Everywhere woke ideology casts its shadow, things only get worse
Walter E. Williams, one of America's premier public intellectuals, died last week at 84, just hours after teaching an economics class at George Mason University, where he taught for 40 years, and the day after his final syndicated column appeared. (I'm still contemplating whether that is a model I hope to emulate.)
That last column, like so much of his work, and that of his best friend and fellow black economist, Thomas Sowell, dealt with the decline of human capital in the black community since the inception of the Great Society.
Williams began his column documenting the horrifying educational failures of inner city schools. In 13 Baltimore high schools, for instance, not a single student tested as proficient in math, and only 14 black students out of 3,804, in 39 high schools, did so. (Proficient is not the highest evaluation.)
The situation has not always been thus. Sowell documents in Education: Assumptions versus History the academic excellence of Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. Already by 1899, black students at Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, a black public high school in Washington, D.C., scored higher on citywide tests that any of the city's white schools. From 1870 to 1955, most of its graduates went to college.
These statistics are enormously suggestive on two points. First, they establish that black academic failure does not result from any innate deficiency. Second, they pose a devastating challenge to the systemic racism narrative. Blacks experienced far worse racism, often de jure, in the first half of the 20th century — including being denied entry into the highest echelons of professional sports and being relegated to segregated units in the armed forces — than they have since 1965.
And yet by multiple measures, black progress has reversed in the civil rights era, even as racism has declined sharply. Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett write in their new book, The Upswing: "In terms of material well-being, Black Americans were moving toward parity with white Americans well before the victories of the civil rights era.... [A]fter the passage of civil rights legislation, those trends toward racial parity slowed, stopped, and even reversed.... In measure after measure, positive change for Black Americans was actually faster in the decades before the civil rights revolution than in the decades after."
Once upon a time, Williams observed, black Americans had a hard time finding a door open to advance; today there is nary a door closed. Yet since 1970, black unemployment rates, graduation rates, achievement on standardized tests, drug use, and rates of out-of-wedlock birth have worsened. (The Trump presidency was a hiatus with respect to unemployment.)
Williams was fond of reminiscing about the ways the black community of his youth was much stronger than today's. As a 17-year old driving a taxi to pay for two courses at Temple University, he would sleep in his cab between shifts, something that would be suicidal today. In the housing project where he grew up, his was the only female-headed household. And with his mother's remarriage, he had a strong male presence in his life: Pops. An example of Pops' sage advice: "Learn to come early and stay late, and always be ready when the opportunity train comes along."
Much of the cultural decline, Williams lamented, is collateral damage of social programs enacted with only "good intentions" — the name of a 1985 PBS documentary he produced. Until the enactment of the first federal minimum wage act in 1930, for instance, black unemployment rates were lower than those of whites and the average period of unemployment shorter. The minimum wage legislation and the Bacon-Davis Act, mandating that federal contractors pay the union rate, deprived black workers of their competitive advantage.
Minimum wage laws remained a lifelong bugaboo for Williams. As he pointed out, a first job is the only place that most black teenagers can learn anything that will prove of value to them in subsequent employment — certainly they will not learn it in inferior schools. Yet in large part due to minimum wage laws, 70 percent of black teenagers who seek employment cannot find that first job.
Williams saw the breakdown of the black family as another consequence of the Great Society: "The welfare state has succeeded in doing what slavery and Jim Crow could not — the breakdown of the black family." For both blacks and whites, poverty is highly correlated to being unmarried or living in a single-parent household.
RECOGNITION THAT HUMAN CAPITAL is not static serves as a source of optimism. If the principal factors of a thriving community can be identified, along with the means of fostering those factors, then positive change is possible. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Restoring a dysfunctional culture to health is much harder than maintaining a healthy one in the first place.
Accordingly, Glenn Loury, a black economist at Brown University, who grew up in the ghettos of Chicago, advocates a developmental narrative that stresses patterns of behavior within the community that are implicated in its own disadvantage, as opposed to the bias narrative. (As Williams remarked in Suffer No Fools, a documentary on his life, "The study of economics brings people to their senses.")
In his 1992 book Tribes, geographer Joel Kotkin looked at ethnic success in America. Many immigrant groups began their climb up the economic ladder while they were still subject to discrimination in higher education, employment, and housing. What paved the way for economic success was not acceptance by the majority, but their own encouragement of traits like frugality, hard work, and mutual support. Immigrant group after immigrant group, including blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, has outstripped native white Americans by following this prescription.
And that was the path advocated by black leaders from Booker T. Washington to black nationalist Marcus Garvey in the decades after the end of slavery. Even under slavery, Williams noted, there were traditions of striving and ambition — e.g., slaves who purchased their freedom from their masters.
THE BIAS/WHITE SUPREMACY ideology now regnant on campuses, in newsrooms, and in corporate boardrooms is inimical to that path. It is more about exorcising white guilt and virtue signaling than helping blacks. A cult of victimhood is antithetical to all striving. If the system is rigged against you, why try?
Blacks left behind in distressed communities are the greatest victims of the "notion of America's intrinsic evil," writes Kotkin. Who, for instance, will bear the heaviest costs of defunding the police and a reduced police presence? Those in the highest crime neighborhoods. That is why blacks oppose defunding by a large margin.
The toll for the BLM- and Antifa-inspired looting of this past summer will fall most heavily on black-owned businesses and those that serve the black community. Many areas destroyed in urban rioting in the '60s never recovered. Much of Detroit today looks like Hiroshima after the bomb, while the today's Hiroshima is a glittering, modern metropolis.
The Rutgers University English department may view itself as making things easier for blacks by ceasing to offer instruction in standard English grammar. But do they think that employers will suddenly stop being interested in employees' ability to speak and write English?
Studious blacks have long been accused by their peers of "acting white." But now the Smithsonian Institute has gotten into the act, listing punctuality, logic, rationality, and the like as elements of "white culture."
Black Lives Matter activists denounce as "hopelessly white" those behaviors that have worked for every ethnic group, including blacks — most important of all the notion of the nuclear family headed by two parents.
Everywhere woke ideology casts its shadow, things only get worse. And with the passing of Walter Williams, there is one less powerful voice to call the bluff of that pernicious ideology.