A noted economist fires back.
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I have not been the only target of such unsupported innuendoes or such double standards. Various black writers have emerged in recent years to challenge some of the prevailing assumptions of the civil rights establishment and have encountered personal attacks rather than substantive criticism of their work. Sociologist William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago produced a widely read study that questioned whether racial economic differences today were nearly as much due to racial discrimination as in the past. Economist Walter Williams of George Mason University wrote a prize-winning article on numerous government programs that harm minorities — including some programs, such as the minimum wage law, that are ostensibly intended to be beneficial. Former civil rights attorney Derrick Bell, now dean of the law school at the University of Oregon, questioned whether massive busing was really in the interest of black children. Professor of psychiatry Gloria Powell of UCLA published a massive study which failed to show any clear pattern of psychological gains by black children who had been “integrated” in the public schools, despite what was widely expected, promised, or claimed.
Several things are remarkable about this group of people. They arrived at their conclusions by research, independently of each other, and without a common social or political position. They are academics with neither a financial nor a political stake in one conclusion rather than another. Yet they have all been accused of seeking personal gain or political advancement, or of being too affluent to understand the ghetto. Yet the press has seldom used the same standards when judging their critics. The New York Times, for example, asked NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks whether Walter Williams’s middleclass status and income did not undermine Williams’s positions on racial issues, without ever considering whether Hooks’s own background was not far more middle class than Williams’s or his current income far higher — and dependent on the very programs he advocated. Carl Rowan’s innuendoes that people were taking certain public positions on issues to get political appointments for themselves centered on two academics (Williams and myself) who have never been politically appointed to any job — though Rowan himself has. Nathaniel Jones of the NAACP publicly questioned whether Derrick Bell was not trying for personal career gain by opposing busing, though in fact the real gains were to be made by taking Jones’s position — which gained him a federal judgeship through appointment by President Carter, while Bell remains an academic.
If facts about issues are to be subordinated to speculations about personal motives, then at least the standards can be the same for those on opposite sides of the issues.
When there is nothing that can even be lifted out of context to support a damaging interpretation, some writers resort to reporting your “real” meaning. “Real” meanings require no evidence whatever, and can never be disproved. They are ideal for smears.
According to book reviewer Paul Buhle in the Nation, the real purpose of Ethnic America was to offer “economic and historical justification” for “gutting social services.” Nowhere in the book is any social service mentioned as requiring reduction. According to St. Clair Drake in the Palo Alto Weekly, the real purpose is to “put forward a conservative agenda” — though no agenda at all is put forth in the book — a fact which other reviewers (including those in Time and Newsweek) complained about. In the same vein, David Herbert Donald declared in the New York Times that “Mr. Sowell is really less interested in the past than in the present and the future,” even though the book is a history, with almost no discussion of current policies.
Among the “real” meanings discerned was one presented by Carl Rowan in such a way that unwary readers might think it was a direct quote from me about my career: “I did all this on my own, with hard work, so I don’t want government to give any lazy bastard anything.” What I actually said about my own career was written a decade ago in Black Education: Myths and Tragedies:
It would be premature at best and presumptuous at worst to attempt to draw sweeping or definitive conclusions from my personal experiences. It would be especially unwarranted to draw Horatio Alger conclusions, that perseverance and/or ability “win out” despite obstacles. The fact is, I was losing in every way until my life was changed by the Korean War, the draft, and the GI Bill — none of which I can take credit for. I have no false modesty about having seized the opportunity and worked to make it pay off, but there is no way to avoid the fact that there first had to be an opportunity to seize.
Words lose a lot in translation when other people start reporting your “real” meaning. Lem Tucker on the CBS morning program had me claiming “that he alone, almost without bootstraps, pulled himself out of the ghetto through Harvard and the University of Chicago.” Others have depicted me as advising other blacks to emulate my example, though they could never seem to come up with any specific quote from when I had done so. It would of course be a ridiculous piece of advice, for luck was an important element, and there is no way to emulate luck. What I have urged is that other disadvantaged people be allowed more options — school vouchers as just one example — and less advice from “experts.”
Any discussion of irresponsible or malicious statements in the press is itself misleading if it does not mention that there are fair, honest, and intelligent journalists as well. But it takes relatively few individuals to keep a smear campaign going. And once certain distortions are repeated often enough, they become “facts” to many readers and even to other writers.
People are constantly telling me how surprised they are at reading something I have written, because it is so different from what they have been led to believe by the media. But the problem is much bigger than me or my ideas. If I were going to let smears stop me, I would have stopped years ago. What is far more important is that an atmosphere of character assassination is not one in which there is a widespread clash of opposing views. It is not even a question of which view is right. No single individual or set of “leaders” has a monopoly on understanding. Even the truth may be an incomplete truth, and need additional perspectives that lie beyond one person’s vision. In short, the process of airing different perspectives is even more important than the question of which is closest to the truth.
Implicit in much that is said about the emotional subject of race and ethnicity is the presumption that no honest disagreement is possible on the orthodoxy promoted by the civil rights leaders and liberal politicians. “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,” Hamlet warned. It is a warning that is as timely today as it was centuries ago.
Historically, people who have looked at things differently have always been seen as a threat — in science, religion, the military, and every other field of human concern and commitment. Even the most advanced nations in Western Civilization — including the United States — burned women alive as witches within the past three centuries. Where feelings run deep, rationality has often broken down. Moreover, the time pressures of the media and the need for excitement to attract readers and viewers promote the creation of stereotypes, bogeymen, and scapegoats. But surely it is time we learned from history that the particular victims and scapegoats are not the only losers in an atmosphere of witch-hunting. We all lose when we stifle the diversities of opinion which alone give us some hope of understanding complex and difficult social issues.
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In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
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