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Thomas Sowell and the Intellectuals

An interview with the Hoover economist on his new book, Intellectuals and Race.

By 3.28.13

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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 first part of the interview, we discuss some of the causes of differences between ethnic groups, and how intellectuals in the early 20th century viewed race versus intellectuals today.

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AmSpec: You’ve written a lot about intellectuals and also a lot about race. Why did you feel a need to put out a separate book on intellectuals and race?

Sowell: Parts of this were published originally in the second edition of Intellectuals and Society, although other parts are new. But I wrote it in part because I was correcting a mistake I made, which was that I didn’t listen to my research assistant when she told me that this material should be published as a separate book. I didn’t think that it was getting the attention that it should because second editions don’t usually bring that much attention. I also thought that the subject was important enough that it shouldn’t be buried where it was.

AmSpec: One of the things that comes across in the book is that it’s possible different racial groups will have different outcomes but those differences may be in no way related to genetics. So, what are the causes of difference?

Sowell: The first thing is that it’s not a question that it’s “possible” they will have differences. We have centuries of recorded history that say gross differences between groups have been the norm. But what is assumed both by many intellectuals and courts of law is that such differences are unusual. What’s unusual, if not non-existent, is an even representation of groups in different kinds of endeavors. In fact, any time that you find such a thing, which is rare enough in itself, almost invariably some kind of quota [is] imposed. Absent a quota, I can’t find any place anywhere in the world where different racial and ethnic groups have the same track record in any field.

One cause of the differences is geography. First, geography is inescapable. Second, different races evolved for millennia in different geographic settings. That makes a huge difference. It makes a difference not only in what level of economic prosperity may be possible in one setting versus another; but it also makes an equal if not greater difference in the ability of people to develop their own human capital. If you are living in a mountain valley somewhere in the Balkans, chances are your cultural universe consists of the village you live in. The next nearest village may be near as the crow flies but may not be very accessible through rugged mountains. So you can draw upon only what you and the people in your village are able to do. And the record of people who live like that, whether it’s in mountain valleys or isolated islands far off the mainland and so on, is that they are typically far behind the progress of the people on the mainland.

That would be just one geographic factor. Another one is navigable waterways. That can expand a groups’ cultural universe greatly. But, of course, the waterways have to be navigable. Geography is unequal. When the earth’s geography was being formed, there were no egalitarians in charge.

I like to compare the situation of the British when they arrived on the coast of North America with the Iroquois on the coast. How did the British get across the Atlantic in the first place? Well, they used trigonometry which I believe originated in the Middle East. They stored their knowledge using an alphabet they got from the Romans. They did their calculations using numbers that came from India. Their weapons used gunpowder that was invented in China. As for the Iroquois, they were on the East Coast and they had no idea there was a West Coast, much less who was there and what their culture might be. So you are talking about two groups with cultural universes of vastly different sizes, and the ones with the biggest cultural universe usually prevail.

AmSpec: What are some of the differences with regard to race and intelligence? What causes different levels of intelligence or IQ scores between different groups?

Sowell: One thing I try to do is separate two questions. First, is there an average difference in IQ among groups? Second, is there a difference in the range of IQs? Because the crucial thing that the progressives in the early 20th century seemed to be implicitly assuming is that there is a ceiling to the IQs of some races that is lower than other races. From this they move on to things like eugenics and even the extinction, as Francis Dalton said, of “inferior races.”

That’s a different question from the question of whether the average IQ is different. Because there are all kinds of reasons why two races with identical genetic potential would end up with substantial differences in median IQs. For example, it has been shown that the firstborn in a family tends to have a higher IQ than later children. Now let’s that assume one ethnic group has, on average, two children per family, and another ethnic group has six. Well, the first group is going to have a higher IQ than the second, even if their genetic potential is the same. The reason is that one half of the people in the first group will be firstborn and one sixth in the second group will be.

AmSpec: Talk a little bit about what progressives in the early 20th century believed regarding race and intelligence and also talk about how they treated their critics.

Sowell: They treated their critics much the way liberals treat their critics in the late 20th century and today, even though the progressives’ conclusions were the opposite of the liberals’ conclusion. Simply, they did not deal with any of their critics. The progressives dismissed their critics as sentimental, Pollyannaish, and so forth. In the late 20th century critics were called many things, “racist” being among them.

What’s incredible is not just what was said but who said it. These were not just some fringe cranks we’re talking about. We’re talking about some of the most highly esteemed, internationally renowned intellectuals of that era. John Maynard Keynes was among those who established the Eugenics Society at Cambridge University. People like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were among those who were behind eugenics on this side of the ocean. There were the presidents of Stanford University and M.I.T. One thing that later progressives don’t want to admit about President Woodrow Wilson was that he was very much for this. He had a private showing of A Birth of a Nation, a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, in the White House. He invited various dignitaries to see it with him. There were many federal agencies in Washington at that time that were not racially segregated and he introduced racial segregation.

He was not the only one. The people who founded the American Economic Association—the first head of the AEA was very much on the side of the side of theories of racial superiority and inferiority. So was the economist Richard T. Ely. I believe to this day, one of the great honors each year the AEA gives is to pick an outstanding economist who will be invited to give the Richard T. Ely lecture.

AmSpec: Are the liberal intelligentsia of today any better in terms of being open to many different explanations for group differences?

Sowell: No. That’s an easy question to answer. Moreover, they are not open to empirical evidence. There was empirical evidence behind what was said by the progressives even though they grabbed isolated facts and ran with them. But as between the two groups, the progressives of the early 20th century at least had some hard data. Today, on the left, they simply denounce hard data. The most appalling of the statements I came across in my research was from Nathan Glazer, whom I once respected. He said in regards to the book The Bell Curve that although its authors say certain beliefs are untrue, "I ask myself whether the untruth is not better for American Society than the truth.”

AmSpec: What is the view of the liberal intelligentsia on racial differences today?

Sowell: They start with the idea that all the racial groups are not only potentially equal but their cultures are equally valid in some indefinable sense. Therefore when you find great disparities in outcomes, these disparities can only be due to the wrong decisions being made by other people, whether they are employers or bankers, or whatever.

This is the kind of thinking behind disparate impact lawsuits. [In a disparate impact lawsuit, to prove discrimination a plaintiff need only show that employees of different races have different outcomes in a business. He does not have to show that the business actually engages in discrimination.--DB] And the irony is the greatest disparity is the disparity in the level of evidence required on opposite sides of the disparate impact lawsuits. The people who believe that disparate impact is a sign of malice are not required to produce one speck of evidence of that malice. They’ve never been required to show one country anywhere at any time in history where different racial and ethnic groups had similar outcomes.

All the evidence I’ve seen shows that there are huge differences between groups. For example, there was a study some years ago on the ethnic makeup of military forces. And the author of that study was not able to find a single country where the ethnic make up of the military was even approximately similar to that of the population. In Nigeria, for example, when Nigeria became independent, the majority of the non-commissioned personnel were from Northern Nigeria, and the majority of the commissioned personnel were from Southern Nigeria. In the Malaysian Air Force, the Chinese minority produced almost half of the pilots in the Malaysian Air Force. At one time in Czarist Russia, 40 percent of the top military commanders were German even though Germans were one percent of the population in Czarist Russia.

You find these types of differences all around the world. And nowhere do you find this thing that is held out as the norm, that groups are represented equally, by which we can measure discrimination.

AmSpec: One thing you mention in the book quite often is that intellectuals often treat racial groups as abstractions rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.

Sowell: I use the term “intertemporal abstractions” by which I mean abstractions going back over the centuries. For example, prior to World War I, Germans living in what would become Czechoslovakia were better off than the Czechs and had been for centuries. When Czechoslovakia was carved out of the Hapsburg Empire after World War I, one of the things Czech officials, supported by Czech intellectuals, set out to do was correct the injustices of the 17th century. Of course, nobody from the 17th century was alive. But only if you think of Czechs and Germans as part of some intertemporal abstraction does such a goal have any meaning much less justification. And when you realize how hard it is for contemporaries to get along, the thought that you are going to redress the wrongs of past centuries is staggering. Ultimately, what buying into that means is that a baby born into the world comes with pre-packaged grievances against another baby born the same day. You’re setting them up for all kinds of strife to correct things they have no capacity to correct. The 17th century is going to remain what it was for all time. At the same time you can set in motion a series of polarizations which in the case of Czechoslovakia brought tragedy to both the Germans and the Czechs.

AmSpec: Are we doing something similar here in the U.S. with, say, reparations for slavery?

Sowell: Absolutely. And not only reparations but also the notion that whatever goes wrong in the black community is the legacy of slavery. Here again, facts play no role for people who believe that. There’s a monumental book written by Herbert Gutman called The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. He goes all the way back to old plantation records and census records and so on, and what he found was that even under slavery most black children grew up in two-parent families. He takes the study all the way up to the 1920s and found that close to 80 percent of black children had two parents. And now you fast forward to today and one-fourth or maybe one-third of black children have two parents. So if this is a legacy of slavery why in the world, why wasn’t it more prevalent in the eras closer to slavery, rather than suddenly showing up over 100 years later?

This really hits home to me. Even though I was an orphan, I was raised in a family of four adults. I was the only child. In effect, I had four parents. And you compare that to someone growing up in the ghetto now, where you may have three or four children and one teenage girl who has dropped out of high school in charge of all of them. It would be a real challenge even if she had a top-notch education.

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About the Author

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