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Racial trade-offs, Part II

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By Walter Williams
Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Last week's column (“Racial trade-offs,” Oct. 10 and discussed the political trade-offs made by black politicians and civil rights organizations that condemn whole generations of black youngsters to failing schools. Similar political trade-offs in labor markets condemn many blacks, particularly black youths, to high rates of unemployment and reduced economic opportunities. Let's look at this.

Today white teen unemployment is about 20 percent, while that for blacks is about 40 percent. In 1948, the unemployment rate of black 16- and 17-year-old males was 9.4 percent, while that of whites was 10.2 percent. In 1910, 71 percent of black males older than 9 were employed, compared with 51 percent for whites.

It would be sheer lunacy to attempt to explain these more favorable employment statistics by suggesting that during earlier periods blacks faced less racial discrimination. What best explains the loss of teenage employment opportunities are increased-minimum-wage laws. There's little dispute within the economics profession that higher minimum wages discriminate against the employment of the least skilled worker, disproportionately represented by black teens.

Yet the entire Congressional Black Caucus and President Barack Obama support increases in minimum wages. They also give support to the Davis-Bacon Act, a Depression-era wage law with racist origins. The Davis-Bacon Act mandates that “prevailing wages” be paid on all federally financed or assisted construction projects. It's a pro-union law that discriminates against both nonunionized black construction contractors and black workers.

During the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act legislative debates, quite a few congressmen expressed their racist intentions, such as Rep. Miles Allgood, D-Ala., who said: “Reference has been made to a contractor from Alabama who went to New York with bootleg labor. ... That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country.” Rep. John Cochran, D-Mo., said he had “received numerous complaints ... about Southern contractors employing low-paid colored mechanics getting work and bringing the employees from the South.” American Federation of Labor President William Green complained, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.” Today the racially discriminatory effects are the same.

President Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus, black state and local politicians, and civil rights organizations have been made aware of the unemployment effects of the labor laws they support. However, they are part of a political coalition. In order to get labor unions, environmental groups, business groups and other vested interests to support their handout agenda and make campaign contributions, they must give political support to what these groups want. They must support minimum wage increases even though the increases condemn generations of black youths to high unemployment rates. They must support Davis-Bacon Act restrictions even though those restrictions handicap black contractors and nonunion construction workers.

I can't imagine what black politicians and civil rights groups are getting that's worth condemning black youths to a high rate of unemployment and its devastating effects on upward economic mobility, but then again, I'm not a politician.

Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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