On WMAL’s “Mornings on the Mall” radio program (105.9 FM) in Washington, D.C., on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, George Mason University professor Walter E. Williams discussed civil rights and progress.
WALTER WILLIAMS: I think that something that’s not spoken of very much is that black Americans have made the greatest gains over some of the highest hurdles in the shortest span of time than any racial group in the history of this world. Why do I say this? Well, if you just add up the income that black Americans earn and thought of us as a separate nation, we would be the 16th or 17th richest nation on the face of this earth. There are a few black Americans who are among some of the world’s richest people. It was a black American in the form of Colin Powell who was the head of the world’s mightiest military. Some black Americans are the world’s most famous personalities. Now, in 1865, neither a slave nor a slave owner would have believed that such progress was possible in just a little bit over a century. And, as such, it speaks to the intestinal fortitude of a people and, just as importantly, it speaks to the greatness of a nation in which these kind of gains are possible.
Now, the civil rights struggle is over, and it is won. Now, I’m not saying that every vestige of discrimination has been eliminated, but the civil rights struggle is over and won. At one time, black Americans did not have the constitutional guarantees of everybody else. Now we do. The fact that the civil rights struggle is over and won does not mean that there are not major problems that black Americans face, but they’re not civil rights problems. And if we view them as civil rights problems, the solutions will be elusive forever.
For example, let me list two or three. The illegitimacy rate among blacks is around 75 percent. That’s a devastating problem, but it’s not a civil rights problem. In 1940, the illegitimacy rate was 14 percent. At the time Martin Luther King spoke, it was 25 percent. Only 30 percent of black kids are raised in two-parent families. That’s a devastating problem, but it’s not a civil rights problem. In the 1880s, up to 80 percent of black kids lived in two-parent families.
HOST: That’s a social issue but also an economic issue, is it not?
WILLIAMS: Yes it is. Now, look at another major problem that blacks face that’s not a civil rights problem is the grossly fraudulent education that most black youngsters receive, and Washington is a good example of that. The average black student who’s a 12th grader, he has the reading, writing and computational skills of a white 7th or 8th grader. That’s a devastating problem, but it’s not a civil rights problem. Over 50 percent of all homicide victims in the United States are black people, and it’s not the Klan killing them. 94 or 95 percent of them are killed by other blacks. Again, if we say that this is a civil rights problem, we need to do something about white people, then the solution’s going to be elusive forever.
HOST: Dr. Williams, I feel like there’s a rewriting of my understanding, at least, of what Martin Luther King’s speech was about 50 years ago because I keep seeing so many analysts talking about how his dream has not become reality because there is not economic equality. What does that even mean, and is that your interpretation of what Martin Luther King stood for and fought for? Economic equality?
WILLIAMS: No, economic equality has nothing to do with civil rights, but to the extent that people believe that there should be some kind of movement towards economic equality, we ought to look at all the government rules and regulations that are supported by black congressmen, labor unions, civil rights leaders that handicap people moving up the economic ladder. I’m 77 years old, and as a kid — I’ve been working since 12 years old. Now, the kind of jobs I had are impossible for kids today. They’ve been eliminated through minimum laws and labor regulations. For example, when I was a youngster, you pull into the gasoline station and there was a kid to wash your window, fill your tank with gas and check your tires. Now, they’re self-service stations. Again, when I was a kid, you go to the neighborhood theater, there were two or three ushers to show you to your seat. You don’t see ushers today, and it’s not because Americans today want to stumble down the aisles in the dark to find their seat.
HOST: Dr. Williams, you talk about these big government policies. The president said yesterday in an interview that if Martin Luther King were alive today he would support Obamacare. Is that your understanding of Dr. King’s legacy?
WILLIAMS: No it’s not. What it does, the Obamacare legislation has the same effect of the minimum wage law. That is, it discriminates against the employment of least-skilled people. That is, what Obamacare does, it raises the cost of hiring people. Now, you get a kid who’s a high school graduate, and he can’t read and write very well, and you make it more costly for a firm to hire him. And so that handicaps him. The teenage unemployment rate in 1948, the black teenage unemployment rate in 1948 was less than white teenage unemployment. Blacks were more active in the labor market than were whites up until around the late 1950s or early 60s, at a time when there was far more discrimination in the United States.
HOST: Let me ask you this then. Why is it that so many people in the African American community seem to preach that we’re victims, that somehow this is not our fault, this is not our responsibility, when you lay out item after item after item after item of things that are not civil rights issues but need to be addressed within the African American community.
WILLIAMS: Well, I don’t have a good answer for that. I guess it’s more comfortable to be a victim. It’s more comfortable to blame your problems on somebody else than having to be a little more introspective, to say, look, I’m messing up, we’re not doing things that we’re supposed to be doing. The very fact, here you had Brown v. Board of Education, you had these black students going to Little Rock, being the first black kids in these schools and black people making sacrifices so that kids can get an education, and, as a matter of fact, at one time it was illegal for blacks to become educated. And now we have the right to be educated, but now how many of these black people in the ’50s and ’60s would think that their kids would have to go through metal detectors to get into class?
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Walter Edward Williams is an economist, commentator, and academic. He is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University.