Comments in The New York Times by a Loyola University economics professor defending the right of businesses to refuse service to black customers — such as the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counters that became an icon of the fight against segregation in the 1960s — have sparked an academic controversy that drew a rebuttal from the university president. Weeks later, the topic continues to dominate the pages of the student-run newspaper, The Maroon.
In late January, two political reporters from The New York Times wrote a lengthy front-page profile of Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a possible Presidential contender seeking to bring his strong libertarian beliefs into mainstream American politics. The article focused on the tension between Paul’s campaign and the logical extremes to which some of the “libertarian faithful” carry their principles, including Dr. Walter Block of Loyola University in New Orleans. Midway through the article, the reporters write:
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.”
A week later, Loyola University president Kevin Wildes sent a letter to The Maroon describing his “dismay” at Block’s statements and pointing out logical flaws he saw in Block’s arguments.
“If these remarks were made in a paper for my class, I would return the paper with a failing grade,” Wildes wrote. “This is hardly critical thinking. Rather it is a position filled with assertions, without argument or evidence, to gain attention.”
Wildes’ letter ran alongside another letter from 17 faculty members “outraged” over Block’s statements, arguing against his point about slavery and urging the university to “condemn and censure” him. A week later, more letters were published, this time from a Loyola student and a pastor in Gretna defending Block.
Those letters have drawn dozens of comments in response on the Maroon’s website, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Aaren Gordon, editor of The Maroon, said the editorial page has received “no less than 50″ written letters about the issue, so much so that it will be covered by news reporters in Friday’s edition.
“To have 50 people sending letters, in response to a letter we published, is huge for us,” Gordon said.
‘Immoral and indecent’
In an interview Wednesday, Block said he too has received letters, hundreds of them, in support of his statements. The New York Times took his comment about slavery out of context, he said — he does believe that slavery is wrong, but because it was compulsory, not because of the conditions that it created. (Block has expanded on this argument in a response to The Times at the libertarian news and opinion website lewrockwell.com, and it is this article that the Loyola faculty were addressing in their letter).
But Block took less issue with the presentation of his defense of segregation at Woolworth’s lunch counters. Private businesses should not be forced to serve anyone against their will — likening the race issues in the 1960s to modern debates over whether Christian wedding venues should be able to turn away homosexual couples marrying. In time, market forces will drive businesses with practices out of step with society out of business, Block said.
“It is immoral and indecent and improper refuse to serve people due to color of skin, but should it be against the law?” Block asked. “Nobody should be forced to associate against anyone against their will.”
This is not the first time his remarks have created a stir, Block noted. Previously, a 2012 column by Block criticizing feminism also earned a failing “grade” from Wildes in the letters section of The Maroon.
But despite their disagreements, Block said the university leadership has taken no action against him.
For half of its 100-year history, Loyola University was a private institution only open to white undergraduates, until four black men enrolled in 1962. One of them, former Orleans Parish assessor Kenneth Carter, said that he is partly surprised that debates over segregation are continuing 50 years later, and partly proud that his alma mater is leading the conversation.
Part of what makes America great, Carter said, is the free and open debate of ideas that may not be popular, such as Block’s. And yet, the more progressive stance promoted by Wildes reminded him of his own efforts to integrate Loyola in the 1960s — when the university leadership was actually more supportive of integration than the community at large.
“It’s a free country. Block and others have a right to their views,” Carter said. “What makes me feel really, really good is that there’s significant moral authority that exists and that it’s coming from the president of the university. … It was that kind of moral authority that made the movement successful.”
Block’s ideas overlook two crucial points, Carter said. The first is that private institutions Block where would support allowing segregation actually receive numerous benefits — such as police protection — paid for by tax dollars paid by all people, even those they would choose to shun. Segregation of Mardi Gras krewes remained legal until the intervention of the city of New Orleans in the 1990s, arguing similarly that public streets should not be closed for the benefit of all-white clubs.
“Those people who were denied the same rights that other citizens had, how long should these people have waited?” Carter asked. “How many generations would have passed?”
The second point Block misses, Carter said, is that the decision to segregate is not made in a vacuum — it does real harm to the community at large, harm that the government has a duty to prevent.
“Unfortunately, guys like Block cannot understand the negative impact that segregation and exclusion have on an individual and their families,” Carter said. “We’re talking about human beings and morality. If he for a moment could feel the pain that was endured, economic damage and personal damage, and if he can’t appreciate that, then there’s something wrong with him.”