Government the Problem, Not the Panacea


The State Against Blacks, by Walter E. Williams, New York: New Press/McGraw-Hill, 1982, 183 pp., $14.95.

There is a mythology that circulates concerning the welfare of black people in America: (1) black people have no resources; (2) black people need special help to overcome past injustices and present disadvantages; and (3) the best kind of help comes from the government in the form of handouts and legislation. Acting upon the above set of assumptions, many well-meaning people (who make it their business to cure social ills) have condemned many black people to lives of frustration and hopelessness.

Being down and out in America is often an iatrogenic disease—one caused by the practitioners who mean to cure it. The only relief we can expect from such a situation is by acquiring knowledge of what has gone wrong. The State Against Blacks by Walter E. Williams is a primer on the ways in which the government prevents black people from making economic progress in America. The book examines the consequences of minimum-wage laws, occupational and licensing laws, and the regulation of interstate commerce, with special emphasis on trucking, the railroad industry, and the taxi business. Williams explains why so much of the conventional wisdom regarding racial discrimination only obscures the truth, and he introduces empirical evidence to analyze some of the common beliefs about racism and economic progress.

Williams's analysis brings to light some interesting details. For example, the median income of blacks is only 60 percent that of whites. Strangely enough, the more education a black man has, the greater the disparity between his income and that of a white man of comparable education is likely to be. This has generally been attributed to racial discrimination. Black professional women, however, earn an income that is on average 125 percent that earned by white professional women. Clearly, discrimination cannot explain why black women earn more than white ones.

Williams also looks at the discriminatory effects of professional licensing laws. In one illustration, he notes that licensing laws in Missouri require that to become a beautician, applicants must take an examination consisting of a written portion and a performance portion. Only 3 percent of the successful exam takers are black, while some 21 percent of those failing the exam are black. Although the written portion of the exam is unrelated to job performance, it provides systematic exclusion of beauticians by race—blacks score 10 points less than whites of comparable education on the written exam. However, there is no significant statistical difference in success or failure rates of blacks and whites on the performance part of the exam. Thus, the law that requires a written exam keeps many blacks out of a profession at which they can be competent.

Licensing laws, coupled with equal-pay-for-equal-work measures and similar actions supported by racist unions (such as the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers), have also eliminated blacks from many types of craft-work and prevented them from gaining job experience in others. Black craftsmen used to dominate many professions such as carpentry, building, and stone-cutting. They also constituted a large portion of the railroad employees in the country even during times when racial hostility was greater than it is now. Restrictive laws regulating these professions have played a decisive role in curtailing opportunities for blacks in these areas of work.

"The thesis of this book," says Williams, "is that black handicaps resulting from centuries of slavery, followed by years of gross denial of constitutional rights, have been reinforced by government laws. The government laws that have proven most devastating, for many blacks, are those that govern economic activity. The laws are not discriminatory in the sense that they are aimed specifically at blacks. But they are discriminatory in the sense that they deny full opportunity for the most disadvantaged Americans, among whom blacks are disproportionately represented."

As Williams points out in The State Against Blacks, the kind of economic parity that people seem to be searching for is more likely to occur in the marketplace than in the political arena. In the marketplace, poor people may not get all of what they want, but they are likely to get some of what they want: "If you go through the ghetto, you will see some nice cars, some nice clothing and some nice foods.…But you will see no nice public schools.…Cars, clothing and food are distributed by the market mechanism. Schools are distributed by the political mechanism."

The same laws that prevent blacks from making economic progress have a similar effect on other poor people, as well. That so many people continue to support such laws is the consequence either of ignorance or of malice. The State Against Blacks is a cogent weapon for fighting off political malice and an excellent tool for curing ignorance.

Susan Love Brown is a free-lance writer and a coauthor of The Incredible Bread Machine.