Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?

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Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? by Walter E. Williams Hoover Institution Press · 2011 · 185 pages $24.95 hardcover; $14.95 paperback

Reviewed by D. W MacKenzie

Few topics induce stronger emotional reactions by Americans than racism, and rightly so. Racial bigotry against black Americans has existed for centuries, and is responsible for innumerable injustices. Contemporary black Americans, on average, have lower incomes and life expectancies and less educational attainment, and are more likely to be victimized by and convicted of crimes.

Many people believe the simple argument that racism is what puts black Americans at a disadvantage, particularly in the private sector. The idea that racism causes private discrimination typically leads people to conclude that the interests of blacks can be advanced only through enlightened public policy. Freeman columnist and George Mason University professor Walter Williams, however, uses economic reasoning to make a more subtle argument: Private competition actually guides people toward color-blind exchange in markets. On the other hand, politics can lead to racist policies, which subvert competition to the benefit of influential special interests.

The logic behind the economic arguments of Race and Economics is largely implicit. As such, readers with a background in price theory may appreciate its content more than others. In any case, the author has a unique talent for making lessons on economic theory both informative and entertaining.

There is a tradeoff regarding the depth of the historical analysis of Race and Economics and its overall length and readability. Williams covers centuries of American history, and a few foreign examples, in only 141 pages. Chapter two covers a large number of historical examples in which black Americans advanced their interests through free-market competition. Some readers may be surprised to find that there were successful black entrepreneurs before the Civil War.

In chapter three Williams examines anti-black public policies. A main point is that such policies are not simply a product of racism. Interest groups composed of white Americans have often used public policy to gain at the expense of the rest of society, including black Americans. Opportunities for personal gain through coercive income transfers have reinforced antiblack biases in American politics. The number of racerelated coercive transfers discussed in this book suggests that such problems are commonplace.

Readers who already appreciate the market process, as well as Public Choice problems with modern government, should find this book illuminating and convincing. Yet the cursory treatment of each of the examples in Race and Economics limits the potential for this book to overcome resistance from more skeptical readers, especially when skepticism is driven by emotion. …