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Thomas Sowell Live, Part II

We conclude our interview with the author of Intellectuals and Society, now out in a new edition.

By 4.16.12

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This is the second part of The American Spectator's recent interview with Thomas Sowell. Today we discuss issues of bilingual education, other racial issues, and whether Republicans can prevail in November. Sowell has just released the second edition of his book, Intellectuals and Society.

AmSpec: Now that the U.S. has so many Hispanic immigrants, how much damage can something like bilingual education do?

Sowell: It holds Hispanics back. They are following the opposite pattern that was successful for David Hume and the Scots. They're keeping a language that does not give them access to all the knowledge that is available in the society around them which I believe they are perfectly capable of using to advance themselves just as other groups have.

Multiculturalism, when you think about it, its advocates are doing what the caste system did. They're saying that where you were born and what you were born into is what you are stuck with for life. If you were born into this one particular culture, then you shouldn't even aspire to get into a different culture. Your teachers shouldn't try to facilitate you using the benefits of other cultures.

The big difference is that the caste system, at least, never pretended that it existed for the benefit of those at the bottom. Multiculturalism does.

AmSpec: Let's turn to the question of race and intelligence. Why is mixing those two things together so explosive?

Sowell: I guess just the emotional impact of it is explosive. In the early part of the 20th century the Progressives were saying that some people were only capable of being "hewers of wood and drawers of water."

I wish I'd been more explicit about this in the book that there are really two questions. One question is about the range of intelligence in different races. The other is about the statistical average of intelligence in different races. As far as the Progressives were concerned, they collapsed that into one question. There are some groups that can't get above a certain mental level, and that's it.

But that's not what the more recent discussions such as those centering around The Bell Curve are about, which is about statistical averages. There are all kinds of reasons why two races with initially identical genetic potential for intelligence could end up with different averages. I was just reading Matt Ridley's book in which he was arguing that during medieval times in England, the upper classes tended to leave more offspring than did the lower classes. The net result was that as time went on, a larger and larger proportion of the British population were descendants of the upper classes, even if all those descendants didn't remain in the upper class. So they had upper class values that bred through the society, where today we have the opposite.

Ridley didn't say this, but I wondered what if the British upper classes had higher intelligence? That would have meant that the average intelligence of the British was rising over time. We have no data on that. But the opposite can also happen, especially if you have a welfare state. You subsidize the production of more people in the lower classes, you can have a falling level of intelligence. The point being the statistical average doesn't really tell you about the genetic potential of a particular race.

AmSpec: You quoted the late Tom Wicker at some length about this notion that when racial problems and disparities occur, it must be due to the racism of whites or some other societal injustice. Can you talk about that type of thinking, where it leads and why people like Wicker engaged in it so often?

Sowell: Wicker engaged in it not only on racial issues but on international issues. He was upset when the Czechs broke away from the Communist Bloc and were celebrating their freedom. He wrote that "freedom is not a panacea." Well, nothing is a panacea.

But I have a feeling in a different way, and this has to be speculation of course, I think people like Wicker and Derrick Bell have personal, circumstantial problems they can resolve in their writings. In the case of Wicker, it was his being a Southerner. I've long said, "Heaven save me from guilty white Southerners." It's not that they don't have things to be guilty about, but the fact is their guilt is only adding to the problem, not solving it. Get rid of your guilt at your own expense, not at the expense of the taxpayers and the cohesion of the whole society.

In case of the race, it's amazing, Wicker's reasoning and the New York Times' editorials' as well. They lament the fact so many more blacks are being imprisoned today than in the 1950s, and then there are black families breaking apart and so on. And they blame this on things like the legacy of slavery or else the shortcomings of whites today. But the obvious question arises, are you telling me in 1950 there was less racism than there is today? Are you telling me 1950 was not closer to the age of slavery than today? To even examine the internal logic of what they are saying makes their whole argument collapse like a house of cards.

AmSpec: One of the notions that you brought up in the book is "critical mass." That is the idea that students can only excel if surrounded by students of the same race or gender.

Sowell: Again, one of those ideas that is impervious to facts. All the evidence I've seen, and all the impressions I've gotten myself and from others who have taught black students in different settings say just the opposite. One study, for example, found that the more black students there are in a class, the more negative effects that has on the students around them, especially on those black students with higher IQs. Higher IQ blacks do better in a class where there are not a lot of other black students. That buttresses another study that found whereas white or especially Asian-American students who have straight-A averages, are on average more popular with their classmates than people of lower achievement. With blacks it is just the opposite. Blacks that are straight-A students are less popular with other black students. That is just a huge handicap particularly for people who are going through adolescence where peer approval can be so important.

AmSpec: Anything else on the subject of race and intellectuals?

Sowell: Yes, let me make a remark about racial justice, which many people consider part of social justice. Well, what they call "social justice" I'd call "cosmic justice." There are two different questions regarding justice and society. The first question is, Is life fair? The second is, Is society fair? Those are two radically different questions. Life has never been near being fair in any society recorded anywhere in thousands of years of human history. Now, the question becomes, is a particular society fair? The particular society might have rules that are fair in that they are applied to everyone equally and that people are rewarded or punished according to the same criteria. But that will not get you anywhere close to fairness in life chances. The family you were raised in, they will have far more to do with that. I'm especially sensitive to that because I was one of those people who was adopted in infancy, grew up unaware of my siblings who were adopted by other families hundreds of miles away. Later on as an adult I learned they were raised in families similar to mine in being poor and not well educated. But the family in which I was raised happened to consist mostly of people who themselves had never gotten passed elementary school but were absolutely determined that I would have an education. But none of my other siblings had that same good fortune. When you consider all the factors that are at work, there's not a snowball's chance in hell that different individuals or groups are going to have the same achievements.

AmSpec: Turning to politics, the most controversial has been your promotion of Newt Gingrich as the best for the GOP in November. What led you to that position?

Sowell: The ability to articulate, which is enormously lacking throughout the Republican Party. Think about it. We are in a country where millions more people identify themselves as conservatives than liberals, and yet in 2008 the Democrats won overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress along with the White House. When someone loses and they were dealt low cards, you say, we'll that's the way it is. But when they were dealt the high cards and lost, then they are doing something wrong.

And it's not just a matter of glibness on Gingrich's part. When he discusses issues, he does have a depth of understanding that is very obviously greater than that of the other candidates. Unfortunately, he has personality characteristics that have just negated all of that, and which make his chances now virtually zero. After the Illinois vote, and especially the Tea Party endorsing Romney, it's pretty much over.

AmSpec: It always seemed to me that, yes, Gingrich is very articulate, but he is very volatile and very self-absorbed, even for a politician. It seemed to me that those qualities would prove fatal in November. The voters need to like you. In addition to being articulate, you have to be likeable. And Gingrich is not that likeable.

Sowell: Yes, there's that. But the real question now is whether Romney can be brought up to the point where he has a serious chance of defeating Obama. And that is by no means a slam dunk.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.