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The Fatal Fallacies and Foibles of Race: A Review of Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell

With the calm, objective, and nearly disinterested panache he is noted for, in Intellectuals and Race* Thomas Sowell dissects a broad range of fallacies that have surrounded the touchy and often contentious subject of race. In this latest volume he doesn’t miss a trick, and covers as succinctly as possible the whole gamut of why “minorities” over the ages – and not just blacks, but Malays, poor whites in Britain, Jews, Arabs, and other ethnic and subcultural groups   – have shown little evidence of making progress in the 20th and 21st centuries in terms of standards of living, cultural assimilation, literacy, and so on, while others have sped ahead of other groups.

Sowell discusses two main schools of thought that have tried to explain and justify the phenomena, and why both have simply exacerbated, perpetuated, and even created the problems.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Progressives in the U.S. patronized blacks, Jews, and Southern and Eastern Europeans immigrating to the U.S. as groups that had to be taken care of, even though many Progressives believed that, because of their genetic makeup or their “native intelligence,” no measurable improvement could be made by these groups on their own. They were seen as innately or genetically incapable of rising to the intellectual, cultural and moral standards of the country they lived in or came to. Many writers of the early Progressive period advocated laws that would prohibit the immigration of races or groups who were claimed to be morally degenerate, congenitally diseased or nearly subhuman.

Statistical studies abounded with findings that attempted to “scientifically” correlate the causes of the lack of improvement among these groups. But Sowell lays down the law early on:

Intellectuals on opposite ends of the spectrum in different eras have been similar in another way: Both have tended to ignore the long-standing warning from statisticians that correlation is not causation. (p. 22, Italics mine.)

In short, the numbers, percentages and proportions are a consequence of other factors, and not their a priori cause. Racial friction, discrimination, and exclusionary policies enforced by a majority may cause some minorities to fail and others to advance in terms of employment, literacy, and economic comfort. Conversely, majorities can be the victim of racial friction, discrimination, and exclusionary policies if a minority is bestowed political power through venal and manipulative politicians and governments (e.g., affirmative action policies).

The ultimate responsibility for the causes of crime, immorality, irrationality, low intelligence and other deleterious consequences, Sowell points out, is the individual, who can allow himself to be influenced by external and internal factors.

Several writers (or intellectuals) advocated the sterilization of blacks, Jews, and Slavs (eugenics) to protect the “race” from being dragged down to the levels that would cause crime, anarchy and the dissolution of civilization. Most of these studies premised their findings, conclusions and recommendations on genetic or racial determinism.

In Britain, as in the United States, leaders and supporters of the eugenics movement included people on the left, such as John Maynard Keynes, who helped to create the Cambridge Eugenics Society, as well as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, Sidney Webb and Julian Huxley. Sidney Webb said, “as a nation we are breeding largely from our inferior stocks.” (p. 27)

Sowell writes about one leading American Progressive intellectual:

Another prominent contemporary economist, Richard T. Ely, one of the founders of the American Economic Association, was similarly dismissive of blacks, saying that they “are for the most part grown-up children, and should be treated as such.” Professor Ely was also concerned about classes that he considered inferior: “We must give to the most hopeless classes left behind in our social progress custodial care with the highest possible development and with segregation of sexes and confinement to prevent reproduction.” (p. 31)

Ely, continues Sowell, was typical among Progressives in his politics.

Richard T. Ely was not only a Progressive…he espoused the kinds of ideas that defined the Progressive era, years before that era began. He rejected free market economics and saw government power as something to be applied “to the amelioration of the conditions under which people live or work.” Far from seeing government intervention as a reduction of freedom, he redefined freedom, so that the “regulation by the power of the state of these industrial and other social relations existing among men is a condition of freedom.” While state action might “lessen the amount of theoretical liberty” it would “increase control over nature in the individual, and promote the growth of practical liberty.” (p. 31)

Sound familiar? Yesterday’s Progressives are today’s liberals, socialists, and wannabe tyrants. Increased and increasing “control over the individual,” regardless of a person’s race or ethnic origins, has been the dominant trend in politics in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sowell devotes particular attention also Madison Grant, a wealthy Progressive conservationist and author of a popular book The Passing of the Great Race (1916), in which he discussed the origins and geographical distribution of the “Teutonic Nordics” and predicted their submersion by the presumably less morally inclined and slothful “Alpine” and the “Mediterraneans.”  His book became Adolph Hitler’s “Bible.”

Despite its international influence, The Passing of the Great Race offered extremely little evidence for its sweeping conclusions. The great bulk of the book was a historical account of Alpine, Mediterranean and Nordic peoples in Europe and of the Aryan languages. Yet most of Madison Grant’s sweeping conclusions and the policies he recommended were about America – about the “inferior races among our immigrants,” about the need for eugenics and for “laws against miscegenation.” He asserted that “Negroes have demonstrated throughout recorded time that they are a stationary species and that they do not possess the potentiality of progress or initiative from within.” (p. 27)

Sowell delves into the political responsibility for much of the dissension and strife between “minorities,” in politics, and in the culture at large. The later Progressive movement eventually abandoned “genetics” as an explanation for minority stagnation and concocted the necessity for “equality” of results as the only solution, blaming a group’s social or economic environment for the endemic problems.

A much more common pattern has been one in which the intelligentsia have demanded an equality of economic outcomes and of social recognition, irrespective of the skills, behavior or performance of the group to which they belong or on whose behalf they spoke….Seldom are any of these assertions backed up by empirical evidence or logical analysis that would make them anything more than arbitrary assertions that happen to be in vogue among contemporary intellectual elites. (p. 44)

Although Sowell does not specifically attribute the conflicts between majorities and minorities to a manifestation of collectivism or “tribalism,” that is what he discusses throughout his book. In citing the growing power of ethnic identities throughout Europe, he describes, for example, the artificial conflict between Czechs and Germans.

A very similar process occurred in the Hapsburg Empire, where the Germans in Bohemia were an educated elite and where Czechs there who wanted to rise into that elite could do so by acquiring the German language and culture. But a new Czech intelligentsia …promoted Czech cultural nationalism. Czech nationalists, for example, insisted that street signs in Prague, which had been in both Czech and German, henceforth be exclusively in Czech…Symbolism – including intolerance toward other people’s symbols – has often marked the efforts of ethnic intelligentsia. (p. 45)

Moreover, Sowell notes that:

In various periods of history, the intelligentsia in general and newly educated people in particular have inflamed group against group, promoting discriminatory policies and/or physical violence in such disparate countries as India, Hungary, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Romania, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Czechoslovakia. (p. 47)

Islam is not discussed by Sowell in his book, but we can observe the political clout wielded by minority Muslims and their advocacy groups in Britain, Europe, Canada, and the U.S., in which this minority has succeeded in requiring that the majority accede to and conform to their frankly primitive beliefs and sub-culture, that non-Muslims adapt to Islamic mores and practices, and not Muslims adapt to the largely secular culture to which they have immigrated.

Sowell discusses at length the fact that blacks in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially those who had generational roots in Northern urban centers of the U.S., did not experience much discrimination, lived in mixed race neighborhoods without friction, attained middle- and upper-class economic and social levels, and, academically, often scored better than whites in test scores and did just as well as whites in schools. Moreover, when black immigration from the South began in the early 20th century to these same urban centers, generationally established blacks largely voiced the same complaints as whites about the behavior, social and moral norms, and crime that the Southern blacks brought with them.

Jews and Irish, Sowell also notes, had the same parallel experience and, ultimately, the same complaints about Eastern and Southern European Jews and Irish immigrants.

Multiculturalism seeks to reduce all cultures to the same nonjudgmental level and the same value. The key to understanding the government and intelligentsia-imposed phenomena is to grasp that it is the superior culture – the one that has produced science, technology, prosperity, and the arts – that is the culture that is allegedly the arbitrary, subjective, and “imperialistic.” By multiculturalist anti-standards, an Alaskan totem pole is the esthetic and spiritual equal as Michelangelo’s “David,” a rap song loaded with obscenities and malevolence is the equal of a Rachmaninoff symphony, and a witch doctor using herbs and chants is the equal of a brain surgeon.

One does not read or hear of the advocates of a superior culture proposing to bring black, Iraqi, Mexican, or Muslim culture up to the standards of the superior culture. It is always the reverse: the champions of the inferior culture using the superior culture as a measure to engulf and destroy.

Discussing the attacks on college admission tests and other measures of intelligence and abilities, and answering the charge by the egalitarian intelligentsia that these tests are racially biased and do not take into account the failures (or an individual’s “cultural” values) coming from invidious cultural and moral environments, Sowell makes a very important point:

If one chooses to call tests that require the mastery of abstractions culturally biased, because some cultures put more emphasis on abstractions than others do, that raises the fundamental questions about what the tests are for. In a world where the ability to master abstractions is essential in mathematics, science and other endeavors, the measurement of that ability is not an arbitrary bias. A culture-free test might be appropriate in a culture-free society – but these are no such societies. (p. 69)

I would argue that there are such cultures, the Islamic one being a notable instance, the current liberal, multicultural “culture” being another, with their mutual ends being to obliterate Western culture and civilization.

In a chapter titled “Race and Cosmic Justice,” Sowell tackles the “social justice” argument that attempts to excuse what one could call “reverse racism,” that is, of blacks, Latinos, or even Muslims blaming a Western, secular society for all the purported discrimination, exclusionary policies, and other ills these groups claim victimhood of, and subsequently resorting to politics to “correct” the perceived injustices, or to violence. In this attack on reason and values, the government and the Progressive/liberal intelligentsia have become an invaluable ally on the side of the destroyers.

Sowell distinguishes between “external” and “internal” influences that can cause individuals to join or remain in a group, especially if they have failed to make any progress in a purportedly “racist” society. Individuals who make that choice condemn themselves to continued failure, which simply perpetuates their conundrum and exacerbates their complaints and grievances.

If the dogmas of multiculturalism declare different cultures equally valid, and hence sacrosanct against efforts to change them, then these dogmas simply complete the sealing off of a vision from facts – and sealing off many people in lagging groups from the advances available from other cultures around them – leaving nothing but an agenda of resentment-building and crusades on the side of the angels against the forces of evil – however futile or even counterproductive these may turn out to be for those who are the ostensible beneficiaries of such moral melodramas. (p. 108)

I highly recommend Sowell’s book because it offers numerous insights into how the race “problem” has and has not been approached by our intellectual leaders. It largely has not been approached in the least rational manner except with agenda-governed fallacies and knee-jerk foibles guaranteed to perpetuate the problem our intellectuals supposedly wish to rectify.

* Intellectuals and Race, by Thomas Sowell. New York: Basic Books, 2013. 184 pp.