All Commentary
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The False Civil Rights Vision

For all intents and purposes the civil rights struggle is over and won. At one time black Americans did not have the constitutional guarantees afforded other Americans; now we do.

I think it is fair to say that black Americans, as a group, have made the greatest gains, over some of the highest hurdles, in the shortest span of time of any racial group in history. If we were to think of black Americans as a nation and add up their spending power, they would be the 17th or 18th richest nation on earth. Black Americans have been chief executives of some of the world’s largest and richest cities. Black Americans rank among the world’s most famous personalities, and a few black Americans are among the world’s richest people.

In 1865 neither a former slave nor a former slave owner would have guessed that such progress would have been possible in the mere space of a century and a half, if ever. Such progress speaks well of the intestinal fortitude of a people. But just as significant, that progress speaks well of a nation where such progress was possible. It would have been unachievable anywhere else on earth.

Despite these monumental gains, there is a large segment of the black community for which these gains remain elusive. Moreover, given the status quo and today’s civil rights vision, there is little prospect for progress. The root causes of today’s devastating problems are either ignored or dealt with ineffectively because there is too much attention and energy spent on yesteryear’s problems—racial discrimination. Most of today’s problems have little or nothing to do with discrimination. That’s not to suggest that every vestige of racial discrimination has been eliminated, but today’s discrimination pales in comparison to that of yesteryear.

Family Breakdown

One devastating problem is the state of the black family. What’s so often called family breakdown is not a proper description. Families are not forming in the first place. Only 35 percent of black children have the benefit of growing up in a home with both parents. Black illegitimacy stands at 75 percent. You do not have to morally condemn single parenthood to acknowledge that it is better for children to be reared in a two-parent family. Children raised by a single parent are five times more likely to be poor. They are more likely to do poorly in school, become dropouts, engage in antisocial behavior, and become single parents themselves. It is difficult to lay the breakdown of the black family at the feet of racial discrimination, considering that as early as the mid-1800s 75–85 percent of black children, depending on the city, lived in two-parent families. Even during slavery more black children were raised in two-parent households than are now.


The high rate of crime takes a devastating toll on black neighborhoods. It has the full effect of a law mandating that there shall be little or no economic development in black neighborhoods. It acts as a massive tax on those least able to pay it. Because of the high crime costs, businesses such as supermarkets and banks are reluctant to locate in such neighborhoods. That means poor people must bear the additional costs of transportation to downtown and suburban malls or settle for the higher prices charged at mom-and-pop shops.

The way we see business done in many black neighborhoods merely reflects what is necessary to survive. Security guards, restricted access, higher prices, less convenient hours, and lower-quality merchandise are all methods of responding to the higher costs of doing business—all of which must be passed on to the consumer. Anger shouldn’t be directed at merchants. Instead, it should be directed at lawless people who prey on the economic lifeline of black communities. Black neighborhoods must become a more hospitable economic climate through law enforcement. The high crime and disrespect for private property lower the economic value of everything in black neighborhoods. It is worth noting that most black communities were safer and more economically viable at a time when there was far greater racial discrimination.


Another devastating problem, having strong socioeconomic implications, that can hardly be laid at the feet of racial discrimination is the fraudulent education received by most black children. Some of the worst education is delivered in the very cities where a black is the mayor, a black is the superintendent of schools, and a large percentage of the teachers and principals are black. Money is not the answer. There is nearly a perfect negative correlation between money spent and the quality of education. Black neighborhood schools in New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C., spend more education dollars per student than anywhere else, yet they have just about the lowest educational achievement. Fraudulent education has made many black youngsters virtually useless for the increasingly high-tech world of the twenty-first century. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), most black youngsters who graduate from high school have an academic achievement level around that of a white seventh or eighth grader.

Part of the solution is to examine those islands of black educational success and try to duplicate them—black-owned schools like Marcus Garvey in Los Angeles, Ivy Leaf School in Philadelphia, former Marva Collins’s schools in Chicago and Cincinnati, and Frederick Douglass Academy, a charter school in West Harlem, New York. At these schools up to 85 percent of students from low- and moderate-income households score at grade level and in some cases up to three years above.

Academic success at these schools is devoid of what education “experts” say is necessary for black academic achievement. They have not found busing necessary for academic excellence. Their annual tuition ranges from $3,000 to $5,000, a fraction of what the government schools spend per kid, such as the $15,000 spent in Washington, D.C. One might ask what makes them successful? I have personally visited some of these schools and seen that the kids show up sober and have left their weapons at home. When you walk down the halls while classes are in session, there’s silence. There are no guards or metal detectors. Parents make their children do homework and get to bed and get up on time. There is a community spirit: Some parents provide custodial and clerical services as partial payment for their kids’ tuition while other parents and friends of the school simply donate services. The policy question is how can we get more black children out of high-cost/low-quality schools into lower-cost/higher-quality schools.

Frederick Douglass’s suggestion, offered many years ago, is probably applicable today: “Everybody has asked the question, ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! Give [the Negro] a chance to stand on his own legs. Let him alone.”

  • Walter Williams served on the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics since 1980. He was the author of more than 150 publications that have appeared in scholarly journals. Learn more about him here.