Minority Myths, Uncomfortable Facts


Ethnic America: A History, by Thomas Sowell, New York: Basic Books, 1981, 336 pp., $16.95/$9.50 paper.

Markets and Minorities, by Thomas Sowell, New York: Basic Books, 1981, 160 pp., $12.95/$5.95 paper.

"The most bitterly criticized features of slavery—callous overwork, sexual exploitation, Negro fragmentation, and self denigration of blackness—were worse in the West Indies than in the United States." Today, "second generation West Indians have higher incomes than whites.…[and] 52% higher nationally" than other blacks.

Anyone addicted to simple-minded statistical fads and foibles, especially "correlationitis," would obviously conclude from Thomas Sowell's statistical facts in Ethnic America that the worst possible conditions of slavery are best for the slaves in the long run. Anyone taking that simplistic view might even feel forced into a Toynbee Theory of the Amelioration of the Masses: extreme challenges lead to the most extremely effective responses; therefore, if you want people to do well in the long run, immiserate them in the short run. Come to think of it, that applies beautifully to the whole American experience and to the experience of so many of us in our own lifetimes (and it is the theory of psychologists studying "survivors").

But, fortunately, Sowell is neither aiding and abetting statistics fraud nor launching a Grand Theory of Toynbeeism (nor supporting slavery!). There is more to his West Indian comparison with American slaves.

The paternalism of American slaveholders, which sprang from their being much closer to their slaves and concerned about them as a long-run capital investment, led even after emancipation to the "furnish system," which encouraged dependency. (Knowing the sharecropping paternalism and dependency that still prevails in much of the rural South, this has always seemed obvious to me. It is absurdly tragic that "learned" do-gooders have so vastly reinforced this, making blacks dependent sharecroppers in the welfare state.)

The extremely exploitative treatment of the West Indian slaveowners, in contrast, led to far greater suffering, mortality rates, and so on, but also to more independence. There are also other factors, however: West Indian blacks had private plots, which provided an incentive to work, save, and invest in themselves; they were prepared for emancipation rather than suddenly freed; and they were freed a generation earlier.

In short, a careful partialing out of effects, and a use of common sense and wisdom about mankind gained from great learning, show conclusively the absurdity of claiming that "racism did it all." Racism, ethnicism, sexism, classism, personalism, and so on have been important parts of the American experience—much less than in most societies, but still important. But the free market provided a means by which all of this could be and was overcome by Jews, yellows, browns, reds, blacks, and so many others—all in proportion to how well they played the game of economic freedom, which is more dependent on past culture and individual experience than on anything else.

The vast array of statistical evidence and argument used by the "grand inquisitors" of the American way is mistaken, mythical, or downright fraudulent. The minute details of those blunders and frauds experienced in negativistic action programs (fraudulently called "affirmative") have been exposed in the pages of the Public Interest, REASON, and many other sources. But in Ethnic America, now available in paperback, Sowell does a fine job of bringing it all together in a very readable, even inspiring, way. As the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians said, the free market allows people to achieve the greatest possible degree of equality of opportunity and outcome commensurate with human nature. That was one of the crucial ideas of "the great system of liberty" held up as an ideal by both Adam Smith and the Founding Fathers. Collectivism inevitably leads to more inequality, freedom to less. Pity all the modern Marxists who never learned or too easily forgot that great truth.

Markets and Minorities, a spin-off from Ethnic America and from the far more systematically theoretical work by Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions, is a methodical discussion of how the free market produces equality of opportunity and outcome. It also includes some judicious selection of evidence to verify the theory. For example, blacks were of great and growing importance in the highly skilled building trades before government granted monopoly powers to unions. In the free-market situation, minorities could always get a start by accepting lower wages. Employers who hired them gained; those who would not lost. Under a system of liberty, discrimination costs; under monopoly, it need not. That's what happened when the unions came to power. In fact, since the union could often deny any labor to the employers, nondiscrimination could be fatally costly when the unions wanted discrimination. They got it, and blacks disappeared from the skilled trades.

This, too, is an argument that many of us probably know by now. (I had the great pleasure of hearing it a few years ago in a talk by the late and great patriot of freedom, Ben Rogge.) But it's done extremely well here and will make an excellent little text in any course on minority groups, racial relations, or economics. (I hope to use it in a course on social economics, if my department can ever overcome its instinctive fear and loathing for any discussion of the values of freedom.)

Sowell's works have some shortcomings. For example, there are no controlled comparisons of West Indian blacks and Americans with the similar yet different experiences of blacks and Indians throughout Latin America on the latifundios (great estates). Nor does Sowell look at blacks in the growing nonunion segments of building today in comparison with those in the unionized segments, especially those subject to the federal requirements to pay union wages (the Davis-Bacon Act). But, then, something needs to be left for the next generation.

Besides, Sowell is abused enough. Even the reviewer for the Economist (Apr. 17, 1982) spent about half the review impugning Sowell's racial integrity—and implying "racism did it all." Fortunately, the Economist did publish a rebuttal (May 1, 1982) by the prime minister of Barbados, J.M.G. Adams, who pointedly noted that the reviewer overlooked all the careful argument and evidence. If Sowell's critics can be so blind to his obvious strengths, we can at least be gracious by forgiving his failure to be perfect—but never accept it!

Jack Douglas teaches sociology at the University of California, San Diego.