The recent dust-up between the NAACP and the Tea Partiers over charges of "racism" appears to be yet one more instance of blacks accusing whites of insensitivity, real or imagined. In reality, however, these exchanges reflect far deeper animosities that will not vanish with "clarifications" or expelling "racist" Tea Partiers.
The NAACP and its numerous allies have for decades led the charge to expand government power, including intruding into areas once considered absolutely off-limits to local government, let alone Washington. Tea Partiers are not libertarians, but they've had enough with government power run amok. This disagreement is, to use Thomas Sowell's words, an unbridgeable conflict of visions: the Tea Party's agenda, even stripped of any racial component, contravenes the NAACP's raison d'être, so when the NAACP complains about insensitivities, it is just saying, "You intend to destroy us."
Begin by recognizing that the post-1960s civil rights agenda has been the single most powerful force in expanding Washington power. Nothing comes even remotely close. During WWII, Washington set prices, rationed consumer goods, and limited business profits, but this infringement was correctly understood as temporary and was universally welcomed as vital to national survival (and it was soon ended). Neither the environmental movement nor consumer protection legislation has penetrated so deeply into the everyday life of Americans.
Documenting this expansion is endless. In education, for example, the push to integrate America's schools has affected the lives of millions, especially those who fled cities to avoid forced busing, while judicial degrees have shaped everything from tax rates to the racial composition of school staffs. Urban demographics were radically altered by forced integration, and this remains true today. The 1964 Civil Rights Act brought federal intervention into local restaurants and movie houses and even constrained people's ability to choose their neighbors. The 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent extensions now make every city and town in America vulnerable to Justice Department oversight if their election system slights minority representation. Employment-based affirmative action has exploded from a narrow presidential directive targeting federal government contractors to a bureaucratic colossus. There is scarcely a person alive, from professors to blue-collar cops and firefighters, whose life-chances have not been shaped by government race policy. There is no escape -- those in rural Idaho seeking a mortgage will probably experience the repercussions of the government's push to promote home ownership among blacks and Hispanics.
Yet, thousands of civil rights successes aside, the political appetites of groups like the NAACP seem insatiable. It is no exaggeration to say that they believe that government is sufficiently powerful, if only vigorously prodded, to level outcomes across nearly all of human existence. This faith-based relentlessness soon resembles the classic gambler's fallacy -- if one lawsuit does not bring racially proportionate equality of admission to law schools, file two, and if that comes up short, file four, and eventually, it is believed, victory will arrive. Scarcely a day passes without some civil rights group going to court to challenge an exam that allegedly hinders black job applicants or demanding that Washington forcefully intervene to protect poor blacks from allegedly discriminatory financial practices.
At some point, even those sympathetic with the civil rights agenda -- and this undoubtedly included most Tea Party fans -- will recognize that this relentless craving for government-imposed racial equality is deeply antithetical to limited government. In the final analysis, then, the NAACP and its allies are on a collision path with the Tea Party movement. Put more formally, given what is already on the books and vigorously enforced, new civil rights measures serve only to expand government, with scant payoff for intended beneficiaries. The point of diminishing returns on political pressuring was reached long ago. In a nutshell, the very existence of the Tea Party is a message to the NAACP: Stop.
Make no mistake: Civil rights groups are not the only fans of big government. There are those who would radically expand defense budgets; others demand gargantuan expansion of social welfare. Further add nanny-state meddlers obsessed with our diets. But what makes the civil rights agenda so contrary to the principles of limited government, over and above its ceaseless character, is its penchant for invading what was heretofore politically off-limits. It is one thing to demand free universal medical care, but quite another to attempt to micromanage the workplace to root out any vestiges of alleged discrimination. To those unfamiliar with this Kafkaesque madness, consider just one of hundreds of anti-discrimination strictures from the U.S. Equal Employment Commission:
For example, a "no-beard" employment policy that applies to all workers without regard to race may still be unlawful if it is not job-related and has a negative impact on the employment of African-American men (who have a predisposition to a skin condition that causes severe shaving bumps).
There are also rules about non-job social events, so, for example, a firm that favors golf outings may be guilty of racial discrimination if its black employees prefer basketball to golf. A firm might also risk lawsuits if refuses to promote a white person who has a black spouse or if the white employee socializes with blacks, or if the firm's insurance policy had a race-related illness as an excluded existing precondition. The list of prohibitions and requirements is not only far-reaching and murky, but navigating them requires legal staffs trained in the equivalent of Talmudic interpretation. Who would have ever guessed that firms must now consider shaving bumps when setting grooming standards? Or must inquire about the race of an employee's friends or spouse before announcing layoffs? No, these are not hypothetical illustrations.
The NAACP/Tea Party conflict would vanish if the NAACP and its allies suddenly abandoned their infatuation with federal coercion and instead embraced a strategy more in tune with the non-political approach of Booker T. Washington or Father Devine -- working one's way up the economic ladder via self-help. So, instead of piling on yet more made-in-Washington rules and regulations to exorcise the demons racism and discrimination in education, civil rights groups would, for example, create after-school cram academies to help struggling students earn a legitimate high school diploma. And I'd guess that they would have no problem recruiting Tea Party sympathizers to help teach these courses.
The NAACP/Tea Party conflict over limited government cannot be resolved, though it is all too easy to paper it over. Tea Party fans are not anti-black or anti-civil rights; they certainly do not favor repealing civil rights legislation or enfeebling the Justice Department. They just prefer limited government to pursuing an aim -- racial equality -- that appears unreachable. It is one thing to expand government during wartime, when national survival is at stake, or to achieve a worthy and reachable goal; but to empower Big Brother and accomplish nothing other than bigger government is hardly an acceptable sacrifice.When confronted with the inevitable charge of racism, Tea Party folk should resist the urge to fight the battle on these acrimonious grounds. Battling a civil rights group over "racism" is an unwinnable, pointless battle. Blacks will always claim the high ground of moral authority to define "racism." The debate should be about sustaining a bedrock principle of our Republic -- limited government -- versus some egalitarian dream. This is a classic clash of principles and transcends who said what when. It is, moreover, about time that the virtues of limited government enter the public debate next time the NAACP or its sympathizers demand yet more government intrusion into private life.
Of the utmost importance, African-Americans should be reminded that, after all, they are a minority, and the purpose of limited government is to prevent tyranny, especially the tyranny of the majority over the minority. In the long run, African-Americans -- like all Americans -- should dread an out-of-control government no matter how seductive that government's mission. The NAACP has, sad to say, forgotten perhaps one of the most basic lessons of American governance. Doubters should just observe what happens elsewhere in today's world when government power is unchecked. There is an oft-repeated Jefferson quote that captures this dilemma exactly: "A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have."
The dust-up is about power and tyranny, not insults.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com