CONTINUING IMPORTANCE OF THOMAS SOWELL
by Jason L. Riley
(REPRINTED FROM IMPRIMUS)
information in this article is for educational purposes only.
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any
disease or health condition.
Sowell is a very wise man who
happens to be Afro-American. His is one of the greatest minds of the
20th and 21st centuries.
is an American economist, historian, social
theorist, and senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover
Institution. He is a National Humanities Medal recipient for
innovative scholarship which incorporated history, economics, and
following is a reprint of an article about Thomas Sowell that
appeared in the magazine Imprimis,
Vol. 51, #3, March 2022 by Jason L. Riley. I changed the order of the
paragraphs in the beginning and did very minor editing for clarity.
Thomas Sowell's website is https://tsowell.com/.
THE CONTINUING IMPORTANCE OF THOMAS SOWELL by
Sowell is now 91 years old. The book he published last year was his
36th, and his fifth since turning 80.
not too bad for a black man from the Jim Crow South who was born into
extreme poverty during the Great Depression, never finished high
school, didn’t earn a college degree until he was 28, and didn’t
write his first book until he was 40.
even aside from that impressive personal journey, Sowell is a rare
species. He’s an honest intellectual. He’s someone who has
consistently sought out the truth, regardless of whether it made him
has been willing to follow the facts and evidence wherever they lead,
even when they lead to politically incorrect results. It’s not
something that ought to distinguish you as a scholar, but these days
I was researching my biography of economist Thomas Sowell, I kept
coming across Sowell’s own descriptions of scholars he admired, and
I was often struck by how well those descriptions applied to Sowell
example, after the death of Nobel Prize-winning economist George
Stigler, who was one of Sowell’s professors at the University of
Chicago, Sowell wrote:
a world of self-promoting academics, coining buzzwords and aligning
themselves on the side of the angels of the moment, George Stigler
epitomized a rare integrity as well as a rare intellect.
jumped on no bandwagons, beat no drums for causes, created no
personal cult. He did the work of a scholar and a teacher—both
superbly—and found that sufficient.
you wanted to learn, and above all if you wanted to learn how to
think—how to avoid the vague words, fuzzy thoughts, or maudlin
sentiments that cloud over reality—then Stigler was your man.”
here is Sowell describing another of his professors at Chicago,
was one of the very few intellectuals with both genius and common
sense. He could express himself at the highest analytical levels to
his fellow economists in academic publications and still write
popular books . . . that could be understood by people who knew
nothing about economics.”
hard-pressed to come up with better ways than those to describe
Thomas Sowell. When I think about his scholarship, that’s what
comes to mind: intellectual integrity, analytical rigor, respect for
evidence, skepticism toward the kind of fashionable thinking that
comes and goes.
then there’s the clarity. Column after column, book after book,
written in plain English for general public consumption.
2020, at the age of 90, Sowell published his 36th book, Charter
Schools and Their Enemies. I hope he’s not done writing books,
but if he is you could hardly find a more suitable swan song for a
publishing career that has now spanned six decades.
first two books were scholarly. But his third book, published in
1972—the semiautobiographical Black Education: Myths and
Tragedies—was written for the general public.
grew out of a long article on college admissions standards for black
students that he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in
1970. And it begins with a recounting of his own education—first at
segregated schools in North Carolina, where he was born, and later at
integrated schools in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he
topic of education is one that Sowell has returned to repeatedly over
the decades. In the preface to Charter Schools and Their
Enemies, he describes a conversation he had in the early 1970s
with Irving Kristol, the editor of Public Interest.
asked Sowell what could be done to create high-quality schools for
blacks, and Sowell replied that such schools already existed and had
asked Sowell to write about these schools, and a 1974 issue of Public
Interest featured an essay by Sowell on the history of
all-black Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., which had not only
outperformed its local white counterparts, but had repeatedly equaled
or exceeded national norms on standardized tests throughout the first
half of the 20th century.
1870 to 1955, Sowell wrote, “most of Dunbar’s graduates went on
to college, even though most Americans—white or black—did not.”
Two years later, in the same publication, he wrote a second article
on successful black elementary and high schools throughout the
a sense, today’s public charter schools, which often have
predominantly low-income black and Hispanic student bodies, are
successors to the high-achieving black schools that Sowell researched
more than 40 years ago. And as he points out, these charter schools
are not simply doing a better job than traditional public schools
with the same demographic groups.
many cases, inner-city charter school students are outperforming
their peers in the wealthiest and whitest suburban school districts
in the country. In New York City, for example, the Success Academy
charter schools have effectively closed the academic achievement gap
between black and white students.
educational success of these charter schools undermines theories of
genetic determinism, claims of cultural bias in the tests, assertions
that racial “integration” is necessary for blacks to reach
educational parity, and presumptions that income differences are
among the “root causes” of educational differences.”
goes on to say that the last claim, about poverty, “has been used
for decades to absolve traditional public schools of any
responsibility for educational failures in low-income minority
schools don’t have such vocal and passionate enemies because they
don’t work, but because they do. Therefore, they pose a threat to
the education status quo. They threaten the current power balance
that allows the interests of adults who run public education to come
before what’s best for students. Bad schools stay open because
those schools still provide good jobs for adults. Whether or not the
children are learning is a secondary concern at best.
exist for the education of children. Schools do not exist to provide
iron-clad jobs for teachers, billions of dollars in union dues for
teachers unions, monopolies for educational bureaucracies, a
guaranteed market for [graduates of] teachers colleges, or a captive
audience for indoctrinators.” (my editorial note – we still much
prefer home schooling, especially for girls' safety.)
recent years, charter school opponents have made headway. Limits have
been placed on how many can open and where they can be located. Bill
Clinton and Barack Obama both supported charter schools, but
Democrats have moved sharply to the left on education, and the Biden
administration is far more skeptical of charters. All of which makes
Sowell’s book as timely as anything he’s ever written.
of the reasons I wanted to write this biography is because so much of
Sowell’s scholarship remains relevant to our policy debates today.
We’re still talking about economic inequality, affirmative action,
social justice, critical race theory, slavery reparations, the
efficacy of minimum wage laws, and the pros and cons of immigration,
all of which Sowell’s writings have addressed.
I find it depressing that so many people today know names like
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram Kendi, and Nikole Hannah-Jones—but not
Thomas Sowell. His scholarship runs circles around those individuals.
it’s not just the volume of his writings, it’s also the range and
depth and rigor of his analysis. He anticipated and refuted many of
their arguments decades ago, in some cases before the people making
them today were even born.
the extent that Sowell is known, it’s mostly for his writings on
racial controversies. But most of his books are not on racial themes,
and Sowell would have distinguished himself as a first-rate scholar
even if he’d never written a single word about race.
CONFLICT OF VISIONS
says his favorite of his own books is A Conflict of Visions,
in which he tries to explain what drives our ideological disputes
about freedom, equality, and justice.
traces these divergent “visions,” or views of human nature, back
at least two centuries, to thinkers like William Godwin, Immanuel
Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, down through John Rawls and today’s
social justice advocates.
conflicting visions he describes in the book are the constrained
or tragic view of human nature and the unconstrained or
utopian view. People with a more constrained view of the human
condition see mankind as hopelessly flawed. They see inherent limits
to human betterment. We might want to end war or poverty or racism,
they say, but that’s probably not going to happen. Therefore, our
focus should be on putting in place institutions and processes that
help society deal with problems we’re never going to eradicate.
the other side you have the unconstrained or utopian view of human
nature, which rejects the idea that there are limits to what humans
can achieve. This is the belief that nothing is unattainable and no
trade-offs are necessary. According to this perspective, by utilizing
the proper amount of reason and will power, we can not only manage
problems like war, poverty, and racism, but solve them entirely.
on which view they embrace, Sowell explains why two people, similarly
well-informed and similarly well-meaning, will reach opposite
conclusions on a whole range of issues including taxes, rent control,
school choice, military spending, and judicial activism.
Kant said that from the “crooked timber of humanity no straight
thing was ever made,” he was exhibiting the constrained view. When
Rousseau said that “man is born free but everywhere is in chains,”
he was voicing the unconstrained view.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said his job as a judge was to make sure the
game is played according to the rules, whether he liked them or not,
it was a constrained view. When Earl Warren said his job as a judge
was to do what he thinks is right, regardless of the law, it was an
unconstrained view. This is the philosophical framework that explains
Sowell’s writings on almost any topic.
in the 1970s, Sowell turned his attention to racial controversies. He
did so, he says, out of a sense of duty. There were things that
needed to be said and too few others who were willing to say them.
criticisms of the direction of the civil rights movement at the time
eventually got him “cancelled,” to use today’s term. Black
elites in particular wanted nothing to do with him because he opposed
affirmative action, and they convinced others in the mainstream media
not to take his views seriously or turn to him for a black point of
view on issues of the day.
has long argued that the problems blacks face today involve far more
than what whites have done to them in the past. It’s no mystery why
black activists want to keep the focus on white racism. It helps them
raise money and stay relevant.
it’s no mystery why politicians use the same tactics—it helps
them win votes. But Sowell argued that it’s not at all clear that
focusing on white racism is helping the black underclass. You can
spend all day, every day pointing out the moral failings of other
people, groups, institutions, and society in general. The question is
whether that helps the people who most need help.
of today’s activists go about their business with the assumption
that the only real problem facing the black underclass is white
racism. A good example of this is the recent focus on policing in
black communities. Do racist cops exist? Absolutely. Do some cops
abuse their authority? Of course.
are poor black communities as violent as they are because of bad
cops? Will reducing police resources improve the situation? According
to the Chicago Sun-Times there were 492 homicides in
Chicago in 2019, and only three of them involved police.
if police use of lethal force is a problem in Chicago, it’s clearly
a secondary problem. Young black men in Chicago or Baltimore or St.
Louis may indeed leave the house each morning worried about getting
shot—but not by police.
year, there was a ballot measure put to voters in Minneapolis, where
George Floyd was killed, that would have defunded the police. Not
only was it defeated, it was most strongly opposed by black residents
in high-crime areas.
the black residents of Minneapolis are not outliers. They’re
typical. In a Gallup poll released in 2020, 81 percent of blacks
nationwide said they wanted police presence in their neighborhood to
remain the same or to increase.
Gallup poll released a year earlier asked black and Hispanic
residents of low-income neighborhoods in particular about policing.
Fifty-nine percent of both black and Hispanic respondents said they
wanted police to spend more time in their
a poll from 2015, the year after Michael Brown was killed in
Ferguson, Missouri, a majority of black respondents said that police
treat them fairly, and far more blacks than whites, by a two-to-one
margin, said they “want a greater police presence in their local
is this a recent phenomenon. In a 1993 Gallup poll, 82 percent of
black respondents said the criminal justice system doesn’t treat
criminals harshly enough, 75 percent of blacks wanted more cops on
the streets, and 68 percent said we ought to build more prisons so
that longer sentences can be given.
to defund the police are being pushed by activists and liberal elites
who claim to be speaking on behalf of low-income minorities. But they
are mostly speaking for themselves. This is something Sowell pointed
out a long time ago.
would often be asked how it felt to go against the grain of so many
other blacks. He would inevitably correct the premise of the
don’t mean I go against the grain of most blacks,” he would
respond. “You mean I go against the grain of most black
intellectuals, most black elites. But black intellectuals don’t
represent most blacks any more than white intellectuals represent
continues to be the case today. Most blacks, for example, support
voter ID laws and school choice, while most black elites—academics,
the NAACP, Black Lives Matter activists, etc.—oppose those things.
Conversely, most blacks oppose racial preferences in college
admissions and, as noted, oppose defunding the police, while black
elites are in favor of those things.
pointed out these disparities decades ago, and they’ve only grown
since then. His writings on intellectual history have stressed, time
and again, that intellectuals are a special interest group. They have
their own self-serving agenda and their own priorities and ought to
be understood as such.
elites control the media, by and large, hey control academia. They
run the foundations that hand out intellectual awards and prizes.
Sowell has refused to play footsie with them, refused to pull his
it has cost him in terms of prestige and notoriety. He’s paid a
price. It’s one reason he’s not as well-known as the individuals
I mentioned earlier. I often tell people that if you think Ta-Nehisi
Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones represent the views of most black
people, you need to get to know more black people.
SLAVERY AND CRITICAL RACE THEORY
about the current debate that we’re having over critical race
theory. These ideas were once relegated to college seminars. Now they
are entering our workplaces through diversity training. And they are
entering our elementary schools through The New York
Times 1619 Project, which attempts to put the institution of
slavery at the center of America’s founding. That’s absurd.
existed for thousands of years, in societies all over the world and
long before the founding of the United States. More African slaves
were sent to the Islamic world than were ever sent to the Americas.
Slavery still exists today in Sudan and Nigeria.
makes America unique is not slavery. It’s emancipation. It’s how
fast we went from slavery to Martin Luther King to a black president.
The economic and social progress of black Americans in only a few
generations is something unmatched in recorded history.
argument that America became prosperous due to slavery is also
unsupported by the facts, as Sowell has pointed out. Individual slave
owners certainly prospered, but that’s different from saying the
fact, the regions of the country that had slavery were the poorest
regions, both during slavery and afterward. Similarly, in Brazil,
which imported far more slaves than the U.S. did, the regions where
slavery was concentrated were the poorest regions, both during
slavery and afterward.
Europe, to look at another example, had slavery far longer than
Western Europe—yet Western Europe has always been richer. Millions
more African slaves were sent to Northern Africa and the Middle East
than came to the West.
slave labor produces economic prosperity, why did those regions
remain so poor for so long? And later, when the Middle East did start
to become wealthier, it wasn’t due to slavery—it was due to the
discovery of oil.
another 1619 Project essay, the author writes: “For the most part,
black Americans fought back alone.” This breathtakingly ignorant
assertion simply writes out of history the role of many white people
who helped end slavery in America.
include the Quakers, the abolitionists and the newly-formed
Republican party in the run-up to the Civil War. It also ignores the
role of non-blacks in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and
1960s, which was propelled by alliances with whites, Jews, Catholics,
and others who fought against racial discrimination.
to take issue with the 1619 Project on these grounds is almost beside
the point. The Project’s whole purpose is to present slavery as an
all-purpose explanation for racial inequality today. The argument is
that blacks lag in academic performance, income and employment
because of slavery and Jim Crow.
is part of an ongoing attempt by the political left to blame the past
actions of whites for the current problems of blacks. Ultimately,
it’s an attempt to downplay the role of culture and personal
responsibility in driving social inequality.
they say, are blameless, whites are evil. Whites who reject this
narrative are labeled as racists. Blacks who reject it are dismissed
as dupes or opportunists.
real facts about slavery are well known among serious historians. But
where are these serious historians right now? A few have come
forward, people like Gordon Wood and James McPherson. But why so few?
Why isn’t the head of every history department at every major
university pushing back against this 1619 Project nonsense?
nation’s top scholars ought to be falling over one another
denouncing it. Why have so many been so quiet? There have been
countless books written by serious scholars about our nation’s
founding, and none of those books have been written by Nikole
are serious historians so afraid to take on a journalist who has
never written a book or even an academic paper about anything—let
alone about the history of slavery?
reason they are so afraid is because taking her on is politically
incorrect. They will be called racist and sexist. It might damage
their academic careers.
is the sort of intellectual cowardice that makes Sowell’s life and
work unique. This is what distinguishes his scholarship: courage.
isn’t afraid. It’s the sort of thing that ought to be commonplace
among scholars and intellectuals—and journalists, for that
matter—but clearly it is not. Sowell has spent a career putting
truth above popularity. We need a hundred more just like him.
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