Medical Tuesday Blog
Walter E. Williams an economist and newspaper columnist
Rejected Conventional Cures for Poverty
Black economist, who died Dec. 1, saw affirmative action and minimum wages as counterproductive
Walter E. Williams, an economist and newspaper columnist who died Dec. 1 at the age of 84, delighted in confounding expectations.
He did so merely by being himself—a Black economist with libertarian views and a disdain for conventional thinking about how to raise living standards among Black Americans. Affirmative action, he argued, demeaned its intended beneficiaries, while minimum wages prevented Black teenagers from getting jobs and work experience.
He attributed support for such programs to guilt among white people over slavery and other abuses. On his website, he included what he called his “general amnesty and pardon” to people of European descent for their ancestors’ misbehavior. The pardon, he wrote, should free them from acting like “damn fools in their relationships with Americans of African ancestry.”
Dr. Williams, who earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been a professor at George Mason University since 1980. He wrote a syndicated column that appeared in more than 140 newspapers. His books included “The State Against Blacks” and “American Contempt for Liberty.” He was an occasional guest host on the Rush Limbaugh radio program.
A native of Philadelphia who lived in public housing as a teenager, he credited his success to having a demanding mother and teachers who “didn’t give a damn about my self-esteem.”
Dr. Williams was found dead in his car in Arlington, Va., hours after teaching an economics class at George Mason. Devon Williams, his daughter, said her father had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension.
“I’ve always given little thought to the possibility of offending critics and contravening political correctness,” Dr. Williams wrote in his 2010 memoir, “Up From the Projects.” In one of his last columns, he argued that prejudice could be justified in some cases. If someone flees immediately upon seeing a tiger, he wrote, “there’s no way one can say unambiguously whether the person likes or dislikes tigers.”
Walter Edward Williams was born March 31, 1936, in Philadelphia. His mother supported him and a younger sister by working part time as a domestic servant after his father abandoned the family, he wrote in his memoir. The family also relied at times on welfare.
His mother steered her two children to public libraries and museums. She arranged for them to attend a nearly all-white elementary school where she thought they would get a better education. When she learned Walter had been chosen to appear in a minstrel play, she forbade it. “Instead, she declared, they could put burnt cork on the face of one of the white children,” he wrote.
His early jobs included shining shoes, washing dishes at a Horn & Hardart automat and making deliveries for a milliner called U-Needa Hat. While sweeping floors at a stockbrokerage, he bought a few shares in Pepsi-Cola Co. and began taking an interest in financial news.
At school, he paid for his own lunches. Once, after squandering all of his earnings, he asked his mother for a loan to cover two school lunches. She declined, and he went hungry. He was angry at the time but later saw that it taught him the value of saving.
After high school, he worked for more than a year at a textile wholesaler before his father, by then based in Los Angeles, invited him to live at his home there. He attended Los Angeles City College and thought about becoming a lawyer, but then returned to Philadelphia and drove a taxi while taking night classes at Temple University.
Drafted into the Army in 1959, he was stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia. He bristled at being given menial jobs but managed to win the job of head clerk of his battalion after displaying his typing and spelling skills. He led a band of Black soldiers who showed up at a dance designated for whites at the post’s service club. The event was canceled; he was reprimanded.
Faced with a transfer to South Korea, he rushed home to Philadelphia and married his girlfriend, Conchetta “Connie” Taylor, whom he later praised for having a civilizing influence on him.
From Korea, he wrote letters to newspapers and politicians about racial bias in the Army. He later recalled telling an Army chaplain “that since blacks didn’t enjoy the same liberties at home that whites enjoyed, I didn’t think we ought to be on the front lines, risking our lives.” The chaplain recited the proverb about catching more flies with honey than vinegar. “I remember thinking to myself, What an Uncle Tom!” Dr. Williams wrote later. “Thinking back, I realize that I was wrong.”
In 1962, he enrolled at what became California State University, Los Angeles. He continued writing letters about racial injustice, including one to President John F. Kennedy asking: “Should Negroes be relieved of their service obligation or continue defending and dying for empty promises of freedom and equality?”
After reading “Black Reconstruction in America” by W.E.B. Du Bois, he switched his major to economics from sociology. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965, and a professor encouraged him to go to graduate school at UCLA, where he sometimes wore a beret and a tiger’s tooth necklace.
In 1968, he flunked a theoretical exam at UCLA. A professor told him his exam paper was among the worst but that he believed Mr. Williams could do better. He buckled down and passed the exam the next semester. Flunking the exam the first time “convinced me that UCLA professors didn’t care anything about my race; they’d flunk me just as they’d flunk anyone else who didn’t make the grade,” he wrote later. He appreciated it.
Armed with his doctorate, he discovered a love for teaching and was a professor at Temple before moving to George Mason. “One of the most significant benefits of teaching is that it forces you to learn your subject,” he wrote.
Dr. Williams, who stood nearly 6-feet-6, often played pickup basketball games into his 70s. He is survived by his daughter, a high school history teacher, and a grandson. His wife, Connie, died in 2007. He credited her with teaching him that, in social situations, he didn’t need to prove he was smarter than other people.
December 11, 2020
Whom Should We Remember?
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