When I teach about “personal discrimination,” I often use the example of bigotry against the number 13. You’ve probably heard that some people have the strange religious belief that 13 has supernatural powers.
Owners of tall buildings have succumbed to this bigotry by getting rid of the 13th floor. Well, not eliminating the entire floor, but pretending that it doesn’t exist by adjusting the numbers on elevators and office doors. (The bigotry is amusing when one realizes that the folks on the 14th floor are really on the dreaded 13th floor.)
Even if the owner doesn’t share this numerical bigotry, she’s likely to defer to it. She can probably find enough tenants who don’t personally fear or hate the number 13. But these tenants would still reasonably worry about prospective employees and customers who dislike 13. And that’s enough to make 13 unattractive to tenants — and thus, the owner.
Why do we tolerate this blatant discrimination? Because we don’t care about the number 13 — and because the costs of discriminating against it are quite low, for individuals and society.
Then, I turn to a tougher example. What if you own a restaurant in the Deep South in the 1950s? You’re not a racist, but if you hire black people or serve black people, there could be big trouble for you. Your home or business could be fire-bombed. You or your family might be attacked. You will lose friends and be ostracized by neighbors.
What should you do? In class, I allude to the moral and ethical standards at hand, but leave the question unanswered — as a matter of conscience for my students. Of course, the point is as clear as the question is difficult. Following a moral standard may be costly — and for many, too costly to follow.
What makes this case much more difficult? In contrast to the number 13, we do care about how African-Americans are treated, but we realize that doing the right thing could have been quite costly.
In recent years, to play further with the concept of personal discrimination, I’ve started to discuss Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, Michael Sams, Kareem Hunt, Tyreke Hill, Joe Mixon and Ray Rice. All of these football players have characteristics beyond their performance “on the field” that has impacted their “productivity.”
For team owners, the two most prominent goals are to make money and to win games. These players might be capable enough on the field. But they might impact team chemistry or cause a media circus that would sacrifice wins and profits. Hiring a football player is not simply a matter of his productivity on the field.
Now, back to bigotry and personal discrimination. Aside from questions about their “productivity,” these players might be judged and disliked by owners for their off-the-field behavior or beliefs.
For example, an owner might have a problem with Kaepernick’s kneeling, Tebow’s Christianity, Sams’ homosexuality or Hunt’s domestic violence. But even if an owner doesn’t care about these things, what should he do if customers or other players are bothered by their character or behavior?
Finally, let’s turn to Hong Kong and the NBA’s recent troubles with China. Many pro basketball players stood with Kaepernick and for free speech — in his protest against police shootings and his support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. But all of those NBA athletes caved when it came to free speech and protest against China’s oppression of Hong Kong.
What’s the difference? Not principle, since the actual and potential human rights abuses against those in Hong Kong are far greater than those currently against African-Americans. Perhaps it’s nativism or xenophobia, but I think the most likely explanation is costs and benefits.
What’s the solution? Embrace core principles consistently. Be more focused on character and integrity than virtue signaling and accumulating wealth. And advocate justice for all people — not just when it’s cheap for you or only relevant to those you love, especially if you’re powerful or prominent.
D. Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany and an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to [email protected].