Remember Walter Williams – a crusader for a color blind society
Walter Williams, who spent his life as a crusader for individual freedom and for a color-blind American society died on Dec. 2 after teaching his final class at George Mason University. He was 84.
I knew Walter Williams for nearly 50 years. He was a frequent contributor to The Lincoln Review, of which I was an editor, and was actively involved with the Lincoln Institute, headed by one of America’s original black conservatives, my good friend J.A. Parker. It was his belief that genuine free enterprise represented the best path for Americans of all races to advance.
Walter Williams, Philadelphia
Walter Williams grew up in the black neighborhoods of inner-city Philadelphia, living in the Richard Allen housing project with a single mother. At one point, he drove a cab for the Yellow Cab Company. In 1959, he was drafted into the military and served as a Private in the U.S. Army. While stationed in the South he engaged in a one-man battle against segregation. He was eventually court-martialed and argued his own case being found not guilty. He was then transferred to Korea where he marked “Caucasian” as his race on his personnel form.
When he was challenged on this, because he was clearly not white, he responded, “If I marked ‘Negro’ I would end up with the worst jobs.”
When he returned from Korea he resumed his education and received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics from UCLA. In college, he recalled,
“I was, more than anything a radical. I was more sympathetic to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King…But I really just wanted to be left alone.”
While Williams was at UCLA, the free market black economist Thomas Sowell arrived on campus as a visiting professor. They began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
Williams’ pioneering 1992 book, “The State Against Blacks” argues against such government intervention in the economy as occupational licensing, taxicab regulations, labor Union privileges, and other measures that inflict disproportionate harm on blacks by restricting their employment options and driving up the costs of goods and services.
At his death, Williams was the John M. Olin distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University.
From 1995-2001 he chaired the Economics Department. He was the author of over 150 publications in scholarly journals and was the author of 10 books. One of them, “The State Against Blacks,” was made into the PBS documentary, “Good Intentions.”
In his book “All It Takes Are Guts” (1988), Williams responds to those who charge America is a “racist” society: “the fact of race and sex discrimination in the United States does not make us unique. There is no other place on the globe free of race and sex discrimination in one form or another. The truly unique feature of the United States is our effort to eliminate discrimination. Our greatest achievement is that the typical American of today finds race and sex discrimination repulsive.”
Addressing apartheid in South Africa in the book “South Africa’s War Against Capitalism,” Williams, who traveled to South Africa a number of times during the years of apartheid and lectured to students of all races, argued that apartheid is simply another form of government regulation. It is, he noted, the antithesis of the free market and was designed specifically to protect some people. White workers in particular from the competitive rigors of capitalism while denying others, non-whites, the chance to compete and earn capitalism’s rewards.
Indeed, it is the free play of market forces, with no intervention by political forces, that has always been seen as the enemy of white privilege and that apartheid ideology has always sought its defeat.
The Mines and Work Act of 1911
The Mines and Work Act of 1911, Williams points out, “can aptly be called the first in a series of laws known as ‘the color bar.’ Militant white labor unions opposed the use of black workers who, like the Chinese, would work in mines at lower wages than the whites.
The government, under pressure from the White labor unions, adopted legislation which gave the right to issue ‘certificates of competency’ for such employment. By law, the certificates could not be issued to non-Europeans.”
Historically, organized labor has played a similar role in the U.S. Writing in The Lincoln Review (Spring 1979), Williams writes:
“Organized labor , with but few exceptions, has sought to exclude Negroes and other minorities from many job markets. Exclusionary devices have ranged from Union charter provisions that restrict membership to ‘whites only’ to outright violence…It would be unfair and incorrect to attribute all black labor market problems to labor unions per se. In a democratic society people should have the right to form groups to pursue what they perceive to be in their best economic interests. The basic issue involved is whether we should have a political system where such a group can, through Congress, get laws written which advance their own narrow interests at the expense of other Americans…Black people …do not need federal handouts and gifts. Black people need a chance to compete.”
In the area of education, Williams argues that the monopoly position of the public schools is particularly harmful to minorities. Black students, he writes,
“…have been receiving what amounts to a fraudulent education, the fraud being that the education establishment warrants, by issuing a diploma, that black high school students can read, write, and compute at a twelfth-grade level; the fact of the matter is that the greater percentage cannot even perform at the eighth-grade level. This is nothing less than a cruel lie and an unconscionable fraud. In the government schools, teachers get paid whether or not students can read or write.”
To improve black education and the education of all children, Williams calls for an educational voucher system, designed along the lines of G.I. Bill. Such a system would give the poor and minority parents the freedom of choice to select the best possible school for their children, the kind of freedom that only the most affluent have today.
Williams laments that, “If the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to deny blacks upward mobility, reinforce racial stereotypes of black mental incompetence, and foster racial conflict, he couldn’t find a better tool than our public education system.”
It is Williams’ view that with an end to segregation and with laws against discrimination, the major civil rights battles have been won and that what black Americans need most at the present time is a willingness to walk through the doors which have been opened.
This, he points out, requires hard work, discipline, respect for education, and commitment to family. He understood, of course, that problems still remain, such as those manifested by the police killing of George Floyd.
Walter Williams believed that limited government and a genuinely free enterprise system was most consistent with other freedoms, such as free speech and freedom of religion.
He opposed the “crony capitalism,” embraced more and more by both Republicans and Democrats, in which government interferes in the economy, picking winners and losers. Bailing out businesses and industries which have failed in the marketplace. He believed in a genuinely color-blind society, in which men and women would be judged on their individual merits, not the color of their skin.
He opposed political correctness and identity politics and how they were infringing upon free speech and the integrity of the university.
Walter Williams made a major contribution to making America a better society. It was my pleasure to have reviewed many of his books and to have published many of his articles. We did not always agree, but I knew his opinions were carefully considered and thought out, and his only objective was to improve our country. His body of work will long be studied by those concerned with making sure our society remains free.
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