The rise of Rand Paul, a libertarian who is a U.S. senator from Kentucky and is talked about as a Republican presidential candidate, has drawn new attention to the views of a faculty member at Loyola University New Orleans who believes most civil rights laws were wrong, and that restaurants, hotels and employers should be free to exclude black people (or any other group of people).
Loyola's president and many faculty members have condemned the professor and letters and statements have been been flying in the last week. But the professor is standing his ground, and accusing his critics of trying to enforce political correctness.
Walter Block, the professor, is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at Loyola -- and he has been periodically the subject of debates at the university. But to many, the idea that he would defend racial segregation crosses a line past legitimate scholarly debate. Block disagrees.
Block's views are receiving scrutiny because of this paragraph toward the end of a long article in The New York Times about Senator Paul:
Walter Block, an economics professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who described slavery as “not so bad,” is also highly critical of the Civil Rights Act. “Woolworth’s had lunchroom counters, and no blacks were allowed,” he said in a telephone interview. “Did they have a right to do that? Yes, they did. No one is compelled to associate with people against their will.”
Block said, in an email interview, that the description of his views on slavery in the Times is incorrect and unfair, and pointed to the article where he said slavery was "not so bad."
In the article where he wrote that, he first states that he had a major problem with slavery -- the lack of free choice for slaves. The basis for much of many of Block's views is a belief in the right of "free association" (including the choice not to associate), and he was quick to state that slavery denied this right.
"Free association is a very important aspect of liberty. It is crucial. Indeed, its lack was the major problem with slavery. The slaves could not quit. They were forced to 'associate' with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so," Block writes.
What follows, however, is unlikely to win over many of his critics. Block adds in the essay: "Otherwise, slavery wasn't so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory."
As for his statements on Woolworth's, Block does not dispute them. He does oppose Jim Crow laws that barred people from serving black and white people at the same counter, but he would have just repealed those laws, not replaced them with laws that require various employers, educators and service providers to interact with everyone equitably. He argues that market forces would ultimately have led various entities to treat black and white people equally.
The website of The Maroon, the student newspaper at Loyola, has been the site of intense debate about Block. The president of Loyola, the Rev. Kevin Wildes, took the unusual position of critiquing the logic of one of his professors.
In a letter, Father Wildes said: "In speaking of discriminatory lunch counters, Dr. Block makes the mistake of assuming that because of the civil rights legislation people would be compelled to associate with others against their will. The civil rights legislation did no such thing. What the civil rights legislation did was prevent places like Woolworth’s from excluding people because of their race. No one was forced to sit at the lunch counter. The law simply made clear that people could not be excluded from the lunch counter because of their race.
"If these remarks were made in a paper for my class, I would return the paper with a failing grade. This is hardly critical thinking. Rather it is a position filled with assertions, without argument or evidence, to gain attention."
Seventeen faculty members, in a joint letter, called on the university "to take the long overdue and necessary steps to condemn and censure Professor Block for his recurring public assaults on the values of Loyola University, its mission and the civil rights of all."
The letter said that "[w]hile Block might have the academic freedom to teach such ahistorical and hostile beliefs in his own economics classroom, these claims -- expressed to a reporter for a nationwide newspaper article -- are an insult to millions of African Americans in this country as well as to the pain and suffering incurred by both black and white people in their struggle to gain the same basic American freedoms that Professor Block enjoys today as a privileged white male."
The faculty members added: "Block’s indefensible comments, printed in the national edition of the Sunday New York Times no less, hamper the university’s efforts to recruit the most accomplished and diverse students it can from across the U.S."
Those letters have attracted many comments (many of them from libertarian fans of Block and not necessarily with Loyola connections). Block said via email that the president, by taking a side on an intellectual debate, was hurting academic freedom. "I wish he had said something to the effect that he is running a university, not a seminary, and that we have academic freedom here, and we relish diversity of opinions here," Block said.
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