In 1981, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Patricia Harris wrote in the Washington Post that libertarian economists Walter E. Williams and Thomas Sowell are “middle class” so they “don’t know what it is to be poor.”
In fact, Williams grew up in a single-parent household in a poor section of Philadelphia. He was raised by his mother, who was a high school dropout. The family spent time on welfare, and eventually moved into the Richard Allen public housing project. (Sowell, whose father died before he was born, was the son of a maid.)
Drafted into the peacetime Army, Williams eventually earned a PhD from UCLA in the late 1960s and quickly became a sought-after researcher and public intellectual. His best-known book, 1982’s The State Against Blacks, argues that a major cause of black unemployment is government intervention in the labor market.
Williams’s contrarian views have had wide exposure through documentaries, public appearances, and, for the past thirty years, a syndicated weekly column. Since 1992, Williams has also been a frequent guest host of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Now a professor emeritus at George Mason University, Williams has taught at Temple University; California State University, Los Angeles; and other universities.
His new book, Up from the Projects: An Autobiography, is a fascinating look at his childhood, his half-century-long marriage to his recently departed wife, his unusual career path, and the genesis of his views on race, economics, and politics.
Throughout his career, Williams has used his own life to illustrate how government regulations often work to deny opportunities to poor blacks, and his memoir is no exception. For example, Williams recounts that when he was a teenager, he was fired from a great job at a hat factory when a fellow employee complained to the Department of Labor that his boss was violating child labor laws.
I recently sat down with Williams to talk about his life, how his experiences have informed his scholarship, and whether the Obama presidency has improved the lives of blacks in the United States. Williams is also an emeritus trustee of the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that produces Reason.tv.
Nick Gillespie, Reason: You were growing up in Philadelphia and you spent time on welfare. You were raised in a single-parent household. How does where you’re from show up in where you are now?
Walter E. Williams: I am not sure. As a youngster I never even thought about being a college professor or libertarian. I was always a radical, a troublemaker, a person who questioned the status quo. So my upbringing might have had very little to do with where I am now. And as a matter of fact, even though we grew up poor, we didn’t consider ourselves poor. As a matter of fact, during those days to call somebody poor was an insult.
Gillespie: What did being called poor mean then?
Williams: Well, it meant that you didn’t eat or you missed meals or you wore tattered clothes, and all those weren’t the case with me. But at least in the neighborhoods where I grew up, and in poor black neighborhoods today, there is kind of what I call spiritual poverty, that is poverty of the spirit. And back when I was a kid, my mother used to always say to us, “we have a bare pocketbook, but we have champagne taste.” Meaning that we had high aspirations.
Gillespie: So where does the spiritual poverty or where does the aspirational poverty come from?
Williams: Well, if you look at some of the characteristics, particularly of black people, but to a large extent everybody, back when I was coming up, for a girl to have a baby out of wedlock was a disgrace. Today, women have babies out of wedlock and they have baby showers; it is no longer a disgrace. And indeed the illegitimacy rate among blacks is somewhere around 70 percent and back in the ’40s it couldn’t have been more than 13 or 12 percent, something like that. Or the breakdown in the black family—only 35 percent of black kids live in two-parent families. As a matter of fact, when we were coming up, my father deserted us when I was three and my sister was two, and they ultimately got divorced in the late ’40s. But among our friends, we were the only kids in the housing project who did not have a mother and a father in the house. Today, it would be exactly the opposite; it would be rare to have a mother and father in the household today.
Gillespie: In 2008, you wrote that Obama’s election “might turn our attention away from the false notion that discrimination explains the problems of a large segment of the black community.” Has that happened?
Williams: Obama’s presidency hasn’t meant very much for the black community. I haven’t seen a big change. I don’t see lower crime rates. I don’t see a greater high school graduation rate. But in general, I don’t think that there is much progress that blacks can make through the political arena.
Gillespie: Now, what do you mean by that? I think most observers, whether they are black or white or European or whatever, would say that a lot of black progress has been due to the Civil Rights Act, because of changes in de jure segregation.
Williams: If you look at our country and you ask this question—in what cities do blacks suffer from the highest victimization rates in crime, the rot in the schools, the very poor living conditions?—it is in the very cities where a black is the mayor, a black is the chief of police, a black is the superintendent of the schools. Now I am not stating a causal relationship, but I am saying that if political power meant so much, you would expect in a city like Philadelphia, where a black is the mayor, a black is superintendent of schools, a black is the chief of police, you would expect living conditions to be wonderful. But on the other hand, if you look at the other end of another group of people—let’s say Chinese and Japanese—they don’t have any political power even in the places on the West Coast where they are the most numerous. But according to statistics, Japanese or Chinese are in any measure of socioeconomic success at the very top. And if you look at the history of our country, the Irish had the greatest political power, but they are the slowest rising of any of the white ethnic groups in our country. So I think it’s false to assume that economic power depends on political power. And you can just go all around the world. My colleague Tom Sowell has done extensive work on the Armenians and the post–Ottoman empire. They didn’t have any political power, they were discriminated against, but were the highest income-earning people.
Gillespie: But if it is not political power that will help advance living standards and quality of life, it’s economic power, right?
Williams: You have to develop skills and training, and one of the reasons why people make low wages is, for the most part, they have low skills. But again, getting a hold of the political system or even eliminating every vestige of discrimination is not very important for economic advancement. If you look at the question, at one time, there were no blacks in professional basketball. Today, blacks are 80 percent of professional basketball players, 60-something percent of professional football players, and it wasn’t affirmative action, it wasn’t any court suits, it wasn’t getting rid of discrimination. What was it? It was that these guys just do a 360 slam dunk in your face and you can’t do anything about it. It’s high skills.
Gillespie: But it was an undoing of discrimination, right? When you think about football and basketball color lines, they are less celebrated than Jackie Robinson breaking into major league baseball. But there was a de facto law against letting blacks play.
Williams: Well, the best engines of it—in terms of baseball—it wasn’t any affirmative action, it wasn’t any court suits. It was the fact that there was a huge pool of high skills in what they called the Negro Leagues that just could not be ignored, and once the Dodgers cracked it, everybody else had to go along. They just could not ignore this huge pool of black talent. And it would be the same thing if this black talent were in physics, were in chemistry—you just could not ignore it.
DISCRIMINATION AND MERIT
Gillespie: What are the best ways to speed up the process by which race or ethnicity or social standing doesn’t matter in fields that should be determined by merit?
Williams: Personally, one of my strong values is freedom of association. And if you believe in freedom of association, you have to accept that people will associate in ways that you find offensive. And I believe people have the right to discriminate on any basis they want, so long as they are not using government. For example, I would disagree that a library should be able to engage in racial discrimination against me, because I am a taxpayer.
Gillespie: Not a public library, but a private library. The David Duke Memorial Library, they can keep you out.
Williams: I have no problem whatsoever. And so discrimination is actually for me, simply an act of choice, and we all discriminate. As I tell people, when I was choosing a wife to marry, I didn’t give every woman an equal opportunity. I discriminated against Japanese women, Italian women, women with criminal records, women who did not bathe regularly. The point is that people have the right, in my opinion, to associate in any way they want, but they should not get subsidized. Now there’s a whole lot of laws on the books that subsidize discrimination—for example, the minimum wage law.
Gillespie: But in the book you also talk about when you were drafted into the Army and you ended up going to Georgia for an assignment. That was the first time that you met with the de jure segregation in the deep South, and you mentioned going through frustrations where there were black-only restrooms, restaurants, etc. What is the best and most efficacious way to break down state-sponsored discrimination?
Williams: Well, you do it by law, because I think that states should not be able to engage in discrimination. And you do it by any means that is necessary to get rid of state-sponsored discrimination, including disobeying the law. The very fact that you do find state-sponsored discrimination is good evidence that maybe discrimination would not exist. That is, if you see a law on the books, well, the reason why that law is on the books is because not everyone would behave according to the specifications of the law. And so if you see a law saying blacks have to sit in the back of a trolley car, you would say, why do you need a law? If the trolley car is privately owned—and that’s what they were when the discrimination started in our country—and the streetcar companies would not discriminate against their customers, the people who wanted the discrimination needed a law.
Gillespie: So where are you in terms of the variety of the Civil Rights Acts that were passed in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s? Were those good laws?
Williams: No, I think the Civil Rights Act was a major error. That is, during the 1960s when we had the civil rights movement, I think all that we needed was a law that said that the Constitution of the United States applies to each and every citizen in our country.
Gillespie: You mention in the book, both when you were hired as an economist at Temple and at George Mason, that you sat down with the people who were hiring you and said, “If you are practicing affirmative action, I don’t want any part of this.” Were you a beneficiary of affirmative action and, if so, how did you deal with that when you found out about it and what was the effect of that on you?
Williams: Well, as I understand it, at Temple University I did not run into the problem. But at George Mason University, I think, after I had been here quite a while, the former chairman who hired me said that he got beneficial points from hiring me and Karen Vaughn, my colleague who is a woman. And later on, Karen Vaughn, who was here before I was, told me that if Bill Snavely was practicing affirmative action, he didn’t get the right kind of black.
Gillespie: Is it tiresome to talk about yourself as the libertarian black?
Williams: When I look at people, I don’t see colors. I don’t judge people by colors. I say that, well, you are a man just like I am.
Gillespie: Do colleges still practice affirmative action for racial admissions and should that stop?
Williams: I think it definitely should stop. Private universities, in my opinion, have the right to do anything they want in terms of admitting students. Public universities ought to be constrained by the law.
Gillespie: What about private schools that are so heavily subsidized either by federal research dollars, student loans—
Williams: Then they are, in fact, government schools. And if they are heavily subsidized, the first thing I would do is get rid of the subsidizing and then let them behave any way that they want to.
Gillespie: In the book, you said that people like Jackie Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain had made it safe for the NBA and major league baseball to hire incompetent blacks, such as you, so that you could now pursue a career in baseball or basketball—
Williams: What I meant by that example was this. I was telling a group of students at Temple University that I would love to teach a course in physics. I love subatomic physics, but I was saying that black people cannot afford for me to be teaching a course in physics. I was giving the example of basketball and baseball, because of the excellence of Jackie Robinson or Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell, that I can now go play basketball and I can mess up royally and there’s not a person in the audience who can say, “Those blacks can’t play basketball.” I meant that black people can afford incompetent basketball players, but they cannot afford incompetent physics teachers.
And the same thing applies to President Obama. I wrote a column saying that black people can’t afford for the first black president to be a failure. And he has every indication of being a failure, like the Carter administration.
Gillespie: I guess that the broader point is that between 1954 and now, race relations have clearly changed and most of the most odious, obvious excrescences of racism are gone. Are we past race or will we ever be past race?
Williams: We are not past it yet. Americans have come the furthest distance among any group of people in solving the problems of race in our country, but we’re not past it.
THE FUTURE OF LIBERTY
Gillespie: Let’s talk a little bit about the broad-based libertarian movement. Do you feel that you are part of a libertarian movement?
Williams: No, I don’t.
Gillespie: So, what are you then?
Williams: I am not a part of a movement. I have never been part of a movement, I just do my own thing.
Gillespie: Can we tally up a score and say are we more free, or less free, or are we moving in the right direction? Are you happy about the world that your daughter is inheriting?
Williams: No, no. I think for the first time in our history, it’s prudent for parents to tell their children to have enough gold and silver coins, enough to be able to get out of this country and move to some other country. For the first time in our history, people are considering leaving the United States or taking their wealth out of the United States, where before the United States was the bastion of liberty and low regulations and people were bringing their wealth to our country. So I think that we have to be concerned about losing our liberties.
Gillespie: What needs to happen for that to reverse? I mean, it’s one thing to say we have to reduce regulation, but what are the kind of policy steps and the kind of psychological or ideological steps that need to happen?
Williams: I don’t think anything is going to happen. I think what one has to ask is: are we so arrogant as American people to think that we are different from other people around the world? That is, how different are we from the Romans who went down the tubes, or the British, or the French, or the Spanish, or the Portuguese? These are great empires of the past, but they went down the tubes for roughly the same things that we are doing. Liberty is the rare state of affairs in mankind’s history. Arbitrary abuse and control by others is the standard, even now. All the tendencies are for us to lose, and have greater and greater amounts of our liberty usurped by government. If you press me for a trend in the opposite direction, because of the Obama administration, the Democrat control of the House and the Senate, they have become so bold in many of their actions that for the first time in my life, Americans are debating about the Constitution. We have people forming a tea party movement and all this kind of fervor that I have never heard before in my seventy-five years of life. But is that enough or is it too late? I’m not sure.