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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Fox Business anchor John Stossel mainstreams prejudiced views by saying private businesses should be allowed to discriminate

Stossel The scariest thing about right-leaning media outlets such as Fox News Channel, is that they can make the nuttiest fringe notions sound like reasonable issues for debate.

Forty-six years ago, civil rights proponents endured attack dogs, tear gas, arrests and worse to push the government and private businesses to end segregation, particularly in the south.

As my friend, college professor and journalist Wayne Dawkins pointed out to me, the destruction of segregation also made it possible for all kids of commerce to come more easily to the South, from sports teams and concert tours to investments from companies leery of the south's reputation. 

But that doesn't matter to Fox Business Network anchor John Stossel, who argued on Fox News Channel that private businesses should be allowed to be racist if they choose in discussing similar comments allegedly made by politician Rand Paul

His reasoning as a free market Libertarian: The federal government shouldn't tell any business what to do.

But I'm wondering how far his reasoning goes. Should the FDA stop regulating the quality of food? Is it time for federal authorities to trust pharmaceutical companies, construction firms, airlines, water companies and insurance companies to meet standards of quality and composition on their own with no oversight?

It's obvious that we use government as a referee to ensure quality water, food, drugs, roads, buildings and automobiles. But for some reason, Stossel thinks none of that is needed when it comes to protecting citizens from unfair discrimination by businesses.

Here's some thoughts from columnists smarter than me:

Check The Atlantic's Ta-Nehesi Coats:

"It would have really pleased me if Paul had just made the case for private sector discrimination. Frankly, I can see the outlines of the argument and am not totally unsympathetic to it. ... But what about red-lining? Does Paul know anything about blockbusting? Does he think banks should be able to have a policy of not lending to black businesses? Does he think real-estate agents should be able to discriminate? Does he think private homeowner groups should be able to band together and keep out blacks? Jews? Gays? Latinos?"

Or the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn:

"Clearly, to me and, I suspect, most people, the value to society of disallowing discrimination in public accommodations vastly exceeds the price of infringing on the freedom of restaurateurs, hoteliers, admissions officers at private colleges  and other proprietors to exercise their bigotry if they so choose. The principle behind that view is that outcomes matter, and that it would be impossible for America to realize the true promise of liberty while allowing the corrosive, destructive and dehumanizing practice of segregation in private business."

So, let's say you're a black person who would like to catch a cab in a city where the only cab companies have decided they don't like picking up black people. Or you need you car repaired in a community where the only garage has decided it won't serve your kind? Or you need cancer treatment in a place where the only specialist won't take you because -- well, you get the idea.

This is a slippery slope, even for an intellectually dishonest bloviator like Stossel. (and let's not forget the points raised by the Washington Post's Charles Lane; that police would eventually have to enforce a business owner's racist decisions)

But what's really dangerous about this notion is the way Fox News slides it into the mainstream. Anchor Megyn Kelly provides deniability, grilling Stossel on his position.

Still, Stossel gets to advance a ridiculous notion in a calm voice, wrapped in the credibility provided by a TV newscast. This is how ideas which chip away at our basic notions of equality are made to seem reasonable and valid. In Stossel's world, the government can't push businesses to act responsibly, despite the fact that it happens every day in hundreds of ways.

What has always concerned diversity advocates is the way such arguments mimic efforts by some to turn our long national consensus on equality and anti-prejudice into some sheltered justification for bigotry. It sounds a lot more palatable to say the federal government shouldn't dictate terms to business than to say that southern restaurants should have been allowed to ban racial minorities from eating at their lunch counters.

Stossel seems to be putting on the table what politicians like Rand Paul have tried to sneak in the back door. That he was allowed to do it on TV's most-watched cable network is the most frightening turn of all.

Here's Stossel's argument on FNC, followed by liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow's discussion with Rand Paul:

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[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:08pm]

    

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