Walter E. Williams

Much of the '60s and '70s civil rights rhetoric was that black political power was necessary for economic power. In 1967, Clevelanders heeded Malcolm X's infamous "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech with the election of Carl B. Stokes, who became the nation's first black big city mayor.

As of 1999, blacks were mayors of 29 major cities; that includes Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. In some of these cities, blacks are also city councilmen, superintendents of schools and chiefs of police.

That this is a major achievement is without question and a fine commentary on America's racial progress, especially when we consider the fact that blacks were mayors in cities where blacks are a small minority, such as: Des Moines, Denver, Houston, San Francisco and Dallas. By no means does it demean black political achievement to ask a more important question: What does black political power mean for the lives of ordinary black people? In other words, is political power a necessary condition for economic power? Let's look around.

Japanese and Chinese-Americans faced gross discrimination in our country, but when's the last time you heard of them worrying about how many congressmen they have or going into a tizzy worrying whether a Reagan or Bush presidency would mean the end of their handouts? By the way, Japanese and Chinese-Americans have median family incomes higher than white Americans -- in the case of Chinese-Americans, 58 percent higher. Other discriminated-against minorities in America who've eschewed the political arena are: Koreans, Arabs and Armenians.

For the ordinary person, what's more important: economic power or political power? I think it nearly goes without saying that economic power empowers the individual; it gives him the power of self-determination. Political power empowers, and even enriches, the political elite; for them, getting out their constituent vote is the be all and end all. This observation has nothing to do with race. Economic power empowers people of any race, and political power empowers the political elite of any race.

While black politicians have preached that political power is a means to gain economic power, whether it has done so is a testable proposition. We only have to examine the socioeconomic status of black Americans in cities where blacks hold considerable political power, cities such as Washington, Newark, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Memphis and others. What we'll find in those cities are grossly inferior education, welfare dependency for much of the population, unsafe neighborhoods and citizens, both black and white, who can't wait for the first opportunity to get out.

Let me be clear. I am not stating a causal link between black political power and the living conditions and welfare of many of its citizens in these cities. It's simply an argument that the expectation that political power will translate into economic power for the ordinary citizen is apt to be disappointing. But there're some political steps that black politicians can take that can create an environment for economic power.

Crime exacts a huge cost on people least able to bear it. High crime makes everything worth less, whether it's houses or businesses. Among other things, it means fewer neighborhood consumer choices and neighborhood employment.

Black politicians should develop a ruthless zero tolerance anti-crime policy. Rotten education in these cities where blacks hold dominant political power needs to be addressed, but that's more difficult. Black politicians are beholden to and serve the interests of the powerful teachers' unions, and not the voters who elect them to office. Otherwise, they wouldn't begin to tolerate the near systematic destruction of learning opportunities for generations of black children. A solution is to break the education monopoly through educational vouchers.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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