Thomas Sowell, a prophet in his own time, celebrating his 90th birthday
WASHINGTON: In the midst of this time of racial strife and turmoil, Thomas Sowell, the respected black economist who has perhaps written the most thoughtful analyses of our racial history, and of relations between different racial and ethnic groups around the world, reaches the age of 90. (B. June 30, 1930)
It has been my good fortune to know Thomas Sowell for many years. I have fond memories of a night when my good friend and colleague Jay Parker, an early leader of black conservatives, and I were returning from a trip to Japan. We spent a night in San Francisco, calling on Thomas Sowell. He came to our hotel and drove us to Stanford University, where he was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
He gave us a tour of his office and we then went to dinner. I put a tape recorder on the table and, for several hours, conducted a lengthy interview.
It later appeared in Human Events.
Sowell was born in the segregated South and grew up in Harlem.
His childhood encounters with white people were so limited, he has written, that he did not know blond was a hair color. Sowell served in the U.S. Marine Corps, graduating from Harvard University, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has written more than 30 books and is the recipient of a National Humanities Medal for innovative scholarships.
In his autobiography, “A Personal Odyssey,” he writes that for most of the time he was earning his degrees, he considered himself a Marxist. However, studying the effects of a variety of government interventions in the marketplace led him to conclude that free competitive markets were the best path for betterment and prosperity, especially for the least well-off in society.
When it comes to slavery, Sowell argued that it can hardly be considered a uniquely American evil, or “original sin.”
Sowell notes that from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world.
Slavery played an important part in ancient civilizations. It has existed almost universally through history—-among nomadic pastoralists in Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and the sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The poems of Homer supply evidence that slavery was an integral part of Ancient Greek society, possibly as early as 1200 B.C. Our Judeo-Christian tradition was also one which accepted the legitimacy of slavery. In a number of places in the Bible, St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters “with full hearts and without equivocation.”
When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal every place in the world. What was unique, in his view, was that there was a strenuous effort to end slavery and that the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton we’re ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society.
In fact, one of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal: “This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it….every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.” In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George lll and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves.
Finally, the Civil War resolved this question.
If we were to add together most of what has been written about the racial question, a thoughtful observer would be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent and honest presentation than that provided by Sowell in his book “Race and Economics” (1975). He writes that “Race makes a difference in economic transactions, as in all other areas of life.” But he denies that the black experience in America is radically different from that of the Irish, Italians, Germans, Russian Jews, and Japanese. He believes that those who date the black arrival in the U.S. to the colonial period and then advance the view that later groups have advanced beyond them—race has been the factor which held them back—-are mistaken.
The key dates, in Sowell’s view, are not the time of arrival in America, but (1) the time of being freed from slavery, and (2) the time of movement from the rural South into a modern, industrial and commercial economy.” Blacks had to “undergo two major transformations within two or three generations.” They had first to adjust to freedom and individual responsibility for feeding, clothing, and housing themselves. This had to be done in an economy and society devastated by war. The second hurdle was an adaptation to urban living—-an experience which “had proved shattering to European immigrants from similar rural backgrounds before them.”
Most of today’s black urban population has been in the city for only several generations and many of the poorest and most problem-ridden less than that.
The experience of the Irish immigrants of the 19th century and the black urban dweller of the 20th is, Sowell points out, very similar. In 1888, William Dean Howells noted that, “The settlement of an Irish family in one of our suburban neighborhoods strikes a mortal pang in the old residents.”
Henry George applied the phrase “human garbage” to the immigrants of the 1880s, and H.G. Wells, at the turn of the century, doubted if immigrants in the American slums could ever be usefully absorbed into society.
Of the 19th-century immigrant groups, the Russian and East European Jews advanced most quickly.
The reason dated back to their distant past, as did the corresponding failure to advance more rapidly of the Irish, Italians, Poles, and blacks. Sowell writes:
“In one important respect, medieval Jews were very fortunate in the particular form of occupational discrimination practiced against them. They were forbidden to engage in those occupations that were central to feudalism—-those involving the land—-and were therefore forced into urban, commercial, and financial occupations, which of course would later turn out to be central to the modern capitalist economy.”
While the intention behind such prohibitions was repressive, the consequence was that Jews were rather better prepared for the modern world.”
The most successful non-white immigrant group was the Japanese. They met discrimination, were unable to own land in many places and, during the Second World War were interned. Yet, their economic advance continued. Neither they nor the Jews demanded government aid or assistance—-or civil rights legislation. They simply educated themselves, acquired the skills necessary to succeed, and made dramatic economic progress.
It is Sowell’s conclusion that, “political power is not necessary for economic advance.”
The Irish were the most politically successful minority. Yet, the bulk of them was still predominantly in unskilled and manual occupations in the last decade of the 19th century. Sowell adds that emphasis on promoting economic advancement has produced “far more progress than attempts to redress past wrongs, even where these historic wrongs have been obvious, massive and indisputable.”
Sowell asserts that liberal Programs——minimum wage laws, rent control, school busing—-do not assist black Americans to advance economically. Welfare, in particular, has made many of the wards of the state and has deadened the incentive needed to progress. He also argues that most negative situations faced by blacks today were faced at an earlier time by other immigrant groups. The answer to progress for black Americans, he believes, is to consider the qualities upon which other groups’ success were based.
In “Discrimination and Disparities,” Sowell concludes:
“Nothing that we do today can undo the many evils and catastrophes of the past, but we can at least learn from them, and not repeat the mistakes of the past, many of which began with lofty-sounding goals…Apologies in America today for slavery in the past have no meaning, much less do any good for either blacks or whites today. What can it mean for A to apologize for what B did, even among contemporaries, much less across the vast chasm between the living and the dead? The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and the future—-both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead, who are far beyond our power to help or punish or avenge…
Galling as these restrictive facts may be, that does not stop them from being facts beyond our control. Pretending to have powers that we do not, in fact, have risks creating endless evils in the present while claiming to deal with the evils of the past…To admit that we can do nothing about what happened among the dead is not to give up the struggle for a better world, but to concentrate our efforts where they have at least some hope for making things better for the living.”
In a very thoughtful article commemorating Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday, Professor Richard B. Ebeling of The Citadel writes:
“Now, at the age of 90, Thomas Sowell continues to offer us understanding and insight into the attitudes and institutions that can bring all people greater peace and prosperity, as well as human liberty. This includes an appreciation of how problems of race and race relations can have their improvement in a setting of the individualist ideas upon which the United States was founded, but which have not always been fully practiced and from which the country is dangerously drifting even farther away.”
Thomas Sowell has always believed in a genuinely color-blind society. As he celebrates his 90th birthday our society, sadly, still has not confronted all of its lingering racial problems. We have made extraordinary progress since Sowell was born in the segregated South. Who would have imagined at that time that we would ever see a black president, two black Secretaries of State, black Supreme Court justices, and African Americans excelling in every area in society?
Still, serious problems remain, as the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and untold examples of police brutality indicate. Yet, many of our troubled cities now have black mayors and police chiefs who are dealing with these problems. Throughout his life, Thomas Sowell has helped American society understand its racial dilemmas, and put them in a proper historical perspective. The American society has been enriched by his presence.
Happy birthday, Thomas Sowell.