Open the Overton Window!
The Overton Window is the range of political opinions considered acceptable at any given time. Some ideas, once mainstream, can fall outside the shifting Overton Window. The military draft, for example, was once considered common sense and is now politically beyond the pale. On the other hand, the Overton Window can also expand. Policies once considered radical, like legalizing marijuana, can become bipartisan over time.
Currently, we are witnessing the narrowing of the Overton Window regarding explanations for disparate racial outcomes. When different groups are compared, it is inevitable that outcomes will differ. However, racism has become the only acceptable explanation for racial disparities. Despite the scholarly work of Thomas Sowell and others, who argue for a range of possible explanations, including cultural differences, religious differences, geography, climate, migration patterns, and the mean age of different groups, racism remains the only acceptable explanation in almost every context.
We can observe the quarantining of ideas through the refusal of woke writers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo to debate or engage with black scholars who are influenced by Thomas Sowell, such as Glen Lourey, John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes, and Wilfred Reilly. The relative isolation of these thinkers both reflects and contributes to the narrowing of the Overton Window.
Ignoring possible explanations and strangling debate have direct policy consequences. When progressive lawmakers observe significant disparities in incarceration rates between blacks and other racial groups and restrict the explanation to racism, certain policies logically follow. Despite the success of increased incarceration in reducing crime since the 1990s, there has been a recent trend of rolling back policies like three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences. Many states have chosen to scale back these sentencing enhancements.
Furthermore, many big-city district attorneys have backed away from pursuing charges requiring long sentences, and some have even refused to prosecute a wide range of crimes. All of this is justified under the belief that racism is the only acceptable explanation when disparities in arrests and convictions are observed. Although the scaling back of police activity (referred to as the Ferguson-George Floyd Effects) and prosecutors coincides with a significant increase in murders and traffic deaths, these negative effects are conveniently overlooked by those who perceive law enforcement as perpetuating racism.
So what can we do to open the Window? There is an overwhelming conformity to the accepted narrative in various spheres that influence the Overton Window, including the media; publishing; academia; and, increasingly, the corporate world. Fortunately, there are voices pushing against the conformity.
Exposing more people to currently taboo ideas is the first step toward opening the Overton Window. One of the easiest actions an individual can take is to follow and share dissenting voices on social media and the rare voices in the mainstream media. Podcasts hosted by Coleman Hughes and Glenn Loury can be shared, and John McWorter even has a column in the New York Times.
There are even progressive opinion leaders in the media who push back on the restrictive narrative. Talk show host Bill Maher, despite being a committed liberal, occasionally challenges his own side about issues relating to race and crime. Sharing clips of his discussions can make Progressive friends more receptive to the idea that different rates of criminality contribute to varying incarceration rates, as opposed to presenting the deeply researched arguments found in a book by Charles Murray.
Many moderate conservatives fear ostracization if they engage in discussions outside the Overton Window, especially on topics involving race and crime. One brave exception in the new media is Andrew Sullivan. Despite being a staunch "NeverTrump," he fearlessly advocates for opening the window. He conducts interviews with serious dissenting academics and writers, such as Charles Murray and Nicholas Wade. In a recent Substack column, he criticizes the media's obsession with white-on-black crime while showing indifference to the far more common black-on-white crime.
Even within traditional academia, there are dissenters. Amy Wax is an Ivy League law professor who has written that a lack of bourgeois values hinders the success of certain groups. She has also been frank about the under-representation of black students graduating at the top of their class. Despite her having tenure, her school's administration is attempting to remove her. Nevertheless, she persists in her efforts. She continues to speak online and engage with local Federalist Society chapters. Furthermore, she is fighting her law school to protect her tenure privileges. You can support her endeavors to broaden the Window by contributing to her GoFundMe campaign.
Another easy step to help open the Window is to cease funding the stifling orthodoxy. Donations and bequests to universities or nonprofits often reinforce the current narrow window of acceptable ideas. Instead of donating to your alma mater, which may have become hive of woke orthodoxy, consider supporting a think-tank with a heterodox mission, such as the Manhattan Institute.
While the Overton Window on racial disparities is currently narrow, it is not predetermined to remain that way.
Randy Boudreaux is an attorney in New Orleans.
Image via Public Domain Pictures.