Sowell and Race
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Most of you probably know that last week economist Thomas Sowell decided to hang up his syndicated column after 25 years. There have been many tributes to Sowell (including mine), so I won’t bother with another one here. Rather, I want to take a brief look at three of his most important insights on racial and ethnic groups.

1: Different groups will have different outcomes. Recently Sowell wrote, “one fallacy behind many other fallacies is the notion that there is something unusual about different races being unequally represented in various institutions, careers or at different income or achievement levels.” Nowhere in human history have different groups, even ones living in close proximity, had equal outcomes. Differences in phenomena like culture and demographics means that some groups will, on average, have greater achievements than other groups, whether those achievements are in business, science, sports, arts, or entertainment.

Sowell often points to geography as having one of the biggest impacts on outcomes. For example, would anyone reasonably expect that a child born today in Venezuela will, in all likelihood, have the same outcome in life as a child born in the United States? Of course not. Unfortunately, there is nothing that human beings can do to change geography. Yet, despite such common sense, most on the political left persist in the belief that different outcomes — especially differences in income — among different groups must be due to “sinister forces” like racism. Which leads to number 2…

2: Discrimination isn’t a very good explanation for group differences. It’s axiomatic: Discrimination explains why blacks in our society lag other groups. Not so fast, says Sowell. Discrimination often explains a lot less than we think it does.

Back in the early 1980s, Sowell noted that some blacks did better than whites in the U.S. Second-generation black West Indians earned more, on average, than Anglo-Saxons. Sowell implied that this could only be consistent with the belief that discrimination explains why blacks have, on average, lower incomes than whites if white employers were willing to hire West Indians but not other blacks. That makes no sense given that white employers probably had no way of determining the ethnic background of prospective black employees. Sowell attributes the lack of black success to, in part, the welfare system and a “cracker culture” that is hostile to work and education.

Sowell would later point out at that some groups thrived despite discrimination. In his 1990 book Preferential Policies, he pointed to the Chinese in Malaysia as an example:

Even when it was the British colony of Malaya, there were severe restrictions on non-Malays owning land and… the colonial government provided education for Malays while leaving the large Chinese minority to provide their own. The Chinese, though initially illiterate as well as destitute, nevertheless proceeded to build their own educational system as they advanced economically.

By the 1960s, the Chinese in Malaysia owned four-fifths of all the retail establishments in the country and were admitted to the University of Malay at a much higher rate than native Malays.

If certain members of one racial group thrive while others do not, and some groups thrive despite discrimination, then discrimination does very little to explain group differences.

3: For groups to advance, they must invest in “human capital.” Sowell states that “Human capital consists not only in the knowledge and skills people have, but also their orientations.” This can mean different things for different groups. In the third world, it may mean a willingness to work and trying to gain some of the most basic of work skills. Here in the U.S. it means valuing education and the opportunity to get a good education. In certain circumstances, it means a willingness to learn English.

That is why Sowell is so bitter about what has happened to education in this country, especially in the inner city. It is also why he is opposed to bilingual education. If black children do not receive an adequate education and immigrant children do not learn English, their chances for advancement are slim.

A continued focus on racism to the neglect of human capital only hobbles advancement. Rather, Sowell states, it only advances leaders race hustlers like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, and Barack Obama. Fostering resentment toward other groups among the people they purportedly lead enables those leaders to keep those people dependent on them. Such leaders have no incentive to help those people develop human capital because once they do, they will no longer need those leaders.

If America ever comes to its senses on race, the views of Thomas Sowell will become the predominant way of thinking. Unfortunately, we are a long way from that. And now that Sowell has retired from his column, who will promote his insights on racial and ethnic groups?

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