Last month, when Rosa Parks was laid to rest in Detroit, her eulogy contained well-deserved praise for her brave defiance of segregation laws that led to the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and later the 1956 Supreme Court ruling that banned public transportation segregation. The passing and remembrance of her generation of blacks, who made sacrifices to deliver today's opportunities, might also be an occasion for condemnation of what's no less than a gross betrayal of that generation's struggle.
Having lived just about one-third of our nation's existence, I know, as well as experienced, the uglier parts of our history. During the '30s, '40s and '50s, civil rights progress meant yearly black lynchings were down to single digits, as opposed to 50 or more in previous decades.
In 1954, when I graduated from Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin High School, rare was the opportunity for a black student to go off to college. While segregation was mostly in the South, it nonetheless existed in northern cities. There were entire Philadelphia neighborhoods where, regardless of socioeconomic status, blacks could not rent or buy. There were business establishments, including movie theaters and restaurants, where black patronage was not welcomed.
While not every vestige of racial discrimination has been eliminated, it is nowhere near the barrier it was yesteryear, but you'd think discrimination is everywhere listening to some of today's black politicians and civil rights leaders. One wonders what those blacks, who lived during the era of gross discrimination and are now deceased, would think about so much of today's behavior, rhetoric and excuses.
What would they think about black neighborhoods, once thriving economic centers that have been turned into economic wastelands by a level of criminal activity previously unknown? During my youth, walking through some of Philadelphia's predominantly white neighborhoods, one felt a sense of relief as we approached a black neighborhood. Today, it might be the other way around. What would they think about predominantly black schools where violence and intimidation are the order of the day, with police cars outside and metal detectors inside? What would they think about black students who seek academic excellence being mocked, intimidated and assaulted by their peers for "acting white"?
By any assessment, black Americans have made the greatest progress, over some of the highest hurdles and in the shortest span of time than any other racial group in the history of mankind. If one added the earnings of black Americans and thought of us as a nation, we'd be the 14th richest nation.
Black Americans have held some of the nation's highest positions, such as secretaries of state, housing and urban development, health and human services and education; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and mayors of some of our largest cities. Blacks are some of the world's most famous personalities, and a few blacks rank among the world's richest people. In 1865, neither a slave nor a slave owner would have believed these gains possible in a little over a century, if ever. As such, it not only speaks well of the determination and intestinal fortitude of a people, but also of a nation in which such gains were possible.
For a large segment of the black community, these gains remain elusive. The gains will remain elusive so long as black civil rights and political leadership blame and focus their energies on discrimination. While discrimination exists, the relevant question is how much of what we see can be explained by it. A 70 percent illegitimacy rate, 60 percent of black children raised in female-headed households, high crime and poor school performance have devastating consequences.
This level of pathology cannot be attributed to discrimination, considering that much of it was absent in earlier times when there was far more discrimination, greater poverty and fewer opportunities.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.