The Volokh Conspiracy

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Racists and (Many) Anti-Racists Make the Same "Zero Sum" Mistake

Minority groups are made worse off by racist practices, but so is the majority.


[I posted this five years ago when the VC was hosted by the Washington Post, but given all the attention "anti-racism" has been getting since, and given that "anti-racists" seem to be doubling (or centupling) down on the zero-sum error, I thought it was worth reposting.]

Virulent racists and anti-racist activists would seem to have little in common, but in fact they tend to agree on one mistaken premise: Race relations are a zero-sum game. If whites are doing well, it's at the expense of members of other races. If members of other races are doing well, it's at the expense of whites.

On the racist (or "white nationalist") side, this assumption means that members of other groups need to be subordinated so that whites can thrive. For anti-racists, this means that since whites have benefited at the expense of other groups, whites will now have to give up their "privilege" and reduce their own standard of living to allow other groups to thrive.

In fact, whites, as a group, don't benefit from discrimination against, or oppression of, other groups, except perhaps psychologically if such discrimination and oppression make them feel superior and such feelings of superiority make them happy. But from a purely economic perspective, wealth comes from gains from trade, and the wealthier your trading partners, the more wealth you can accrue.

Let's consider as a real-world example the huge opening of economic opportunities for women in the past 50 years. Men, as a group, may have lost some psychic benefit in feeling superior to women, and one can argue about the social effects on marriage and family, but men as a group are much better off economically now that women can pursue all sorts of careers that were closed to them in the past. In pursuing careers commensurate with their talent, women make American society much wealthier, which means that men have better doctors, better products to buy, better job opportunities and so on.

The same dynamic applies, though not as obviously, when a majority imposes economic restrictions on a minority, whether through law, custom or some combination thereof. Let's say a young African American man born in 1920 had the potential to be a great scientist, but because of discrimination and racism instead wound up enmeshed in the criminal justice system. How did that benefit the majority? The majority lost whatever scientific contributions that individual could have made, was at risk of being victimized by his criminal behavior and had to use its tax money to pay for any jail time he may have served. Even if a potential scientist becomes a laborer rather than a criminal because of racism, that's still a loss to society, including to the white majority. Multiply such scenarios by millions of people, and the huge economic loss to the majority should become clear.

That's not to say that no individual white people could ever be made worse off by the absence of racism. A white baseball player in the late 1940s whose primary goal in life was to play in the major leagues might wind up getting "bumped" by a better black player once the major leagues began to integrate their teams. A white Christian whose sole dream in life is to go to Harvard would be better off if Jews and Asians were excluded.

But if we are looking at groups as a whole across significant stretches of time (you can generally make one group better off in the very short term by simply confiscating and redistributing another group's wealth), it should be clear that while it's obviously in the interest of members of minority groups not to face systemic discrimination and exclusion, it's also in the economic interest of the majority to not engage in discrimination and exclusion.

And just to spell things out, my argument is that white Americans would be more prosperous if we had never had Jim Crow and other forms of formal and informal discrimination. Of course, black people were made relatively worse off by racism, significantly so, but whites would have benefited from a lack of racism, too. Why didn't most whites recognize this? First, many believed that race relations are a zero-sum game. Second, there is a collective action problem. For example, white union members seeking to exclude blacks were concerned with preserving their own privileges, not with the effect their actions would have on the prosperity of whites in general. Finally, I don't discount the importance of the psychic benefits some get from feeling superior.

In any event, left-wing anti-racist activists often seem to fail to comprehend the basic economic logic discussed here. They instead call for whites to sacrifice their own interests to pursue social justice. Given that people are not always given to generosity, they would perhaps make more progress if they would explain that treating members of all groups fairly is actually in everyone's interest. This also has the virtue of being true.

To the extent the economic argument fails to persuade because some people find it psychologically pleasing to be a member of a dominant group that keeps other groups down, that's perhaps a good reason to encourage the de-emphasis in public life on racial and ethnic categories. Note that this is not a call for individuals from minority groups to give up ethnic or racial identification, or to ask for pure colorblindness while prejudice remains. It instead means that institutions, public and private, should have a strong presumption against dividing people by racial and ethnic category. For example, universities shouldn't have separate housing, orientations, commencements and so on for "students of color," officially designating some groups as "the other," even if they are doing so for what they perceive as benign purposes, as this accentuates rather than de-emphasizes group differences.

Not that long ago, there were many ethnic rivalries among white Americans that have largely ceased to exist: Germans vs. Scandinavians in the Midwest, as reflected in Sinclair Lewis's novels, is as good an example as any. The goal should be to make differences among whites, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans as psychologically marginal as differences between white subgroups are today.

[Addendum: I should have made it clear that while both blacks and whites were made worse off by anti-black racism, the negative effects fell quite disproportionately on blacks. But just because black people were made substantially worse off on average than were white people does not negate the fact that white people were made worse off as well.]