Old Black Men
We just lost Walter Williams recently. Doctor Williams was an economics professor at George Mason University. He died December 2, 2020. He was 84.
Professor Williams was a strong proponent of free market economics. He was famous for saying he was glad that he went to college before white people began to like black people, because when he got a C he knew he deserved a C and when got an A he knew he had earned an A. But it was not his recent death that has prompted me to write about him and some other old black men.
Earlier this week I watched a video by Robert L. Woodson, Race in America: Economics, that had been produced by Hillsdale College. Mr. Woodson earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and worked his way up in the civil rights movement, becoming a director of the National Urban League and later at the American Enterprise Institute. He left AEI to found the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (now the Woodson Center) to promote self help solutions in low income communities. He also writes frequent op-ed articles for the wall Street Journal which is where I first ran across Mr. Woodson.
But I had run across Mr. Woodson recently in a new and unexpected way. I was reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (yes, I admit the Wall Street Journal in one of my main sources of news) about how the Biden administration was stopping an effort started by the Trump administration to counter the toxic message of the 1619 Project which asserts that America is an irredeemably racist country. That effort was called the 1776 Commission. That research eventually led me to a group called 1776 Unites! 1776 Unites is “a nonpartisan and intellectually diverse alliance of writers, thinkers, and activists focused on solutions to our country’s greatest challenges in education, culture, and upward mobility.” 1776 Unites is a project of the Woodson Foundation.
Any of you that are familiar with my commentaries will know that I often write about or quote Thomas Sowell, the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He is a prolific writer and author at age 90 who is famous for pointing out that blacks did better during segregation and under the onus of Jim Crow laws than they have done since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty legislation introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
These three scholars (ages 84, 83 and 90) have profoundly different views on the problems afflicting black people than do those of many modern black economists. A Fortune magazine article, 19 black economists to know and celebrate, this Juneteenth and beyond, featured black economists who point to systemic racism, labor market discrimination, residential segregation, the legacy of Jim Crow laws and the enduring stigma of slavery as the reasons black people have been unable to thrive and get ahead in America.
And then it dawned on me. Those old black men had seen the before and the after of the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty. Walter Williams had been born in 1936 in Philadelphia and grew up in the Richard Allen housing projects. Robert L. Woodson was also born in Philadelphia, but a year later in 1937. Thomas Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1930 and rarely even saw a white person until he moved to Harlem at age nine. These old black men grew up poor and went to segregated schools and had to endure Jim Crow laws. They knew what the black communities did in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. They lived it.
They didn’t have to conjure up a concept like systemic racism as the cause of black under performance. Black apologists and BLM assert that disparate outcomes are proof of racism in the system, but they are blind to the true causes of those outcomes. Despite recent events white supremacists like the Proud Boys represent a very small fraction of the population and they are definitely not part of the system.
These old black men faced overt in-your face racism and discrimination. Walter Williams fought a one-man battle against Jim Crow while serving in the Army and even wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy asking why Negroes should defend and die for “empty promises of freedom and equality.” He even received a response to this letter from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
Bob Woodson dropped out of high school to join the air force and turn his life around, going on to get a master’s degree in social work and working with civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League. Thomas Sowell also had to drop out of high school and was eventually drafted into the Marines. Both Williams and Sowell earned their GED’s and worked menial jobs as they and Woodson went to college in order to prepare for life in America.
In their youth, these young men faced real systemic racism and discrimination. But they were able to overcome these barriers and lead successful lives. It is easy to say that these men were exceptional, the scholarly equivalents to LeBron James. Not every person has the talent to become King James or a college professor, but each of these men have written and lectured about the fact that blacks ,in general, were making progress even under the duress of Jim Crow and segregation. Progress that stopped after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 should have launched black progress skyward and allowed them to become fully integrated into America. But as Williams, Woodson and Sowell have all pointed out (on numerous occasions) that did not happen. The Civil Rights Act was accompanied by several other pieces of legislation known collectively as the War on Poverty that were pushed by the Johnson administration to help poor people, especially blacks.
But while black poverty rates had declined rapidly prior to the War on Poverty, this rate of decline slowed substantially afterward. Concomitant with the intransigence of poverty in the black community, was a change in the black family life. Thomas Sowell has shown that in 1960 only 22 percent of black children lived in single parent families but that thirty years later 66 percent of black children were in single parent families. And the poverty rate of single parent families, no matter your race, is much higher than that of two parent families.
Walter Williams points out that 71 percent of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes as do 61 percent of suicides. 71 percent of pregnant teenagers comes from fatherless homes.
The point that these black men are trying to make (and me as well) is that when black men and women took charge of their lives they did better. When segregation kept them out of schools, they created their own schools. Woodson and Sowell started their academic careers at historically black colleges. When they were blocked from white fraternal orders, they created their own. They created their own civic organizations and charitable foundations. Blacks were building their own human capital, taking charge of their own lives.
But after the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty, blacks stop building their human capital and, instead, started building their political capital. Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times February 1, 2021,” It is easy to believe that Black power and influence are growing in America, and that the logical conclusion is that a set of policies favoring the Black community in America — a so-called Black agenda — is growing more likely as the years pass and the percentage of nonwhite Americans rises.” Jason Riley shows that black political power is false black power in his book of the same name. Blacks have given agency to third parties. As he says, “If blacks want to begin replenishing that human capital – true power – they shouldn’t look to politicians. They should look to their own past.
If the antebellum slaveholders could see the state of the black community in the twenty-first century they would be laughing in their graves. After a bloody civil war to emancipate the Negro slaves, and a hundred years of segregation and Jim Crow, black people finally achieved full status as citizens only to give that agency that they had earned (the human capital they had been building for decades) away to politicians and other enablers and to proclaim that their fate was at the mercy of white people.
These three old black men (Williams, Woodson and Sowell) would say no, the fate of black people should be in their own hands. That is how freedom works!