- - Thursday, March 28, 2013

By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, $25.99, 192 pages

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Magazine ran a cover story “Being White in Philly,” in which the writer, Robert Huber, explored the racial dynamics of several Philly neighborhoods. Mr. Huber made clear that well-meaning whites have a hard time talking to nonwhites about race-related issues for fear of being labeled racist. Mr. Huber’s reporting was excellent, and recorded many real world, if awkward, perspectives from both whites and blacks alike. As the author himself acknowledged, “Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s.”

In response, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission, decrying the piece as “prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations,” and questioning whether the publisher wasn’t “shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater” for printing such irresponsible material. Mr. Nutter’s comments unwittingly confirm one of the biggest claims of Thomas Sowell’s new book, “Intellectuals and Race” — that the faculty lounges and newsrooms of America have generally thought about the topic of race in a way that lacks epistemological honesty or common sense, and have shaped America’s discussions on the topic in unhealthy, dishonest ways.Mr. Sowell (who is black and an economist by training) is regarded as one of modern conservatism’s finest thinkers, and its not hard to see why. Nearly every thought in “Intellectuals And Race” is a cranial burst of candor and logic, driven by dutifully assembled data points. This makes for a lockjaw read that is completely devoid of any humor or sentimentality. But these are not his objects, and “Intellectuals and Race” is an excellent if slow primer to a conservative approach to understanding race.

Mr. Sowell is mainly concerned with blowing up the narrative, so popular among the progressive intelligentsia, that racial prejudice is responsible for disparities among different race groups. Consider the mortgage lending industry, he writes. Average credit scores among whites are higher than those for blacks. But Asians’ credit scores are higher than those of whites. Therefore, more Asians get approved for mortgage loans than whites. Is the most probable explanation one that suggests whites are being systematically discriminated against? Of course not. Asians are just more qualified for mortgages based on their financial profile.

Mr. Sowell makes clear that recent generations of the thinking class 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.” Many who suggest that racism is the cause of group differences fail to recognize, as Mr. Sowell says, that “grossly uneven distributions of racial, ethnic and other groups in numerous fields of endeavor have been common in countries around the world and for centuries of recorded history.”

This leads into another question: To what degree can we ascribe differences in racial groups to genetic differences? Are blacks genetically inferior to whites and Asians in terms of intelligence because they score, on average, 15 points lower on IQ tests? Mr. Sowell answers with an emphatic “no,” helpfully debunking inaccurate research and observations done by the eugenics movement in the late-19th and early-20th century, and even more contemporary studies.

Instead, Mr. Sowell points mostly to a propensity for self-selection and the inherent cultural traditions among different groups to explain differences and disparities. Immigrant Jews to New York in the 1890s willingly chose to live on the Lower East Side. The Jain people from India have dominated the diamond-cutting market for centuries. Germans have historically had a preponderant share of the beer-brewing industry, even when forming expatriate communities in China.

This adherence to cultural tradition not only produces the most positive features of different groups, but also the less desirable ones. It is here that Mr. Sowell goes after a black “underclass culture” in America, distinguished by problems such as low educational achievement, and high rates of poverty, imprisonment and out-of-wedlock births. One of the most fascinating elements of Mr. Sowell’s book is his claim that the migration of Southern blacks into Northern cities after World War II introduced a culture of socially destructive behavior that eventually spread to the black culture at large. Mr. Sowell illustrates how even Northern blacks in the 1930s and ‘40s saw these creeping pathologies ruin the social gains that they had made in society since the Civil War, when the legacy of actual racism shaped society much more than it does today.

Today, says Mr. Sowell, generations of black Americans have lost social standing and economic prospects, by embracing a racial authenticity that works against their best interests: “When middle-class black youngsters feel a need or pressure to adopt some of the counterproductive attitudes, values or lifestyles of the lowest common denominator, including negative attitudes toward education, lest they be accused of “acting white,” then the life chances of whole generations can be sacrificed on the altar to racial solidarity.” Mr. Sowell dismisses the idea of racism as the predominant source of miserable ghetto conditions: There are majority-white public housing projects in the worst parts of London with identical pathologies. Where racial groups thrive or flourish, Mr. Sowell seems to intimate, they mostly have their own particular cultural attributes to explain why.

Unfortunately, a discussion of how the media shapes racial perceptions among the public at large is wanting. There are many more good things to say about this honest and complex book, including detailed discussions of IQ and multiculturalism, an intellectual approach that, being akin to antiquated arguments rooted in genetics, “preaches resentment of one’s fate.” We’ve come to expect nothing less from Mr. Sowell.

David Wilezol is a producer for “Morning in America,” a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

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