Rachel Ferguson on Her New Book, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace and Current Race Relations in the US
Rachel Ferguson is an author, the Director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago, Assistant Dean of the College of Business and faculty member. Rachel recently spoke with Stream contributor Alex Chediak about her new book, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.
Alex: Rachel, thank you for writing such an interesting, timely, and important book. We appreciate your taking the time to answer some questions for Stream readers.
Alex: What prompted you to write this book?
Rachel: As many authors say, I wrote the book I wanted to read! I’ve been in the liberty movement for 25 years, so I know that we have incredible resources on issues of race and discrimination. But not only are we not known for that, we’re sometimes seen as not caring about these issues at all. I thought that if I could put many of these insights into one place, I could show that the classical liberal tradition has so much to offer Black America, including a history of pro-Black classical liberals like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, two of the founders of the NAACP, Rose Wilder Lane (Laura Ingalls’ daughter) and Zora Neale Hurston. We hope that the book will help our ideological fellow travelers speak on these issues in a substantive way, with grace and intelligence. Too often, conservatives and libertarians fall into the trap of only reacting to the left rather than presenting a positive vision from their own perspective.
Alex: Are there specific things that conservatives fail to appreciate about Black history in the United States?
Rachel: The upshot of the book is that so much of the injustice that Black Americans have suffered involves exclusion from the institutions that conservatives really value: property rights, freedom of contract, and the protection of the rule of just laws. Much of this exclusion was imposed by the state, and in the 20th century, by progressives in the federal government in particular. Huge social engineering projects were undertaken that undermined Black progress at every turn. Problem policies like the minimum wage and gun control were all originally anti-Black policies. Finally, the deep and central influence of the Black church in Black American life means that Black Americans poll quite conservative on social issues. There’s a ton that conservatives could do to reach out to Black Americans, and we lay it all out in the book!
Alex: I noticed you had some positive things to say about the Black nationalism movement. Christians normally have negative associations with this movement, and with Malcolm X, but more positive associations with Martin Luther King. Interestingly, King wasn’t on the list of Black leaders to whom you dedicated the book.
Rachel: Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a fan of Black nationalism! I really do want a well-integrated America and I’m against all forms of racism, including anti-white and anti-Semitic, racism. But I still found it interesting that many Black Nationalist figures simply must be described as conservative. They focused on building Black power in the market and building strong families through a strict moral code. Malcolm X blamed the welfare state for breaking up his family! Of course, we deeply appreciate MLK, Jr, and do quote him several times in the book. But it felt disingenuous to include him in the list of thinkers in the dedication because he was an economic progressive. Our book is about the liberatory power of free markets.
Alex: Brown vs. Board of Education resulted in the forced integration of state schools. I’ve generally heard this Supreme Court decision praised. You expressed concerns for what Black Americans experienced in the aftermath of Brown.
Rachel: It was really interesting to discover how much ambivalence now exists about the way things went down after Brown. Because the students were integrated first, they took the brunt of all that hatred, while Black teachers literally lost their jobs in the tens of thousands. There was also this feeling — even from the mom who brought the case — that the decision seemed to be saying that Black kids needed to be near white kids to learn well. That was never her point; she just thought that her daughter should have had the right to attend her neighborhood school.
Unfortunately, the misunderstanding and hatred they experienced in formerly all-white schools may have soured some Black students on education. This marked a huge shift in Black attitudes, which were historically highly pro-education (we discuss the astounding leap forward in Black literacy in the book: from basically zero to 80% by 1930. Many of these literacy efforts came out of the Black church!). Even the founder of Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, played with the idea that if we’d just forced districts to actually provide equal funding, we would have had either better schools for Black students, or a more natural integration process as the soaring costs began to be felt by local governments.
It’s not obvious how things might have been done better back then, but we know now that allowing the funding to follow the students is the best solution for our most vulnerable young people. The idea that educational freedom advocates are secret segregationists is really absurd; failing inner-city schools are racially segregated now! Alternative schools neither increase nor decrease racial segregation, but we ought to care less about the color of the people in the school and more about their outcomes. We refer to learning outcomes, but also involvement in the criminal justice system, teen pregnancy, and other risk factors.
Alex: You advocate for classical liberalism. Wouldn’t this school of thought oppose the federal government’s enforcement of racial integration policies? Do you think places like Alabama would have gotten there on their own?
Rachel: I learned so much working on this issue. First, it’s always important to remind people that Jim Crow was not just voluntary separation between groups. It involved hundreds and thousands of local laws forcing people to stay apart. Public accommodation is actually part of the common law understanding of different types of private property; public-facing places like shops were expected to serve anyone who wasn’t being a nuisance. In other words, some people are indulging in an enlightenment rationalist understanding of private property that isn’t actually part of our legal tradition.
But this dispute is also one of the reasons that we do a quick dive into the Lochner court of the early 20th century. This court held that economic rights are just like all other civil liberties, and actually struck down wage and hour laws and the like. While most people associate such laws with care for the worker, they were actually progressive attempts to price Blacks, women, and immigrants out of the market in a eugenicist bid to support white, male heads of household. It’s not clear why economic rights like freedom of contract should be treated so differently than other civil rights, but eventually the Lochner court decisions were overturned.
We’re also pro-federalism, so we can understand some of the criticism. We have to admit that what the Founders predicted came true: freedom is appropriate to a virtuous people; indulge in too much vice and you’ll lose it. This is basically what happened in America. White supremacists tried to socially engineer the way that people interacted, but it was just completely unsustainable. Think of the injustice of having one’s economic rights violated so consistently that a Black salesman or preacher had to sleep in his car while traveling across the South. So even if we consider segregation that is legally imposed at the municipal and state level to be “freedom of (dis)association,” whites abused this freedom so viciously that they lost it.
Alex: You say an “institutional example of dysfunctional government dependency is the massive subsidization of college. The perverse incentives these subsidies created have led to high tuition rates, administrative bloat and waste, and a serious under-provision of laborers in the trades.” Does this disproportionally hurt Black Americans? Why does our education system remain deeply segregated and unequal?
Rachel: I’m not sure about racially disparate effects of this policy. The point of bringing it up was to explain to conservatives that welfare has dysfunctional effects no matter where it’s applied — whether its social welfare or corporate welfare. Subsidized college loans sent a false price signal. Cheap school attracted more students to traditional college when many could have been really successful in the trades. This is just how centralized economic engineering works: it creates malinvestment by sending out price signals that don’t actually reflect the realities of supply and demand, causing a ripple effect of inefficient allocation of resources.
If conservatives want to have credibility on their critiques of social welfare (and we think they’re right about the terrible perverse incentives in our welfare system) they really need to go hard against welfare in all its forms.
For instance, the G.I. Bill sent thousands of G.I.s to college and then built them houses in the suburbs. But Black G.I.s weren’t allowed to attend many of those colleges nor were they allowed to build in those neighborhoods. In fact, the Federal Housing Administration wouldn’t even allow banks to insure mortgages for G.I.s who wanted to buy in Black or integrated neighborhoods. Once we’d successfully sorted Blacks to the cities and whites to the suburbs, we built highway systems to carry suburban workers from their houses to their jobs, but municipal leaders made sure to construct them right through the Black and Latino economic centers. Between the highways and so-called “urban renewal” we’re talking about the most egregious abuses of eminent domain in our history.
Of course, any Black American successful enough to get out of this situation and move to the suburbs did as soon as they were able, leaving the most vulnerable behind. In other words, we literally ghettoized poor Blacks in the inner-city, destroyed the business and cultural networks that could have lifted them up, and now we wonder why we have terribly destabilized neighborhoods with high public safety costs. How many ways can I say that centrally planned social engineering is a bad idea?
Alex: Why do you think Donald Trump got more of the “Black vote” in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012? Where did Trump fall short in his outreach to Black voters? In 2020, Trump gained with minority voters, but others claim Black voters were decisive in Trump’s narrow defeat.
Rachel: Well, as Glenn Loury says, social science is harder than physics. Figuring out what’s happening in voting patterns is really difficult. But I can speculate on a few things. First, Black incomes went up under Trump. They were actually down under Obama — all stuff Jason Riley covers in his quick and readable book Black Boom. The explanation is fairly simple — the corporate tax cut was a huge improvement for our business environment and most of the gains got passed on to employees and consumers. People need to remember that economic growth is far more significant in the lives of those with less than for those who are fairly wealthy.
Second, some issues really don’t jibe well with our party lines. For instance, 60-70% of Black and Latino citizens are in favor of educational choice, which was a big emphasis in the Trump years. And once again, this affects those who are in struggling neighborhoods much more sharply; it can actually mean the difference between your son ending up in college or in a good job versus ending up in a gang or in prison.
Finally, think of how weird it is to put up a Black vice-presidential candidate to draw the Black vote who was a prosecutor that threw people in jail for marijuana possession and truancy. Meanwhile, Trump passed the First Step Act and pardoned people with minor drug offenses. The surge for Trump among Black men is interesting, but let’s not kid ourselves. The Black vote is still very much in the hands of the Democrats, although the increasingly bizarre social agenda of the far left is getting further and further from the more traditional views of most Black Americans. For one thing, Black Americans feel pressure to vote in a bloc in order to really have a voice in politics. It’s hard to break away and feel like it will make a difference. But also, Republicans tend to be tone-deaf on the Black struggle in America and that’s alienating. Part of the point of writing Black Liberation Through the Marketplace was to show conservatives that acknowledging Black history allows us to defend small government and condemn progressive central planning.
Alex: Conservatives are animated about the danger of critical race theory being taught in our schools. Do you think this concern is legitimate?
Rachel: It’s true that the institutions of education are ideologically captured by the left. That’s one of the problems with a discipline that has no traditional cannon; it’s subject to every passing fad. But we also need to take responsibility for the fact that conservatives and libertarians failed to offer a reasonable account of Black history, which created a vacuum that drew in the influence of CRT. So, while we should certainly be suing over lopsided curriculum or segregated activities, and pushing hard for educational freedom, we should also be working hard to understand Black American history, and to tell the story of big, oppressive government constantly getting in Black people’s way and undermining their success.
Alex: Conservatives and libertarians have historically differed significantly on drugs and incarceration. With the new Trump-era criminal justice reform law, do you see a more united front emerging?
Rachel: There was so much happening in this regard prior to the rise of BLM (the organization). In the book, we talk about the idea of being smart on crime by reforming the criminal justice system in ways that keep us safe and are more cost effective. Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Kansas have done some of the most amazing work on criminal justice reform!
But the BLM “defund the police” and “abolish the police” rhetoric has been so destructive. By taking this revolutionary stance, they’ve terrified conservatives away from the reasonable reforms that groups like ALEC (an org that creates model legislation for conservative lawmakers) had been working on. Wanting to be treated better by the police or wanting the police to get rid of bad apples is completely different from wanting no police! Residents of poor, destabilized neighborhoods are the most likely to be victims of crime, and the presence of police who ‘walk the beat’ is very effective in protecting them. Polls showed very little desire among Black Americans for fewer police. I also think that reasonable criminal justice reformers should emphasize more the way that their reforms benefit police by freeing them to do their main job — detective work — and disassociating them from bad actors that are dragging down the reputation of their profession.
Alex: Thanks again, Rachel, for taking the time to unpack your book for Stream readers. I know they’ll want to join me in giving it a careful read!
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).