09 June 2011

Book Review

Up From the Projects by Walter E. Williams

Walter Williams is one of a very small number of black right-libertarian economists, and his memoirs help to explain how and why he became part of this super-minority.  As can be imagined, his life is an interesting subject, one that fails to follow a normal trajectory.  Yet, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from his life.

In the first place, Williams was quite the hell-raiser when he was younger.  He was quite intelligent, to the point where he was too intelligent for his own good.  As such, he wasted a good portion of primary education playing pranks on his classmates instead of applying himself academically.  In spite of his attempts at self-sabotage, he managed to make something of his time in school.  This was due, in part, to the rigorous academic standards to which teachers held him and his classmates.  He was expected to use proper English.  He was expected to learn math, history, and a whole host of other subjects, and no excuses were made for his failure.  As Williams himself points out, one of the reasons blacks do so poorly today is simply due to the dumbing down of education, as if lower standards will improve outcomes.

Additionally, Williams was drafted into the United States Armed Forces.  He served in a variety of functions, but was still primarily a hell-raiser.  When he was stationed in the South, he realized how truly horrible racial standards were and made a point of protesting this in a variety of ways while in the army.  Fortunately, the army played a positive role in his life in that it enabled him to develop self-discipline as well as figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

After he left the army, he moved out to southern California with his wife in order to study economics at what is now UCLA.  He attained his Bachelor’s in economics and then decided to pursue a Master’s.  He nearly flunked out of his Master’s program the first semester, but he quickly got back on track and eventually attained a Doctorate in economics.  He would then go on to teach at a large number of universities and stir up plenty of controversy, especially during the 80s.  It was during this decade that he came into fame, due primarily to his then wildly unconventional views on race and public policy.

This book is not a conventional autobiography, in the sense that it does not provide a comprehensive view of Williams’ life.  Instead, Williams’ intended the book to serve as a brief glimpse of a black boy growing up in the Philadelphia projects in the 40s and 50s.  The point of this exercise, then, is to provide readers with a study in contrasts, from which they can derive their own conclusions.

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