Thomas Sowell: Tragic Optimist

Thomas Sowell: Tragic Optimist

Samuel Kronen
Samuel Kronen
27 min read

History is not destiny.
~Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture

Somewhere out of the mysterious interplay between nature and nurture, internal and external factors, cultures and structures, and bottom-up and top-down forces there emerge the individual and group outcomes that we care about and which ultimately make the difference between human flourishing and its absence. What distinguishes various political ideologies, in effect, is how the line of causation is drawn, or, more specifically, from which direction. What gets left unexamined in the rush for compelling narratives and ideological certainty, however, is the territory between different causes and how they combine to shape reality. Few have gone further to map that territory than the American economist, political philosopher, and public intellectual Thomas Sowell.

At 90 years of age, Sowell remains among the most prolific, influential, and penetrating minds of the past century. He understands the world in terms of trade-offs, incentives, constraints, systemic processes, feedback mechanisms, and human capital, an understanding developed by scrutinizing available data, considering human experience, and applying robust common sense. Sowell has written over 50 books according to his late friend Walter E. Williams, in which he has applied a humanist economic lens to issues as far-ranging as racial inequality, cultural history, intellectuals, Marxism, charter schools, late-talking children, and affirmative action policies around the world. His nationally syndicated column was published for decades in over 150 different newspapers, including National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. His ability to write with authority on a wide range of issues stems from a genuine curiosity about the world as it is and human beings as they are, not how things ought to be.

In his 2000 memoir A Personal Odyssey, Sowell recounts a parable that was read to him as a young boy and which he never forgot. “One story I found sad at the time, but remembered the rest of my life, was about a dog with a bone who saw his reflection in a stream and thought that the dog he saw had a bigger bone than he did. He opened his mouth to try to get the other dog’s bone—and of course lost his own when it dropped in the water. There would be many occasions in life to remember that story.”1 This set the tone for a life and career committed to closing the gap between image and reality. This is why Sowell’s contributions extend beyond partisan politics. His basic concern is with the dynamism, diversity, and development of living human beings, not inter-temporal sociological abstractions or racial archetypes that can be leveraged for political or moral power. Likewise, his basic orientation is that of a culturalist, with a belief in the effectiveness of evolved ideas, skills, attitudes, interests, and norms to change the course of human history, and the autonomy of individuals to adopt better cultural imperatives to improve their prospects and, crucially, those of their children.

“Cultures are not bumper stickers,” he once said during a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are living, changing ways of doing all the things that have to be done in life… Their legacies belong to all people and all people need to claim that legacy, not seal themselves off in a dead-end of tribalism or an emotional orgy of cultural vanity.” His work tells a story of human progress and cultural evolution amid the challenges of living in a multi-ethnic democracy and against the historical determinism and cultural relativism that prevent us from meeting our deepest potential as individuals and societies.

“With all that I went through,” Sowell says of his own rise to prominence, “it now seems in retrospect almost as if someone had decided that there should be a man with all the outward indications of disadvantage, who nevertheless had the key inner advantages needed to advance.”2

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Sowell’s journey began on June 30th, 1930, in Gastonia, North Carolina, where he was born into poverty and segregation. Both of his biological parents died within the first few years of his life and Sowell was sent to live with his great-aunt and her adult daughters, not learning the truth of his origins until much later. There was no electricity or running water in the house and light and heat required the use of kerosene. Sowell was baffled to discover two running faucets in the kitchen of a white family his elder sister worked for, remarking at the time: “They must sure drink a lot of water around here.”3 He had almost no contact with white people and couldn’t understand why some of the characters in the comics he was reading had yellow hair.4 Of his schooling in the south, he wrote, “My only memories are of fights, being spanked by the teacher, having crushes on a couple of girls and the long walk to and from school.”5 With the attention and care of multiple adult family members, Sowell had already learned to read by the time he entered grade school and quickly excelled, managing all the course material for the semester in a couple of weeks. He speaks happily of his childhood. They were poor, but they had more.

On Mother’s Day 1939, when Sowell was eight years old, his family moved to Harlem as part of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities. The experience was a major culture shock. Nobody in his family had made it beyond the seventh grade and the move was intended to expand his prospects. Sowell was encouraged to acculturate to city life and develop middle class norms, and discouraged from playing with the kids on his block. His family members introduced him to a neighborhood boy of West Indian heritage named Eddie Mapp, a good student who could play classical music on the piano. It was Mapp who brought the nine-year-old Sowell to his first public library. “Unknown to me at the time, it was a turning point in my life, for then I developed the habit of reading books.”6 As Sowell recounts in the recent documentary Common Sense in a Senseless World, narrated by the Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley (author of a forthcoming biography on Sowell), “Really, had I not encountered [Mapp], the entire rest of the story could not have been the way it was.” Cultural exposure was crucial to his development.

The Harlem schools were more rigorous than those in the south and adjusting to the higher academic standards was a difficult process. He began at the bottom of the class but refused to be held back a grade and even went to the principal to argue his case. Sowell consistently had trouble dealing with authority—or perhaps authority had trouble dealing with him. He resented the arbitrary rules and regulations of the school system and had physical altercations with his male teachers on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, he was already beginning to grasp the true diversity and complexity of American life. His junior high school was in a lower-middle-class white neighborhood comprised of over 40 different ethnic groups, “proud of its diversity and maybe a little too self-congratulatory.”7 It was here that he noticed one of his first racial disparities: “I do not recall ever losing a fight to a white kid my own size.”8

Sowell began to develop a distaste for the paternalism of low expectations and impoverished standards to which minorities tended to be held. In middle school, his class was discouraged from taking the qualifying tests for the better high schools in Harlem to avoid embarrassing the school if few (or none) of them got in. “Everyone from our class passed every high school exam we took… The teacher’s gross misjudgements of our ability… was a powerful example of what unspoken feelings can do.” Still, many of his teachers served him well, and, sadly, Sowell believes the Harlem schools of the 1930s and ’40s were much better than they are today.

Sowell entered the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Downtown Manhattan on the advice of Mapp. The workload was much higher and it began to create a rift with his family, who couldn’t wrap their minds around why he was at the library so much. His aunt, in particular, grew bitter about Sowell’s academic success. “She became, and remained over the years, ambivalent about my progress—proud of my advancement and yet resentful of being left behind, inconsistent in word and deed, tenaciously determined to assert her authority, however arbitrarily, and yet with a premonition that our relationship—never the strongest—was completely unraveling.”9

With the stress of life at home, Sowell fell behind in school and eventually dropped out at 17 after a bout with illness further disrupted his education. He took up a job as a Western Union messenger, and here first encountered poor and semi-literate white people, some of whom were of immigrant backgrounds and needed to have their telegrams read to them. “It was my first realization that life is tough all over.”10 Naturally creative, he tried his hand at illustrating and writing short stories for a time. When he was lent an old camera by a work colleague, he developed a lifelong passion for photography. Meanwhile, his relationship with his aunt finally deteriorated beyond repair—after an extended legal dispute over his living situation, he left her apartment to stay in a homeless boys’ shelter for a brief time where he kept a knife under his pillow in case he needed to defend himself.

Sowell was scrambling for a path forward, applying for jobs around the city and trying to figure things out. It was a rough patch. After he was laid off by a machine shop in the garment district, he recalls “wondering what the future held, as I looked out the factory window, down into the canyons of midtown Manhattan, where the Christmas decorations were still out and the snow was softly falling.”11 He would soon visit Washington, DC to apply for a job as a clerk, and became increasingly preoccupied by the issue of race. Segregation was still in place in the nation’s capital and his first published piece of writing was a letter to the Washington Star urging the desegregation of the city’s public schools. Grabbing a burger in the city meant standing to eat while whites sat at the counter. He had arguments with his brother about the issue, who kept reminding him of the strides blacks were making. “Great, William,” Sowell would reply. “Why don’t we go drink to that—at a bar downtown?”12

On one occasion, he bought a secondhand set of encyclopedias for $1.17 and discovered Karl Marx, a thinker whose ideas would enthral him for the next decade. “The ideas seemed to explain so much, and explain it in a way to which my grim experience made me very receptive.”13 Sowell simply could not understand the yawning chasm between the Harlem tenements and the extravagant wealth of lower Manhattan. “I wondered, ‘Why is this?’ It’s so different.” he recounts in Riley’s documentary. “And nothing in the schools or the books seemed to deal with that. Marx dealt with that.” His disappointments were channeled into radicalism. “I was appalled at this discrepancy between the ideal and the actual, which is how I judged, as a young radical—not according to what the limited alternatives might have been.”14

In 1951, Sowell was drafted for the Korean War. He was recruited as a marine and went through bootcamp before working as a photographer at a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida. His description of military life reads like an endless series of shenanigans to avoid work and stymie authority. “As elsewhere throughout my life, I made enough enemies to get me in trouble and enough friends to get me out of it.”15 Upon returning to New York after his time in the military, Sowell began working in the stockroom of a camera store while taking classes at night to earn his general equivalency diploma. Leaving work one evening, he mentioned to the elevator man that he was too tired to go to school that night. The man “became distressed, alarmed, and urged me to go to school anyway. With surprising emotion, he told me how he had thrown away opportunities when he was young and regretted it ever afterwards.”16 The exchange stood out to him, emblematic of a different era of greater social trust in the country when adults were more willing to steward and forewarn the young.

Soon, Sowell began taking classes at the all-black Howard University in Washington, DC. One night, his sociology professor announced that the Supreme Court had overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine upon which Jim Crow laws were based. The class was asked to reflect on the decision. “All of us were, of course, in favor of it, but many of my classmates seemed to have the most Utopian expectations that this was going to lead to some magical solution to problems of race and poverty.”17 His skepticism, unfortunately, was prescient.

At Howard, Sowell met the renowned poet Sterling Brown. It was during professor Brown’s creative writing class that Sowell “acquired an appreciation of the beauty and power of plain writing, which helped me the rest of my life when writing nonfiction.” But Sowell found other elements of the institution wanting. “Most students—and faculty members—were just not serious about intellectual work. They might sometimes be somber about it, or unctuous about it, or even pompous about it, but they were not serious about it.” Sowell was eventually able to secure a place at Harvard by virtue of his high standardized test scores and teacher recommendations, including that of Brown. “Although a bitterly eloquent critic of racism in his writings,” Sowell writes of his former teacher, “he also understood the pitfalls of a victim mentality.” When he left Howard, he recalls Brown telling him, “Don’t come back here and tell me you didn’t make it ’cause the white folks were mean.”18

Sowell would go on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard in 1958 with a bachelor’s in economics. Moreover, his upbringing had made him resilient to Harvard’s elitist social norms. “What I most disliked about Harvard was that smug assumptions were too often treated as substitutes for evidence or logic.” Sowell developed a technique to deal with his classmates’ racial condescension. “My strategy was to ask innocent-sounding leading questions, until [my opponent] had gotten himself way out on a limb—and then begin sawing off the limb.”19 Sowell would later receive his master’s from Columbia before moving on to the Chicago School of Economics, where he studied under Milton Friedman and George Stigler. The ideological differences between Sowell and his advisors were overshadowed by the intellectual rigor of the Chicago School, which was “quite unlike the question-begging smugness of Harvard.” Sowell received his PhD in economics in 1968 and wrote his dissertation on Say’s Law, a foundational concept of classical economics, even though he remained a committed Marxist for most of that period.

The following decade, however, would bring disillusion. Sowell had held onto his leftist convictions throughout school, but direct experience exposed the knowledge gap between practical wisdom and bureaucratic expertise and disabused him of his belief that government intervention could resolve social issues. While he was working as an economist for the Department of Labor one summer, Sowell was tasked with studying the sugar cane industry in Puerto Rico and its minimum wage laws. To determine whether the law itself was creating unemployment or if there were other environmental factors at play, he decided to look at how much sugar cane there was before and after a recent hurricane. His colleagues were stunned. Minimum wage laws made up a significant chunk of the Department of Labor’s budget, and the experience showed him how the decisions of those charged with serving the public good were guided by their own set of incentives and interests. Against the wishes of the Department, he sent a request for the necessary information up the chain of command. “That was 1960. I have yet to receive a reply to my request.”20

Sowell was also beginning to harbor doubts about the direction of black activism after the legislative and cultural victories of the civil rights movement. Even with segregation abolished, there was clearly much work to be done. But Sowell was unable to identify with the obsessive fixation on racism at the expense of more practical, developmental concerns. “Given all the urgent needs for more and better education, for example, and for all the things that can be obtained with the fruits of work skills and business experience, how much time and effort could be spared for endless campaigns to get into every hamburger stand operated by a redneck?” he remembers thinking at the time. “Not only did this seem like an investment that ought to be put somewhere else, it annoyed me that we seemed to be constantly seeking acceptance and validation by white people—any white people at all, anywhere.”21

Symbolic of the turn toward black power in the 1960s, the tone of the moral leadership had likewise shifted. One day, Sowell turned on the television to find James Baldwin telling an audience, “I’ve just come back from seeing a dead boy—and you killed him.” Sowell’s immediate response was, “Not me, Jim. I’ve been here in the apartment all day.” The dead boy to whom Baldwin referred was actually a man in his 20s who had died of an overdose. “Apparently, ‘society’ was to blame, or more specifically whites in the society. However, Baldwin was a master of images, not logic. Psychological warfare was the stock in trade of the new charismatic leaders, and the tactic of putting others on the moral defensive was sometimes used against blacks as well as against whites.”22 Curiously, Baldwin and Sowell grew up mere blocks from each other and only a few years apart, but came away with completely different ideas about the world.

Compounding these misgivings, Sowell taught at a number of universities in the 1960s and ’70s—Howard, Amherst, Cornell, UCLA—and was disturbed by the going academic trends, particularly regarding race. He enjoyed teaching but was discouraged at every turn by the university system. His teaching style emphasized the principles of tough love, neutrality, and critical thinking. He refused to grade on a curve or reveal his own opinions as he encouraged students to develop their own analytical powers. He was constantly hassled to go easier on his students and scorned by his fellow faculty when he failed to do so. At a staff meeting held to determine Sowell’s future at Cornell, “the worst term of opprobrium used against me in the meeting, I was told, was that I was ‘uncompromising.’”23

But beyond the widespread resistance to his teaching methods and the apparent indifference of the administration to student development, something much worse was happening within the black cohort on campus. Affirmative Action policies were taking off, and Sowell began noticing growing angst among the black students funneled into activism. He saw desperate and alienated young people who recoiled from being treated as disposable tokens used to exonerate the university of racism, no matter how many of the students failed to graduate in the process. He saw the students’ endless demands for racial concessions—black studies departments, separate dorms and graduation ceremonies—as arising from the same foundational insecurity: The fear of being seen as inferior in an environment that constantly seemed to confirm it.

Sowell recognized that preferential racial policies in college admissions were mismatching black students with schools above their academic level. This, in turn, often caused them to fall behind or drop out when they could have done much better in less demanding environments. The problem was not so much the content of the classes than the pace at which those classes moved. But rather than acknowledging the issue, it was easier to rail against racial oppression, sparing them the shame and embarrassment that might otherwise have motivated them to work harder. Worse, it was in the interests of the predominantly white faculty to encourage the students’ paranoid delusions—either to alleviate feelings of guilt or, more likely, to cover for themselves. Sowell was appalled, realizing that he wouldn’t have done as well in school had he been told that his unpreparedness was actually a consequence of racism rather than simply not being good enough at math or English. It was an easy excuse for failure that precluded the difficult effort of development.

Many of his fellow black faculty understood what was happening but were terrified to say so. Any black academic who openly challenged the efficacy of Affirmative Action policies or other Great Society programs meant to benefit blacks was certain to be stigmatized as a race traitor. And, of course, no white academic could protest. Sowell was reluctant to write about race because the subject lay outside his specialty. “Let the professionals handle it,” he thought. Then, he actually read what the so-called professionals had to say and decided that “if these are the professionals then maybe it’s time to give an amateur a try!”

And so, even though he knew his views would be greeted with hostility, Sowell began writing about race out of a sense of moral obligation. He set out his basic concerns about the course of post-civil rights liberalism in a 1970 New York Times article, excoriating the institutional practice of passing over highly qualified blacks who didn’t fit a certain sociological or ideological profile. Consequently, Sowell gained infamy as one of the first “black conservative” figures on the American scene, despite never wholly accepting the label. Attacks from the media and from former colleagues came thick and fast and would continue for years to come. He would go on to publish two books about race in the 1970s—Black Education: Myths and Tragedies and Race and Economicssetting a new career trajectory that would earn him a National Humanities Medal among other accolades. After some time spent in and out of the business world, his career in academia was drawing to a close. Sowell ended the decade by publishing his crowning achievement, Knowledge and Decisions, a book that earned him a fellowship at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.

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Published in 1980, Knowledge and Decisions crystallized Sowell’s work in economics and life experience to that point, setting the stage for his later writings. Inspired by Friedrich Hayek’s essay “The Uses of Knowledge in Society,” the book emerged from the observation that the knowledge necessary for complex technological societies to function was increasingly uncoupled from the ability of everyday citizens to make decisions that impact the quality of their lives. In the same way that the objects we see in the world are mostly made up of empty space with dispersed specks of matter keeping them together, in modern societies “specks of knowledge are scattered through a vast emptiness of ignorance, and everything depends on how solid the individual specks of knowledge are, and on how powerfully linked and coordinated they are with one another.”24 Each of us is ensconced in a wide spectrum of overlapping and interlocking institutions—families, friend groups, churches, schools, companies—that mobilize and coordinate the knowledge and experience of previous generations. These form the basis of individual decisions in the present—what to teach our children, what food to eat, how to help the less fortunate, and so on. But the dispersion and specialization of knowledge leads to a contraction and centralization of decision-making power, while the hard knowledge and practical wisdom passed down through the ages is overtaken by intellectual or technical expertise wielded by the few over the many.

The knowledge required to make decisions for an entire society can’t be harnessed by any human being because most of us have no sense of the complex economic processes involved in producing a cup of coffee or a box of tissues. Given our lack of omniscience and the economic principle of scarcity, there can be no unequivocal solution to any major social issue, only trade-offs, which create their own undesirable outcomes. We can’t merely choose to construct a better reality. Improving the conditions of society means setting certain systemic processes in motion that correspond to objective realities and abide by certain principles—representative democracy, the rule of law, universal humanism, due process—with inbuilt feedback mechanisms that constrain decision-making powers and mitigate bad incentives.

No matter how appealing a policy proposal may sound—the Green New Deal, the push to “Defund The Police,” prison abolition, the War on Drugs—we should always ask what process we are setting in motion and who gains power to make decisions by it. “The most fundamental question is not what decision to make but who is to make it—through what processes and under what incentives and constraints, and with what feedback mechanisms to correct the decision if it proves to be wrong.”25 There is an essential difference, Sowell argues, between market forces and government policy—the former result from the cumulative decisions of millions of people with immediate feedback through the price system, while the latter stems from the immediate decisions of politicians with cumulative feedback, if any, and practically no responsibility for the outcome.

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The vision of humanity that informs Knowledge and Decisions is a tragic one. There are, Sowell argued, inherent limitations and constraints to the human condition and it is dangerous to ignore them. In his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions, which he cites as his favorite, Sowell shows just how deep ideological disagreements go. If you show up at a pro-life meeting, it’s quite likely there will be much agreement to be found among attendees on many other unrelated political issues. Why is this? Because, at bottom, when we argue about politics or culture it is not about the details of this-or-that issue or policy, it is about our implicit understanding—or vision—of how reality works. Visions are what we feel before we think, an intuition about what causes things to happen in the world. Visions, according to Sowell, “fill in the necessarily large gaps in individual knowledge.”26 We need them. But our respective visions conflict on a fundamental level, fashioning the psychological terrain upon which political and cultural debates take place.

The opposite of what Sowell calls the tragic or the constrained vision is the unconstrained vision. From the halls of Yale to the boardrooms of the New York Times, the unconstrained view is the prevailing vision in modern American culture. If the tragic vision works to check the darker elements of human nature, the unconstrained vision works to free our better angels from the chains of the past. While the constrained vision finds prosperity, peace, and public order unusual in an inherently chaotic and brutal universe, the unconstrained vision finds poverty, war, and criminality unusual and unnecessary in a world where things could be otherwise.

At bottom, the visions conflict over the meaning of history: Is our collective past a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom from which to draw, or a hornet’s nest of injustice and oppression that we need to discard in the name of progress? A person’s preferred vision also informs his attitude toward life itself. The constrained vision accepts tragedy as an unavoidable part of being human and seeks to make the best of things. The unconstrained vision takes human tragedy as evidence that something has gone wrong and someone is to blame—once we fix the problem and remove the blameworthy people we will return to our natural state of goodness. “We will do almost anything for our visions,” Sowell writes in the preface, “except think about them. The purpose of this book is to think about them.”27

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Sowell spent over a decade traveling the world in search of an answer to one of the central questions of contemporary political debate: Why are there such massive disparities in wealth and income between different racial and ethnic groups and among different nations and civilizations? The upshot of these investigations was his comprehensive trilogy on the impact of culture across the world and throughout history in the development of modern society—Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures, and Conquests and Cultures. Prevailing wisdom holds that unequal outcomes are a consequence of unequal treatment and power differentials, and that group disparities will dissipate in their absence. However, as Sowell summarizes in Race and Culture, there are countless examples of minority groups around the world beginning in poverty and going on to achieve remarkable success, dominating entire industries in the face of majoritarian hostility and in the absence of political representation or power.

For example, in the late-19th century, the German minority in Czarist Russia made up about one percent of the population and yet constituted 40 percent of Russia’s high ranking military generals28—diplomatic correspondences were even written in German. And those were mainly Baltic Germans, who made up a smaller proportion of that one percent than either Black Sea Germans or Volga Germans. Indeed, it is difficult to find any sector of society, anywhere in the history of the world, without such disparities. The list of minority groups who went on to out-earn the ethnic majorities around them could be extended almost indefinitely—the Parsis in India, the Japanese in the Americas, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, the Italians in South America, the Lebanese in West Africa, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Jews in Europe, the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire. The question is not why there are disparities between different groups of people, but why we would ever expect different groups with completely different histories and cultures to excel at the same pace in the same endeavors.

We all began in poverty; what matters is how we got out. The determining factor in a group’s advancement is the evolved set of skills, work habits, attitudes, norms, interests, and values inherited from their cultural past—a group’s human capital—which evolved from contact with other cultures in other times and places through migration and conquest amid the expansion and contraction of different civilizations. Moreover, the range of a group’s cultural contacts is heavily influenced by geographical factors like navigable waterways and the contours of the land. For instance, Europe has a longer coastline than Africa despite being nowhere near its size, historically providing it with more channels through which to exchange with and learn from other societies.

When the British came to North America, for example, they did so on a ship with rudders invented in China, and they navigated with trigonometry from Egypt, letters invented by the Romans, and numbers from India brought west by Arabs. Millennia earlier, there were no buildings in Britain until the Romans built them, nor was there anything resembling London before the Romans built that, too. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the standard of living in Western Europe deteriorated, opening the continent to invasion by the Mongols, the Ottomans, and the Moors, before emerging centuries later as a world power. “A history which spans thousands of years,” Sowell writes, “encompassing the rise and fall of empires and of peoples, makes it difficult—if not impossible—to believe in the permanent superiority of any race or culture.”29

Sowell is telling a story of human history, in which economic development and cultural diffusion are more important than zero-sum political power struggles. Shattering the false binary of heredity versus environment, he argues that “peoples whose skills and values have been shaped by different external factors in the past tend today to have different internal cultural patterns with which to confront the opportunities and challenges presented by external conditions in the present.”30 Culture is inherited, at least in the sense that we acquire it from our parents, and yet it remains highly malleable across time.

Moreover, culture goes deeper than race. Different ethnic groups of the same race live side by side but yield vastly different outcomes and succeed in different areas, whether it be the Italian and Jewish immigrants to America in the late-19th and early-20th century, or West Indian and native-born blacks more recently. As Sowell bluntly puts it, “Jews are not Italians and Italians are not Jews.” Of course they’re not. Every ethnic group trails its own unique set of cultural features, some of which are better equipped to flourish in a complex knowledge-based economy than others. Individual blame, moreover, has nothing to do with the cultural patterns we happen to acquire from our ancestors, which develop beyond anyone’s choosing through a complex tangle of historical, geographic, and demographic forces. Still, by recognizing how our cultural past affects us today, some degree of freedom is opened within those constraints—we can adopt different values if we want to. This is, after all, how we got here. Every group goes through this.

In contrast to the multicultural ethos that seeks to “preserve cultures in their purity, almost like butterflies in amber,” Sowell argues that “cultural features do not merely exist as badges of identity to which we have some emotional attachment. They exist to meet the necessities and forward the purposes of human life.” And just because a certain culture served a purpose in a past environment, that doesn’t mean it serves any useful purpose in the present. Some cultural features are clearly better than others, just as books are better than scrolls and Arabic numerals are better than Roman numerals. “Cultural competition is not a zero-sum game. It is what advances the human race… No culture has grown great in isolation, but a number of cultures have made great and astonishing advances when their isolation was ended. Those who use the term cultural diversity to create a multiplicity of segregated ethnic enclaves are doing an enormous harm to the people in those enclaves.” In short, cultural exposure, criticism, appropriation, and competition are how we progress as human beings, while relativism is a path backwards.

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In his 2005 book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell applies his culture concept to race issues in America. Why is it that, more than a half-century after the civil rights movement, the condition of lower-class black Americans has remained practically the same or even worsened? The progressive response to this question points to the compounding historical effects of racism and white supremacy, but Sowell offers an alternative thesis. Blacks, he argues, who lived predominantly in the south until the Great Migration, adopted the cultural heritage of white southerners, who originally descended from the northern borderlands of England, the Scottish Highlands, and Ulster County in Ireland. The inability of this culture to adapt to modern life helps explain the vicious cycle of urban crime and poverty among blacks.

The same cultural patterns found in the worst urban black ghettos today were, for centuries, recorded in those parts of the British Isles from which white southerners immigrated—styles of speech, religious oratory, touchy pridefulness, resistance to education, promiscuity, money habits, even particular card games—before dying out in Britain and the south. In the debauched and marauding regions of the British Isles, what Sowell calls the redneck or cracker culture was necessary for survival, but it outlived its original use.

Sowell contends that it is no longer white racism but a particular set of cultural elements that inhibit the development of poor blacks in America’s inner-cities. Many of the racial barriers erected in the 20th century were overreactions among northern whites to the black redneck culture of the south during the Great Migration—barriers that would take on a life of their own. The same barriers were upheld, to an even greater extent in some cases, against white southerners moving north. Meanwhile, the northern population of blacks lived side by side with whites and attended integrated schools for generations before such barriers were erected.

In the decades preceding the civil rights movement—a period of virulent racism and institutional segregation—black Americans were rapidly advancing on whites along a number of socio-economic metrics, from labor participation rates to household wealth and employment.31 Sowell attributes these advancements, in large part, to the acculturation efforts of New England teachers who established black schools in the south. In this telling, civil rights were more of an effect than a cause of black development. But after the 1960s, many of these patterns stalled or even reversed.

In Sowell’s view, this development was the result of two factors. First, the unintended consequences of various War on Poverty and Great Society programs such as the expansion of welfare rolls and various federal housing initiatives—framed as reparational at the time—that effectively discharged black responsibility, discouraged entrepreneurship, and broke apart the black family. Second, the overarching moral and cultural shift in American society that came to view black redneck culture as somehow authentic, concomitant with a white liberal guilt complex that shielded it from criticism and suppressed the need for cultural assimilation and development. In other words, the acknowledgement of historical racism on the part of the larger society gave black Americans a perpetual excuse for failure that simply did not exist before.

The import of Sowell’s thesis is manifold: Culture can be transmitted across racial lines, while destructive cultural features among a racialized group can interact with the larger society in ways that reproduce racial stigmas. In other words, racial inequality can arise from both top-down and bottom-up forces, and any honest conversation about white racism, privilege, or systemic bias must include a conversation about black American culture. It is not justice to withhold judgement from a group of people regarding behavior we would never tolerate from our own family out of the fear of being thought racist. Ultimately, this is not a racial problem but a human problem.

*     *     *

To modern progressives, the notion that black suffering isn’t necessarily tied to historical racism is a hard pill to swallow. It seems to blame the victim and alleviate white responsibility. But this whole way of looking at things in terms of intergenerational guilt and victimization is fundamentally flawed: Morality is not causation. In retrospect, we can all agree that slavery and Jim Crow were terrible, but that doesn’t mean they explain what’s happening in our own time. Further, the notion of historical justice itself implies that we could somehow correct for past injustices. We can’t. If we go far back enough, we will all find slaves and enslavers, conquerors and conquered among our ancestors at one point or another. It’s an insult to our forebears to suppose we could somehow account for their suffering in the present by selectively parsing the sins of some groups and not others to satisfy contemporary moral sensibilities. What’s historically unique is the idea that everyone should have freedom and rights, which was by no means obvious for most of world history.

In the same way that we can’t blame someone for inheriting a problematic culture, we can’t blame someone for the sins their ancestors may or may not have committed. The impulse to resuscitate the historical grievances of long-dead and symbolic victims creates new injustices between flesh-and-blood human beings in the present. History becomes a cudgel for prevailing political visions instead of a record of what actually happened. “What can any society hope to gain,” Sowell asks, “by having some babies in that society born into the world with a priori grievances against other babies born into that same society on the same day?”32 We can learn from our mistakes, but we can’t change the past.

The Quest For Cosmic Justice, Sowell describes this impulse as “an attempt to mitigate and make more just the undeserved misfortunes arising from the cosmos” in ways that transform “the tragedy of the human condition into the specific sins of specific societies.” While traditional justice applies the same rules equally across the board, regardless of whether everyone ends up with the same things, cosmic justice applies different rules to different groups of people until all unearned advantages or disadvantages disappear. This conflict is why what believers in cosmic justice mean by anti-racism or equality or justice looks a lot to believers in traditional justice like racism, inequality, and injustice. One of the many problems with cosmic justice is that most of people’s advantages and disadvantages in life are undeserved anyway, and on a long enough time scale, many advantages become disadvantages and many disadvantages become advantages. The idea that anyone could possibly weigh out the privileges and deficits of a given life, let alone an entire group of people throughout history, as if looking down upon Earth through the eyes of God, conveys a startling degree of moral arrogance.

Similarly misguided is the belief that “society” is an anthropomorphic entity capable of making conscious decisions and taking responsibility for them, instead of a complex system of moving parts over which no one has full control. Of course, it is unjust, in a cosmic sense, that some people suffer more than others by no fault of their own while others enjoy benefits through no merit of their own, but the reflexive tendency to draw a straight line from one of those things to the other inevitably stirs up the ancient tribal impulse for revenge. The flip-side of cosmic justice is cosmic vengeance.

*     *     *

For many on the Left, Sowell strikes too harsh of a tone. The emphasis on our limitations rather than our possibilities can, in a modern context, feel like an excuse for complacency or a way of justifying current inequalities. But this view mistakes smug repose for hard-earned wisdom. It is only by recognizing the inherent constraints of human life and, indeed, the tragedy of it all, that we can set about gradually improving our lot without falling into bitterness. If we don’t know how far we’ve come, it’s hard to know where we are going.

“Heedless of the past,” Sowell warns, “we are flying blind into the future.”33 On the other hand, denying human tragedy sets in motion a perpetual spiral of activism in which the feeling of moral participation becomes an end in itself and life is made more tragic at the altar of good intentions. Sowell’s blend of tragic optimism and conservative humanism is an antidote to the moral zealotry of our political and cultural moment. We are trying to socially engineer away statistical gaps between groups to reach some cosmic notion of equality that has never existed in order to absolve ourselves of selectively plucked historical sins. Instead, we should start closing the reality gap between prevailing visions and the facts of history to make things better for all in the only time in which we live—the present.



1 Thomas Sowell, A Personal Odyssey, p 3
2 Ibid, p 306
3 Ibid, p 5
4 Ibid, p 6
5 Ibid, p 9
6 Ibid, p 16
7 Ibid, p 26
8 Ibid, p 27
9 Ibid, p 17
10 Ibid, p 47
11 Ibid, p 58
12 Ibid, p 66
13 Ibid, p 60
14 Ibid, p 65
15 Ibid, p 86
16 Ibid, p 106
17 Ibid, p 111
18 Ibid, p 117
19 Ibid, p 121
20 Ibid, p 131
21 Ibid, p 141
22 Ibid, p 153
23 Ibid, p 181
24 Knowledge and Decisions, p 4
25 Ibid, p xxii
26 A Conflict of Visions, p 7
27 Ibid, p xiv
28 Race and Culture, p 3
29 Ibid. p 225
30 Ibid, p 229
31 US Bureau of the Census, Changing Characteristics of the Negro Population by Daniel A. Price, pp 117, 118, 133
32 Race and Culture, p 251
33 Black Rednecks and White Liberals, p 291

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Samuel Kronen

Samuel Kronen is a chronically ill writer living in Upstate New York.