I plunged into Thomas Sowell's latest book "Intellectuals and Race" immediately upon its arrival but soon realized that I needed to slow down. Many writers express a few ideas with a great cataract of words. Sowell is the opposite. Every sentence contains at least one insight or fascinating statistic, frequently more than one. His newest offering is only 139 pages (excluding notes), but tackles a huge question -- the damage that bad ideas on matters of race peddled by self-satisfied intellectuals have had and continue to have on the world.
Race is almost a national psychosis for Americans, distorting our perceptions and inhibiting rational debate. Sowell places our obsession in context both historically and internationally.
Progressive (i.e. early 20th century) intellectuals, some with the very best pedigrees, espoused views on race that make our skin crawl today. Madison Grant, influenced by the popularity of eugenics among intellectuals, published "The Passing of the Great Race," a warning that "superior" races (whites and particularly "Nordics") were losing ground to the "lower races." A believer in "genetic determinism," he disdained immigration as the "sweepings" from European "jails and asylums" and worried that "the man of the old stock is being crowded out ... by these foreigners just as he is today being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews."
His book was recommended by the Saturday Evening Post and reviewed in Science. It was translated into French, Norwegian and German. Hitler called it his "Bible."
There's nothing easier than to condemn such ignorance and bigotry today -- though few note, as Sowell (and Jonah Goldberg) do, that liberals/progressives, including Richard T. Ely, Edward A. Ross and Francis A. Walker, were among it chief propagators.
More challenging is to recognize the follies of your own time and to examine critically the assumptions that underlie our current racial theories. As he has in some of his other work (for example, in the absorbing "Ethnic America"), Sowell challenges what he calls the "moral melodrama" -- the belief that observed differences in outcomes for racial and ethnic groups are the result of discrimination. This unsupported assumption underlies our whole scheme of "disparate impact" and "affirmative action" programs.
Ethnic groups have different histories, cultures, traditions, median ages and abilities. Geography, disease, conquest and other factors affect the way cultures and peoples develop. Into our own time, economic disparities between the peoples of Eastern Europe and Western Europe were more pronounced than those between American blacks and whites. During the First World War, black Army recruits from Ohio, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania scored higher on mental tests than whites from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi.
People of Japanese ancestry produced 90 percent of the tomatoes and 66 percent of the potatoes sold in Brazil's Sao Paulo province in 1908. "In 1948, members of the Indian minority owned roughly nine-tenths of all the cotton gins in Uganda. In colonial Ceylon, the textile, retailing, wholesaling, and import businesses were all largely" in Indian hands "rather than in the hands of the Sinhalese majority."
Sowell is particularly fond of quoting the economic statistics documenting minority groups who outperform the majorities in many nations. It includes the Italians in Argentina, the Chinese in Malaysia, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, Greeks and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and, he might easily have added, Asians in the U.S. today. The urge to attribute all disparities to discrimination, Sowell argues, a) doesn't withstand scrutiny -- black unemployment, for example, was lower than white in 1930 when there was far more anti-black discrimination than today; and b) encourages damaging and divisive "solutions" like affirmative action that harm both the intended beneficiaries and deserving members of the majority group, and encourages sometimes violent conflict as in Sri Lanka, Canada, Hungary, Nigeria and many other nations.
In his survey of damaging thinking about race, Sowell makes extended stops at IQ, multiculturalism, crime and other matters. He brings to every subject the depth of understanding, copious research and impatience with cant that have made him one of America's most trenchant thinkers.