s being done in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is part of the concept of institutional memory, where you go back and you find out what really happened, how many people were killed, and pull that memory up out of the ground and memorialize survivors, and those who didn’t survive, properly. To use somewhat therapeutic language, it’s like when you’re healing a wound, you have to let that wound be cleaned out. You have to let it get some oxygen before it’s able to scab over and finally heal.
I think that on the two other extremes, you have the fantasy that we can move forward without looking back properly, and then on the other hand, the idea that we’ll really never be able to move forward. You see this in someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who doesn’t even want his children to play with white children. That’s a very dark vision.
The truth is that Black Americans don’t, in general, have that vision for America. They’re a very patriotic group, very full of hope, much of which I think is attributable to the Black church tradition. Really, they have taught us, I think, to be hopeful about racial reconciliation in many cases. Just look at the kind of care that members of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. showed for the white soul, in the effect of racism on the white soul and the hope that we would all heal together. We want to hold on to that hope in our narrative.
WITCHER: Yes. I think it’s really important to recognize that there can’t really be reconciliation without recognition of past wrongs. That’s one of the things that transitional justice really tries to do. It’s striving for true, meaningful healing. The only way to achieve that is through recognition of these past injustices.
I think transitional justice is a beautiful concept, a way to bridge that divide between people who think we can just move on, like, “Oh, racism’s over. Let’s just move on,” on the right. Then those on the left who think that white people are just so fundamentally racist, it’s ingrained within their beings, that there’s no ability to reconcile or move beyond it because whites are just racist naturally or something, which is pretty problematic.
It also offers us no real pathway forward for reconciliation in creating a harmonious America in which Black and white can move forward together. There can’t be any reconciliation without recognition. I think transitional justice is a beautiful way for communities to heal together while recognizing past injustice. Hopefully we see more examples of it moving forward.
Looking Ahead With Hope
KLUTSEY: That’s great. On that positive note, are you optimistic? Are you optimistic about the future of healing in this country, bridging divides in this country, between minorities, Blacks and whites, and that type of thing? Do you see it?
FERGUSON: That’s a great question. The subtitle is “Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.” I had one woman ask me, “Why do you have hope?” One of the reasons, of course, is what you just brought up earlier, Ben, which is that, actually, people are less racist than ever. I say it’s almost like a consciousness-raising situation, where you have to almost be safe enough to admit how much pain you’re in. I sometimes wonder whether that’s the moment we’re in, that we’re finally reconciled enough that Black people are really able to pour out and talk about how hurt they are by our history.
We may just have to have to sit with that pain for a while, but I do think that we have so much in common. Albert Murray said that Black and white Americans are not like anybody else more than they’re like each other. We are Americans, and Black Americans, in many ways, epitomize America in terms of the tradition of Black self-help and the commitment to a very faith-based perspective.
There’s a lot of things about Black Americans that are truly central to the American dream. I’m very hopeful in spite of what appears to be a very difficult moment, because I think that this is probably inevitable, that we go through what we’re dealing with right now. But there’s too much momentum, I think, between Black and white Americans not to move forward.
WITCHER: Yes. I’m generally an optimist. You can ask my students. I think that classical liberalism, markets, exchange, freedom of movement, et cetera, is going to lift the entire world out of poverty and into prosperity and flourishing. I’m generally a pretty optimistic person. I think in the long run we will move to a future in which we’re able to reconcile in a way that provides flourishing for all.
After Rachel was so optimistic, I feel like I can’t be optimistic. Let me just say that there are some things I’m concerned about, and those are that I’m really concerned about the explanations and the narratives emerging on the left currently about racism. I don’t think we can embrace these divisive narratives about the innate racism of white people as a way in which to actually deal with this. You’re just going to end up alienating white people, which maybe those authors are not concerned about. I don’t know. You can’t heal by telling everybody they’re racist. You can’t begin a conversation with, “You’re racist. Okay. Now let’s talk.”
I am concerned about some of the strategies that are being deployed by the left—diversity training, which Rachel and I take down in the book. The results just aren’t there for that. I think we can do it. I do think there are some challenges. I think that our political polarization is an extraordinary challenge to racial reconciliation. I am very, very concerned about the emergence of far-right populism that has a nasty racialized tinge that seemingly fulfills the worst fears of the left. I’m fearful about these two extremes feeding one another.
I just wanted to say that I do have some fears, but I do believe that there is a lot of momentum. There’s all kinds of amazing work being done which you mentioned earlier, Ben, which Rachel has mentioned, with transitional justice, with neighborhood stabilization. There’s lots of healing going on. There’s lots of conversations going on.
I do want to emphasize again, as the historian, that we are at a point in our history that is probably less racist than any other moment in our history. We’ve had tremendous, tremendous progress over the course of the last 150 years or so. We need to hold onto that and remember that and contextualize our moment.
I think, Rachel, what you said, being secure enough in this moment to actually finally talk about it, is very much true. I think that we should be extraordinarily optimistic. I’m confident that as long as we don’t jettison our liberal values, we will move forward into a future, an American future, that’s full of prosperity and togetherness between all Americans.
What Can Individuals Do?
KLUTSEY: Final question as we wrap up: Do you have a call to action for individuals who will be listening to you and folks who are reading your book? What is the thing that they could do individually to help heal and to help to bridge divides?
WITCHER: Let me take this one first, because Rachel’s answer will probably blow me out of the water. My answer is, get involved. My answer is really quite simple. I’ve been reading a lot of Rose Wilder Lane’s columns recently, and in one of her columns, she said, “What can I do? I’m just one person, what can I do?”
The city of Danbury had just passed some nasty zoning regulations, and she was hitting herself over the head for sitting there snapping her beans, tending her garden and not doing anything. There was a recognition on her part that she could do something. She could write an op-ed, she could go to the town meeting, she could call her neighbors, which she did on the telephone to talk about these new zoning regulations.
My call to action is get involved. My call to action is get involved in civil society, meet your neighbors, get to know people, talk to one another, listen to one another. Build the type of relationships that can sustain and last despite the emerging polarization, and that will make a world of difference in your community. I know that sounds maybe cliché or naïve, that one person doing tiny little things can make a huge difference, but that’s ultimately how we bring about change in our communities.
If enough communities change, then the whole entire county will change. If the counties change, then the states will change. If the states change, then the nation will change. I think you’ve got to be the action. Meet your neighbors, talk to your neighbors, have these conversations, even if they’re difficult. And do what you can to see the humanity in every single person that you meet.
FERGUSON: I always emphasize the hyper-local nature of both transitional justice and neighborhood stabilization. These are things that have to happen at the level of your town. Neighborhood stabilization is even at the level of a block, where I love to challenge conservative audiences in particular to put their money where their mouth is. If you don’t like the way that the welfare state undermines neighborhoods and undermines family structure, then step in. Don’t do philanthropy the same way, the same undignified way, where you treat people as mere recipients. Treat people as people with whom you want to exchange, as people who have something to offer.
When we go into a neighborhood, we want to lift up the vision that the neighbors themselves have and empower them economically to achieve that vision. That just takes a little more love and a little more time and a little more energy. But what you have is transformation of the neighborhood that occurs, as opposed to a faceless food-pantry style of philanthropy, in which you get people through till next Tuesday, but they’re not emerging from poverty, and they’re not really transforming their lives. You’re just feeding into the same series of generational poverty problems that you’re complaining about.
I especially like to challenge my conservative audiences to go to their church mission board and take them to the Chalmers Center and get them to flip their philanthropic model. If you’re worried about Black fatherlessness, then get down there and mentor a dad or mentor a kid or drive a kid to the prison so he can maintain his relationship with his father. Put your money where your mouth is, because that’s right: I’m a great Hayekian, and I believe in spontaneous order. It’s bottom-up, so we have to start at the level of the hyper-local and believe that changing that is the way to get the ball rolling.
KLUTSEY: Thank you so much, Rachel Ferguson and Marcus Witcher. This has been a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate you guys joining us for this. Thank you.
FERGUSON: You’re welcome.
WITCHER: Thanks for having us.