Juan Williams, Racism, and the American Work Ethic
Newt Gingrich may have just regained some ground with his recent performance at the South Carolina debate. Fox News contributor Juan Williams (pictured above) asked Gingrich a question about his recent insensitive comments about low-income families and putting children to work as school janitors in order to teach them a better work ethic. He earned himself the only standing ovation of the evening.
As I watched the clip, the premise of Juan’s question struck me more than Gingrich’s response: “… I gotta tell you, my email, my Twitter account has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities… It sounds as if you are trying to belittle people.”
This puzzled me. In an economy where more people have sought welfare than any other time in history, it makes sense that people need to find jobs not just for their own benefit, but to ease the massive financial burden assumed by the government to fund these programs. And yet somehow, Juan Williams is concerned not with the viability of Newt’s proposals, but the implication that those proposals are belittling, racist and classist?
The History of Fixing Racism
There is no question that minorities in America have been at a disadvantage when it comes to matters of employment in the past, and recent government employment data suggests that they still are. The issue of minority employment has been a part of the American struggle for racial equality since the end of the civil war. Two competing voices within the black community rose up in the late 19th and early 20th century that advocated two entirely different thought processes and approaches to resolving that issue.
Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery and eventually rose to prominence as an orator and leader within the black community, laid out the first approach in his 1865 Atlanta Exposition Address. His speech advocated that blacks should build up their status within the South by establishing themselves within industries in which they already possessed skills such as agriculture mechanics, commerce, and domestic labor.
Though Washington was aware of the sensitive issue of race in the South, he equally concerned with guaranteeing that the black community was well-established economically. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”
Others were more concerned with guaranteeing that blacks were given equal social status to match the freedoms they earned following the Civil War. Chief among these was W.E.B. Du Bois, who responded very critically to Washington’s work as little more than keeping blacks down as submissive members of society. He, along with other black leaders that he refers to in his book The Souls of Black Folk, argued that Washington’s approach would not be sufficient in the long run to guarantee political and social equality for blacks in the South. He wrote, “if that reconciliation [between North and South] is to be marked by the industrial slavery and civic death of those same black men, with permanent legislation into a position of inferiority, then those black men, if they are really men, are called upon by every consideration of patriotism and loyalty to oppose such a course by all civilized methods, even though such opposition involves disagreement with Mr. Booker T. Washington.”
In light of Jim Crow laws and segregation of public institutions, which placed increasing restrictions on black civil liberties, the argument made by Du Bois was appealing. Desegregation became the policy of choice, and political force was applied to ensure that minorities had equal access to civic resources, private businesses, and other institutions.
Over time, policies like desegregation that were intended to help minority communities began to inflict several harsh and unintended consequences. Economist Brooks B. Robinson detailed how some of these consequences affected black businesses in his paper “What Could Have Been: Macrosimulating the Economic Injury Caused by Desegregation.” According to Robinson’s calculations based on a comparison of 1969 and 2002 Census data, the percentage of black-owned businesses with employees dropped from over 27% in 1969 to under 8% in 2002. He estimated that, had the 27% held into 2002, potential receipts to black businesses would have translated into $232.9 billion in gross receipts – $167.1 billion more in gross receipts than what they actually earned in 2002 – and an average increase of $4.7 thousand dollars in income to each employee.
Government welfare programs stepped in to fill the financial gap created by negative consequences of desegregation. Such support is entirely artificial: if that aid money disappeared tomorrow, there would be no structure in place to support those communities.
But that begs an additional question: why haven’t minority communities– or really, any community that heavily collects welfare – filled that gap on their own?
Psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write in their best-selling book, Boundaries, that people are hardwired over time to respond to what they call “boundaries” – limitations on and consequences for unwise or inappropriate behavior. In cases where a lack of limits is present, an individual is not encouraged to adopt disciplines or behaviors that might be better for them.
In this scenario, the government has adopted the role of parents who repeatedly clean up after the mistakes of their children. By increasing welfare programs to accommodate the needs and wants of minority communities, the government has created a situation in which people are isolated from economic and social realities. There is no incentive to change behavior, so there is consequently no improvement in communities that continue to benefit from large-scale welfare intervention. This has long been the position held by economists like Walter E. Williams, who has argued that welfare programs have crippled the black community.
By overly embracing external political solutions to race issues rather than encouraging economic and social development within minority communities, the government created a situation in which minority communities were isolated from economic and social realities. These unintended consequences resulted in the suppressed development of those communities economically and, as a result, contributed to an environment of systemic dependency that has continued until the present day and has spread to people of all races and ethnicities in America.
Booker T. Washington’s warning has, regrettably, become a reality.
A New Direction
Real solutions cannot come from Washington bailouts or grand social programs, but must come from individuals and communities that work to improve their own lives and prospects. Gingrich’s proposal is one possibility that allows kids to begin the long process of improving their own lives by developing a strong work ethic. However, if the concern is placed more on the social meaning of the jobs given to the kids and less on the value of the jobs themselves, it proves that we have not grown and learned from our own history.
It could even be argued that the response of many critics to Newt’s comments and proposal are evidence of a different kind of racism: just as it is racist to target minorities as stereotypically recipients of welfare, it is racist to assume that references to food stamps or manual labor jobs automatically are automatically a veiled reference or insult to minorities. The bad economy has hit everyone equally, regardless of race, and old stereotypes about who suffers more or who wants to oppress who are no longer accurate or productive.