On the evening of December 1st, I was reading a series of political and economics articles (just like other evenings). It happened that I stumbled upon Walter Williams’s article “Black Education Tragedy is New” in which he discusses some of the education statistics associated with major urban school districts (such as NYC, Detroit, and Baltimore). I read the article to my wife since this is a topic that we are rather passionate about.
On the following day, I went to work like any other day, and then on my lunch break, I heard a rumor that Walter Williams died. It was later confirmed by multiple sources. Needless to say, I was shocked since I didn’t even know that he was ill. As it turned out (according to Thomas Sowell), he died on a day in which he was teaching. I’ve had a few days to reflect upon his death and his legacy, and three things came into mind.
First, while Thomas Sowell was the first person whose writings raised questions about my own political assumptions, Walter Williams is most responsible for my political switch toward libertarianism as an undergraduate. I imagine that this is true for most Blacks who are libertarian-leaning in my generation because Walter was not only a radical in his political philosophy; he was also unapologetically pro-Black. Walter was the first public figure that I knew in public life who challenged the notion that you have to throw away your “Black card” in order to be libertarian. As a young man, Walter has consistently stated that he was a radical in the Malcolm X/Black Panther tradition (rather than the MLK tradition) because he strongly believed in Black self-determination. His transition to libertarianism was not a rejection of these principles; rather, his moral arguments for political liberty was a consistent application of these principles.
There’s a very well-known and humorous anecdote to illustrate this in which I’ll quote from his colleague Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo:
When he got to the section of the course on labor economics and the economics of discrimination, he shocked his audiences of mostly freshman econ 101 students by reminding them that “discrimination” is not always a bad or negative thing. For example, he would say, when he was looking for a wife he discriminated against fat women, ugly women, and white women.
As a man of consistency, Walter Williams’s argument for Black self-determination was also applied to the self-determination of other people groups. This led to two of Walter Williams’s most controversial opinions – namely the defense of the virtues of secession and his criticism of Lincoln. Again I’ll quote from his colleague Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo:
Back in those days Walter’s office was adorned with a framed picture of his daughter, who he doted over, and a Confederate flag! When a visitor asked why a black man like himself had a Confederate flag in his office, he said it was to give him the opportunity to explain the virtues of secession to whoever asked about it. That was some fifteen years before I wrote anything about Lincoln, secession, or the War to Prevent Southern Independence. It was also one reason why I asked Walter to write the foreword to The Real Lincoln, which he did, with a most eloquent essay.
Second, because of the length of his life, Walter Williams was able to see firsthand the remarkable progress made by Black people within America. Hence, in many of his popular articles, he presents an overwhelmingly positive view of Black history, and I believe that all Americans (Black and white) can benefit from a more accurate and better appreciation of Black history. In an article earlier this year, Walter Williams states the following:
Often overlooked or ignored is the fact that, as a group, Black Americans have made the greatest gains, over some of the highest hurdles, and in a shorter span of time than any other racial group in history. For example, if one totaled up the earnings and spending of Black Americans and considered us as a separate nation with our own gross domestic product, we would rank well within the top 20 richest nations. A Black American, Gen. Colin Powell, once headed the world’s mightiest military. Black Americans are among the world’s most famous personalities, and a few black Americans are among the world’s richest people such as investor Robert F. Smith, IT service provider David Steward, Oprah Winfrey and basketball star Michael Jordan. Plus, there was a Black U.S. president.The significance of these achievements cannot be overstated. When the Civil War ended, neither a slave nor a slave owner would have believed such progress would be possible in less than a century and a half — if ever. As such, it speaks to the intestinal fortitude of a people. Just as important, it speaks to the greatness of a nation in which such gains were possible. Nowhere else on earth could such progress have been achieved except in the United States of America.
Unfortunately, this outlook is not believed by many, nor is it clearly communicated as it should. There is much that Blacks ought to be proud of. At the turn of the 20th century, Blacks acquired property and personal holdings to the point that W.E.B. DuBois noted: “it is astonishing how the African has integrated himself to American civilization.” American economic history has shown that Black entrepreneurs began to use markets for fellow Blacks as well as whites as early as the 1850s, and thus were making remarkable progress in the face of very clear and overt discrimination. As an economist, Williams was able to understand how those who promoted discrimination (whether in the Jim Crow South or in South African Apartheid) were also the one who were most opposed to markets and competition and thus they used the State to deliberately restrict competition. Even in the midst of overt discrimination, Blacks continued to make gains and to improve. This is discussed in great detail in his books “Race and Economics” and “The State Against Blacks”.
So, from Williams’s perspective, Black history is a two-fold story: (1) the triumph of a strong people and (2) the greatness of a nation in which such gains were possible. The issue that confronts us is how these gains can be extended to about one-quarter of the Black population for whom they have proven elusive. In this vein, Walter Williams is also old enough to see that the problem is not material poverty, but what he calls spiritual poverty which is defined as “an absence of what traditionally has been known as various human virtues.” Furthermore, Williams believes that much of this spiritual poverty is a result of public and private policy that rewards inferiority and irresponsibility. Consider the following passage from a recent article:
Many whites are ashamed, saddened and guilt-ridden by our history of slavery, Jim Crow and gross racial discrimination. They see that justice and compensation for that ugly history is to hold their fellow black Americans accountable to the kind of standards and conduct they would never accept from whites. That behavior and conduct is relatively new. Meet with black people in their 70s or older, even liberal politicians such as Charles Rangel (age 90), and Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (85), Alcee Hastings (83) and Maxine Waters (82). Ask them whether their parents would have tolerated their assaulting and cursing of teachers or any other adult. I bet you the rent money their parents and other parents of that era would not have accepted the grossly disrespectful behavior seen today among many black youngsters who use foul language and racial epithets at one another. These older blacks will tell you that, had they behaved that way, they would have felt serious pain in their hind parts. If blacks of yesteryear would not accept such self-destructive behavior, why should today’s blacks accept it? Black people have made tremendous gains over the years that came as a result of hard work, sacrifice and a no-nonsense approach to life. Recovering those virtues can provide solutions to many of today’s problems.
In this sense, Walter Williams represents the voice of an older generation of Black Americans.
Third and perhaps most importantly, Walter Williams should be remembered as an educator and a scholar. Because of his public speaking career, his documentaries, and his popular columns, it’s probably safe to say that he never received the credit that he deserved as a professional economist who produced many important articles in labor economics. As Thomas Sowell has noted, most of what other say about higher prices in low income neighborhoods today has not yet caught up to what Walter said in his doctoral dissertation decades ago.
From my point of view, I will remember him the most as an honest academic because this is where his integrity was most clearly seen. Unlike many academics today (especially in the social sciences), Walter did not use the classroom to proselytize college students; he understood that such activism was a form of academic fraud, and he knew how to remove his private views from the classroom. He believed in treating (and grading) each student equally and fairly. He did not lower his academic standards for Blacks, which meant that he critiqued his own faculty for artificially inflating the grades of Black students. Furthermore, he was a vocal critic of various school districts across the country who conferr high school diplomas to Black students who do not meet minimal academic standards. I’ve attempted to follow his pattern in the classroom and as an academic.
There is much more that I can say about him, but my hope is that he is not quickly forgotten. If you have never read any of his works, here are a few good links:
Race and Economics – https://www.amazon.com/Race-Economics-Discrimination-Institution-Publication/dp/0817912452
American Contempt for Liberty – https://www.amazon.com/American-Contempt-Liberty-Institution-Publication/dp/0817918752/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1GGE0D3ZEUTR4&dchild=1&keywords=american+contempt+for+liberty+by+walter+e.+williams&qid=1607192391&sprefix=american+contempt+for+libe%2Cstripbooks%2C189&sr=8-2
The State Against Blacks – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pomvHeQdATc
Suffer No Fools – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZGvQcxoAPg