A 1972 Memory of Walter Williams

Who are those guys?

In December 1972, I was in southern Ontario for Christmas after a fairly successful first quarter in the Ph.D. program at UCLA. I had Christmas with my friend and fellow Canadian UCLAer, Harry Watson, at his mom’s (“mum’s” to Canadians) place in Brantford.

We knew that the 1972 American Economic Association meetings were being held in Toronto just after Christmas. (Economists of all ideological stripes seem to adhere to the stereotype that we’re cheap. Hotel prices are generally low between Christmas and the first few days of the new year.) So Harry and I went into Toronto to hang out, pay the student rate, and see what those meetings were like.

We ran into Clay La Force, the chairman of UCLA’s econ department, in a hotel lobby and he invited us up to the UCLA suite. We took him up on it. We were sitting on a couch with our backs to the front door of the suite, talking to someone across a coffee table. I don’t remember who.

After a few minutes we heard a conversation between two people who had entered. It was very animated. They were talking about various colleges having made a pitch to hire them. One college had made it clear that he and his colleagues didn’t like the views of one of the guys but they did like his skin color. The other told a similar story. Then the first one told another similar story about a different college. As it ramped up, the laughter among the two got louder and louder. Who are those guys, I wondered. So I turned slightly and as unobtrusively as I could to see who was talking and saw two tall handsome black guys. We knew the more handsome of the two although we hadn’t spoken to him during our first quarter at UCLA: Professor Thomas Sowell. We didn’t know the other one and asked someone, who told us it was a recent UCLA Ph.D. named Walter Williams.

What I remember is their delight in telling the stories about racist white department chairs making clear that they wanted to hire on the basis of race, not ability. It was such a fun conversation to eavesdrop on. They were talking as if there was no one else around and I wanted to keep it that way–so did Harry–so we just sat there with our backs to them listening in.