Viewpoint: Uncle Sam's Economic Racism


William Raspberry, the syndicated columnist, recently wondered why, in the face of rising economic vitality, unemployment among blacks is increasing. "Not only does no one seem to know," Raspberry wrote, "but the government seems uninterested in finding out."

Raspberry has it all wrong. We do know why many blacks are immune to economic prosperity, but few people—particularly black politicians and civil-rights organizations—are willing to heed. Furthermore, there may be little political payoff for policies to ameliorate the plight of the most desperately needy blacks.

For more than a decade, economist Thomas Sowell and I have been pointing out how the public-education establishment wantonly destroys the career chances of many blacks. We have argued for educational vouchers or tuition tax credits as a way out of the mess. Instead, black leaders called for higher educational budgets, higher teacher pay, and busing. Their response to achievement-test scores showing blacks three to five years behind the national norm and to blacks' aptitude-test scores 100 points below the norm has been to call the tests racist. The NAACP's and Urban League's response to campaigns for competency testing of teachers and students was the same—"racism."

Another fact of black existence is a crime rate that is just like a law mandating, "There shall be no economic development in black neighborhoods." A tiny percentage of the black community makes life a living nightmare for its law-abiding majority. These thugs make economic activity a costly proposition for white or black merchants. Places that were once bustling economic centers in black neighborhoods, such as 125th Street in Harlem, are now wastelands. Black residents who once shopped in close-by neighborhood markets must now trek out to suburban shopping malls. Schools in black neighborhoods have become centers for holdups, murder, and wanton property destruction. Over 50 percent of US homicide victims are blacks murdered by blacks.

All this devastation brought to the attention of black leaders, politicians, and civil-rights organizations evokes one response: "Blaming the victim!" Crime is the result of a racist society, they say, never bothering to explain why blacks were more secure and experienced more economic vitality in their communities in earlier periods. So for fear of being labeled a racist, white politicians say or do little about crime in black neighborhoods, so long as it's black on black.

The causes of black unemployment are no mystery. Black teenage unemployment is at an unprecedented 47 percent, and over 70 percent in cities like Detroit. Black adult unemployment stands at 16 percent. Immunity to recent economic growth is not a result of any single factor—it is part of a general pattern of carrots and sticks.

First, the carrots. Government programs—unemployment compensation, food stamps, and welfare—make unemployment less painful. We all know that if something is subsidized, be it wheat, cheese, poverty, or unemployment, we can expect more of it. Poor people are like the rest of us: they respond to incentives. Why give up $10,000 a year in nontaxable welfare benefits for a job paying $6,000 or $7,000 a year that's taxable?

Then there are sticks. The minimum-wage law acts as an effective barrier to jobs and training prospects for low-skilled youths. Prior to the minimum-wage escalation that started in the '50s, unemployment was less among teenage blacks than whites. Blacks in all age groups were more active in the labor market than whites. This was before black politicians did the political bidding of labor unions who sought to restrict employment in order to get higher wages for union members. The quid pro quo: black politicians get political backing from labor unions, and black people get the unemployment line.

Moreover, governments at all levels enact more and more regulatory legislation, such as exclusive collective-bargaining laws, occupational and business-licensing laws, child-labor laws, and many forms of wage regulation—all of which further restrict the labor market. And a lot of this was done or maintained with the support of black politicians and civil-rights groups.

Unlike my friend Bill Raspberry, I see no mystery that a person who's received a grossly fraudulent education, lived in a neighborhood rife with crime and social disorder, resided in a single-parent household, learned the ways of welfarism, and faces laws that require an employer to pay him more than he's worth (or not hire him at all) is immune to economic prosperity.

But again, what's the political payoff for a politician to do something about it? President Reagan has resubmitted his proposal to permit teenagers to work for less than the minimum wage, thereby creating more employment and greater job-training opportunities. To the Black Caucus, the NAACP, and the Urban League, the proposal is mere reconfirmation that Reagan's a racist. Reagan also calls for deregulation, yet black leaders see this as insensitivity.

Black people do not deserve their political leaders—leaders who support economic dependency. Should Raspberry, or anybody else, be surprised to find many blacks addicted to welfare and immune to economic growth?

Contributing Editor Walter Williams is John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and the author of The State Against Blacks (McGraw-Hill, 1982).