Walter Edward Williams, a Black American conservative economist, author, lecturer and political commentator born on March 31st, 1936 in Philadelphia, who expressed profoundly skeptical views of government efforts to aid minority groups, died on December 2nd, 2020.
He passed away in his car shortly after a class on the campus of George Mason University in Virginia, where he had taught for 40 years, probably due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension.
His father, who worked in masonry, deserted the family when Williams was very young. He and his sister Catherine were raised by their mother, Catherine Morgan Urchette, in a public housing project in the northern part of the city, where he attended Benjamin Franklin High School.
His neighbors included disgraced stand-up comedian, actor and author Bill Cosby (born 1937) and basketball star Julius Erving (born 1950), who was a second cousin.
After graduation, Williams traveled to California to live with his father and briefly attend college. Back in Philadelphia, he secured a job as a taxi driver, before being drafted in 1959.
While serving as a private in the US Army in South Korea, Williams wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), denouncing the pervasive racism in the American government and military.
He received a response from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Attorney Alfred B. Fitt (1923–1992), which Williams termed “the most reasonable response that I received from any official.”
The so-called Jim Crow laws, enforcing racial segregation in the southern United States since the late 19th century, were finally abolished under Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) in 1965.
Nevertheless, according to Williams, Johnson’s well-intentioned efforts had actually worsened race relations by seeking an equality of result in terms of voting rights rather than an equality of economic opportunity, which might better have lifted more Blacks out of poverty.
Following his military service, Williams served as a juvenile group supervisor for the Los Angeles County Probation Department from 1963 to 1967.
At the same time, Williams studied and taught at the California State College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1965, before receiving a master’s degree at the University of California (UCLA) in 1966.
There in 1972 he authored his 106-page doctoral thesis, titled The Low-Income Market Place, about different types of exclusion Blacks faced back then.
In his early college days, Williams was even sympathetic to the ideas of Muslim activist Malcolm X (1925-1965), the speaker of Nation of Islam (NOI) who was willing to confront discrimination by violent means.
Williams changed his mind about laws which were supposed to help poor people and protect workers from exploitation after he was pressed by his professors to look at the contrary evidence.
At UCLA, Williams began a life-long friendship with fellow Black economist Thomas Sowell (born 1930), who arrived in 1969 as a visiting professor. Their correspondence appeared in 2007 in “A Man of Letters.”
In the summer of 1972, Sowell was hired as director of the Urban Institute’s Ethnic Minorities Project in Washington, which Williams joined shortly thereafter.
After returning to his home town, Williams taught economics at Temple University from 1973 to 1980. For the 1975–76 academic year, Williams was a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
In 1980, Williams joined the economics faculty at George Mason University in Virginia, where he would ultimately teach Microeconomics until his death. From 1995 to 2001, he chaired the economics department.
Williams also contributed a column, “A Minority View“, for Heritage Features Syndicate, which later merged with Creators Syndicate, and appeared on the radio as a substitute host for White conservative Rush Limbaugh (born 1951) for over 20 years.
In his nearly fifty year career, Williams published hundreds of research articles, book reviews and commentaries for scholarly journals as well as popular periodicals like Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal.
Williams wrote ten books, beginning with The State against Blacks and America: A Minority Viewpoint in 1982, All It Takes Is Guts in 1987, South Africa’s War Against Capitalism in 1989, Do the Right Thing in 1995, More Liberty Means Less Government in 1999, Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism in 2008, his autobiography Up from the Projects in 2010, Race and Economics in 2011 and his last in 2015, America’s Contempt for Liberty.
In 2003, Williams was awarded an honorary degree in Social Science from Francisco Marroquín University (UFM), a private, secular institution in Guatemala City.
He served on advisory boards including the Review Board of Economics Studies for the National Science Foundation, the Reason Foundation and the National Tax Limitation Committee.
While he hosted documentaries for Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) himself, Williams in 2014 was the subject of “Suffer No Fools,” in which he maintained that antipoverty programs were subsidizing “slovenly” behavior.
As a Libertarian, Williams vehemently defended free market economics, believing that laissez-faire capitalism was actually the most moral and productive system humans had ever devised.
Williams considered interventionist state programs a harmful practice that inhibited liberty and was detrimental to those it was intended to help. He argued that laws regulating economic activity were far greater obstacles to social progress than racial bigotry and inequity.
Subsequently, Williams believed that increases in the minimum wage, including those on federal construction projects, priced low skill workers out of the market, eliminating their opportunities for employment.
For Williams, racism and the legacy of slavery were overemphasized issues in the US. He pointed to the crippling effects of a welfare state, which has led to the disintegration of the Black family and almost 75% of children being born out of wedlock.
Although in favor of equal access to government institutions like court houses, city halls and libraries, Williams opposed anti-discrimination laws directed at the private sector on the grounds that such they infringed upon the people’s right of freedom of association.
In reaction to what he viewed as inappropriate sensitivity, Williams in the 1970s began to offer colleagues a “certificate of amnesty and pardon”, still available at his website, to all White people for Western civilization’s sins against Blacks and “thus obliged them not to act like damn fools in their relationships with Americans of African ancestry.”
In his 2007 essay Minimum Wage, Maximum Folly he argued that it came with “legally mandated benefits such as employer payments for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and worker-compensation programs at federal and state levels” that “run as high as 30% of the hourly wage.”
He concluded that every entrepreneur would see spending double the amount of an employee’s worth of value per hour as a losing economic proposition and therefore not hire anybody.
Williams also opposed Affirmative Action programs and proposals to pay for past injustices as “The problems that Black people face are not going to be solved by White people”.
One of his liberal critics, Benjamin Hooks (1925-2010), president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) made Williams possibly the best “colorblind” compliment that anyone could imagine: “Black conservatives are basically a carbon copy of White conservatives.”
On the other hand, Williams could be quite blunt about Black leaders that disagreed with him, calling Baptist ministers and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson (born 1941) and Al Sharpton (born 1954) race hustlers and poverty pimps who made a living on the grievances of their communities.
In times when Western universities are overcrowded with students and teaching staff not only lacking the intellectual and emotional maturity to absorb or transmit wisdom, but even basic common sense, Williams’ refreshing viewpoints on many significant topics will be sadly missed.