Walter Williams: Racism Is Real, But It Doesn't Explain What's Destroying the Black Community

You present to a physician with severe abdominal pain. He examines you and concludes that your ingrown toenails are the cause of your abdominal distress. He prescribes that you soak your feet in warm water, but that does not bring relief to your abdominal pain. Then he suggests that you apply antibiotics to your feet. Still no relief. Then the physician suggests that you wear sandals instead of shoes. Still no relief.

The point of this story is that your toenails can be treated until the cows come home, but if the diagnosis is wrong, then you are still going to have your abdominal pain.

Meria Carstarphen, the former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, said last year, “White students are nearly 4.5 grade levels ahead of their black peers within Atlanta Public Schools.”

In San Francisco, 70 percent of white students are proficient in math; for black students, it is 12 percent — a gap of 58 percent. In Washington, D.C., 83 percent of white students scored proficient in reading, as did only 23 percent of black students — a gap of 60 percent. In Philadelphia, 47 percent of black students scored below basic in math and 42 percent scored below basic in reading. In Baltimore, 59 percent of black students scored below basic in math and 49 percent in reading. In Detroit, 73 percent of black students scored below basic in math and 56 percent in reading.

“Below basic” is the score a student receives when he is unable to demonstrate even partial mastery of knowledge and grade-level skills. How much can racism explain this?

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To do well in school, someone must make a kid do his homework, get a good night’s rest, have breakfast and mind the teacher. If these basic family functions are not performed, it makes little difference how much money is put into education. The result will be disappointing.

In 2019, the racial breakdown of high school seniors who took the ACT college entrance exam and met its readiness benchmarks was 62 percent of Asian students, 47 percent of white students, 23 percent of Hispanic students and 11 percent of black students. That helps explain a 2016 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce “African Americans: College Majors and Earnings.”

It found that black college students were highly concentrated in lower-paying and less academically demanding majors like administrative services and social work.

They are much less likely than other students to major in science, technology, engineering and math, even though black students in these fields earned as much as 50 percent more than those who earned a bachelor’s degree in art or psychology and social work.

Do you think racism is the biggest problem facing the black community?

James D. Agresti, the president and co-founder of Just Facts, has just published an article titled “Social Ills That Plague African Americans Coincide with Leftism, Not Racism.”

Agresti writes: “Among all of the afflictions that disproportionately impact people of color, violence may be the worst. In 2018, blacks comprised 13% of the U.S. population but roughly 53% of the 16,000 murder victims.” The clearance rate for murders where a suspect was identified and charged declined from 92 percent in 1960 to 62 percent in 2018.

For example, in Chicago, the clearance rate fell from 96 percent in 1964 to 45 percent in 2018. In Baltimore, the 2019 clearance rate was 32 percent. In 2015, when Baltimore experienced the highest per-capita murder rate in its history, the average homicide suspect had been previously arrested more than nine times. When crimes remain unsolved, it gives criminals free range and black people are their primary victims.

By the way, most law enforcement occurs at the local level. The governments at these local levels are typically dominated by Democrats.

According to statistics about fatherless homes, 90 percent of homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes; 71 percent of pregnant teenagers lack a father figure; 63 percent of youth suicides are from fatherless homes; 71 percent of high school dropouts come from fatherless homes; and 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions have no father.

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Furthermore, fatherless boys and girls are twice as likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to end up in jail. Thomas Sowell has argued, “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

The bottom line is that while not every vestige of racial discrimination has been eliminated, today’s discrimination cannot go very far in explaining the problems faced by a large segment of the black community.


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Walter E. Williams was a well-known lecturer and social critic. He served as the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University and was an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute.