Walter E. Williams on Race in America: A Tribute by His Former Student

Walter E. Williams, outspoken Black libertarian economist, professor of economics at George Mason University (GMU) for 40 years, syndicated newspaper columnist, author of 13 books, and occasional guest host on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, died December 2, 2020, after teaching a class at GMU. He was 84. The world will be less informed and less entertained because of Walter’s passing, but his insights on economics, race, and liberty will live on, and are more relevant today than ever before.

I had the privilege of first meeting Walter when I was a 23-year-old graduate student in economics at GMU. I was his research assistant for one academic year, then a student in his graduate-level courses in labor economics. Later, Walter was a faculty member on my Ph.D. dissertation committee, and after graduate school, he was a reference for jobs. Walter was generous with his time—I spent many hours with him discussing my dissertation, economics, and life.

Anyone who heard Walter speak knows that he was quick with a joke and could communicate important economic concepts to his students and to the public using simple, often humorous, examples, while never losing sight of the key role of individual rights in a free society. He inspired me and many others. A reoccurring subject throughout his career, which spanned a half-century, was race in America. Since it is particularly relevant to current discourse, I want to summarize Walter’s work in this area using his words whenever possible.

On Racism

Walter did not deny that some people are racist or that people discriminate based on race, but his central argument was that racial discrimination was not the primary determinant of problems confronting many Black people today:

There is discrimination of all sorts, and that includes racial discrimination. Thus, it’s somewhat foolhardy to debate the existence of racial discrimination yesteryear or today. From a policy point of view, a far more useful question to ask is: How much of the plight of many blacks can be explained by current racial discrimination?

According to Walter, the answer is very little: “At the root of most of the problems black people face is the breakdown of the family structure” and the “rotten public schools” that issue “fraudulent diplomas” across America:

Let’s look at whether black fatherless homes are a result of a “legacy of slavery” and racial discrimination. In the late 1800s, depending on the city, 70 percent to 80 percent of black households were two-parent.

As late as 1950, only 18 percent of black households were single parent [today it is more than 70 percent]. From 1890 to 1940, a slightly higher percentage of black adults had married than white adults. In 1938, black illegitimacy was about 11 percent instead of today’s 75 percent. In 1925, 85 percent of black households in New York City were two-parent. [A study of family structure in 1880 Philadelphia found that 75 percent of black families were two-parent, with only small differences between racial groups.] Today, the black family is a mere shadow of its past. . . .

At many predominantly black schools, chaos is the order of the day. There is a high rate of assaults on students and teachers. Youngsters who are hostile to the educational process are permitted to make education impossible for those who are prepared to learn. As a result, overall black educational achievement is a disaster.

“During slavery and as late as 1920,” Walter noted, “a black teenage girl raising a child without a man present was a rarity. . . . The absence of a father in the home predisposes children, especially boys, to academic failure, criminal behavior, and economic hardship, not to mention an intergenerational repeating of handicaps.”

In a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Walter said, “Today I doubt you could find any significant problem that blacks face that is caused by racial discrimination. The 70 percent illegitimacy rate is a devastating problem, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with racism. The fact that in some areas black people are huddled in their homes at night, sometimes serving meals on the floor so they don’t get hit by a stray bullet—that’s not because the Klan is riding through the neighborhood.”

Elsewhere, Walter wrote, “Political hustlers like to blame poverty and racism while ignoring the fact that poverty and racism were much greater yesteryear but there was not nearly the same amount of chaos.” And in a separate piece he said, “If today’s weak family structure is a legacy of slavery, then the people who make such a claim must tell us how it . . . managed to skip nearly five generations to have an effect.”

It is not the legacy of slavery, racial discrimination, or poverty that account for the disintegration of Black families and rotten schools, Walter maintained. Rather, it is government programs, pushed by liberal elites, that devastate Black communities, subsidize irresponsible behavior, and block community efforts to fix problems without waiting for government.

Regarding policing, a topic of much debate today, Walter said that people should not “excuse bad behavior by some police officers.” But based on statistics, people concerned about Black deaths should focus more on Black-on-Black violence and other criminal behavior in troubled cities than on shootings by police. Walter did note, however, the low homicide clearance rate by the Chicago Police Department (less than 15 percent) and by police departments in other major cities. (For more on policing reform, see my commentary “What the George Floyd Protesters Should Demand: Five Top Reforms.”)

On Race Hustlers, Poverty Pimps, and the Victimization Lobby

Walter reserved some of his harshest criticism for Black and white elites who push for government programs in the name of rescuing Black people from their plight:

Intellectuals and political hustlers who blame the plight of so many blacks on poverty, racial discrimination, and the “legacy of slavery” are complicit in the socioeconomic and moral decay. Black people must ignore the liberal agenda that suggests that we must await government money before measures can be taken to improve the tragic living conditions in so many of our urban communities. Black and white intellectuals and politicians suggesting that black people await government solutions wouldn’t begin to live in the same high-crime, dangerous communities and send their children to the dangerous schools that so many black children attend.

As a young man, Walter read the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other Black civil rights leaders of the time, but Malcolm gained his favor: “I was more sympathetic to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King because Malcolm X was more of a radical who was willing to confront discrimination in ways that I thought it should be confronted, including perhaps the use of violence,” Walter told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

One passage by Malcolm X, in particular, resonated with Walter as “an important lesson,” so he quoted it at length in a 2019 commentary titled “The Worst Enemy of Black People.” Malcolm said,

The worst enemy that the Negro have is this white man that runs around here drooling at the mouth professing to love Negros and calling himself a liberal, and it is following these white liberals that has perpetuated problems that Negros have. If the Negro wasn’t taken, tricked, or deceived by the white liberal, then Negros would get together and solve our own problems. I only cite these things to show you that in America, the history of the white liberal has been nothing but a series of trickery designed to make Negros think that the white liberal was going to solve our problems. Our problems will never be solved by the white man.

Walter maintained throughout his career, as he did here in a 2019 commentary, that,

Black people could benefit from an honest examination of the bill of goods they’ve been sold. Such an examination would not come from black politicians, civil rights leaders, or the black and white liberal elite. Those people have benefited politically and financially from keeping black Americans in a constant state of grievance based on alleged racial discrimination. The long-term solution for the problems that many black Americans face begins with an absolute rejection of the self-serving agenda of [race] hustlers and poverty pimps.

Walter singled out Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Benjamin Hooks, and others in the civil rights movement as race hustlers who make a living on the grievances of Black Americans and who advocate for government programs that make problems worse and make upward mobility less likely.

Discussing Intellectuals and Race, a 2013 book by Thomas Sowell, the noted economist and historian based at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Walter wrote, “black people waged a successful civil rights struggle against gross discrimination. It’s white and black liberals, intellectuals, academics, and race hustlers who have created our greatest hurdle [today].” “Politics and white liberals will not solve these and other problems,” Walter concluded.

Politics Is Not the Solution to Problems Facing Many Blacks

A consistent theme in Walter’s writings is that political power is not the solution for the problems facing many Black people:

My argument has always been that the political arena is largely irrelevant to the interests of ordinary black people. . . . Much of the 1960s and ’70s civil rights rhetoric was that black political power was necessary for economic power. But the nation’s most troublesome and dangerous cities, which are also cities with low-performing and unsafe schools and poor-quality city services, have been run by Democrats for nearly a half-century—with blacks having significant political power, having been mayors, city councilors, and other top officials, such as superintendents of schools and chiefs of police. . . .

Whoever is the president has little or no impact on the living conditions of ordinary black people, even when that president is a black person, as the Obama presidency has demonstrated. The overall welfare of black people requires attention to devastating problems that can be solved only at the family and community levels.

Mountains of evidence demonstrates that outcomes are not favorable for children raised in female-headed households. Criminal behavior is greater, and academic achievement is much less for such children. This is a devastating problem, but it is beyond the reach of a president or any other politician to solve. If there is a solution, it will come from churches and local community organizations.

In a 2018 commentary titled “Enough’s Enough: Blacks Must Seize Control of Own Lives,” Walter wrote,

More money from taxpayers could not fix the problems of these communities [communities with high crime rates and failing schools]. Over the past 50 years, more than $16 trillion has been spent on poverty programs. The majority of those programs have simply made poverty more comfortable by giving poor people more food, health care, housing, etc. What’s needed most is to get poor people to change their behavior.

Less than a month before he died, Walter emphasized that “the solution to most of the major problems that confront black people will not be found in the political arena or by electing more blacks to high office.” Instead, the solutions are to be found in free-market capitalism, civil society institutions, and the transformation of black subculture. Government programs that are intended to help solve problems confronting many Black people have instead made problems worse: “If we wait for Washington to solve our problems,” Walter said, “we’ll be waiting for a long time.”

“Intentions Are Irrelevant”: The Effect of Government Programs on Blacks

When Walter entered graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the mid-1960s, UCLA had one of the top economics programs in the world. At the time, Walter’s political philosophy was “progressive.” For example, he believed that legally mandated higher minimum wages unquestionably helped poor people. He recounted in 2011 that he “probably became a libertarian through exposure to tough-minded professors”—Armen Alchian, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, among others—“who encouraged me to think with my brain instead of my heart. I learned that you have to evaluate the effects of public policy as opposed to intentions. . . . Sometimes I sarcastically, perhaps cynically, say that I’m glad that I received virtually all of my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people. By that I mean that I encountered back then a more honest assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. Professors didn’t hesitate to criticize me—sometimes to the point of saying, ‘That’s nonsense.’” (Discover here on EconTalk how Seagram’s Gin was responsible for Walter attending UCLA.)

After earning his PhD in 1972, Walter applied “UCLA price-theory” analysis to government programs that were enacted to purportedly counter racism and improve the well-being of Black people. Walter concluded that these programs, although intended to help, have the effect of making a large segment of the Black population worse off. In his classic 1982 book The State Against Blacks, Walter argued that laws regulating economic activity among consenting adults, especially labor laws, are much larger impediments to upward mobility among Black Americans than is racial discrimination. His favorite targets for condemnation were public schools, the minimum wage, welfare, rent controls, and affirmative action.

On government schools Walter said, “The Ku Klux Klan couldn’t sabotage chances for black academic excellence more effectively than the public school system in most cities.”

On the minimum wage, Walter argued, consistent with economic theory and overwhelming empirical evidence, that increasing the legally mandated minimum wage causes unemployment among the least-skilled workers, who are often Black adults and Black teenagers because of the poor quality of public schools. “The unemployment effects of the minimum-wage law are felt disproportionately by nonwhites,” Walter wrote in an article titled “Minimum Wage, Maximum Folly.” High rates of unemployment in legal markets also push many blacks into illegal underground markets.

In addition to discrimination against the employment of low-skilled workers, many of whom are Blacks, the minimum wage, Walter noted, “denies them the chance of sharpening their skills and ultimately earning higher wages. The most effective form of training for most of us is on-the-job training.” Mandated minimum wages eliminate the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, depriving the least advantaged in society from the pursuit of happiness.

Walter also emphasized that racists around the world have used minimum wage laws to harm blacks, for example: “Why would South Africa’s racist unions support minimum wages for blacks? The answer is easy. Mandated wages are one of the most effective means of pricing one’s competition out of the market, and historically, mandated wages have been one of the most effective tools in the arsenal of racists everywhere.” The stated intent of minimum wage laws in the United States is not overt racism, of course, but the effect of the laws in the United States is the same—higher Black unemployment.

Regarding welfare, Walter said, “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do. And that is to destroy the black family.” Subsidizing unwed pregnancy and other irresponsible behavior through various government assistance programs has destroyed the human spirit, crushed the work ethic, and disintegrated black families over many generations. (Walter called this “spiritual poverty.”) The government has become the father in Black families, making Black males dispensable. As noted by Thomas Sowell, welfare has gone from an “emergency rescue to a way of life.” (In a remembrance article, Sowell described Walter as “my best friend for half a century. There was no one I trusted more or whose integrity I respected more.”)

Regarding rent controls, Walter criticized it in memorable fashion: “[S]hort of aerial saturation bombing, rent control might be one of the most effective means of destroying a city.” Rent controls that keep rents below market rates create an excess demand for rental units, also called a shortage. The shortage becomes worse over time as demand for rental units increases. Initially, in response to binding rent controls, landlords reduce maintenance of their buildings to reduce their costs, causing a prolonged deterioration of the housing stock. Long term, landlords convert apartments to condos to escape the rent controls or abandon the buildings altogether, further shrinking the stock of rentals. In many American urban areas, some predominately Black, it is common to see block after block of abandoned, boarded up buildings, victims of rent control and magnets for crime and fires.

Walter also opposed government affirmative action programs [government-mandated racial preferences and quotas for hiring and/or admissions], writing in 1989 that “official policy calling for unequal treatment by race is morally offensive whether it is applied to favor blacks or applied to favor whites.” In other words, an historical inequity is not remedied by repeating that inequity. Racial preferences by governments are always immoral regardless of the intent or the beneficiary.

Rather than create more government programs with ever-expanding budgets that produce counterproductive results, a better approach relies on free-market capitalism, civil society institutions, and the transformation of black subculture.

The Path to Sustained Upward Mobility for Black Americans

Poverty has been the normal state of affairs for people during most of man’s time on earth. Only with the emergence of capitalism has ordinary people achieved high standards of living that was once attained only by kings and dictators through the plunder of wealth. Therefore, free-market capitalism rooted in constitutionally limited government and individual rights, and the civil society institutions that reinforce it, are key to sustained upward mobility for Black Americans, and for people of every race. Walter also advocated for cultural transformation.

Free markets, among other things:

  • Allow individuals to pursue their dreams unencumbered by burdensome government restrictions such as occupational licenses, minimum wages, and confiscatory taxation;
  • Allow all people to compete at whatever wage they can command in the market through voluntary negotiation;
  • Allow individuals to acquire the on-the-job training and life skills essential for upward mobility; first as a teenager and later as an adult moving up the economic ladder;
  • Encourage people to be alert to entrepreneurial opportunities, perhaps even to start a business themselves, and encourage people to invest in themselves through quality education;
  • Allow rivalrous competition between education entrepreneurs to transform dangerous, rotten schools into low-cost, high-quality learning environments;
  • Encourage individual responsibility and individual accountability by ending government programs that subsidize destructive, irresponsible behavior through welfare and other programs that erode civil society institutions;
  • Allow families, community organizations, churches, and other groups in civil society to flourish, providing targeted assistance to people, which is customized to individual needs and voluntarily funded, to help them get back on their feet.

Free-market capitalism has the added benefit of imposing financial penalties on people who discriminate against Blacks, or any race, based on skin color rather than productivity or the ability to perform the job. Consider one of Walter’s favorite classroom thought experiments: Imagine if former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a white racist, owned an NBA basketball team and refused to hire any Black basketball players. Not only would he win few games, but as a result, ticket sales would plummet, and television revenues would tumble. The value of the team would not be maximized, making it an attractive takeover target.

Competitive markets impose costs on people who exercise their discriminatory racial preferences that are unrelated to productivity. The cost is higher in more competitive markets and lower in less competitive markets, for example, heavily regulated or taxed markets. Competitive markets, in other words, are allies of black people.

Finally, Walter sought a transformation of Black subculture such that both Blacks and whites condemn dangerous, antisocial behavior:

The fact that black parents, teachers, and civil rights organizations tolerate and make excuses for the despicable and destructive behavior of so many young blacks is a gross betrayal of the memory, struggle, sacrifice, sweat, tears, and blood of our ancestors.

The sorry and tragic state of black education is not going to be turned around until there’s a change in what’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior by young people. That change could come only from within the black community.

In one of his final columns, Walter scolded whites and Blacks:

Many black problems are exacerbated by guilt-ridden white people. Often, they accept behavior and standards from black people that they would not begin to accept from white people. In that sense, white liberal guilt is a form of disrespect in their relationships with black Americans. By the same token, black people should stop exploiting the guilt of whites.

Walter favored “shaming self-destructive behavior” and encouraging “constructive behavior,” which he role modeled throughout his life.

A Final Remembrance

The morning that James M. Buchanan, professor of economics at GMU, was notified that he had won the 1986 Nobel Prize in economics I was in Buchanan’s office when Walter came in with an expensive bottle of champagne. In classic Walter Williams style he said, “Congratulations, Jim. I always knew you’d make something out of yourself.” They laughed, talked for a while, and then Walter left to teach a class on microeconomics to undergraduate students.

Walter loved to teach, and he especially loved to teach economic principles in auditorium-size classrooms filled with a 100 or more students. He was a great communicator, debunking myths, challenging orthodoxies, and applying price theory to every issue imaginable while demonstrating the moral superiority of individual rights, free markets, and constitutionally limited government.

I am reminded of the quote attributed to Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.” That was Walter’s life.

Selected Books on Race and Economics by Walter E. Williams

The State Against Blacks (New Press, 1982); Walter’s first book

South Africa’s War Against Capitalism (Praeger, 1989)

Race & Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? (Hoover Institution Press, 2011)

And a book review written by Walter E. Williams of The Origins and Demise of South African Apartheid: A Public Choice Analysis (The Independent Review, Summer 1999). Walter was a member of the Board of Advisors of the Independent Institute.

Walter E. Williams’s Autobiography

Up From the Projects (2010)

PBS documentary on the life and career of Walter E. Williams

Walter Williams: Suffer No Fools (2014)

Obituaries of Walter E. Williams

New York Times

Washington Post

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book California Dreaming.
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