Opinion: CJ Opinion

Conservatives have better solutions than government for racial injustice

Students wearing commemorative scarves celebrate National School Choice Week. (Image courtesy of National School Choice Week website)
Students wearing commemorative scarves celebrate National School Choice Week. (Image courtesy of National School Choice Week website)

If you only ever read The Washington Post or The New York Times and watch MSNBC, you might believe conservatives have nothing to say about race. The view that conservatives are racists is prominent in academia, too. The “Southern Strategy” theory argues the GOP built its Southern base by appealing to white racism. The theory that conservatives are racist ignores the effects conservative policies can have on racial justice.

Conservatives should not cede the topic of racial justice to progressives. Our government did or aided many of the worst racial injustices in our history. Slavery would have been impossible without laws allowing it. There’s a reason the Wikipedia article on “Jim Crow” redirects to “Jim Crow Laws.” Segregation was not just culture; it was law. Redlining—a practice that denied services to qualified black applicants — began under President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 National Housing Act. Racial justice advocates that rely on government action need to cope with this history, too.

A conservative vision for racial justice should address the ways the government has failed and continues to fail minorities. Zoning regulations and poor urban planning trap the poor in impoverished areas. These impoverished areas have a lower tax base, so their schools often have less funding. Parents may lack the means to move or get their children to a different school. Licensing regulations increase barriers to entering the market for many jobs (e.g., hair braiding).

Poorer areas often have higher crime rates, so law enforcement often spend more time there. Law enforcement expects to see crime. This drives an attitude of distrust and fosters violence. When corrupt officers take bad actions, police unions or civil service laws often protect them from the repercussions of their actions. Policies like qualified immunity prevent the government from being held accountable for these abuses.

Negative interactions with police, lack of educational and economic opportunities, and feeling trapped drive an understandable frustration. These policies all work together. And they all disproportionately affect the poor and minorities.

A conservative vision for racial justice should begin by addressing these interlocking issues. But it should not rely exclusively on government solutions. Instead, it should encourage policies that allow individuals and communities to flourish and solve their own problems. Here are four policies conservatives can advocate addressing racial injustice:

  1. Strong Towns. Other authors have already documented how urban planning created segregation. The problem continues to the present day. Black property values still tend to be far lower than white property values. American urban planning has failed. Urban decay is not natural; it stems from policy failure. If the government is creating these problems, how can we solve them?

Big government isn’t the answer. The Strong Towns movement advocates restructuring American urban planning to promote sustainable growth. We have taken the short-term high of quick cash in exchange for the long-term costs of debt — and our cities have paid the price. This relationship must end. When it does, our municipalities must focus on sustainable growth. This begins from the ground up, with infrastructure that promotes community. This also means drastically scaling back zoning regulations so communities can decide what is best for them.

Strong Towns has rarely focused directly on the issue of race, but rebuilding our cities and repealing the policies that underwrote segregation will help minorities.

  1. School choice. The median adjusted household income for families receiving school choice vouchers under NC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program was $16,213 in 2016-17. These are “among the lowest-income households in the state.” Opportunity scholarship recipients are also much more likely to be black.

Conservatives have argued school choice promotes racial justice. Research shows school choice may increase racial diversity — but the issue is hotly debated. Progressives often argue school choice — including charter schools — drives racial isolation. But the best evidence of this effect may be minority voters’ increasing support for school choice.

  1. Curbing police unions. This is one issue conservatives and progressives should be able to agree on. Most police are good officers trying to do a good job. But the unions that protect good officers can also protect bad officers. Research shows police unions — and particularly certain union contracts — are linked to higher violence and lower accountability. The officer charged with the murder of George Floyd had 15 complaints in his file and had been involved in several police shootings. He never received any discipline for these actions. Another officer involved in the incident was sued for excessive force in 2017. Curbing or eliminating police unions may have saved Floyd’s life.
  2. Occupational licensing. North Carolina requires a license for 188 occupations. One website lists all the occupations requiring a license. If you’d like to sand floors, you need a license. If you’d like to sell coffins, you need a license. When one of these laws was challenged in Oklahoma, the 10th Circuit upheld the law. Preventing people without licenses from entering the profession was valid “economic protectionism.” In plain English, the industry was using the law to stop competition — and the court was OK with that.

Industries have historically used licensing to keep women and minorities out of particular occupations. One of the first cases of racial discrimination the U.S. Supreme Court considered addressed occupational licensing. Scholars have documented how occupational licensing continues to affect minorities.

These barriers were created to keep competition out. Historically, that included women and minorities. Continuing to apply these laws today continues to harm minorities by limiting access to profitable occupations.

To be sure, other conservative policies will likely have positive effects for minorities. The policies listed here are a beginning, not an end. Conservatives should also advocate social and economic policies to push back the on-going harm the government inflicts on minorities. Above all, conservatives should reclaim the rhetorical high-ground by showing how our policies will impact racial inequalities.

Overcoming so-called structural racism doesn’t require accepting the story that America is and always has been racist to the core. Instead, it requires acknowledging the ways our government has failed and continues to fail minorities. The next time a critical race theorist claims conservatives have no answers for systemic racism, remind them of the ways our government actively fails minorities. Then advocate for these policies.

Dan Gibson, a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders, is an attorney with Stam Law Firm in Apex. His practice focuses on civil litigation and appeals.