THIS BOOK reminds me of the time in the 1960s that my Uncle Johnny, who made good money as a printer for The New York Times, was watching a TV news report that showed police billy-clubbing black demonstrators. Pointing to the blacks, he said to my mother, "What's the matter with them people? If they'd get a job and mind their business, the police wouldn't be bothered with them."
To which my mother replied, "Who you think you are? You're just as black as they are. Do you think when they start hitting black people all you have to do is say, 'I'm Mr. So-and So, I work at The New York Times'? "
That story comes to mind because Walter Williams' book--like Uncle Johnny--argues that being black in America today is not a major problem. The problem, as he sees it, is the failure of many blacks to get jobs, start businesses, and find a foothold in the economy. And Williams argues that it is not racism which keeps blacks from finding jobs or starting successful businesses. The problem is government regulations of all kinds, even professional licensing requirements and the minimum wage. Collectively they act as a barrier to keep blacks unequal to whites.
Absent those hurdles, says Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University, black people would be doing fine in the land of opportunity, despite their being darker than most of the population in a nation with a history of enslaving people of color. Economics would dictate that, black or white, whoever could do a job the best and make the most money for his employer or the best widget for his customer would succeed.
This line of thought has made Williams a favorite in the Reagan White House where government regulation and social programs to help the poor are very much out of vogue. He is regarded as one of the two top black minds, along with his fellow economist Thomas Sowell. Sowell, who gained some notoriety for his characterization of most civil rights leaders as self-serving media figures living off government social programs, was the leading black Reaganite when Reagan first came to office. Sowell said American blacks in fact are far more conservative than the Jesse Jacksons of this world on everything from crime to busing.
While Sowell has lost some of his shine, as Reagan's standing among blacks has sunk ever lower, Williams continues to command attention as a challenging, conservative voice. This book is the result of the hundreds of speeches and TV appearances Williams has made to spread his gospel.
At the center of Williams' argument is his contention that only the simpleminded would blame racism for the condition of many American blacks today. Williams looks at where racial inequality still exists--in education, in housing, in employment--and gives reasons for it.
For example, why do large numbers of blacks live in shoddy mid-city ghettos while the majority of whites reside in nicely tended suburbs? Here is Williams' explanation: it is because whites with children, interested in the quality of schools and playgrounds and keeping out low- cost apartments that would attract the poor and possibly crime, band together to pass zoning laws to prevent the poor and often blacks from moving into their neighborhoods.
He notes that this is not racist: when black middle-class people move into the suburbs they have the same interests. He cites the example of some black suburbanites who voted to pass restrictive zoning to keep out the poor. His argument is that class is more important today than race.
This is a variation of the traditional liberal argument which says that if education were equal and if black political power were equal, then racism would die away. So let's improve schools and let's get black politicians elected so we can achieve a racially-blind society.
Williams takes this argument in a very different direction. He says that what matters is that blacks have an equal opportunity to get into an arena--business--where color does not matter. If it did matter, he asks, why is it that Jews, Orientals, the Irish and even black West Indians, all racial minorities in America, have done so much better than American blacks in business?
His answer is that American blacks have not been able to achieve the American dream because, by virtue of poor education and poor cultural upbringings, they have always had only the most basic opportunities at hand to get a start, like driving a cab or shoveling dirt: basic enterprises open to anyone willing to work long hours or work up a sweat. These opportunities, however humble, are now roped off from blacks, by the government and unions. Under the guise of liberal good intentions, he says, government and organized labor have teamed together to require licenses and/or union cards to drive a cab, to shovel dirt or fix a leaky pipe. This has the effect, he asserts, of keeping the disadvantaged, particularly blacks, out of the economic game.
In fact, Williams says, it may not be just benign coincidence that blacks got left out. He says unions discovered that by requiring licenses in the name of professional standards and by mandating pay-scales to go along with the licenses they realized they could keep "cheap labor" --read blacks--out and appear to be doing it because they had a social conscience.
Well, if that's the case, why haven't members of other minorities--say, Jews, Orientals and Irish--fallen into the same trap? Williams is short on answers.
Let me suggest to the professor that the reason blacks make up the majority of outsiders is racism.
It's true that truckers, cab drivers and plumbers can exclude blacks--and anyone else not in their unions--with a web of rules and regulations meant to keep union members working. However, the exclusion of blacks is not secondary to the union's desire to keep non-members from working, as Williams would argue. It is the primary reason.
Since blacks once dominated the ranks of plumbers and masons, as Williams shows, why weren't they later part of the unions that pushed the laws intended to keep the other guys out of the plumbing and bricklaying businesses?
The answer of course is racism; blacks were excluded for simply being black. Not only were they excluded, but as a consequence they were doing the same work as white men and being paid less even if they were more skilled. It is simply not the case that because once there was no minimum wage, blacks got more opportunities to learn how to do a job and then later could be paid top-scale.
Williams was once asked how his theory could explain why black reporters often fail in their jobs because news sources and news editors seem to relate better to white reporters than to black ones. He replied that his theory had no explanation for that. Williams should take a look at racism or at least the effect of racial differences in a very racist country.
This is not to dismiss Williams' book completely. I think he's wrong to say racism is the easy answer to the problems of blacks. In fact it is a very complicated answer, filled with history, emotion, sexual tension, culture and economic fears; it could not be more complex. It is the giant wall in American society that everyone can see.
What is very good about his book is that Williams is not intimidated by the size of the wall. He pinpoints some bricks in the wall and feels the mortar that holds them together and asks what is discrimination. Is it discriminatory for men to like pretty, intelligent women and not ugly, dumb ones, be they black or white? Of course not, that's preference. But where does preference turn into racism and where does it become a matter of public concern?