Thomas Sowell

I happened to run into Charles Murray in Dulles International Airport while he and Richard Herrnstein were writing "The Bell Curve." When I asked him what he was working on and he summarized what he was writing, he could tell that I was concerned about him, so I told him why: "Charles, no matter what you say, people will hear what they want to hear."

That is one prediction that I wish had not come true, but it has. There are people who have never read a single word of "The Bell Curve," but who are convinced that they not only know what it says, but also know what the motivation was for saying it.

Partly this is because there are increasing numbers of people for whom indignation is a way of life. But that is not the sole reason. Historically, blacks have been among the many peoples accused of being innately inferior, especially in intelligence.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, Cicero warned his fellow Romans not to buy British slaves, because he found them hard to teach anything. A 10th-century Moslem scholar noted that Europeans grew more pale the farther north they were and that the "farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross, and brutish they are."

With our love of labels today, we might dismiss both these statements as "racism." In reality, both statements were probably true, as of the time they were made. At the very least, the people who said these things were eyewitnesses, which we cannot possibly be.

Britain was a primitive, illiterate, tribal land at a time when the Roman Empire was in its glory as one of the most advanced civilizations on earth. A Briton transplanted to Rome in captivity must have found this complex civilization completely baffling and was probably none too quick to understand instructions on what to do and how to do it in such a wholly unfamiliar setting.

As of the 10th century, the Islamic world was more advanced than Europe in general and far more advanced than the northern regions of Europe, which had for centuries lagged behind Mediterranean Europe. The relative development of these different regions of Europe, especially in economic terms, would be reversed in later centuries, but what the Moslem scholar said in the 10th century was probably still true then.

The point here is that there have always been gaps between the development of one people and another, even if their relative positions did not remain the same permanently, and even if their genes had nothing to do with it. In the case of blacks in the United States, there was a special reason for particularly negative pronouncements.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate