Religion & Liberty Online

Walter Williams’ Legacy

On Sunday, December 25, 2011, at 10:55 a.m., I received an email from Walter Williams. I couldn’t believe it. The email simply read, “Does this work for you? Good luck.” It was an endorsement of my book on Thomas Sowell. It was one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received. I was deeply honored to receive an endorsement from “the” Walter Williams, and to be exchanging emails with one of my intellectual heroes was the icing on the cake. When I learned that Dr. Williams passed away on December 1, 2020, my heart sank.

Walter Williams authored more than 10 books and dozens of scholarly and popular articles. He was well known for rejecting progressive and communitarian public policy prescriptions for the black community. Williams railed against paternalistic policies that tend to infantilize low-income blacks as perpetual victims lacking agency to move beyond their circumstances without the near-permanent role of the social assistance state. Williams, as a classical liberal, believed government programs to be limiting rather than liberating. He knew that welfare programs tend to keep people comfortably poor and often trap families in cycles of dependency for generations. He spent his academic and public intellectual career fighting for black freedom from government coercion, especially for the truly disadvantaged.

Dr. Williams rejected the environmental causal narratives that deprive black men and women of the agency to take advantage of the opportunities this country offers, and he warned against black agency being undermined by well-meaning programs that were hurting the very people they were intended to help. For Williams, this was not merely an argument about principles. Born in 1936, Williams knew exactly what it was like to experience the structural racism of the Jim Crow era and the struggles of being raised by a single mother after his father abandoned the family when Williams was around the age of two or three years old. The one thing progressives would fail at is convincing a man like Walter Williams that poverty causes crime, that being raised by a single-mother was a determining factor, and the greatest barrier to black thriving was racial discrimination. Williams knew that life is too complex to reduce all disparities between whites and blacks to America’s history of racism.

Using economics to interrogate race in America may be Williams’ greatest gift. It challenges the prevailing vision of black victims in need of surrogate decision-makers to control their lives. Economists understand that correlation does not mean causation and that there are always additional variables beyond race that better explain the racial disparities we see in American life. For example, in his book Race and Economics, Williams challenges the assumption that the mortgage industry is racist against blacks. Williams notes that the disparity between white and black home loan denials – 17% and 38%, respectively – is more likely attributed to the fact that blacks have worse credit than whites. In one Federal Reserve study, 47% of blacks had bad credit compared to 27% of whites. Moreover, another study cited in the book highlights the fact that “minority-owned banks reject black applicants at double the rate of their white-owned counterparts.” When other races are included in the mortgage loan data, we find that whites are denied significantly more loans when compared to Asian Americans. There is more to disparity than race.

It is this multivariate economic analysis that made Williams such a keen analyst of the black experience. When multiple variables are included, the complexities of human decision-making and the limitations of human knowledge dismantle tacit assumptions about black thriving in areas like income inequality, entrepreneurship, affirmative action, the effects of the minimum wage, and so on. Walter Williams taught me to look at the data – lots of data. Then, look at even more data. He showed me not to settle for the rhetorical, univariate cause of racial discrimination as a comprehensive, explanatory variable of black life in America.

The multivariate, data-driven analysis helps us arrive at different conclusions and points to different prescriptions for social change. Williams was keen on the idea that the best chance for black social and economic mobility was more political and economic liberty, not less – more liberty, less government. He argued this point directly in his book More Liberty Means Less Government. Williams believed that if government policymakers would get out of the way of black progress, and if markets replaced socially planned economics, the persistent lagging of the black underclass could be a thing of the past.

Perhaps his success and popularity was also a liability. Did we rely too much on Walter Williams? Williams represents the beginning of the end of an era. Thomas Sowell is 90 years old. Glenn Loury is in his early seventies. Where is the next generation of black classical liberal and conservative economists, who use data to challenge prevailing narratives while arguing for greater political and economic liberty? I cannot think of any, and that’s a shame. We need black classical liberal economists, even if some will disagree with their analyses and conclusions. It is the classical liberal economic form of viewpoint diversity that Williams brought to the table that may be slouching towards silence – and this, in my view, is why he will be so greatly missed.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.