A noted economist fires back.
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Not as far as the press was concerned.
Opinions that I had been expressing for more than a decade were now suddenly depicted as opportunistic statements echoing the Reagan Administration in order to get me a job in Washington. On January 31, 1981, the Pittsburgh Courier said: “Like flies chasing a garbage truck, opportunists of all stripes (and colors) are scrambling to align themselves with the new Reagan administration.” Among these were “Thomas Sowell of the notorious Hoover Institution.” Columnist Carl Rowan likewise said, “Sowell parrots the Reaganites,” and included me among the “supplicants” for Administration largesse. None of those who wrote this way ever found it necessary to show where I had ever gotten a dime from the Reagan Administration.
The most they could come up with was my unpaid position as a member of a committee that met occasionally, had no powers, and could only offer outside advice to the Administration. Even this position I gave up after one meeting, when it became clear that the combination of jet lag and long meetings created medical problems for me.
But some newspapers would not give up the idea that I was part of the Reagan Administration, even after it was public knowledge that I was not. The Baton Rouge Community Leader called me “the most prominent Black policy maker,” even though I never made a policy in my life. Lee Daniels in the New York Times called me “the Administration’s favored black spokesman,” even though I had never spoken a word for the Administration, had gone for months without saying anything publicly on any subject, and had turned down innumerable requests for interviews. How one can be a spokesman without speaking remains a mystery.
In a similar vein, a book reviewer in the New York Times called my Ethnic America a book “to be feared — as a signpost pointing to the probable future direction of the present national administration regarding minorities.” Not a single policy is recommended in Ethnic America, which is a history book. It was begun in 1978 and completed before the 1980 elections, which is to say, before there was a Reagan Administration. Even now, I have no hard information that anybody in the Administration has ever read it.
The really ugly insinuations concern money. A writer in the Sacramento Observer depicted an article of mine as showing a “soul sold for a little money.” What money was of course never specified. Money also figured prominently in the Washington Post story about my nonexistent organization — $100,000 which unnamed corporations and foundations had “promised” to contribute. I wish I knew who made those promises, because I have not seen a penny materialize.
There is an irony for me in the constant emphasis on money. As one who quit his job as an economic analyst for the world’s largest corporation to become an academic, I was hardly following a course of action likely to maximize my income. Moreover, even within the academic world, there was far more money to be made, over the past 20 years, saying the direct opposite of what I said. Large lecture fees, foundation grants, directorships of minority programs (and of major corporations) went to those who shouted and shook their fists and demanded special programs. Those of us who questioned that whole approach were at best tolerated. At more than one university during the 1960s, I lived in cramped, rented quarters while “militant” black academics owned spacious homes. And they drove Mercedes while I drove a Volkswagen. Yet innuendoes about selling out were directed toward me, but never toward them. The blatant facts of the situation seemed not to make the slightest difference. Nor did it seem to occur to critics that no one sells out to the lowest bidder.
Even in today’s changed climate of opinion, a number of blacks at the other end of the political spectrum make several times my income. Again, the media never question whether what they say might be influenced by what they receive from the very programs they champion.
Personal Attacks and Double Standards
For much of the decade of the 1970s, I engaged in research on American ethnic groups. What I discovered often conflicted with prevailing views in the media and among politicians and civil rights leaders. For example, I discovered that group differences in income had many causes, some of them with much greater impact than employer discrimination. A close look at the data also showed that school busing and “affirmative action” policies not only failed to achieve their goals, but generally ended up making the disadvantaged even more disadvantaged. Some of these facts were surprising to me, and forced me to change some of my own thinking. I expected them to be surprising to others, and probably, not very popular.
What I did not expect was that the facts would be so widely and totally disregarded, and that so much of the response would consist of purely personal attacks on me — and that the press would apply a double standard in the controversies that followed.
For example, in December 1980, Washington Post reporter Herbert Denton told me that an NAACP official had called me by the vile epithet, “a house nigger.” When I threw the charge back in his face, the headline in Demon’s story proclaimed my attack on the NAACP as “house niggers.” You would have to dig quite a ways into the story to find out who attacked and who replied. A later story by Denton called me “vituperative” in my “attacks” on the civil rights organizations.
When former Cabinet member Patricia Roberts Harris proclaimed that I did not know what poverty was, no one questioned what basis she had for that statement, or what relevance it had to the facts about public policy. It so happened that I grew up in such poverty that I was eight years old before I lived in a home with hot running water. Patricia Roberts Harris, though black, grew up in a middle-class home and in college belonged to a sorority too snobbish to admit dark-skinned women. When I reported these facts, there was a storm of outrage in the press — and claims that I was attacking Mrs. Harris for being lightskinned! The lady herself played this theme to the hilt, saying that it was a “use of South African apartheid concepts of racial gradations, combined with an exotic infusion of Marxist class warfare notions.” By and large, the press bought her version.
The behind-the-scenes story of this controversy was more of the same double standard. Editor Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post tried repeatedly to get me to water down or eliminate various criticisms — including that of Patricia Harris — in a pair of articles I wrote for that paper. I challenged her to find a single misstatement of fact in my articles, but she complained instead of the harshness of what was said. After her many phone calls, weeks of delay, and heated words between us, Meg Greenfield finally agreed to print what I had said — but with a weary air of being much put upon.
No such standards applied to the many articles which the Post then printed denouncing my position. For one thing, they appeared much too quickly for Meg Greenfield to have engaged in weeks of agonized discussions and hand-wringing. Neither harshness, nor irrelevance, nor inaccuracy stopped them from being published. If someone wanted to refer to my “blackface sociology” or to my nonexistent castigation of Vernon Jordan, that was fine. If they had no specific facts but only vague innuendoes about “selling out,” that was fine. If later Carl Rowan wanted to say that I did more harm to blacks than Quisling did to his fellow-Norwegians under Nazi rule, the Post was ready to print it.
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