Civil Liberties

Tapping Black Power Against the 9-11 Leviathan


As civil libertarians try to roll back the post 9-11 growth of the security-cum-surveillance state, one question is where can they look for support? Michigan State University Professor Brian Silver, uber-psephologist Nate Silver's dad, and his colleague Darren Davis, offer something of an answer in a super interesting study conducted soon after the Twin Towers came tumbling down.

Liberals, their study suggests, are only fair-weather friends of civil libertarians. They tend to pay greater lip service to niceties such as due process rights and right to habeas corpus than conservatives in the abstract. But raise the threat perception of terrorism high enough, and they become as willing as the next white guy blaring Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" in his pick-up truck to surrender their civil liberties to the guv-ment. Write Silver and Davis:

Liberals are less willing to trade off civil liberties than moderates or conservatives, but liberals converge toward the position taken by conservatives when their sense of the threat of terrorism is high.

Even more interesting, they find that not all ethnic groups are equally supportive—or un-supportive— of civil liberties. There are clear differences. Whites and Hispanics are much more willing than average to trade civil liberties for greater security and blacks are much more unwilling. Silver and Davis note:

 African Americans score almost 9 percentage points higher than whites on the civil liberties tradeoff scale. African Americans are less willing than whites to trade off civil liberties for personal security…In contrast, Latinos score almost 6 percentage points lower than whites on the civil liberties value trade-off scale. Latinos are more willing than whites to give up civil liberties in favor of greater personal security.

What's remarkable is that black support for civil liberties remains higher than whites even though they are no less patriotic than whites and their level of personal threat perception— the feeling that they or their families might personally become targets of attacks—is higher than whites.

So why are blacks so much more jealous of their civil liberties than whites and Hispanics? Essentially, because they have been so badly screwed over by the government for so long that they don't trust it. Write Silver and Davis:

[T]he historical struggle to secure civil rights and liberties and a distrust of government may make giving up civil liberties especially difficult [for African Americans], even during a period of national crisis. Despite high levels of national pride (African Americans do not differ from whites on this measure), cultural and historical experience may be a powerful force for the defense of individual rights.

If true, this holds a very important moral for libertarians that Will Wilkinson recently alluded to in his critique of Ron Paul: namely, if you want to roll back the leviathan, forget about party affiliation and make common cause with those who it oppresses—which would be blacks of all persuasions, not those it privileges—which would be whites of all persuasions.

Side note: That Hispanics are so willing to give up their civil liberties is a fascinating finding for which the study does not offer any good explanation. However, if the two parties keep hounding Hispanics out of jobs through workplace raids and the country through deportations, Hispanic sense of oppression too might reach black levels and they might well jump into the civil libertarian camp.

(If the link to the study doesn't work, cut and paste this: