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by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Thomas Sowell is a conservative “scholar” at the Hoover Institute and author of a new book, Intellectuals and Race. I haven’t read his book yet, but I did watch Sowell’s interview with Peter Robinson of the Wall Street Journal. I found Thomas Sowell’s interview disturbing in that it seems to boil down to an old conservative argument that the poor have no one to blame but themselves and the liberals who made them helpless. You can watch his WSJ interview on You Tube.
Several points stand out in Sowell’s arguments on the negative impact that ” liberal/progressive” intellectuals have had on our attitudes towards race vs. racism. First, he conflates liberalism with progressivism. These are two separate dynamics in their scholarly meaning. The opposite of progressive is conservative, but the opposite of liberal, in its classical meaning, is totalitarian. Within the actual social context of these two dynamics it is entirely possible to hold both liberal and conservative policy positions or progressive and totalitarian positions. For example, it would not have seemed inconsistent during the Progressive Era, in the early twentieth-century, to be for union rights but opposed to woman’s suffrage, Progressives then were not as liberal as most progressives are today. By treating these terms interchangeably, in their current colloquial sense, he maligns the liberal movement that seeks to empower today’s poor or marginalized people and make America more inclusive.
Secondly, he seems to conflate race with culture. These are also separate elements of sociology. The former is a largely subjective classification system based on superficial physical attributes associated with continent of origin. The latter is a complex set of rituals, customs, values, norms and shared history by loosely associated clans or social groups. There are as many different cultures within each race as there are among the races, even just within North America. Generalizations based on race as a culture are inherently flawed.
Thirdly, when distinguishing this amalgam of race based culture from “racism” he incorrectly identifies racism as primarily perceptual in nature. His concept of racism doesn’t incorporate the many physical racist acts that socially marginalized people endure every day. These foundational fallacies allow Sowell to make his larger points, the same ones often raised by other conservative thinkers. The first is that there are, and have always been, better and more adaptable cultures in the world. This is an accurate statement but he leaves it there, as if it were an immutable law. He offers no hint as to why this is so. He fails to mention our human capacity to alter social institutions in ways that improve the outcomes of individuals from variant cultures.
The other major point he raises is that marginalized people allow themselves to be defined by the racist perceptions against them by others. The “others”, he argues in his example, are liberal intellectuals, especially during the “progressive era”, who blamed the economic plight of African-Americans (among other groups) on broad social factors and government policies, rather than on the their mal-adaptive culture. This shift in the causal roots of their less successful living standards, according to Sowell, absolves the marginalized from responsibility for their own self-improvement and causes them to see themselves as helpless victims of a society organized against them.
The explicit argument here is that every person has within themselves the power to rise above all obstacles and prejudices set against them. It is the familiar argument of taking personal responsibility as the only condition for economic or personal success. The proof offered (as is so often the case) is the personal experiences of the writer and anecdotal examples of other success stories. The obvious logical fallacy is that these exceptions prove that everyone else can do what these few have done. Unfavorable social conditions are only controlling factors if individuals allow it to be so. The failing is theirs. It is their own fault. It is a weakness in their character or collective culture.
The empirical truth is that for the vast majority of those who are subjected to social or institutional discrimination, their chances for success in life are seriously harmed. All the physical racist acts they suffer cause immeasurable personal damage and have an accumulating effect on them as individuals. That there are rare exceptions who become successful doesn’t prove that the majority of marginalized people are flawed individuals. In fact, it proves the opposite, that the infrequency of exceptions is a measure of the extent of the damage discrimination causes.
If equal opportunity can’t produce equal personal outcomes under the best of circumstances, as most would agree, then why would unequal opportunity offer the same chances of success? And if policy can benefit one group of individuals (as is certainly true), why is it an individual’s personal failing when policy choices disadvanges then. It makes no sense.