Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ron Paul and racism: did the Civil Rights Act make race relations worse?

Ugh, no, the Civil Rights Act did not make race relations worse. But it's not as ridiculously vile a question as it might at first appear.

I don't want to defend libertarianism, which I think is an internally inconsistent philosophy that sociopaths use to dress up their sickness for formal occasions. But there's something interesting to me about Ron Paul's claim that Civil Rights legislation worsens race relations.

It's not Paul's argument itself--which ridiculously goes like this: no one can know who is racist, so the only way to protect minorities is through quotas, and quotas cause racial tension. But I'm still interested in the idea that law is an ineffective means of dealing with racial prejudice.

The "they just know how to hide it better. Or something." argument
In Ghost World, Steve Buscemi's Seymour has an interesting line about how prejudices remain as deep structure, even when the external manifestations change. So, the Coon Chicken Inn, with its cartoony, racist logo of a grinnin' black man, transforms into the less racially-charged Cook's Chicken. So that's a victory, since we may not accept blatant racism--but it's not a total victory, since racism still exists:
Enid: So, I don't really get it... Are you saying that things were better back then, even though there was stuff like this?
Seymour: I suppose things are better now, but... I don't know, it's complicated. People still hate each other but they just know how to hide it better. Or something. 
Is it possible that laws merely force racism to take on different forms? For instance, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, where the antebellum South loved itself some slavery talk, post-war it became all about States' rights--but the issue still was how to keep the blacks in their place. So it's conceivable that a Civil Rights Act or two might outlaw (or make unfashionable) certain expressions of racism and leave the racism alone to mutate.

The "we boys never stoned another kitten!" argument
This is almost the same argument, but Harriet Beecher Stowe makes it so subtly in Uncle Tom's Cabin that I've got to cite her. In Chapter Nine, we meet Senator and Mrs. Bird; and while the Senator voted for something like the Fugitive Slave Act, the Mrs. knows her Christian duty. (In case you were wondering, there are no Jews or Muslims in Stowe's America. And no Native Americans either.) And she's a stern teacher of morals:
Generally the most indulgent and easy to be entreated of all mothers, still her boys had a very reverent remembrance of a most vehement chastisement she once bestowed on them, because she found them leagued with several graceless boys of the neighborhood, stoning a defenceless kitten.
"I'll tell you what," Master Bill used to say, "I was scared that time. Mother came at me so that I thought she was crazy, and I was whipped and tumbled off to bed, without any supper, before I could get over wondering what had come about; and, after that, I heard mother crying outside the door, which made me feel worse than all the rest. I'll tell you what," he'd say, "we boys never stoned another kitten!"

Man, I love me some Stowe. I love that the mother's power is (a) material (beating, sending them off without supper) and (b) emotional (making the kids feel bad for making her feel bad)--and still so limited. Those children have learned one lesson from this--"we boys never stoned another kitten"--and a narrow lesson at that.

This is a perfect example of a law having a very narrow scope and not really changing the culture of "graceless boys." So we've got to change the culture.

But law is culture
Ursula K. Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven is a perfect example of her anti-utopian humanism: when a man can change the world through his (lucid) dreams, a therapist tries to direct that change to create a better world. In the competent PBS adaptation, the therapist does away with racism by making everyone gray; but the lucid dreamer has a different method of getting rid of racism: not being racist.

This may be where Seymour, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Ursula K. Le Guin meet up, with the notion that we need to change our feelings, not just our (top-down) laws.

But even if I agree with Seymour and with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ursula K. Le Guin that feelings may remain untouched by laws, I have to say that laws are still pretty good at getting people to act a certain way. If I'm racist, but I live in an anti-racist society, then my expressions of racism are going to be curtailed and that's materially going to affect the lives of those minorities that live around me.

And I'm not sure that I totally agree with Seymour/Stowe/Le Guin in the long run: a law that may feel unnatural and repressive one day (forcing racism to squeeze through the cracks and take on new forms) may soon feel natural and lead to different feelings on the part of the next generations.

Or to put it succinctly, law is a part of culture, and I don't think we should disregard the effects of culture in all its forms.

So what about Paul?
So even if Paul was making the smart version of his argument (the version that Seymour/Stowe/Le Guin sort of make), he'd be wrong.

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