Intellectuals and Race
by Thomas Sowell
by Thomas Sowell: Economic
so many fallacies about race that it would be hard to say which
is the most ridiculous. However, 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.
A hundred years
ago, the fact that people from different racial backgrounds had
very different rates of success in education, in the economy and
in other endeavors, was taken as proof that some races were genetically
superior to others.
were considered to be so genetically inferior that eugenics was
proposed to reduce their reproduction, and Francis Galton urged
"the gradual extinction of an inferior race."
It was not
a bunch of fringe cranks who said things like this. Many held Ph.D.s
from the leading universities, taught at the leading universities
and were internationally renowned.
of Stanford University and of MIT were among the many academic advocates
of theories of racial inferiority – applied mostly to people from
Eastern and Southern Europe, since it was just blithely assumed
in passing that blacks were inferior.
This was not
a left-right issue. The leading crusaders for theories of genetic
superiority and inferiority were iconic figures on the left, on
both sides of the Atlantic.
Keynes helped create the Cambridge Eugenics Society. Fabian socialist
intellectuals H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were among many
other leftist supporters of eugenics.
It was much
the same story on this side of the Atlantic. President Woodrow Wilson,
like many other Progressives, was solidly behind notions of racial
superiority and inferiority. He showed the movie "Birth of a Nation,"
glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House, and invited various
dignitaries to view it with him.
dominated the first two decades of the 20th century. Now fast forward
to the last few decades of the 20th century. The political left
of this era was now on the opposite end of the spectrum on racial
issues. Yet they too regarded differences in outcomes among racial
and ethnic groups as something unusual, calling for some single,
of genes being the overriding reason for differences in outcomes,
racism became the one-size-fits-all explanation. But the dogmatism
was the same. Those who dared to disagree, or even to question the
prevailing dogma in either era were dismissed – as "sentimentalists"
in the Progressive era and as "racists" in the multicultural era.
Both the Progressives
at the beginning of the 20th century and the liberals at the end
started from the same false premise – namely, that there is something
unusual about different racial and ethnic groups having different
Yet some racial
or ethnic minorities have owned or directed more than half of whole
industries in many nations. These have included the Chinese in Malaysia,
Lebanese in West Africa, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, Britons in
Argentina, Indians in Fiji, Jews in Poland, and Spaniards in Chile
– among many others.
Not only different
racial and ethnic groups, but whole nations and civilizations, have
had very different achievements for centuries. China in the 15th
century was more advanced than any country in Europe. Eventually
Europeans overtook the Chinese – and there is no evidence of changes
in the genes of either of them.
Among the many
reasons for different levels of achievement is something as simple
as age. The median age in Germany and Japan is over 40, while the
median age in Afghanistan and Yemen is under 20. Even if the people
in all four of these countries had the same mental potential, the
same history, the same culture – and the countries themselves had
the same geographic features – the fact that people in some countries
have 20 years more experience than people in other countries would
still be enough to make equal economic and other outcomes virtually
Add the fact
that different races evolved in different geographic settings, presenting
very different opportunities and constraints on their development,
and the same conclusion follows.
Yet the idea
that differences in outcomes are odd, if not sinister, has been
repeated mindlessly from street corner demagogues to the august
chambers of the Supreme Court.
Once we recognize
that large differences in achievement among races, nations and civilizations
have been the rule, not the exception, throughout recorded history,
there is at least some hope of rational thought – and perhaps even
some constructive efforts to help everyone advance.
Even such a
British patriot as Winston Churchill said, "We owe London to Rome"
– an acknowledgement that Roman conquerors created Britain's most
famous city, at a time when the ancient Britons were incapable of
doing so themselves.
No one who
saw the illiterate and backward tribal Britons of that era was likely
to imagine that someday the British would create an empire vastly
larger than the Roman Empire – one encompassing one fourth of the
land area of the earth and one fourth of the human beings on the
many dramatic examples of the rise and fall of peoples and nations,
for a wide range of known and unknown reasons. What history does
not have is what is so often assumed as a norm today, equality of
group achievements at a given point in time.
had historic repercussions for centuries after the Roman Empire
had fallen. Among the legacies of Roman civilization were Roman
letters, which produced written versions of Western European languages,
centuries before Eastern European languages became literate. This
was one of many reasons why Western Europe became more advanced
than Eastern Europe, economically, educationally and technologically.
the achievements in other civilizations – whether in China or in
the Middle East – surged ahead of achievements in the West, though
China and the Middle East later lost their leads.
There are too
many zig-zags in history to believe that some single over-riding
factor explains all, or even most, of what happened, either then
or now. But what seldom, if ever, happened were equal achievements
by different peoples at the same time.
Yet today we
have bean counters in Washington turning out statistics that are
solemnly presented in courts of law to claim that, if the numbers
are not more or less the same for everybody, that proves that somebody
did somebody else wrong.
If blacks have
different occupational patterns or different other patterns than
whites, that arouses great suspicions among the bean counters –
even though different groups of whites have long had different patterns
from each other.
soldiers were given mental tests during the First World War, those
men of German ancestry scored higher than those of Irish ancestry,
who scored higher than those who were Jewish. Mental test pioneer
Carl Brigham said that the army mental test results tended to "disprove
the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent."
explanation is that most German immigrants came to the United States
decades before most Irish immigrants, who came here decades before
most Jewish immigrants. Years later, Brigham admitted that many
of the more recent immigrants grew up in homes where English was
not the spoken language and that his earlier conclusions were, in
his own words, "without foundation."
By this time,
Jews were scoring above the national average on mental tests, instead
of below. Disparities among groups are not set in stone, in this
or in many other things. But blanket equality of outcomes is seldom
seen at any given time either, whether in work skills or rates of
alcoholism or other differences among the various groups lumped
together as "whites."
Why then do
statistical differences between blacks and whites set off such dogmatic
assertions – and "disparate impact" lawsuits – when it is common
for different groups to meet employment or other standards to different
is that "disparate impact" lawsuits require nothing more than statistical
differences to lead to verdicts, or out of court settlements, in
the millions of dollars. And the reason that is so is that so many
people have bought the unsubstantiated assumption that there is
something strange and sinister when different peoples have different
recorded history say otherwise. But who cares about history any
more? Certainly not as much as they care about the millions of dollars
available from "disparate impact" lawsuits.
of intellectuals for some grand theory that will explain complex
patterns with some solitary and simple factor has produced many
ideas that do not stand up under scrutiny, but which have nevertheless
had widespread acceptance – and sometimes catastrophic consequences
– in countries around the world.
of genetic determinism which dominated the early 20th century led
to many harmful consequences, ranging from racial segregation and
discrimination up to and including the Holocaust. The currently
prevailing theory is that malice of one sort or another explains
group differences in outcomes. Whether the lethal results of this
theory would add up to as many murders as in the Holocaust is a
question whose answer would require a detailed study of the history
of lethal outbursts against groups hated for their success.
include murderous mob violence against the Jews in Europe, the Chinese
in Southeast Asia, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and the
Ibos in Nigeria, among others. Class-based mass slaughters of the
successful would range from Stalin's extermination of the kulaks
in the Soviet Union to Pol Pot's wiping out of at least a quarter
of the population of Cambodia for the crime of being educated middle
class people, as evidenced by even such tenuous signs as wearing
who have been more successful than the general population have been
the least likely to have gotten ahead by discriminating against
politically dominant majorities. Yet it is precisely such minorities
who have attracted the most mass violence over the centuries and
in countries around the world.
All the blacks
lynched in the entire history of the United States would not add
up to as many murders as those committed in one year by mobs against
the Jews in Europe, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire or the Chinese
in Southeast Asia.
What is there
about group success that inflames mobs in such disparate times and
places, not to mention mass-murdering governments in Nazi Germany
or the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia? We can speculate about the reasons
but there is no escaping the reality.
lag behind have often blamed their lags on wrong-doing by groups
that are more successful. Since sainthood is not common in any branch
of the human race, there is seldom a lack of sins to cite, including
haughtiness by those who happen to be on top for the moment. But
the real question is whether these sins – real or imagined – are
actually the reason for different levels of achievement.
whom we might expect to counter mass hysteria with rational analysis,
have all too often been in the vanguard of those promoting envy
and resentment of the successful.
This has been
especially true of people with degrees but without any economically
meaningful skills that would create the kinds of rewards they expected
or felt entitled to.
have been prominent as both leaders and followers of groups promoting
anti-Semitic policies in Europe between the two World Wars, tribalism
in Africa and changing Sri Lanka from a country once renowned for
its intergroup harmony to a nation that descended into ethnic violence
and then a decades-long civil war with unspeakable atrocities.
have inflamed group against group, promoting discrimination and/or
physical violence in such disparate countries as India, Hungary,
Nigeria, Czechoslovakia and Canada.
Both the intellectuals'
theory of genetic determinism as the reason for group differences
in outcomes and their opposite theory of discrimination as the reason
have created racial and ethnic polarization. So has the idea that
it must be one or the other.
The false dichotomy
that it must be one or the other leaves more successful groups with
a choice between arrogance and guilt. It leaves less successful
groups with the choice of believing that they are inherently inferior
for all time or else that they are victims of the unconscionable
malice of others.
factors make equal outcomes virtually impossible, reducing those
factors to genes or malice is a formula for needless and dangerous
polarization, whose consequences have often been written in blood
across the pages of history.
Among the many
irrational ideas about racial and ethnic groups that have polarized
societies over the centuries and around the world, few have been
more irrational and counterproductive than the current dogmas of
who imagine that they are helping racial or ethnic groups that lag
behind by redefining their lags out of existence with multicultural
rhetoric are in fact leading them into a blind alley.
is a tempting quick fix for groups that lag by simply pronouncing
their cultures to be equal, or "equally valid," in some vague and
lofty sense. Cultural features are just different, not better or
worse, according to this dogma.
Yet the borrowing
of particular features from other cultures – such as Arabic numerals
that replaced Roman numerals, even in Western cultures that derived
from Rome – implies that some features are not simply different
but better, including numbers. Some of the most advanced cultures
in history have borrowed from other cultures, because no given collection
of human beings has created the best answers to all the questions
since multiculturalists see all cultures as equal or "equally valid,"
they see no justification for schools to insist that black children
learn standard English, for example. Instead, each group is encouraged
to cling to its own culture and to take pride in its own past glories,
real or imaginary.
In other words,
members of minority groups that lag educationally, economically
or otherwise are to continue to behave in the future as they have
in the past – and, if they do not get the same outcomes as others,
it is society's fault. That is the bottom line message of multiculturalism.
once said that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual
could believe them. Multiculturalism is one of those ideas. The
intelligentsia burst into indignation or outrage at "gaps" or "disparities"
in educational, economic or other outcomes – and denounce any cultural
explanation of these group differences as "blaming the victim."
There is no
question that some races or whole nations have been victimized by
others, any more than there is any question that cancers can cause
death. But that is very different from saying that deaths can automatically
be blamed on cancer. You might think that intellectuals could make
that distinction. But many do not.
see themselves as friends, allies and defenders of racial minorities,
even as they paint them into a corner of cultural stagnation. This
allows the intelligentsia to flatter themselves that they are on
the side of the angels against the forces of evil that are conspiring
to keep minorities down.
When they cannot
come up with hard evidence in any particular case to support this
theory today, that just proves to the intelligentsia how fiendishly
clever and covert these pervasive efforts to hold down minorities
with high levels of mental skills and rhetorical talents would tie
themselves into knots with such reasoning is a mystery. Perhaps
it is just that they cannot give up a social vision that is so flattering
to themselves, despite how detrimental it may be to the people they
claim to be helping.
like the caste system, paints people into the corner where they
happened to have been born. But at least the caste system does not
claim to benefit those at the bottom.
not only serves the ego interests of intellectuals, it serves the
political interests of elected officials, who have every incentive
to promote a sense of victimhood, and even paranoia, among groups
whose votes they want, in exchange for both material and psychic
vision of the world also serves the interests of those in the media,
who thrive on moral melodramas. So do whole departments of ethnic
"studies" in academia and a whole industry of "diversity" consultants,
community organizers and miscellaneous other race hustlers.
losers in all this are those members of racial minorities who allow
themselves to be led into the blind alley of resentment and rage,
even when there are broad avenues of opportunity available. And
we all lose when society is polarized.
Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University. His Web site is www.tsowell.com.
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