Civil Rights, Affirmative Action, Racism, Women's Liberation

Friday, Dec 16, 2011

Thomas Sowell is an African American Ph.D. economist from Stanford University.

Civil rights are fundamental to a free society and to human dignity. Their blatant denial to many, but especially to blacks in the South, was for too long a mockery of American ideals... The poisonous atmosphere surrounding any attempt to debate issues involving race and ethnicity is demonstrated in many ways. In addition to the usual ad hominem attacks and overheated rhetoric, there has also developed a fundamental disregard for the truth.

The historical data show that the economic rise of minorities preceded passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by many years, the existing upward trend was not accelerated, either by that Act or by quotas that became generally mandatory in 1971, and during the era of affirmative action, such disadvantaged blacks as young males with little experience or education, and members of female-headed households, actually retrogressed relative to whites of the same description, while more advantaged blacks rose both absolutely and relative to their white counterparts. In short, although affirmative action invokes the name of the disadvantaged, these are precisely the people who have fallen further behind under its auspices.

Much has been made of the number of blacks in high-level occupations before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What has been almost totally ignored is the historical trend of black representation in such occupations before the Act was passed. In the period from 1954 to 1964, for example, the number of blacks in professional, technical, and similar high-level positions more than doubled. In other kinds of occupations, the advance of blacks was even greater during the 1940s-- when there was little or no civil rights policy-- than during the 1950s when the civil rights revolution was in its heyday.

The rise in the number of blacks in professional and technical occupations in the two years from 1964 to 1966 (after the Civil Rights Act) was in fact less than in the one year from 1961 to 1962 (before the Civil Rights Act). If one takes into account the growing black population by looking at percentages instead of absolute numbers, it becomes even clearer that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented no acceleration in trends that had been going on for many years. The percentage of employed blacks who were professional and technical workers rose less in the five years following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than in the five years preceding it... Nor did the institution of "goals and timetables" at the end of 1971 mark any acceleration in the long trend of rising black representation in these occupations.

The history of Asians and Hispanics likewise shows long term upward trends that began years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and were not noticeably accelerated by the Act or by later "affirmative action" policies. The income of Mexican Americans rose relative to that of non-Hispanic whites between 1959 and 1969, but no more so than from 1949 to 1959. Chinese and Japanese Americans overtook other Americans in income by 1959-- five years before the Civil Rights Act.

What is truly surprising-- and relatively ignored-- is the economic impact of affirmative action on the disadvantaged, for whom it is most insistently invoked. The relative position of disadvantaged individuals within the groups singled out for preferential treatment has generally declined under affirmative action... In 1969, before the federal imposition of numerical "goals and timetables," Puerto Rican family income was 63 percent of the national average. By 1977, it was down to 50 percent. In 1969, Mexican American family income was 76 percent of the national average. By 1977, it was down to 73 percent. Black family income fell from 62 percent of the national average to 60 percent over the same span.

There are many complex factors behind these numbers. The point here is simply that they do not support the civil rights vision. A finer breakdown of the data for blacks shows the most disadvantaged families-- the female-headed, with no husband present-- to be not only the poorest and with the slowest increase in money income during the 1970s but also with money incomes increasing even more slowly than among white, female-headed households... Black faculty members with numerous publications and Ph.D.'s from top-rated institutions earned more than white faculty members with the same high qualifications, but black faculty members who lacked a doctorate or publications earned less than whites with the same low qualifications... The top fifth of blacks have absorbed a growing proportion of all income received by blacks, while each of the bottom three fifths has received declining shares.

None of this is easily reconcilable with the civil rights vision's all-purpose explanation, racism and discrimination... It is much more reconcilable with ordinary economic analysis. Affirmative action hiring pressures make it costly to have no minority employees, but continuing affirmative action pressures at the promotion and discharge phases also make it costly to have minority employees who do not work out well. The net effect is to increase the demand for highly qualified minority employees while decreasing the demand for less qualified minority employees or for those without a sufficient track record to reassure employers... It is precisely the disadvantaged who suffer from affirmative action.

Groups with a demonstrable history of being discriminated against have, in many countries and in many periods of history, had higher incomes, better educational performance, and more representation in high-level positions than those doing the discriminating. Throughout southeast Asia, for several centuries, the Chinese minority has been-- and continues to be-- the target of explicit, legalized discrimination... Nowhere in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, or the Philippines have the Chinese ever experienced equal opportunity. Yet in all these countries the Chinese minority-- about 5 percent of the population of southeast Asia-- owns a majority of the nation's total investments in key industries... In Malaysia, where the anti-Chinese discrimination is written into the Constitution, is embodied in preferential quotas for Malays in government and private industry alike, and extends to admissions and scholarships at the universities, the average Chinese continues to earn twice the income of the average Malay... The number of Chinese killed within a few days, at various times in the history of southeast Asia, has on a number of occasions exceeded all the blacks ever lynched in the history of the United States.

Nor are the Chinese minorities in southeast Asia unique. Much the same story could be told of the Jews in many countries around the world and in many periods of history. A similar pattern could also be found among East Indians in Africa, southeast Asia and parts of the western hemisphere, or among Armenians in the Middle East, Africa, and the United States. Italian immigrants to Argentina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also encountered discrimination, but nevertheless rose from poverty to affluence, surpassing the Argentine majority... Japanese immigrants to the United States also encountered persistent and escalating discrimination, culminating in their mass internment during World War II, but by 1959 they had about equalled the income of whites and by 1969 Japanese American families were earning nearly one-third higher incomes than the average American family.

In short, two key assumptions behind the civil rights vision do not stand up as general principles. The first is that discrimination leads to poverty and other adverse social consequences, and the second is the converse-- that adverse statistical disparities imply discrimination.

One of the most central-- and most controversial-- premises of the civil rights vision is that statistical disparities in incomes, occupations, education, etc., represent moral inequities, and are caused by "society." ... Another central premise of the civil rights vision is that belief in innate inferiority explains policies and practices of differential treatment, whether expressed in overt hostility or in institutional policies or individual decisions that result in statistical disparities. Moral defenses or causal explanations of these statistical differences in any other terms tend themselves to fall under suspicion or denunciation as racism, sexism, etc... A third major premise of the civil rights vision is that political activity is the key to improving the lot of those on the short end of differences... Initially, civil rights meant, quite simply, that all individuals should be treated the same under the law, regardless of their race, religion, sex or other such social categories... later... the original concept of equal individual opportunity evolved toward the concept of equal group results [affirmative action].

The fatal flaw in this kind of thinking is that there are many reasons, besides genes and discrimination, why groups differ in their economic performances and rewards. Groups differ by large amounts demographically, culturally, and geographically... Cultural differences are real, and cannot be talked away by using pejorative terms such as "stereotypes" or "racism." ... Self-employed farmers, for example, do not depend for their rewards on the biases of employers or the stereotypes of observers. Yet self-employed farmers of different ethnicity have fared very differently on the same land, even in earlier pre-mechanization times, when the principal input was the farmer's own labour... That Jews earn far higher incomes than Hispanics in the United States might be taken as evidence that anti-Hispanic bias is stronger than anti-Semitism-- if one followed the logic of the civil rights vision. But this explanation is considerably weakened by the greater prosperity of Jews than Hispanics in Hispanic countries throughout Latin America.

Female headed households are several times more common among blacks than among whites, and in both groups these are the lowest income families. Moreover, the proportion of people working differs greatly from group to group. More than three-fifths of all Japanese American families have multiple income earners while only about a third of Puerto Rican families do. Nor is this a purely socio-economic phenomenon, as distinguished from a cultural phenomenon. Blacks have similar incomes to Puerto Ricans, but the proportion of black families with a woman working is nearly three times that among Puerto Ricans. None of this disproves the existence of discrimination, nor is that its purpose.

Data collected for several American ethnic groups, and going back several decades, show that youngsters of Mexican, Chinese, American Indian, and Puerto Rican ancestry scored just as high (or higher) on tests when they went to schools that were virtually all of their own group as they scored in society at large.

With women, as with racial and ethnic minorities, the effects of policies must be carefully separated from the intentions of those policies... Much of the literature on women shows little relationship between its evidence and its conclusions. "Landmark legislation and government action prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex" is credited by a U.S. Department of Labor study with increasing the labor force participation rates of women-- even though the data in the very same study shows this to be a long-run trend going back at least as far as 1940.

The increase in the general participation of women in the labor force at all levels has little correlation with civil rights or the women's liberation movement. The rising labor force participation rates of women in general, and of working mothers in particular, goes back at least as far as 1940. Nor has the rate of increase accelerated from 1960 to 1970, compared to its increase from 1950 to 1960-- even though the decade of the 1960s marked the rise of women's liberation as well as the civil rights revolution. On the contrary, the 1950-1960 increase was slightly greater-- and that from 1940 to 1950 much higher still.

What is at issue is whether statistical differences mean discrimination, or whether there are innumerable demographic, cultural, and geographic differences that make this crucial automatic inference highly questionable.

Many who perceive the ineffective or counter-productive aspects of preferential policies nevertheless hesitate to "go back" to the world that existed prior to the civil rights revolution. Yet that is a false choice. No one could "go back" even if they wanted to... What is lacking in many discussions of discrimination is a sense of economics... Sweeping Jim Crow laws were used in the South to keep blacks "in their place" precisely because of the futility of trying to do so in a competitive economy... From an economic point of view, to say that any group is systematically underpaid or systematically denied as much credit as they deserve is the same as saying that an opportunity for unusually high profit exists for anyone who will hire or lend to them. When Japanese American farmers began bidding for underpaid Japanese American laborers in the early twentieth century, white farmers had no choice but to join the bidding war rather than lose good workers... Third-generation Mexican Americans earn 20 percent higher incomes than first-generation Mexican Americans of the same age, though it is doubtful if most employers seek the genealogical information necessary to make such a distinction.

Sincerity of purpose is not the same as honesty of procedure. Too often they are opposites... If there is an optimistic aspect of preferential doctrines, it is that they may eventually make so many so sick of hearing of group labels and percentages that the idea of judging each individual on his or her own performance may become more attractive than ever.

Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, Thomas Sowell, 1984,

Walter Williams is an African American Ph.D. economist from George Mason University.

Coupled with dramatic breakdown in the black-family structure has been an astonishing growth in the rate of illegitimacy. The black rate was only 19 percent in 1940, but skyrocketed in the late 1960s, reaching 49 percent in 1975. As of 2000, black illegitimacy stood at 68 percent and in some cities over 80 percent... Several studies point to welfare programs as a major contributor to several aspects of behavioral poverty. One of these early studies was the Seattle/Denver Experiment... Among its findings: for each dollar increase to welfare payments, low-income persons reduced labor earning by eighty cents... Ann Hill and June O'Neill found that a 50 percent increase in the monthly value of welfare benefits led to a 43 percent increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births.

Gross historical discrimination alone has never been sufficient to prevent blacks from earning a living and bettering themselves by working as skilled or unskilled craftsmen and as business owners, accumulating considerable wealth. The fact that whites sought out blacks as artisans and workers, while patronizing black businesses, can hardly be said to be a result of white enlightenment. A far better explanation: market forces at work. The relative color blindness of the market accounts for much of the hostility towards it. Markets have a notorious lack of respect for privilege, race, and class structures. White customers patronized black-owned businesses because their prices were lower or their product quality or service better. Whites hired black skilled and unskilled labor because their wages were lower or they made superior employees.

As will be argued in subsequent chapters, restrictive laws harm blacks equally, whether they were written with the explicit intent-- as in the past-- to eliminate black competition or written-- as in our time-- with such benign goals as protecting public health, safety and welfare, and preventing exploitation of workers.

Some might find it puzzling that during the times of gross racial discrimination, black unemployment was lower and blacks were more active in the labor market than they are today... In 1970, 71 percent... In the early 1900's, coal mining companies competed vigorously for black workers... Those observations cannot be explained simply by racial tastes. Surely one cannot explain the fact of higher black employment rates during earlier periods as a product of less racial discrimination.

Numerous laws, regulations, and ordinances have reduced or eliminated avenues of upward mobility for many blacks. The most common feature of these barriers is that they prevent people from making voluntary transactions that are deemed mutually advantageous by the transactors themselves... [Blacks] were the last major ethnic group to become urbanized and gain basic civil rights. When they finally achieved that status, blacks found that new barriers had been erected.

A reader might be compelled to ask what can be done to help. My answer would be similar to that given by abolitionist Frederick Douglass [in 1865], "What the Black Man Wants," and in it, Douglass said:

Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, '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! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for trying to fasten them on the tree in any way, except by nature's plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall.

And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone-- your interference is doing him a positive injury.

Race and Economics, Walter Williams, 2011,

Title II... Beginning in 1960 sit-ins and other Gandhi-style confrontations were desegregating department-store lunch counters throughout the South. No laws had to be passed or repealed. Social pressure—the public shaming of bigots—was working.

Even earlier, during the 1950s, David Beito and Linda Royster Beito report in Black Maverick, black entrepreneur T.R.M. Howard led a boycott of national gasoline companies that forced their franchisees to allow blacks to use the restrooms from which they had long been barred.

The social campaign for equality that was desegregating the South was transmogrified when it was diverted to Washington. Focus then shifted from the grassroots to a patronizing white political elite in Washington that had scurried to the front of the march and claimed leadership. Recall Hillary Clinton’s belittling of the grassroots movement when she ran against Barack Obama: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964…. It took a president to get it done.”

We will never know how the original movement would have evolved—what independent mutual-aid institutions would have emerged—had that diversion not occurred.

Libertarians need not shy away from the question, “Do you mean that whites should have been allowed to exclude blacks from their lunch counters?” Libertarians can answer proudly, “No. They should not have been allowed to do that. They should have been stopped—not by the State, which can’t be trusted, but by nonviolent social action on behalf of equality.”

The libertarian answer to bigotry is community organizing.

Context-Keeping and Community Organizing, Sheldon Richman, June 18th, 2010,