Liberty Matters

Walter Williams: Progressivism, and Systemic Racism

It’s a genuine honor to be among such esteemed scholars to discuss the ideas of Walter Williams. I agree, in detail and at large, with nearly all that is said in the opening essays. And I was struck by the fact that all of us, when searching in Walter’s work for what made him unique, identified largely the same traits. These traits are his humor, his command of the economic way of thinking, and, above all, his principle.
I’m struck as I ponder these three traits that each one is notably absent among the run of today’s Progressives. Among most such people, humor is regarded as evidence of insensitivity, while economics is utterly foreign. As for Progressives’ principles, these boil down to situation ethics – meaning, in practice, malignant pragmatism.
It’s easy to understand why a man of Walter’s courage, knowledge, and wisdom found Progressivism to be so poisonous.
Yet, as I suggested near the end of my original essay in this series, it’s unwise to reject a policy position merely because that position is one that is embraced by – or thought to be embraced by – Progressives. On some matters, Progressives might well stumble toward sensible conclusions that potentially can serve as grounds for useful alliances between them and classical liberals or conservatives.
Consider so-called “systemic racism” – a favorite trope of Progressives. Harold Black correctly described Walter as being skeptical of systemic racism. But Tarnell Brown is also correct that Walter, in his way, understood its reality.
What’s going on? Was Walter inconsistent? No.
While Walter rightly criticized Progressives for their habit of explaining all group differences between whites and non-whites as resulting from systemic racism, Walter also understood that a great deal of still-active legislation – national, state, and local – imposes differential disadvantages on those persons who are currently relatively disadvantaged. Minimum-wage legislation is only the most obvious such intervention. Although today often sold (and swallowed) as being a cure for poverty, minimum wages – by pricing many low-skilled workers out of jobs – are in fact a contributor to poverty. The same conclusion holds for several other interventions, including occupational-licensing requirements, land-use restrictions, and – perhaps above all – the K-12 government-schooling calamity.
That these interventions today are often supported by people whose motives are emphatically not racist does not render these interventions immune from the charge of being systematically racist. If these interventions’ ill-consequences have – as they do – a distinctly racist profile, then the term “systemic racism” is appropriate.
An important difference between Walter and Progressives on this front is that Walter rightly rejected Progressives’ childish belief that racist intentions are both sufficient and necessary for racist outcomes. It is this naïve understanding of systemic racism that Walter spurned. And while he might, to avoid verbal confusion, also have spurned the term “systemic racism,” he certainly understood that the economic, the political, and the legal system each can be perverted by policies that inflict disproportionate harm on blacks and other minority groups. Very much of Walter’s life work was aimed at exposing such consequences.