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Sowell, Race Hustlers, and David Hume

Part two of our interview with Thomas Sowell.

By 3.29.13

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The economist Thomas Sowell has just released a new book entitled Intellectuals and Race. The American Spectator sat down with him recently for a lengthy interview. In this second part of the interview, we examine multiculturalism and the “Race Industry” and what impact these have on the prospects of different ethnic groups in our society.

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AmSpec: In the book you have a definition of “multiculturalism.” Can you talk about that and its implications?

Sowell: The central premise of multiculturalism is that no culture is superior to another. The proponents of this draw conclusions such as it is wrong for school teachers to insist that black kids from the ghetto speak standard English.

The idea that no culture is superior is another fact-free premise. If you look at the actual history of any society, they borrow from other societies. That’s why I believe that isolated societies are almost invariably lagging because they can’t borrow from other people. An example I like to give to challenge the notion that cultures are not superior but simply different is the adoption of Arabic numerals in countries that derived from Rome and had used Roman numerals prior to that. Any mathematician will be able to elaborate on why Arabic numerals are better than Roman numerals. Moreover, Arabic numerals have triumphed all over the world.

What multiculturalism does is it paints people into the corner in which they happen to be born. You would think that people on the left would be very sensitive to the notion that one’s whole destiny should be determined by the accident of birth as it is, say, in a caste system. But what the multiculturalism dogma does is create the same problems that the caste system creates. Multiculturalism uses more pious language, but the outcome is much the same.

AmSpec: You say that multiculturalism declares all cultures equally valid. What does that do to a person’s or even a whole people’s ability to advance?

Sowell: It means that you are stuck with whatever culture you have. And again, if you look at the history of blacks, and I did this in a previous book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, a wholly disproportionate number of successful blacks came from a very small number of highly atypical cultural settings. They came from educational institutions with a culture that was different from the Southern culture in which a vast majority of blacks grew up. And these institutions made a conscious effort to substitute for that culture, often with a culture from New England. One such place was Dunbar High School (an all-black high school in Washington, D.C.), of the first ten principals of that high school a majority came from a New England background. And Dunbar was remarkable. The first black man to graduate from Annapolis came from Dunbar. So did the first black enlisted man to get a commission in the Army, the first black general, the first black cabinet secretary, and so on. This was a school of about 1,500 black kids. And as I like to point out, within walking distance of the Supreme Court which declared its existence impossible.

AmSpec: Dunbar is not in such good shape anymore, is it?

Sowell: Oh, it’s in awful shape. The most heartbreaking thing to me was in the course of some research I was doing years ago, coming across a 1993 article in a newspaper in Washington based on the fact that that year Dunbar had a very good football team. And one of the things that was mentioned in passing was that not as many students at Dunbar in 1993 went on to college as did so sixty years earlier. Sixty years earlier would have been the depths of the Great Depression. If you could imagine poor black families in the depths of the Great Depression sending more of their children off to college than in 1993 during a prosperous era.

AmSpec: Near the end of the book you mention the “Race Industry.” What is the Race Industry, what does it do to minorities’ chances to advance, and what does it do to race relations in general?

Sowell: The Race Industry would include “direct leaders” like Jesse Jackson and so forth, groups like the NAACP or La Raza. It can also include diversity consultants, academics, and community activists.

One of the things that happens with organizations over a span of time, they’ll start out with a good purpose and over time evolve into self-serving organizations with negative consequences. The Race Industry tends to promote solutions that enhance the power of those in the Race Industry, regardless of whether the policies help the people the Race Industry claims to speak for. In some cases those solutions may actually be counterproductive, such as affirmative action.

And the people I cannot stand are the ones making a living off of racial paranoia and polarization. And it’s a very good living. Someone once asked me why don’t I try to convert Jesse Jackson to my view of the world? And I said, “I’m sure he makes ten times what I make, and how do you persuade someone to give up 90 percent of his income?”

AmSpec: In the book you say, “Among the ideas about race currently in vogue among the intelligentsia are some with enormous potential for needless personal and social tragedies.”

Sowell: The crucial idea is that groups that lag are victims of groups that don’t lag. That idea has a track record around the world that will make your blood run cold. There are so many cases. One that pops into mind is Uganda back in the 1970s, when they expelled all of the Indians and Pakistanis, and the Ugandan economy collapsed. But you can also look here at home. The riots of the 1960s — there are ghettos that to this day have never recovered. They chased out the people who were there providing various services in the ghetto. When I grew up in Harlem in the 1940s, you had the whole array of things. There was a Safeway a block from where I lived, an optometrist who worked just across the street, there was a clothing store downstairs, a drugstore, and stationary story within a block and half — you didn’t have to leave the neighborhood for almost anything.

That’s not true now. I was in touch with my niece who lived not far from there after the riots. People who live there now have to go considerable distances to get the things they need. The people who were rioted against and lost their property then, but they’ve had decades in which to recoup. But the people who are living there now have inherited from those who went before them all the bad costs that have come down from the riots.

AmSpec: Let’s talk about the example of David Hume and the Scots and the path they followed.

Sowell: The role Hume played was one diametrically opposed by that played by most intellectuals as regards ethnic groups that are lagging behind. He wanted the Scots to master the English language. And that’s what they did. There were places all over Scotland that were giving lessons in English. The Scots learned that and it greatly expanded their cultural universe. I don’t know if there were any books in Gaelic in Scotland, and you were unlikely to learn chemistry or anything like that in Gaelic. The Scots came out of nowhere. They were very backward at one point. But from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century many of the leading British intellectuals came from Scottish ancestry, including John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith.

It was the same with the Czechs in the Hapsburg Empire. If you were a Czech and you wanted to become a doctor or a scientist, chances are you’d find the books you needed in German, but not in Czech. And so, again, you needed to borrow from another culture.

Hume understood that. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore understood this. The kids there learn English in addition to their native language.

But nowadays you are told to cling to your own culture and glory in its past achievements, real or fictitious. In Czechoslovakia after World War I, when they were doing they were doing the opposite of what Hume had done, intellectuals were lauding the Czech peasant as the purist expression of Czech culture. And the Czech peasant may have been the purist expression of Czech culture, but there wasn’t a damn thing he could teach you that would enable you to become a doctor or a scientist.

If you were a German, you didn’t have to learn a separate language to become a doctor or a scientist. But if you were a Czech, you did. That’s unfair. But then you need to ask, who is responsible for that unfairness? It wasn’t the Germans. They were bringing the Czechs an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

AmSpec: Regarding those two approaches, which way are we headed in the U.S.?

Sowell: We’re a heading in the direction that has led so many people into blind alleys and even disaster. And, of course, this whole thing that is deadly of black kids criticizing or even fighting other black kids for “acting white.” That’s a whole generation destroying its opportunities at its source.

AmSpec: What would it take for groups in the U.S., or groups elsewhere, to follow the example of David Hume and the Scots?

Sowell: For them to follow the example, there would have to be more examples. And, unfortunately, the pay off to the race industry is in keeping people the way they are, to paint them into a corner. For example, think about all the hysteria the race industry is generating over having to produce a photo ID to vote. You know, every day of the week there are millions of blacks who have to show photo ID for all kinds of things. But to suddenly have to show photo ID for voting is going back to the days of Bull Connor. Bull Connor was not asking blacks to have photo IDs. Anyway, it’s difficult to follow the example of Hume because there are too many race hustlers and people who do not want to go against what the race hustlers are saying, because they have some type of position that depends on public support and they are not about to rock the boat.

(Part I of this interview ran yesterday.)

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