The death last week, at 84, of Walter Williams leaves the black conservative movement without one of its prominent voices. Williams was an economics professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, an author, and a commentator. He wasn’t just an intellectual, he was an active participant in public discourse.
With his passing, there’s a greater gap in the debate between equal opportunity versus equal outcomes as the pathway to black prosperity.
During the Great Recession, as a black millennial and college student, I was captivated by Williams, who argued in “The State Against Blacks” that black people had much to contribute to economic life, yet the government suppressed this potential when attempting to create equal outcomes. His book illustrated in detail the harmful impact on “outsiders, latecomers, and [the] resourceless” when access to opportunity and markets was limited through measures like overregulation and occupational licensing. This message resonated deeply with me as I prepared to graduate college in the midst of an economic recession and take on greater responsibility in making my own decisions and pursuing my own dreams.
The more I studied Williams’ writings, the more I came to see a man who was willing to challenge conventional wisdom — not with over-the-top rhetoric, but with evidence, research, and insight. Years later, as I began a career in Republican politics, it was unsurprising to me that Williams’ rhetorical style, coupled with the weight of his work as an economist, would earn him a near-celebrity status within conservative and libertarian circles. Though there are several prominent black conservative voices, few outlined so clearly the link between government intervention and black participation in the economic life of the nation.
Williams’ work was inspirational to me, and I was later fortunate enough to learn from him directly. When I reached out for advice, he made time to speak with me. I’ll always remember him listening patiently, inquiring deeply, and challenging me gracefully. He encouraged me to continue my formal and informal education and engage with differing ideas about the government’s role in society.
The conversation that Williams started and pursued his entire life remains unfinished: How might our government first “do no harm” in its response to the needs and aspirations of Black America? It’s as important now as it ever was, with the country in an economic and health crisis.
Coming together to answer this open question is the challenge before us. With Williams’ departure, we’ll need to hang onto the lesson he tried to teach about the harms of privileging outcomes over opportunity and build on his ideas to reflect contemporary conditions. It’s the best way to honor the legacy of a black intellectual whose voice is no longer with us.