In 1981, Secretary of Health Education and Welfare Patricia Harris wrote in the Washington Post that libertarian economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell are "middle class" so they "don't know what it is to be poor."
In fact, Williams grew up in a single-parent household in a poor section of Philadelphia. He was raised by his mother, who was a high school dropout. The family spent time on welfare, and eventually moved into the Richard Allen public housing project. (Sowell, whose father died before he was born, was the son of a maid.)
Drafted into the peacetime Army, Williams eventually earned a PhD from UCLA in the late 1960s and quickly became a sought-after researcher and public intellectual. His best known book, 1982's The State Against Blacks, argues that a major cause of black unemployment is government intervention in the labor market.
Williams' contrarian views have had wide exposure through documentaries, public appearances, and for the past 30 years, a syndicated weekly column. Since 1992, Williams has also been a frequent guest host of Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Now a professor emeritus at George Mason University, Williams has taught at Temple University, California State University-Los Angeles, and other universities. (Go here for his personal web page.)
His new book, Up from the Projects: An Autobiography, is a fascinating look at his childhood, his half-century-long marriage to his recently departed wife, his unusual career path, and the genesis of his views on race, economics, and politics.
Throughout his career, Williams has used his own life to illustrate how government regulations often work to deny opportunities to poor blacks, and his memoir is no exception. For example, Williams recounts that when he was a teenager, he was fired from a great job at a hat factory when a fellow employee complained to the Department of Labor that his boss was violating child labor laws.
Reason.tv's Nick Gillespie recently sat down with Williams to talk about his life, how his experiences have informed his scholarship, his lead role in turning George Mason University into a center for libertarian scholarship, and whether the Obama presidency has improved the lives of blacks in the United States.
Williams is also an emeritus trustee of the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that produces Reason.tv.
For more on Williams' new memoir, check out Damon Root's review (http://reason.com/archives/2011/01/28...), which calls the book "a revealing and sometimes hilarious account of his rise from Philadelphia's Richard Allen housing projects, where his neighbors included a young Bill Cosby, to 'brown bag' lunches at the White House where he gave advice to President Ronald Reagan and his staff."