The Plantation Theory
It is time to retire a dumb idea and the rhetoric that goes with it.

Cornel West


Kevin D. Williamson

It is not surprising that blacks have less faith in the productive and transformative power of the free-market economy than do whites. Black Americans were for some centuries treated as an economic commodity themselves and were systematically excluded from full participation in the economy for generations after that. As horrific as slavery is, it may in fact be the latter experience that has undercut African Americans’ faith in capitalism. Slavery is an alien experience, but being passed over for a job or a contract, or being denied a loan, and suspecting that one’s race has something to do with the fact, is not ancient history. And while accounts of discrimination against black Americans in the marketplace may be exaggerated, they are not without basis in fact.

That African Americans’ attitudes toward economic issues are strongly influenced by their historical experience of economic exclusion is consistent with other aspects of black life beyond political-party affiliation. For example, blacks are notably risk-averse when it comes to personal financial decisions. Blacks are much less likely to invest in stocks than are similarly situated whites. They invest relatively less in risk-involved instruments such as stocks and bonds and more in risk-mitigating instruments such as life insurance. (That is one of the reasons that affluent black households often end up less wealthy than white households with identical incomes and education levels. Women exhibit similarly risk-averse investing behavior with the same result.) Risk aversion is the reason that many Americans — black, white, and other — are made anxious by proposed changes to the welfare system, even when they themselves are unlikely ever to need it. They view the welfare state as (that inevitable phrase) a safety net.


And that is what the plantation theory gets wrong. Democrats are not buying black votes with welfare benefits. Democrats appeal to blacks, to other minority groups, and — most significant — to women with rhetoric and policies that promise the mitigation of risk. (Never mind that these policies don’t work — voters never sort that out.) Conservatives routinely generalize our own economic confidence, assuming that it is shared by the general public, with catastrophic political consequences. The health-care debate represented the most notable instance of this faulty assumption in recent years; every Republican politician who could get near a microphone was harrumphing about how we had the greatest health-care system in the world, but they all failed to appreciate the anxiety inherent in being tied to an employer-based insurance plan during times of economic uncertainty. (In the 21st century, all times are times of economic uncertainty.)

Professor West gets a pass, of  course, but blonde ladies and golf-tanned Caucasian gentlemen on Fox News probably should not be engaging in loose talk about plantations — if not as a matter of good taste, then because it leads to erroneous thinking.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.