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Thursday, October 02, 2003

The Law of Unintended Consequences

I was struck by a interesting experience when walking into a book store today. As I passed the shelves of books I noticed that there were sections for History, Biography, Religon, Mystery, Romance and so on. I then noticed a section called African American. While I perused the other sections I skipped the African American section, I suppose, at least subconsciously, because being white I assumed there was nothing there germaine to me. However, after feeling a bit guilty I approached the section and skimmed the titles. Of course, the section was filled not with books only about the civil rights movement or slavery but with books by African Amercian authors in all the other genres in the rest of the store.

So here are the questions: Why would a bookstore owner feel the need to create a section only for African American authors when authors of all other races are categorized by genre? Does creating such a section serve any purpose except allowing non-black patrons to more easily pass by some very good books and at the same time perhaps causing black patrons to miss good literature in the wider store? In answer to the first question, my guess is that the same guilt that finally caused me to skim the books in that section drove the owner of the book store to create a special African American section. And in answer to the second, the owner's actions elevated race over content (in this case of a person's writing instead of his character), which likely was exactly opposite of the intent.

So what is the wider lesson? Like affirmative action, sometimes attempts to make concessions can end up causing a result exactly opposite to that intended (the "law of unintended consequences", see Thomas Sowell's book).

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