OPINION

The Politics of Retribution and the Minority-Owned Business.

Revenge as compassion in Weimar America.

As an occasional contributor to Human Events, I often get a particular type of spam email. These messages begin by complimenting me on “my” website (note: I am a freelancer. I am not employed by Human Events, and I have no financial stake in the site). Then, the writer typically invites me to “partner” with them by promoting their product/website/special interest on the site. Usually, I ignore these emails and go about my day. But this week I received an unusual one.

I’d prefer none of my readers make decisions about which businesses they will (or won’t) patronize on the basis of the racial identity of its owners.

This time, the email was from an individual who complimented me on a particular essay I had written for Human Events: “Solving the Stalemate in America’s Honest Conversation about Race.” The author of the email began by thanking me for “supporting the black community” and lamented that with the “events of last summer” receding in the public imagination, some of the public zeal for supporting “Black-owned businesses” had cooled. Getting to the point, the writer mentioned she had discovered “a news article with links to more than 150 Black-owned businesses,” and was requesting that Human Events create a link to this page in my earlier essay.

A pause here is warranted: I have nothing but the utmost respect for entrepreneurs of any race or background. My father opened a business that provided for my family throughout my upbringing. Every entrepreneur has accepted a call to hard work. By accepting that call, they affirm some important components of the American tradition. One of the reasons I was angered by the race-related riots last summer was that in cities like Minneapolis, I read that minority-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed by organized violence—violence that was justified on the grounds that it advanced the interests of the minorities in these communities.

Nevertheless, this email rubbed me the wrong way. I replied to let the writer know that I’d prefer none of my readers make decisions about which businesses they will (or won’t) patronize on the basis of the racial identity of its owners. Using the owner’s skin color as a deciding factor in whether one will spend money at a business is racism. Ten years ago, most Americans would have regarded this as self-evident. The fact that this is no longer the case in 2021 gives urgent testimony about the dangerous places to which the left’s doctrine of “progress” (which positions racial identity as the core of one’s personhood and the central concern of politics) is bringing us. The silence from the media and the Biden administration on this regression to open racism is especially disgusting, given their feigned concerns regarding “Jim Crow 2.0.”

Boarded up business.

Boarded up business.

THE NEW COMMODIFICATION OF RACIAL PRIVILEGE

The lip-service paid to [Insert Minority Group Here]-owned businesses expands by the day. A few weeks ago, I purchased a bottle of C.L.R. to address a slow drain at my house. As I prepared to pour it, I noticed a strange emblem on the label. Closer examination revealed it to be an advertising pitch which alerted me that the product is “Women-Owned.” A visit to C.L.R.’s website makes clear that this “minority” ownership is a centerpiece of their brand’s identity.

How else to explain the prevalence of this marketing which insists upon informing us on the racial and gender identities of the ownership?

At the risk of sounding petty, this kind of advertisement frustrates me. It makes me imagine the kind of person who, in trying to decide between two similarly-priced drain cleaners, says to himself: “Oh! C.L.R. is Women-Owned? I didn’t know that! Decision made!” Some readers might say that I am reading too much into this trend, arguing that no informed consumer would resort to such vapid decision-making. But obviously, C.L.R. and the person who put together the list of black-owned businesses that I was asked to help distribute are betting that consumers are this vapid, if not consciously racist. How else to explain the prevalence of this marketing which insists upon informing us on the racial and gender identities of the ownership?

This trend points out a heretical truth: a truth that should not be spoken, regardless of how true it is, lest its status as truth be affirmed (thereby undermining a more useful untruth).

First, the desirable untruth: It is untrue (though widely believed) that minority-owned businesses are at a competitive disadvantage due to existing racist sentiment among demographic majority groups, which allegedly motivates these groups to avoid said businesses. This untruth is desirable and widely circulated because the public perception that typical Americans are beset by racial animosity towards minority groups is useful in advancing a whole suite of policy objectives for the political left.

Now, the heretical truth: From a marketing perspective, it is clear that minority ownership is a benefit to the marketability of any good or service rather than a detriment. Put differently, most consumers are more likely (not less) to patronize a business if they are aware of minority ownership. If this wasn’t the case, then why in the world would so many companies and products be adopting a marketing strategy that reduces their prospects for success?

I am not so naïve as to think that the marketing companies who get paid to hype minority-owned businesses give a damn about “social justice.” They care about maximizing the profits of their clients (and thus, their own firms). But evidently, they are betting that consumers are motivated by considerations of social justice. This begs the question: if purchasing a product from a minority-owned business because the owners belong to a minority advances the cause of justice, how does it do so? What is the particular vision of justice that such discriminating consumption implies?

"Black Owned Business" sign.

“Black Owned Business” sign.

RETRIBUTION AND COMPASSION: TWO COMPETING VISIONS OF ETHICS

The argument that patronizing minority-owned business is a vehicle for justice begins by recognizing that, historically speaking, minorities in America have been under-represented in business ownership. This was because they were systematically denied the capital required to become an entrepreneur (in the form of comparatively low family wealth or the discriminatory withholding of bank loans). Another reason for their underrepresentation stems from past prejudices that were prevalent in American culture, such as creating school districts in such a way that provided non-white children with inferior education or the disqualification of ethnic minorities from certain kinds of apprenticeships. These prejudices ensured that when minorities did manage to overcome the barriers to owning a business, their businesses were often unprofitable. The avoidance of minority-owned businesses by customers in the racial majority provided another disincentive for potential entrepreneurs. But today, most of these barriers have been resolved, and, as I explained above, there is ample evidence that minority ownership is now an advantage in ensuring long-term viability.

The impact of identity-based favoritism on the disfavored business owners is rarely rationalized: instead, it is routinely ignored.

The type of justice advanced by patronizing minority businesses because they are minority-owned, can only be understood as a form of historical redress. In other words, supporting minority-owned businesses in 2021 is a way to compensate for the social injustices that undermined minority entrepreneurship in the past (or, in some cases, disabled it entirely). But this form of redress is neither neutral nor insignificant in how it plays out in the competitive world of business. Every purchase made by a consumer represents a win for one business and a loss for another: the sale of a jug of C.L.R. often means one less bottle of Drano sold. The impact of identity-based favoritism on the disfavored business owners is rarely rationalized: instead, it is routinely ignored.

Despite the protest from the left that market capitalism is unjust because it is a zero-sum game with winners and losers, there is no injustice in choosing one product over another. There are many morally neutral grounds on which to make these choices: perhaps one product is better than the alternatives offered by competitors. Perhaps people decide to patronize a particular business because it happens to be closest to their home or place of work. Perhaps a consumer chooses one service provider over another because they deliver the service at a lower price. None of these motives are prejudicial (in the common sense of the term). Rather, consumers consider past experience, convenience, or home economics when they make purchasing decisions.

Although there was never a time in America when no one was making decisions about where to shop based on the minority status of the store’s proprietor, the few remaining Americans who do engage in this kind of discrimination have been reluctant to admit it of late. This reluctance was evidence that most people in this nation would view such race preferences as indefensible. Until now.

Today, not only is racial identity seen as a legitimate factor to consider in choosing where to spend money, elite culture apparently views identity-based discrimination in commercial activity as a moral good … provided the consumer makes the right choice and favors minority groups over others.

According to the new ethic, if you have to pick between a black-owned business or a white-owned one, you should choose the former. This decision is rationalized by acknowledging historical wrongs that contemporary white entrepreneurs neither endorsed nor perpetuated. If I can buy a drain cleaner that is manufactured by a “women-owned” company rather than one owned by men, the new norm suggests that I have all the information I need. So, C.L.R. it is. The calculus involved here is pretty simple until the inevitable moral quandary arises where multiple minorities are represented among our competing options.

Suffice it to say, then, that the model of justice enacted by patronizing minority-owned businesses because they are minority-owned can only be described as an ethics of retribution, wherein justice is done by avenging wrongs upon the wrongdoer. But pursuing justice by discriminating against business owners who played no active role in a historical and collective injustice should give us pause.

Boarded up business.

Boarded up business.

REVENGE AS COMPASSION: THE CONTRADICTIONS OF SOCIAL JUSTICE IDEOLOGY

Many will immediately recoil at the apparent oxymoron implied by associating justice with retribution or revenge, but the ethics of retribution has served as the dominant framework for pursuing justice throughout the history of the world. The ethic of mercy and compassion (wherein the highest forms of moral action are forgiveness and selflessness) that has dominated modern American thought is rather new. This vision of morality has only gained widespread western acceptance over the past few hundred years, and many parts of the world still favor an ethic of retribution. And yet, there is now a growing nostalgia for a retributive ethics in America, one that points up some contradictions and difficulties in the pursuit of social justice.

Put differently, a moral vision that values mercy and forgiveness cannot be reconciled with one that understands justice as vengeance.

The most familiar example of an ethics of retribution comes from Mosaic law. In the Abrahamic tradition, the system of justice that God handed down to Moses insisted that wrongdoers must be punished—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Ex. 21:23-25). The principle implied here is one that still serves as the justification for punishment in most legal systems: because the wrong done to the victim cannot be undone, the transgressor can at least be forced to suffer a comparable hardship. In short, the punishment that is handed down by a court does not negate the wrong suffered by the victim, but it does aim to mitigate and offset that wrong. Destroying another person’s eye cannot be fully and perfectly offset by anything other than the loss of the wrongdoer’s eye: an ethic of retribution represents an attempt to honor that truth. The familiar “tooth-for-a-tooth” line from the book of Exodus was not a mistake. Elsewhere, the book clarifies that God will punish “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Ex. 20:5).

This kind of retributive justice model—God’s punishment of children for the sins of their parents—could be used to justify the idea that historical justice is served by favoring minority-owned businesses over others in 2021: even though the white man who owns a hardware store today is not personally culpable for the historical sufferings of minority entrepreneurs, his ancestors may have been. The left often takes this a step further, arguing that the white shop owner may have opened his store with the help of family money or an inheritance, financial reserves of the sort that minority groups were historically denied due to slavery, indentured servitude, and discrimination.

It must be noted, though, that the progressive left does not pride itself on its enthusiasm for vengeance. Quite the opposite: leftism, socialism, and all other manner of progressivism view compassion as their characteristic moral virtue. Consider, for example, the concern for inclusion and tolerance on the left: although it is often so doggedly pursued that it can only be called a fixation, it originates from an admirable compassion for the other.  It cannot be ignored, though, that compassion is largely antithetical to retribution, and an ethics built on the former is inherently different from one built on the latter. Put differently, a moral vision that values mercy and forgiveness cannot be reconciled with one that understands justice as vengeance.

Despite the tooth-for-toothiness of the Old Testament, there are many places in Jewish scripture that endorse a morality based on mercy and forgiveness (e.g., Ezekiel 18:20, which directly contradicts the idea that children will be punished for the sins of their parents). But in America, the ethics of compassion that so powerfully influences public policy is a vestige of our unique Christian heritage, albeit that it is now articulated in a secular idiom. This Christian interpretation of mercy and love invites us to “turn the other cheek” and to forgive one another on “seventy times seven” occasions without taking vengeance (which, of course, implies that we should never take retribution).

This radical ethics of forgiveness reinvented the world as Christianity spread. Nietzsche recognized that it lay at the very heart of western modernity, and in On the Genealogy of Morality, he attacks forgiveness as a “slave morality,” one that is the last resort of weaklings. Under the ethic of retribution (which Nietzsche favors because he believes it affirms power and human agency), he insists that the slave can never be viewed as virtuous, if only because the slave does not have the power to impose his will and take revenge on those who do him wrong. Rather than recognizing themselves as morally inferior, Nietzsche posits, the weaklings of the world (embodied, he says, by Jesus Christ) inverted the retributive ethic of power: they said that goodness meant forgiveness, a refusal to take revenge, and a display of compassion that elevates the meek and reinterprets their weakness as virtue.

With this critique of Christian morality in mind, then, we observe a paradox that lies deep within the strategies used by the left to pursue social justice. On the one hand, the ethics of compassion and the love for the downtrodden and meek is what drives the concern for minority business owners: recognizing the historical hardships of minorities demands our moral consideration. We feel a desire to address the sins of the past. On the other hand, though, the means by which the left demands we reconcile those historical injustices amounts to an ethic of retribution: an eye for an eye, where white discrimination against a Hispanic shopkeeper in 1935 is offset by denying business to majority business owners in 2021.

In short, the sins of the father are revisited upon the son. In a staggering contradiction, the taking of revenge comes to be the very means of showing compassion. And because these two ethical impulses play mutually negating roles in the left’s justifications for social justice activism, they are irreconcilable.

Sadly, this liquidates the prospects for reconciling the injustices of the past; such a contradictory approach to healing our nation’s wounds is doomed to fail, and further pursuit of this strategy can only be expected to deepen existing resentments and suspicions. Left to fester, they will fuel animosities between the diverse groups that make up the American people—animosities that might ultimately be expressed in acts of hatred and violence that look virtually indistinguishable from the historical wrongs that the woke paradigm aims to redress. The new discrimination, which is undertaken in the name of compassion but expressed through retribution, cannot offset the sins of the past. It will only doom us to repeat them.

Written By:

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston–Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at adamellwanger@gmail.com, on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger, or @TheHereticalTruth on Parler.