Bloody Tulsa: Trump, History, and the Absurdity of Voter Choice

Election cycle maneuvering seems to be in full swing, and so the political silly season has descended upon us once again. With all of the unrest surrounding us this year – COVID curfews, demonstrations over police violence, and a nascent recession that can only be exacerbated by these other factors – this promises to be quite the interesting cycle. It is not simply that 2020 has presented a duo of major party candidates, Trump vs. Biden, that may just be worse than 2016’s historically bad contest between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton. Current events may presage ballot initiatives regarding police funding, qualified immunity, the proper level of prosecution for rogue officers, and other similar matters that fall under the aegis of social justice. Indeed, for certain voters, the Downs paradox (the concept that for rational, self-interested voters, the benefits of voting are generally exceeded by the costs) just might be turned on its head. 

I realize that for many, the notion of “social justice” is a pejorative of the highest magnitude, but as my friend and fellow EconLog contributor Steve Horwitz has observed over at Libertarianism.org, the foundational classical liberal precepts regarding a just society require vigilance to ensure that our institutions remain just:

With the George Floyd killing and associated protests raising a number of issues involving race, the police, and state power that have long interested libertarians, the relationship between libertarian thought and calls for “social justice,” coming almost exclusively from the left, has found its way into the spotlight.

Justice, by nature, is social, as it invariably involves the redress of grievances between counterparties with different interests. This, however, is an argument for a different day. What interests me in the backdrop of these happenings is the choice of date and venue made by President Trump to officially kick off his reelection campaign.

 

Ninety-nine years ago, the Greenwood community in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma was the victim of one of the most devastating instances of interracial violence in American history. Driven by a false report of an assault by a Black teenager, Dick Rowland,  on a White teenager, Sarah Page, White residents of Tulsa descended upon Greenwood in an orgy of fire and blood. Prior to the incident, Greenwood had been a successful, if segregated, community of some 10,000 African Americans comprising roughly thirty-five blocks of the city and known colloquially as the Negro Wall Street. After a lawless night of looting on March 31, 1921 by an angry white mob, several of whom had even been deputized by local law enforcement, Greenwood lay in ashes, with hundreds dead and some $25.8 million of property damage in today’s dollars.

The economic success of the residents of Greenwood, who lived in the area precisely because it was the only place in Tulsa where they were allowed to live, had long been a sore spot for the other residents of Tulsa. The fear was that with rapidly growing wealth the blacks of Greenwood would begin to demand greater political power, and they would have the economic wherewithal to achieve it, As such, they were a threat to the status quo, and in the absurdity that often comes with group threat theory, what was in fact an innocent encounter between Rowland and Page served as a pretext to eliminate that perceived threat. To further illustrate this point, despite numerous investigations, there were few convictions in the aftermath of the Tulsa massacre, nor was there any attempt on the part of either the city of Tulsa or the state of Oklahoma to provide remuneration to the dispossessed victims. Many of the suddenly impoverished residents of Greenwood simply left, their abandoned properties acquired at a discount by those who had burned them out.

 

That this is where President Trump has decided to begin his campaign for reelection is made even more interesting by the date on which he will appear in the city. June 19 is a day celebrated by many African Americans as Juneteenth, or Jubilee: the day in 1865 on which the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Although the extractive, exploitative economy of slavery was not really ended until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation was still a powerful symbol to former slaves. Thus, in the sort of absurd timing that can only occur during an election cycle, we have a President restarting his campaign cycle in the city with the worst racial incident in American history on a day celebrated as a day of freedom by many African Americans during a period of heightened racial tension. 

I doubt that Mr. Trump did such a thing purposefully, or was even aware of the strange symbolism that his choice of date and location would evoke, but in this strange cycle, in this strange year of instability, the underlying notion of structure-induced equilibria – that majority rule in complex societies is inherently unstable – becomes ever more apparent.

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Why We Need to Keep Talking About George Floyd

I must begin by pointing out that this is really not what I wanted to be writing about. This is EconLog, for crying out loud; a virtual property of Econlib.  They don’t just let anyone natter on here, and for that reason, I would rather my introduction to the readers here be a message of freedom and hope. It was a mere few days ago that NASA launched a rocket built by SpaceX into space, ferrying humans to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time since 2011, signaling the successful culmination of a public-private partnership (sort of) that may one day see mankind colonize the stars.  But…I can’t engage you in a whimsical fantasy of our descendants enjoying Andorian ale in a bar on the joint colony at Titan.

Those of us tethered to the ground have been subject to pandemics, government overreach, massive loss of employment…and then there’s George Floyd. Those of us possessed of the masochism inherent in formal training in the social sciences have an obligation to review the world as it is, making data-driven observations, providing deep analysis of proximate causes, and generating recommendations aimed at making improvements and finding solutions. This last is the most difficult, because in matters involving race, I don’t necessarily know that here are any solutions outside of “we all need to be better.” Nor, in truth, am I an indifferent observer. As an African American myself, I have known too many George Floyds to remain indifferent.

It must be noted that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers, and the resultant riots raging across the American landscape aren’t entirely about race. As Reason’s Christian Britschgi has so ably observed, a combination of coronavirus lockdowns, joblessness, and other related factors combined to form a perfect soup that boiled over the day Derek Chauvin and his cohorts essentially strangled Floyd to death. This, however, is an outcome, not a cause. While this matter isn’t entirely about race, it’s still about racial relations in America. As ostensible thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, those of us dedicated to the natural rights of all men often shrink from in-depth discussion of such matters, when we may be the only parties left with any shred of moral authority to lead the charge.

So, we’re going to have that discussion, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. We’re going to discuss public choice and path dependencies. The ruinous War on Drugs and its unholy offspring, the carceral state, are also on the docket.  Institutional bias, uneven enforcement of laws that, by all right, shouldn’t even be laws…they’re on the table as well. The first step to solving a problem is admission that the problem exists, and we’re going to get to the root of it.  We’re going to analyze through the filters of economics, sociology, political science, history…because we must. To channel Acemoglu, history happens when critical junctures mate with institutional drift, giving birth to persistent paradigms.  We are, as the fires attest, at a critical juncture. To create new paradigms, we must facilitate changes within our institutions.

I will, of course, talk about other things. It is an honor for me to be here, and this isn’t the only issue that needs discussion. Nevertheless, this will be an ongoing conversation, and it is my hope that both author and readers benefit from it. The American apartheid system known as Jim Crow was relegated to the dustbins of history because men and women of good conscience did not bury their heads in the sand at a critical juncture in time, but the work is not yet done. It is up to us to find its completion, so that we can truly fulfill the obligations inherent in our credo “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

 

 


Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.

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Something to Learn from the Trump Presidency

The president of the United States tweeted a video of an alleged rioter (who, in all likelihood, is an American citizen, not a “Mexican rapist”) with the threatening comment:

“Anarchists, we see you!”

Is it for the president to identify suspects? So much for the ideal of the rule of law, it seems.

But my point is different and related to the benefits of personal knowledge. I have always hoped that a journalist would, during a press conference, ask the president something like “Mr. President, what do you mean exactly by ‘socialism’?” Or, “Mr. President, what do you mean by ‘the extreme left’ and how does it differ from the left?”

Since Mr. Trump’s tweet of yesterday and his other recent references to “anarchists” as another type of scapegoat, my dream has changed. I would now propose questions like the following:

Mr. President, what is an anarchist? What does an anarchist believe?

Mr. President, do you think that Henry David Thoreau, Lysander Spooner, and Murray Rothbard were anarchists?

What about David Friedman?

Do you think that Anthony de Jasay is a conservative anarchist?

Of course, looters have to be stopped and arrested but different sorts of anarchists exist, just as there are different sorts of defenders of the state. Another idea for a question along those lines:

Mr. President, don’t you think that the so-called “anarchist” rioters and looters actually want more state power, just like the “extreme left” you attack?

The following question may be problematic for both Mr. Trump and the libertarians involved:

Mr. President, what do you think of the anarcho-capitalists who, during your 2016 election campaign, created a group called “Libertarians for Trump”?

More seriously, I suggest the Trump presidency has taught something important to those of us who define themselves as libertarians or fellow travelers: knowledge is important, both in the sense of a minimal culture about what has been happening in the world until yesterday and in the sense of an intellectual capacity to learn. To advance liberty, an ignorant disrupter is not sufficient. He is more likely to advance tyranny. If he appears to defend one libertarian cause—say, the Second Amendment—he will more probably bring it into disrepute.

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