I was once discussing economist Thomas Sowell with Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley, author of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed (2014). Riley is writing a biography of Sowell and was chatting with various people about him. (Since Sowell is 87 years old, now is the time to write a biography while there is still hope that the subject will be alive to see it.) Two realizations emerged from the conversation: first, Sowell never had the impact on scholarship that he might have had because he worked at a think tank (the Hoover Institute) and never had graduate students who would have been disciples for his cause; second, despite the fact that Sowell must be the most widely-read African-American economist in the United States, doubtless, the most prolific with a large popular audience, his views have had virtually no influence among African-American intellectuals. The fact that he has been ignored in black scholarship circles is a sign that he is held in a certain degree of contempt. His claims have not been taken seriously; they do not even have to be engaged.
Sowell is a free market economist, publicly identifying himself as a conservative Republican, who came to prominence during the Reagan years (1980-1988). He is arguably the most renowned of all black conservatives, the most touted black conservative thinker by white conservatives (with the possible exception of jurist Clarence Thomas who is the most fervently defended), and the most influential by far simply because he is the most commonly read. He has written dozens of books and nearly all of them are in print. Figures as diverse as Steven Pinker and David Mamet have spoken of how reading Sowell changed their thinking. Even Kanye West has mentioned him favorably. This is not surprising as Sowell’s greatest gift, aside from being prolific which gives him the opportunity, like Samuel Beckett, to repeat his message creatively in different contexts without ever exhausting his audience, is his lucidity. He writes about economics in ways that people, who have no knowledge of the subject and no facility with numbers and statistics, can understand. This is no small thing. On the other hand, most black intellectuals and scholars are liberal Democrats or avowed socialists and Marxists who conflate, not without justification, conservatism with racism and free markets with class exploitation and black economic underdevelopment. And most, being deeply enmeshed in “theory,” as high-level academic writing and thinking are called these days, do not write for the general public. Styles matter or, put another way, writing styles in the academy these days are as politicized as everything else. This ideological disjuncture is wide and deep, and ferociously partisan. No one on either side at this stage of the game is interested in taking prisoners.
Figures as diverse as Steven Pinker and David Mamet have spoken of how reading Sowell changed their thinking. Even Kanye West has mentioned him favorably. This is not surprising as Sowell’s greatest gift, aside from being prolific which gives him the opportunity, like Samuel Beckett, to repeat his message creatively in different contexts without ever exhausting his audience, is his lucidity.
In Discrimination and Disparities, Sowell writes, “At the societal level, the same severe and painful limitations [of knowledge and resources] apply when seeking to redress the wrongs of the past. Where the deaths of both the victims and the victimizers put them completely beyond our power, our frustration cannot justify making symbolic restitution among the living, when the costs of such attempts around the world have been written in blood across the pages of history.
“After territorial irredentism has led nations to slaughter each other’s people over land that might have little or no value in itself, simply because it once belonged in a different political jurisdiction, at a time beyond any living person’s memory, what is to be expected from instilling the idea of social irredentism, growing out of historic wrongs done to other people?” (115, emphasis Sowell’s) Here is Sowell’s cutting critique of reparations for slavery as morally and legally unjustified; socially, politically, and psychologically harmful to the “victims”; and insufficiently analyzed in terms of its costs and its benefits. Most black scholars who support reparations, and most are probably at least sympathetic to the idea, would have their teeth set on edge by such curt disapproval as Sowell expresses here.
Elsewhere in Discrimination and Disparities, Sowell writes:
“What would be relevant to testing the hypothesis that blacks are disproportionately targeted for arrest by the police, or disproportionately convicted and sentenced by courts, would be objective data on the proportions of particular violations of the law committed by blacks, compared to the proportions of blacks arrested, convicted and sentenced for those particular violations. …
“The most reliable and objective crime statistics are statistics on homicides, since a dead body can hardly be ignored, regardless of the race of the victim. For as long as homicide statistics have been kept in the United States, the proportion of homicide victims who are black has been some multiple of the proportion of blacks in the population. Moreover, the vast majority of those homicide victims whose killers have been found were killed by other blacks, just as most white homicide victims were killed by other whites.
“Since the homicide rate among blacks is some multiple of the homicide rate among whites, it is hardly surprising that the arrest of blacks for homicide is also some multiple of the rate of homicide arrests among whites. It has nothing to do with the proportion of blacks in the general population, and everything to do with the proportion of blacks among people who commit a particular crime.” (84)
Sowell here is expressing his skepticism of racial profiling, which almost certainly would put him at odds with most black academics. His claim is that since black people commit murder at a rate that far exceeds their proportion in the general population, (dead black bodies being an absolute proof that the crime happened and is not an invention of the white racist mind or the white racist power structure), it should not be surprising that they are targeted more by the police for it, especially if the victim is black. The point Sowell makes several times throughout the book is that law-abiding blacks wind up paying a social tax for the unlawful and unruly members of the race (see, for instance, 57-58 about esteemed Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson on an elevator with whites; 61-62, about Northern black acculturation and the migration of less acculturated Southern blacks who caused whites to reinforced segregation; 104-106, about how eliminating racial disparate punishment in schools victimizes the black students who want to learn who must do so with the bullies and disrupters not being removed from class; 68-70, about how it is black middle-class neighborhoods that bear the brunt of the “mixed income housing” initiative when housing developments for poor blacks are placed there against the wishes of the original residents). This tax becomes especially burdensome when liberal and leftist black and white academics insist on seeing the black criminal class as victims instead of the actual black victims of this class, who, in fact, get forgotten. But the wider implication of Sowell’s argument is a defense of the politics of respectability for blacks. Correct deportment, clothing, and language as signals of certain habits and values are of paramount importance for blacks to succeed, and to disparage this politics of respectability, as is commonly done among black academics and intellectuals these days, hurts the race. The disparagement is the result, if I can be permitted to extrapolate from Sowell’s argument, of black intellectuals becoming fixated on the group’s cultural and political authenticity rather than its real-world success in an arena of grinding global competition. Sowell’s other main complaint is that the leftist and liberals who offer solutions for blacks today do not have live with the costs or consequences of the solutions they impose. Years ago, a prominent black social scientist told me that to liberals and leftists, blacks are little more than guinea pigs. In part, that seems to be Sowell’s attitude.
The wider implication of Sowell’s argument is a defense of the politics of respectability for blacks. Correct deportment, clothing, and language as signals of certain habits and values are of paramount importance for blacks to succeed, and to disparage this politics of respectability, as is commonly done among black academics and intellectuals these days, hurts the race.
Those familiar with Sowell’s major works will find little here that has not been argued in his other books. For his fans, this consistency gives his arguments greater validity and provides greater comfort. For his critics, it probably shows a paucity of imagination and an unwillingness to engage fully the scholarship that is most opposed to his approach and his views. In any case, the main argument in Discrimination and Disparities is that it is unreasonable, unrealistic to think that groupings of any sort are naturally random or naturally reflective of the groups’ proportion in the population of a country as a whole. But it is also wrong to assume any skewing of groupings, as groupings inevitably are, is the result of discrimination or of the innate capabilities of people. Sowell feels the latter is an oversimplification of the phenomenon of grouping. There are several reasons why people wind up grouping themselves as they do, pursuing what they pursue: birth order, geography, the presence of one or two or no parents in the home during childhood, technology of various kinds, and many other things can lead people one way or another. He goes on to argue that in nature, things are highly skewed: most tornadoes occur only in a certain portion of the United States; lightning occurs more in Africa than in Europe and Asia combined. An aggregate of what he calls “prerequisites” must necessarily be fulfilled for something to happen or for someone to choose a certain path. The absence of even one of the prerequisites will greatly affect the outcome. Discrimination of some malevolent, political sort might be the cause of certain types of skewing but Sowell’s argument is that those who assert that do not back their claims with sufficient evidence and rarely consider alternatives. This may be true but this complaint sounds more polemical than analytical. On the whole, if you have never read a book by Sowell, this one is as good as many of them and it has the virtue of being short, as, actually, several of his books are.
I have read several of Sowell’s books over the years and while I may not have always agreed with his views, I have always enjoyed them, despite their repetition. In part, the sheer difference in his point of view is refreshing simply because I rarely encounter it in my academic circles. Also, he has a sense of humor. I suppose, in the end, whatever his point of view, Sowell as a writer, more than as an economist or a social scientist, fascinates me. As a person in African and African American Studies, I feel that no black writer who has sustained himself as long as Sowell has should be ignored in my neck of the academic woods, regardless of his opinions. And who is to say his opinions are wrong? I have heard enough black people privately voice similar opinions that they would not voice in mixed racial company or before some official “racial” confab. Sowell’s opinions are not foreign to black people and, in some ways, it might be argued that only a black person could have come up with them.
Sowell’s opinions are not foreign to black people and, in some ways, it might be argued that only a black person could have come up with them.
A few years, in the African and African American Capstone Seminar I was teaching, I included chapters from Harlem Renaissance journalist and fiction writer George Schuyler’s autobiography, Black and Conservative (1966). The students had never read anything by a black conservative before. They loved the book. They did not necessarily agree with Schuyler’s views but they loved him as a writer and they loved the audacity he had to state his views, some of which they too had heard expressed in some form or fashion by other black people. When I asked the students at the end of the semester what course they felt the African and African American Studies Department needed most to add, one of them suggested a course on black conservatism. He liked Schuyler’s book and wanted to know more about what conservatism was for black people, what it meant to them, what their version of it was. I told him I had been thinking for several years about teaching such course. He strongly urged me to do so. I really appreciated his encouragement.