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The ‘Noble Lies’ of the New Race Politics

Individual and group differences are real. So is inequality. The contrarian Black intellectual Thomas Sowell, who turns 91 today, showed us the way to understand and to remedy both.

David Mikics
June 30, 2021
AP Photo/Taylor
Thomas Sowell on ‘Meet the Press,’ 1981AP Photo/Taylor
AP Photo/Taylor
Thomas Sowell on ‘Meet the Press,’ 1981AP Photo/Taylor

America’s most wildly successful Black intellectual, Ibram X. Kendi, has declared that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Kendi champions a two-tier system in which expectations for Black Americans are permanently lowered and test scores are abolished. If Kendi gets his way, the false, racist notion that African Americans can’t possibly match the achievement of other Americans will be set in stone—if they could, why would you need to hire based on skin color rather than talent?

The new moral order that supports this far-reaching program of state and institutionally sanctioned racism is based on a presumed Orwellian control over language. If you oppose the new racism, Kendi proclaims, then you’re a racist. Better sign on to the new “Black” math, designed by people who think African Americans deserve shoddy education—a revival of the old separate and unequal setup—or else face permanent consignment to the camp of Bull Connor.

For the polar opposite of Kendi, look to Thomas Sowell, who, at the age of 90, is the elder statesman of a wildly heterogeneous group of iconoclastic Black intellectuals, not all of them conservatives, including Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, Orlando Patterson, Walter Williams, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Anne Wortham, Gerald Early, Jason Riley, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and, on the socialist left, Adolph Reed, who couldn’t differ more with Sowell and Thomas on economics but finds common ground in the area of human equality. Riley has just written a biography of Sowell called Maverick, and the title fits. Sowell was born into poverty in North Carolina, grew up in Harlem, and after military service, he attended Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago in the era before affirmative action.

A student of George Stigler and Milton Friedman, Sowell abandoned his early Marxism to follow the free-market Chicago school of economics. He was a mentor to Black students at Howard and Cornell before quitting teaching to become a full-time researcher on society and economics at the Hoover Institute. Beginning in 1972 with Black Education: Myths and Tragedies, Sowell has weighed in on how to better the lives of Black Americans in a series of books that were mostly sneered at or ignored by the establishment left but are looking increasingly prescient in a new age of American race politics—this one propelled not by recidivist poor Southern whites but by power-seeking Northern white elites and their oligarchical sponsors.

Fifty years ago, Sowell was already denouncing the trends that now afflict fashionable movements like Black Lives Matter: pursuing symbolic results rather than real ones, choosing white guilt over Black advancement, and seeking special treatment instead of equal chances. Sowell knows that racism still persists, but he refuses to blame the gap between Black and white social outcomes on white supremacy, choosing instead to look to the ways that history shapes both group cultures and individual choices.

One of Sowell’s targets is equity, our current fetish—a word that now means trying to match the number of minority jobholders in every field to their proportion in the general population. The New York Times, whose banner is equity now and forever, has complained that although Black authors have recently won the lion’s share of Pulitzer Prizes, they write only 3.3% of published books, rather than 13.4%.

Extend this logic and you will start to wonder why 17.9% of all books are not written by Chinese authors, since that is China’s percentage of the world population.

And who says that people only have one identity? Should a female Black Christian author from Nigeria who attended Yale, dates women, and collects antique model trains be counted as Black, a woman, a Christian, a lesbian, a representative of Africa or of the “global South,” an Ivy League professional, or a train enthusiast? The answer is that “identity” is a malleable concept rooted in human hybridity and publishing is—or should be—a marketplace based on consumer choice. There is no way to make consumers’ decisions equitable other than having the government issue politically approved books to households, which is what public education in America is fast becoming.

And just as human individuality stubbornly refuses to be erased by racial and ideological binaries, just as it did in the days of “bad” 19th-century racism, as opposed to “good” 21st-century racism, group differences, rooted in the common cultural patterns of people who share common historical experiences with a given geography, will also persist, no matter who asserts control over the language we use to describe them.

Ethnic groups everywhere on the planet show distinct patterns—some have fewer authors and more pharmacists, or vice versa—and discrimination cannot account for these deviations from proportional representation. It would in fact be surprising if different groups didn’t perform differently, Sowell notes, since no society exists in which they have.

Troubling gaps exist, on account of neither individual human capacity nor group experiences being equal. There are still fewer Black professionals than there should be. Yet change happens. Sowell reminds us that a hundred years ago on the Lower East Side, Italian and Jewish immigrants, sitting next to each other in the same classrooms, performed very differently. But Italian and Irish Americans, who once lagged behind, have largely caught up, and Black Americans can as well, if a government boggled by progressive fantasies doesn’t hold them back while destroying the assurances of equal protection and opportunity under the law that allow individual members of all groups to realize their dreams.

Moreover, Sowell endows Black Americans with agency. He values the opinions of the Black community on crime, schooling, and quotas more than those of the African American intellectuals who are fawned over by the liberal press. Sowell is careful about statistics, and indignant when the press misuses them. The media’s favorite shocking statistic—that average Black household wealth is about $140,000 while white household wealth is $900,000—is seriously misleading, since almost the entire divergence is in the top 10% of Black and white households—i.e., within the elite that now styles itself as “woke.” Within the lower 50% of households, the gap between Black and white households is only 3%.

Perhaps the solution to America’s racial wealth gap isn’t to prefer Black elites to poor whites by reinvigorating 19th-century racial pseudoscience under the “woke” banner. Instead, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, George Soros, Laurene Powell Jobs, MacKenzie Scott, Mark Zuckerberg, and other billionaire sponsors of progressive causes might simply split their enormous fortunes in half with their favorite Black friend, venture capitalist, social activist, author, athlete or movie and television actor—and solve America’s burdensome racial “wealth gap” just like that.

In the tradition of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois, all of whom stressed the need for Black self-development and self-reliance, Sowell is a harsh critic of Black underclass culture, a task that is currently off limits for the mainstream press. In his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell argued that Black Southerners derived unfortunate rowdy habits from the whites around them, many of whom had ancestors from the Scottish highlands, where business acumen was nearly unknown, literacy was low, and men fought savagely, gouging out eyes and grabbing testicles when they felt insulted by a word or a look. It might be a stretch to trace the problems of the white as well as the Black underclass back to 17th-century Scotland, but then again, Sowell may be on to something. If culture matters, it makes sense to look at the white overseers who acculturated Black slaves into the new American culture.

The post-Civil War influx of white teachers, mainly from New England, who set up schools for Black children in the South during Reconstruction, embodied a contrasting culture, one that prized self-restraint, industriousness, and order. Such schools were “the finest thing in American history,” DuBois wrote. The best all-Black public schools in America, like Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., inculcated the same values, and their students—the sons and daughters of janitors and maids, not just doctors and lawyers—matched or exceeded their white peers. All this was lost when progressive education turned schools in underclass America into glorified holding pens for students who might be natively bright, but can’t pass basic tests in reading, writing, and math. Desegregation, too, often made Black kids feel inferior, so that they started to think that doing well in school meant “acting white.”

Like its Great Society predecessors, America’s new racial a-wokening has paid almost no attention to which policies work and which simply don’t. The policy goals that BLM and its allies have championed are either unrealizable (abolishing prisons) or harmful to the Black community (defunding police). The policies that do work have been spurned. School choice, first proposed by Milton Friedman, is enormously popular among African Americans, yet the expansion of charter schools is anathema to the left. There are majority-Black charter schools in New York that outperform majority-white public schools, but the left still insists that only integration will improve the lot of Black students, a hypothesis with no evidence behind it.

“Diversity,” another unassailable watchword of the moment, has not been shown to lead to better educational results for minority children. In one recent study, more diversity actually had a pronounced negative effect on the performance of minority students while raising the performance of whites. The study pointed out that “for Black students, as racial/ethnic groups become more equally represented within a school (meaning more ethnic groups than Black at a school), GPA decreases ... for White students, the opposite was true; higher levels of diversity were positively associated with better grades and test scores.” A rich irony: It turns out that classroom diversity hurts Black and helps white students.

David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), a network of free, open-enrollment charter schools for low-income students, which started in Houston and expanded to dozens of cities, recently apologized for basing KIPP on “white supremacy and anti-blackness.” He has denounced the KIPP slogan, “Work Hard. Be Nice,” as racist. Such groveling threatens the excellence of charters, the institutions that have done the most to level the playing field between Black and white Americans.

Whatever language is foisted on us by the new politics, it remains a fact that Black Americans suffer from a catastrophic murder rate that would be an all-consuming political crisis if it were happening in white communities. Active policing has its costs for innocent citizens who live in high crime areas; yet large majorities of Black Americans support increased policing in their neighborhoods to combat the unregulated violence of sociopathic drug gangs. Yet much of the left suggests that social workers can take the place of the police, taming gang warfare through therapy.

Sowell calls this the unconstrained vision, which he traces back to Enlightenment thinkers like William Godwin, who said that indoctrinating people in the proper ethical principles would lead to justice. Such principles were to be handed down by the elite, who already have a firm grasp on the truth. Policy questions are of no interest to the unconstrained thinker, since hearts and minds that embrace the truth can overcome all obstacles.

The constrained vision of the American founders, Sowell writes, is radically different. Instead of imposing moral ideals, they believed that “government was ... to utilize the inherent conflicts ‘sown in the nature of man’ as a means of preserving freedom.” Constrained thinkers believe that reliable laws and social processes, not the enlightened human heart, provide values.

Social progress, Sowell argues, is powered by constrained systems more than unconstrained calls for justice. Free markets regulated by law, and constrained by the wishes of consumers, have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. When governments arbitrarily hand out benefits to some groups rather than others, they tamper with the market and erode public confidence.

COVID relief is a case in point. Giving extra relief funds to minority-owned businesses has been challenged in court, and is probably unconstitutional. Supplying government benefits on the basis of skin color is not only illegal, but it also opens up new possibilities for fraud as businesses hire Black or “brown” figureheads. I put “brown” in quotes because, despite the press’s insistence to the contrary, most U.S. Latinos consider themselves white, and they oppose affirmative action by a wide margin.

Oppression existed long before whiteness, and most of the evils in the world have had little to do with race, a pseudoscientific concept that explains nothing. Whiteness is not the root cause of slavery, as current race preachers insist. As Sowell points out, it was only (“white”) Europe and America that recognized slavery as a moral problem. Britain tried to impose its anti-slavery stance on the parts of the world it ruled, even patrolling the East Coast of Africa to stop the Arab and African slave traders who brought their human cargo from the interior of the continent to coastal ports. Under British pressure, Saudi Arabia and Yemen abolished slavery only in 1962, Oman in 1970, and it still exists in parts of Africa.

Talking history rather than the crackpot metaphysics of “whiteness” also means recognizing class. “Privileged” is not a fitting word for the white single mother in Arkansas who works at Walmart. Among the poor, being the child of a single parent is the most significant negative factor for a child’s future—and the rates of single motherhood are far too high in both the Black and the white underclass. Meanwhile, being visibly Black is far from a disadvantage in the higher echelons of American culture, especially in the media. In academia, African American candidates—who are both underrepresented and in heavy demand—often have an enormous edge over their white peers when it comes to hiring and promotions. None of this makes up for the distrust that African Americans face when they apply for working-class jobs.

Even Derrick Bell, the founding father of Critical Race Theory, condemned the racial double standard as “benevolent paternalism,” saying it produces “feelings of inferiority in the students’ hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Bell was writing in 1970. He later decided that affirmative action was worth the price, but 50 years later, it has not led to progress for working-class Black Americans.

Sowell insists that his message resonates with ordinary African Americans, and he may be right. “I don’t think African American intellectuals are any more typical of African Americans than white intellectuals are of whites,” he told Charlie Rose.

Sowell’s trust in small-scale capitalism as an agent of social change won’t appeal to everyone. Some will prefer Adolph Reed’s emphasis on class-based solutions, or the 20th-century liberalism of John McWhorter. All of them disagree with the progressive insistence that white guilt is the path to Black achievement.

Riley in his biography of Sowell remarks that Black intellectuals like Kendi or Ta-Nehisi Coates “are far more interested in white behavior than in black behavior.” In Sowell’s work, that emphasis is reversed. “The moral rehabilitation of white people might be an interesting project, but I’m not sure we have all that much time to spare,” Sowell has said. A more just America will come into being not through self-serving elite word games or mandatory moral improvement campaigns funded by billionaires and backed by the coercive power of social media and the state but by keeping our eyes on what matters—learning, achievement, physical safety, family cohesion, and jobs.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.