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Sowell on What Makes Poor Folks Poor – Liberal Racism and Inferior Culture

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.


Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles

While the US Supreme Court held in 2010 that youth offenders under age 18 convicted of non-homicide crimes could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, about 2,600 youth offenders continue to serve such a sentence for homicide-related crimes. – Human Rights Watch, 2012   [Read it here http://bit.ly/AiMRCj  Excerpts Below.]

In one study of youth arrested for murder in 25 states where there was available data, African Americans were found to be sentenced to juvenile  life without parole at a rate that is 1.59 times higher than white youth. 

 The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) has joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and Leadership Conference on Race and Human Rights in filing an amicus brief in opposing the imposition of life sentences without parole on juvenile offenders in the Miller v. Alabama andJackson v. Hobbs cases (Miller-Jackson) currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. [ Read it here: http://bit.ly/xPZlOO ]

The amicus brief contends that life without parole sentences for fourteen year-old offenders violate the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the historic role of racial stereotyping in imposing these sentences on children further undermines their validity.

Historically, the imposition of life without parole sentences is rooted in stereotyping. For much of the 20th century, courts widely held that children were less culpable than adults and therefore not subject to such severe penalties. But in the 1980s and 90s, the media, academics, and politicians increasingly characterized teen crime in racially coded terms. For example, a 2000 study of news broadcasts in six major U.S. cities found that 62% of the stories involving Latino youth were about murder or attempted murder, even though data from 1998 indicated that minority youth accounted for only 25% of all juvenile crime arrests. This false conflation between race, youth, and criminal behavior — the infamous “Central Park Jogger” case being the most notorious example — led to harsh sentences for children previously only reserved for adults.

Consistent with its beginnings, the life without parole sentence continues to be imposed on children of color at disproportionate rates. According to a 2008 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report, African American youth nationwide serve life without parole sentences “at a rate that is ten times higher than white youth.” Thus, the continuing influence of race on the sentencing of youth to life without parole renders it unconstitutional. AALDEF contends that the Supreme Court should categorically exempt youth from this extreme and final sentence.




Nos. 10-9646 & 10-9647


Supreme Court of the United States

EVAN MILLER, Petitioner,


ALABAMA, Respondent.



RAY HOBBS, Director,

Arkansas Department of Correction, Respondent.

On Writ of Certiorari to the

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

and the Supreme Court of Arkansas












The question presented by these cases is whether the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a fourteen-year-old child convicted of a homicide offense violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.  As detailed by the submissions of the Petitioners and their amici curiae, the answer is “yes.”  As this amicus brief  explains, the improper

influence of race impairs the culpability analyses of children subject to life without parole sentences, which is further evidence of the unconstitutionality of this sentencing practice.  Although a proper evaluation of culpability is fundamental under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, history shows that racial stereotypes propelled the implementation of the laws that led to juvenile life without parole sentences, and research establishes that children of color are sentenced to life without parole at markedly disproportionate rates.  This Court

declared, in  Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), that youth are less culpable than adults and, therefore, less deserving of life without parole sentences.   Yet, it is clear that race critically and inappropriately influences the assessment of blameworthiness in the context of juvenile life without parole sentencing.  Given this constitutional infirmity, as well as the severity and finality 

 http://bit.ly/yuh15a   Human Rights Watch files an amicus brief. 

Human Rights Watch also joined 25 other institutions in filing an amicus brief before the US Supreme Court in the upcoming cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Arkansas. Both involve offenders who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were 14 years old. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without the possibility of parole for offenses they committed before the age of 18. Universally accepted standards, including several treaties to which the US is a party, condemn such sentencing of youth. We argue that international practice, opinion, and treaty obligations support holding all life without parole sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.