Thinking straight about race

Copyright Ó 2003, by Alec Rawls


Racism is the failure to properly account individual information. Suppose, for instance, that my race based expectation from past experience is that Asians are smart. If a particular Chinese person demonstrates that he is dumb, and I continue to expect him to be smart, I am a racist. Obviously, it would be dumb of me to fail to process individual information as it becomes available. Racists are dumb.

Racism can also refer to group based expectations that derive, not from actual information about group tendencies, but from ill will. There are plenty of examples of this from history, where competing groups were presumed to be barbaric and inferior just because they were different.

What cannot tenably be called racism (if "racism" is to retain a pejorative meaning) is group based expectations that 1) are based on a person's actual information about group tendencies and 2) which give way to individual information as it becomes available. If 1 and 2 are adhered to, a person is just thinking straight, and thinking straight cannot in itself be immoral.

Some people do not accept that. If thinking straight points in a direction they don't like, they won't go there. As a result, they end up divorced from reality, and wreak havoc on what they claim to care about.

Rational expectations

Rational race based expectations harm innocent people. Blacks have approximately six times the murder rate of whites, three times the rape rate, seven times the robbery rate and three themes the embezzlement rate.(1)  Because of this, law abiding blacks suffer when, in the absence of individual information, they are treated according to race based expectations. Followed in stores, considered bad risks for employment, avoided on the street, turned away at the door, it can be painful to be an upstanding black, when so many blacks are not.






Hey Jeffer! What do you think of these chicken-littles who don't want to liberate Iraq?




Solomon… I KNEW we'd see eye to eye on this!





My people were liberated once.




My people tried to STOP your people from being liberated. If I could go back in time, even though I would be in awe, I would tell them that they were wrong, that there were men amongst you who should be free!




Oh THANK you Jeffer. And those amongst us who should not be free?





Let the law sort you out, as it does us.

Black Crime

That is the answer to black crime. Take out the trash. The more effectively we catch the criminals the more certain we all can be that those blacks we encounter in public or private life are NOT criminal, because the criminals will all be in jail. Group based expectations of criminality will disappear. This is the trust-in-truth answer: deal with reality.

Those who haven't learned to trust in truth think that the answer is to deny the validity of race based expectations. If blacks are being prosecuted more than whites, it is because law enforcement is racist. (Oh yeah? Then why do victim reports tally the same way?) The anti-reality answer is to attack law enforcement and incarceration, the opposite of what is needed to reduce group based expectations of criminality.

Liberty is optimal

Other policies that deny the validity of raced based expectations are affirmative action and equal opportunity employment law. These policies attempt to enforce racial proportions in hiring and admissions that mirror racial proportions in the general population, as would tend to emerge if there were no grounds for race based expectations. The inevitable effect is to greatly magnify the role that race based expectations play in society.

Race based expectations are a cruder form of information about an individual than individual information is. If institutions are allowed to develop on the basis of pure private agreement, they will evolve so as to bring forth and make use of the more valuable individual information. Thus the only possible effect of interference with this natural process is to keep individual information in check.

Employment law

When companies have to be prepared to defend their hiring and promotion decisions in the face of government oversight, they react by hiring those individuals who look the most qualified on the basis of what can be determined about them up front. Instead of finding out about people as individuals, by hiring relatively indiscriminately and letting the wheat be separated from the chaff on the job, employers are forced to discriminate much more carefully before they hire, otherwise they are liable to get stuck with bad employees who claim wrongful termination when they are fired.

In effect, government oversight makes individual information about prospective employees very expensive to investigate, which increases employers' reliance on up front information, including group based information. This increase in credentialism is especially hard on black men, who tend to have relatively terrible resumes. It's a male thing.

Men reject authority and choose their own path. If they are upstanding, this is a valuable quality, if they are not, it compounds their vice. Thanks to equal unemployment law, which of these categories a black man falls into is never discovered. Instead, employers hire middle class black women, who don't need the help, but count as a two'fer anyway, while the lower class black men get flushed.

The correct answer is pure freedom of agreement, with no government oversight of hiring, firing and promotion decisions. Then employers can take chances on people. They are free to go after the individual information that is most valuable to them. Government oversight only suppresses the discovery of this individual information.

Jim Crow

If employers were allowed to be racist, would they be? Overlooking black worth would cost money. Employers who own rents could spend their rents on racist behavior and still stay in business, and surely some would. But the beauty of liberty is that it allows each to seek out the most productive activities and relationships. Each picks from amongst the best of his offers. In this context, it makes no difference whether a person's worst offers are bad, or really bad. They are irrelevant anyway. The fact that a few racists with rents to squander might be more racist without government oversight is inconsequential.(2)

The great bulk of our economy is competitive. The only way racism can survive in competitive conditions is if consumers and co-workers are willing to subsidize it by paying higher prices, or accepting lower wages, to do business with a racist company. Because liberty empowers individual choice, it will lead to racist results only if individuals are racist.

They aren't. Not on a broad enough scale to matter. That is what Jim Crow proved. Throughout what by today's standards was an overwhelmingly racist south, the only way to stop the economy from integrating at all levels was to enact ever more elaborate segregationist legal requirements. Liberty rejected racism. Only government force could maintain it.(3)

Unfortunately, while the Republicans have consistently been the party of freedom of contract and racial equality before the law, the Democrats went directly from being the party of legal inequality for blacks to the party of legal inequality for whites. A far higher percentage of Republican than Democrat Congressmen voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but then the Democrats flipped and started imposing racial inequality in the opposite direction. Liberty was never given a chance.(4)

What a burden these Democrats are. He may be my brother, but he sure is heavy.

University admissions

Because negative group expectations harm individuals who do not share negative group characteristics, affirmative action might seem to be called for as a way to offset this harm. If you are wrongly discounted, we will wrongly over-account you, and you'll end up where you should.

But this assumes that the university itself would, in the absence of affirmative action, be wrongly discounting blacks. The correct answer is just not to do that. Then the university degree becomes a basis for expectations that supersedes racial group expectations. It declares that, in equal competition, this individual excelled. Race at that point confers no more additional information than hair color.

This is the natural state of a university in a regime of pure private agreement. A degree conveys the individual information that employers and employees value. If we muck with this, by having universities employ racial preferences, then their degrees no longer supersede group based expectations. Race still carries information. A Stanford degree or a Stanford professorship means one thing if you are white and another thing if you are black.

As a remedy to the problem of group based expectations, affirmative action is a complete failure. It takes a process that would make group based expectations disappear and turns it into a process that transmits group expectations. As with equal employment opportunity law and the problem of black crime, distrust in truth, refusing to accept the validity of group based expectations, causes these expectations to be dealt with irrationally, so that they become a greater rather than a lesser problem.

The Civil War

Liberty of contract works. Thus Stanford should be ALLOWED to discriminate any way it wants. But the University of California, because it is an instrument of the government, must not be allowed to play racial favorites. We fought a war over that principle. Anybody think that was a mistake?

In America today, many do NOT accept the outcome of the Civil War. They aren't southern racists. They are northern racists. They are the white and black illiberals who call themselves "liberal." (Imagine thinking that the descendants of the men who gave their lives to free your ancestors owe YOU?)

Liberty, responsibility (law enforcement) and equality before the law: these are not the only things necessary, but they ARE necessary. They solve almost all of our race problems. Sacrifice any of these and what you hope to ameliorate will explode in your face. Scorn for reality does that.

Alec Rawls is a columnist for The Stanford Review. Contact him at This article was originally published in the Review, 2/26/2003.


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1.  These relative rates were calculated by combining breakdown of crime by race (available at, click on "Race of persons arrested") with census data on the racial breakdown of the population (available at, click "DP-1" and "PDF"). For each category of crime, relative crime rates were calculated as: (%crime-black/ %population-black) / (%crime-white/ %population-white).  Return

2.  Richard Epstein makes this point in his book Forbidden Grounds, Harvard, 1992. See his section I.  Return

3.  Epstein, ibid, makes this argument through a detailed look at Jim Crow in section II of Forbidden Grounds.   Return

4.   An Nguyen breaks down the vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act in his article "The dark side of the Democratic party," available online at


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