Thomas Sowell’s honest analytical approach has always stood in stark contrast to the ideologically contaminated research that permeates the field of race relations. He has long emphasized logic and empirical data when analyzing racial topics, and has tempered and critiqued the excesses of advocacy with objectivity. For Sowell, culture matters: differences in attitudes toward work, savings, child rearing, lawlessness, sobriety, familial obligations, education, and personal responsibility are powerful determinants of economic mobility. The fashionable “grievance” theory of American history in which group differences are explained largely in terms of white oppression, Sowell believes, has stymied black progress. This theme is central to his new book, Discrimination and Disparities.
Accordingly, Sowell begins Discriminations and Disparities with an analysis of three ethnic groups that have excelled economically despite significant discriminatory obstacles placed in their paths. In this telling, the Jews, the Japanese, and the “overseas Chinese” shared the cultural traits of literacy, respect for education, and strong family units which allowed them to thrive wherever they found themselves, however perilous their circumstances. In the case of Japan, national efforts to achieve universal literacy in the nineteenth century and receptivity toward western education paved the way to the favorable position they currently enjoy in the world economy, competing at various times for dominance against the United States despite being almost completely devoid of natural resources.
Sowell takes the time to tell these tales of perseverance and success because he believes they have much to offer contemporary debates about racial inequality in America. In essence, Sowell believes that in choosing the path of racial separatism and political protest instead of assimilation and adoption of “middle-class” values, blacks and their liberal supporters have hindered black mobility. For Sowell, the question of black separatism and assimilation is central to today’s racial problems, and he makes extensive use of history and historical data to back up his case.
For example, Sowell highlights the “acculturation” of “successive generations of northern-born blacks . . . to the behavioral norms of the much larger white population in the latter half of the nineteenth century.” The adoption of white, middle-class habits and attitudes, Sowell argues, resulted in the rough equivalence between northern blacks and whites in terms of homicide rates, educational achievement, and family structure, which led to the substantial removal of racial barriers, the removal of legal restrictions for public accommodations, integrated neighborhoods, and contacts between upper class blacks and whites. Sowell quotes W. E. B. Du Bois when he observed in 1899 the “liberal spirit toward the Negro in Philadelphia.”
Sowell by no means sees assimilation of bourgeois norms as the pathway to cultural atrophy. Indeed, Sowell points out that adoption of “middle-class habits and attitudes” can lift black institutions, much as it did the famous Dunbar high school in Washington D.C. in the early part of the twentieth century, ironically a case study used often to herald the efficacy of black separatism. Dunbar was arguably the most successful black education endeavor of the first half of the twentieth century: Students there tested higher than two of the three white Washington high schools. Dunbar students at Yale, Harvard, Williams, Cornell, and Dartmouth graduated Phi Beta Kappa during this era. “Clearly,” writes Sowell, “racially segregated schools were not inherently inferior.”
But Sowell points out that Dunbar achieved its success by adopting many of the same practices as the most successful predominantly white schools; namely, discipline, appropriate comportment, high expectations, and a western oriented curriculum. Dunbar high was selective, students were motivated, adhered to strict disciplinary conduct, and were exposed to a demanding curriculum. Making it through Dunbar was no easy task, and the high attrition rate attested to its high academic and behavioral standards. Discipline was key and those who violated conduct codes were suspended or sent to other schools. Dunbar was a “meritocracy,” and the curriculum was decidedly western—“physics, chemistry, Latin, algebra, history, English, Greek, German, Spanish.” Dunbar’s western oriented curriculum and norms, according to journalist Allison Stewart, created a “self-sustaining black middle-class in Washington, D.C.” Dunbar fits neatly into Sowell’s theme that culture matters sometimes more than politics, in that some black parents and children were able to excel in an otherwise oppressive environment. Dunbar extolled the currently maligned middle-class norms which Sowell insists are a prerequisite to success.
Sowell’s history of blacks in the North needs qualification, as it leaves the serious student of American history somewhat discomfited. Evidence indicates that Sowell overestimates the success of black assimilation in the northern states. The antebellum North feared black migration even though blacks comprised only two percent of the black northern population through the start of World War I. The Oregon constitution of 1857, for example, had a black exclusion clause when the state had 52,000 whites and only100 blacks. The North had a vested interest in preventing large scale black migration and supported policies designed to sustain cotton production in the South using black labor. The famous Wilmot Proviso advocated the prohibition of the spread of both slavery and free blacks. The white North’s direct and indirect containment policy was largely successful. Ninety percent of all blacks in America still lived in the South in 1900. Only a war-induced labor shortage caused the white North to solicit black migration.
Had the white North been racially tolerant, America’s racial circumstances could have been quite different. Both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass advocated a diffusion policy to spread blacks throughout America. This would certainly have ameliorated some of the problems resulting from the Great Migration, allowing for the kind of assimilation Sowell believes was so critical to establishing a black middle-class. The ensuing labor shortage could also have put pressure on white southerners to acquiesce to black civil and economic rights.
In short, the white North’s acceptance of blacks was conveniently based on the tiny number of blacks in question. When large numbers of blacks migrated north, the creation of segregated ghettoes and race riots ensued.
But Sowell is right to emphasize that policy shifts from self-help and assimilation to separatism and special treatment have been extremely damaging. Dunbar high school’s demise is emblematic of this shift. The downfall of Dunbar was precipitated by the prohibition against selecting its students on the basis of motivation and aptitude from anywhere within the city. When schools were relegated to neighborhoods, the student quality deteriorated. It was just another “failing ghetto school with academic and behavioral problems.”
The shift in policy had a lot to do with the legal notion of “disparate impact,” which has led to the deleterious misuse of statistics, another of Sowell’s major themes. The idea that any law or policy that results in unequal outcomes is necessarily discriminatory lies behind many misguided policies. This would be true of any “one-factor” explanation of inequality, Sowell insists, whether they be based on the factor of “innate abilities” or the factor of racial prejudice. “Disparities,” Sowell writes, do not imply discrimination. Nor is discrimination automatically excluded. It is one of many possibilities each of which has to establish its claims with evidence, rather than being an automatic presumption.
do not imply discrimination. Nor is discrimination automatically excluded. It is one of many possibilities each of which has to establish its claims with evidence, rather than being an automatic presumption.
Nevertheless, the regime of disparate impact says that if blacks are achieving less in school, it has to be because the curriculum or funding formulas are biased and must be changed. If black pupils are being expelled for disciplinary violations at higher rates than whites, it must be because school staffs are prejudiced and singling out blacks. If, as has happened recently in New York City, a school system’s elite high schools admit disproportionately fewer blacks, the admissions criteria is biased and should be abolished.
The result of all this is to impose rules and policies that make it impossible—with the exception of some recent charter school efforts—to replicate the success of Dunbar. As Sowell points out, laws have now been written that largely prohibit the enforcement of student suspensions, expulsions, and forced transfer, simply because blacks make up a disproportionately high number of student suspensions. The predominance of the disparate impact interpretation of group outcomes drives the quest to achieve statistical parity, even if it means lower expectations and weaker educational outcomes.
Sowell tackles other important topics that make the book well worth the read. He provides a good but incomplete discussion of the black family, noting the sharp increase of black children raised in single parent homes, a result he believes of the perverse incentives of Great Society social programs. There is no doubt that the numbers increased dramatically since the 1960s, but black writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Whitney Young, Jr. and even Malcolm X had identified the dilemma of black family structure much earlier. It would be interesting to know Sowell’s thoughts on the relevance of these opinions predating the Great Society.
The final section on “The Past and the Future” deals with the position of past racial injustices beginning with slavery. Here, Sowell acknowledges the “valuable lessons that a knowledge of the past could teach.” But he recognizes the paralyzing impact of internalizing those tragedies: The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and the future—both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead, who are far beyond our power to help or avenge.
The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and the future—both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead, who are far beyond our power to help or avenge.
There are many topical themes which Sowell could not cover in this short book: Why are blacks underrepresented in private sector business? Why do black students gravitate to college majors with low remuneration and poor prospects for economic advancement? Why are there so few black conservatives? Nonetheless, Sowell’s work has increasing relevance in today’s world. Discrimination and Disparities is a concise and powerful statement that takes on the shibboleths surrounding racial inequality, and carefully leads us through the intricacies of America’s most sensitive and intractable social issue: the integration of black America into the nation’s mainstream.