How the free market would have desegregated the South.

“Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South?”

That’s the question Jon Stewart asked Judge Andrew Napolitano on the Daily Show a few weeks ago (the exchange starts at 1:50 seconds).  I blogged about that encounter once here.

Today, a conversation with an acquaintance reminded me of this question and provided an answer.  “Yes.”

We were talking about our experiences, over the last 20 years, with racism in a large Southern city.  She is a black woman who had been passed over for positions, denied credit for her work and shut out of the inside track many times.  While I am a white male, I’d experienced the same thing vicariously through family and friends. Admittedly, my experiences were second hand, but the stories we shared were similar enough that we could laugh and commiserate over them.

One thing we didn’t share was a sense of progress over the last two decades. Where she saw no change, I saw steady improvement. She’s given up on the place and won’t go back. I look forward to my periodic trips down there.

I know our skin colors affect how we see this city and her direct experience is much sharper than mine.  But there is an important difference, beyond our color, which explains a lot about how we see that city.

Location, Location, Location

That difference was where we go when we visit. She spends her time downtown in and around City Hall. I always go to the outer suburbs where all the tech companies are headquartered.  It’s only twenty miles, as the crow flies, between the two locations. But those twenty miles make all the difference in the world.

She complained that the city is all about political connections, who you know, and an  elite that is obsessed with protecting access to power and privilege.  Minorities and outsiders are expected to know their place. A black mayor and his insiders might wield power but, outside of that circle, anyone with skin darker than a heavy tan is likely a waiter or a driver.  She was called a “trail blazer” for the work she did, even though those trails should have been blazed 60 years ago.

I, OTOH, talked about a city where people of all colors worked and socialized together. Where you were rewarded according to how smart you are and how hard you work.  Where the head of engineering at one of my partners is a black guy, in charge of dozens of men and women of all colors, and people take it for granted.

Her city is one of hierarchy, favoritism and court politics. Mine is one where blacks, whites, Chinese, Indians, Pakistani, Latin Americans and even Canadians freely live and work together, because they want to.

How the free market desegregates.

For me, the biggest differences between her city and mine are competition and how people are rewarded.

In the political world, power and the rewards that come with it are often concentrated in the hands of  very stable coalitions. Those coalitions can afford to discriminate against others for flimsy reasons because the powerless have nothing to offer the powerful and few ways to challenge the coalitions.  There is little to lose from indulging racist tendencies.

The entrepreneurial free market has a different set of incentives.  A racist can still ignore the talents of entire groups of people, but in doing so he slashes his own wrists.  If his competitors don’t share his prejudices, they gain an advantage in finding competent employees and will wear down the self-limiting racist.

This isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky, libertarian dream. We see it in the real world all the time.

It’s no accident that the tech world has the most integrated work force of any industry. Nor is it a coincidence that tech companies were among the first to offer domestic partner benefits or that so many of the testimonials in the It Gets Better campaign come from people at tech companies.

Not perfect. Just better.

I’m not saying that free market enterprises are perfect.  They obviously are not.

I’m old enough to remember when Chinese and Indians first started working widely in the US tech industry.  There was plenty of overt racism aimed at them.

But that phase of integration passed quickly.  At my second job out of college, a quarter century ago, the division was run by an Indian who had started as an engineer in the 70s.  He employed several hundred people and was a well respected and effective leader.

There are still markets where it is possible to indulge racist prejudices. Old-boy networks and institutional biases are powerful and don’t fall quickly.  The smaller and less connected a market is, the more it resembles the rigid, static political world and the less costly it is to behave like a racist.

BTW, I said “behave like a racist” deliberately there. One limitation of market driven integration is that it can only change behavior, not minds. It’s possible for a manager to hire and promote minorities, for purely avaricious reasons, while hating them. That’s what drove the early days of professional sports integration.

But in a broad, competitive market, that attitude cannot survive long. People are very good at spotting a false front and the boorish attitudes it conceals. Talented people will seek better positions at better companies rather than put up with hidden contempt.  Since  familiarity with different peoples and different cultures bring those cultures together over time, companies which treat all their people with respect will get better and better with time. Those companies will attract the best people and, in a virtuous circle, will pull ahead of their backwards competitors.

The process takes time, but we’re well into it in the tech market.  It’s fairly common for me to be the only white guy in a meeting. The first generation of female engineers have worked their ways into upper management and a second and third generation has taken their place.

Seeing with a white guy’s eyes.

As I said above, I’m a white male. I see through a white guy’s eyes and I’m sure there is a lot of racism below of the surface of my world. Racism I never see.

But even if I miss 50%, 75% or even 90% of the racism that is there, my free market world beats the pants off her world of political patronage and cronyism.  At least in my world, minorities have a shot. They may have extra obstacles to overcome.  Connections still matter and some people have an easier road to success than others, but the playing field is much closer to level in my world.

We’re also making progress faster in the free market world than in the political world. In my world, we don’t insolate ourselves from other cultures. We seek them out. Inter-racial marriage is common. We compete on new foods and new styles of music. If Thai has gotten boring, we go for Laotian or Nepalese.

I’m not saying the free market world is perfect, at least not yet. But, like in just about everything, competition in a free market is making us better faster than pretty much any other realm of endeavor.

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About fzinger

I read and I write. I read a lot and I write when I can.
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