Today I read a post about an article from Fortune magazine that lists 19 Black economists to know and celebrate. I think it is great that we celebrate the contributions of Black Americans, but when Walter Williams is left off of any list of important economists, especially Black economists, I have to question the motives of those who made the list. Williams is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University and is one of the most important economists over the past thirty years. Why was he left off the Fortune list? Historically speaking, it is a disagreement that goes back about 150 years.
Being a Black American, Williams has faced racism. After high school, he was drafted into the Army where he was court-marshaled for fighting back against the racial practices he experienced. After the Army, he finished his schooling, including earning his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from UCLA in economics.
Williams taught at Temple University and Stanford before finally settling in Northern Virginia to teach at George Mason. More than any other professor, Williams put Mason on the academic map. He has authored dozens if not hundreds of books and articles. He became known for his syndicated column, Minority View. He has never shied away from racial issues; his most recognized books are entitled The State against Blacks and America: A Minority Viewpoint.
Williams has received many prestigious awards in economics and is considered a leading voice in his field. So why was Williams excluded from a list of prominent Black economists by Fortune? That is easy: he is conservative. I completely support the concept behind Black Lives Matter, yet, as with so many organic movements, I fear BLM may be hijacked by divisive politics. I also start to question the motives of a movement when only liberal Black Americans are celebrated. Historically speaking, conservatives have suffered the same racist attitudes as all Black Americans and at times even more. Many Black conservatives not only struggle with hostile racism but resentment from their own community for not being Black enough. If you want evidence of this, you need look no further than the fact that Fortune magazine does not consider Walter Williams important enough to mention in their pages.
This divide is as old as Jim Crow. If you go back to around the beginning of the 20th Century, the two most influential Black Americans were W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Washington, born a slave in Virginia, put himself through the Hampton Institute, one of the first black schools set up after the war. He eventually rose to become the head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington, having to fundraise to keep his Institute alive, tried to work with the white population. Tuskegee was a trade school and Washington taught that, through hard work, Blacks could raise themselves up out of their circumstances and eventually be accepted by whites. In Washington’s most famous speech he said, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” He believed if Blacks proved themselves, they would be treated as equals. Washington was celebrated by the white population, but was often attacked by members of his own race
Du Bois was born free in the North and excelled in education, being the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. Du Bois, who was extremely critical of Washington, believed Blacks should receive the same education as whites and did not want to wait for acceptance from whites. He wanted Blacks to push for civil rights and formed the NAACP to organize that cause. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote of Washington, “From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned! Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not. Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”
Jump forward several years and these two trains of thought were being still debated during the Civil Rights crusades of the 1950s and 1960s. This time the principle figures were Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. While King took the Washington role of preaching non-violence and integration with whites to work for civil rights, Malcolm X channeled D Bois with his teaching of Black Power. Mr. X once said of King, “The white man pays Reverend Martin Luther King, subsidizes Reverend Martin Luther King, so that Reverend Martin Luther King can continue to teach the Negroes to be defenseless.” All four men wanted to achieve the same destination; they just took different paths to arrive while being critical of the other.
The same is true with Dr. Williams and conservative Black voices today. They want the same ends as the Black Lives Matter movement; they have experienced the same racism. However, as the movement is becoming a political movement as much as a racial one, important voices like Dr. Williams are being silenced by the same voices calling for people of color to be heard.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. For daily history posts Follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.