Thomas Sowell on Discrimination, Race, and Social Justice
The famed economist and social theorist sat down to talk about race, discrimination, crime rates, and cultural attitude shifts.
By David Hogberg
A newly updated version of Thomas Sowell’s book, “Discrimination and Disparities,” came out this spring. The author and famed economist sat down with writer David Hogberg to talk about it and his life’s work.
David Hogberg: I want to read to you something that a currently very popular actress by the name of Brie Larson said at a recent awards show. She stated that, “USC Annenberg’s Inclusiveness Initiative released findings that 67 percent of the top critics reviewing the 100 highest grossing movies in 2017 were white males. Less than a quarter were white women and less than 10 percent were unrepresented men. Only 2.5 percent of those top critics were women of color. Now you’re probably thinking right now that … doesn’t represent the country I live in. And that’s true. This is a huge disconnect from the U.S. population breakdown of 30 percent white men, 30 percent white women, 20 percent men of color, and 20 percent women of color. So, why does that matter? … If you make a movie that is a love letter to women of color, there is an insanely low chance a woman of color will be able to see your movie and review your movie … We need to be conscious of our bias and do our part to make sure that everyone is in the room.”
That’s an example of the main fallacy that you expose in your book, correct?
Thomas Sowell: It’s one of the many fallacies. My God! We could play the same game with basketball and get even greater skewed representation. Blacks are the vast majority of basketball players in the NBA. That quote is downright silly.
What’s become so frustrating to me over the years is people who assume that if people or events are not evenly represented, then that’s some deviation from the norm. But you can read through reams of what scholars have written and find that nowhere is this norm to be found. You can read people like Gradell and others who have studied internationally various cultural events, and they say again and again that nowhere do they find a distribution of people who is representative of the population of the larger society.
So [people like Larson] are taking something that no one can find and making it a norm, the deviations from which should cause the government to intervene to correct this supposedly rare thing.
Hogberg: What is the “Invincible Fallacy”?
Sowell: It’s what been illustrated by the example you mentioned. It’s the belief that people would be, in the normal course of events, proportionally represented in various endeavors in the way they are represented in the general population. And if that doesn’t happen it must be some kind of negative factor like either genetics or discrimination that is causing the deviation.
What’s frustrating is that I can come up with 100 examples to the contrary, but the people who believe in the fallacy do not have to produce even one example—not one speck of evidence from anywhere in the world over thousands of years of human history that what they are asserting is the norm has ever, in fact, happened.
For example, there is a book called “Why Nations Fail” that asks, why are there such economic disparities among nations? It compared the U.S. to Egypt and asked, why has Egypt failed? The authors wrote as though what happens in the U.S. is the norm. When, if anything, what happens in Egypt is closer to a norm. In any case, they are assuming that there is this natural tendency among nations that has somehow been thwarted in Egypt and therefore we must do something about that.
Hogberg: If you were to make a list of the causes of disparities with the most important causes being at the top of the list and the least important toward the bottom, where would discrimination be?
Sowell: I wouldn’t even attempt to rank them since there are so many causes. Just one that I mention in the first chapter of the book is being the first-born child in a family. First-born children tend to have higher IQs than their siblings. They are generally more successful in all sorts of endeavors, they tend to have higher incomes—you can run through the list. There are so many reasons for disparities that to single out one reason a priori is almost madness.
Hogberg: So what impact does discrimination have?
Sowell: It can have some negative effect. But that is the whole point. When you say A has a certain effect on B, it does not mean that every time you see B you can infer A. One example wholly away from economics or politics is that some children are years late, later than most children, in beginning to talk. Some of them have very severe mental retardation. Because there are many reasons that some children begin talking late does not mean that we can say that mental retardation has nothing to do with it. But there are other children who talked late and grew up to be intelligent and in some cases geniuses like Albert Einstein.
I didn’t write a book that says discrimination has no effect. There’d be no point in my writing a whole chapter on discrimination in the book if discrimination had no effect. I did write this book to say that disparities arise from all kinds of factors.
Hogberg: Is it possible for people to face severe discrimination and still prosper?
Sowell: Yes. The Jews are a classic example. So are the overseas Chinese. Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. You could run through a long list of them.
Hogberg: How important is geography in affecting outcomes?
Sowell: Huge. Just one of the reasons it is important is the enormous difference in the cost of land transport versus water transport. One example I note in the book is that in the days of the Roman Empire you could ship cargo the length of the Mediterranean Sea, more than 2,000 miles, at a cost less than the cost of carting that same cargo 75 miles inland. So, if you lived 75 miles inland, you had nothing like the prosperity that you had on the coast.
And while modern transportation has eased some of that cost, it has by no means eliminated it. So even now, if you are born up in the mountains and someone else is born in the river valley, then the odds are huge against you of ever being as prosperous as that person born near the river.
Hogberg: Before I move on from our discussion the Invincible Fallacy, I want to briefly talk about genetic determinism. Today, the idea that difference between races is due solely to genetics is pretty much limited to the political fringes in the U.S. But 100 years ago it was huge among the intelligentsia, correct?
Sowell: Absolutely. For example, John Maynard Keynes set up the first eugenics society at Cambridge. And there were many others—Madison Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Harold Laski, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells. In fact, I just recently I was looking back over R.H. Tawney’s 1931 book “Equality.” He’s this great egalitarian who says in passing that there is proof of the genetic inferiority of certain peoples.
Hogberg: Now, regarding the practice of discrimination, in your book you note that even if, say, employers are racist and they want to discriminate in their hiring practices, there are often powerful forces that may prevent them from doing so. Can you explain?
Sowell: It depends on the context. If, for example, it is an industry operating in a labor market in which there is a chronic surplus of qualified job applicants, then it costs the employer nothing to turn away qualified applicants from groups he doesn’t like and instead hire people from groups he does like that are still qualified.
But you seldom have that in a free market because wages adjust over time. You may have temporary surpluses or shortages, but those things tend to self-correct. It is when you have something like the minimum wage law, where you raise the wage rate above where it would be in a free market. Therefore, you increase the amount of workers available to the industry but you reduce the quantity of workers that employers demand because labor is now more expensive. And so you create a chronic surplus of labor.
I go into detail about the minimum wage in the book. And what is fascinating to me is to look back to 1948, when, for all practical purposes, the minimum wage law didn’t apply because inflation had made all wages above what was specified in the law. At that time not only was unemployment as a whole a fraction of what it is today, there was no difference between the unemployment rate of black teenagers and white teenagers. Today that seems almost impossible to believe.
It’s only later on, when politicians started increasing the minimum wage to keep up with inflation and so on, that’s when the total unemployment of teenagers in general became some multiple of what it was in 1948. And that’s when a gap opened up between the unemployment rate of black teenagers and white teenagers.
So, the increase in unemployment among black teenagers was not due to racism, which was at least as great in 1948 as it is today. Rather, the cost of discrimination to the discriminator had changed. You lowered the cost of discrimination. As you would expect, you lower the cost and more is demanded.
Hogberg: There were even costs to discrimination in South Africa, correct?
Sowell: Even in South Africa. That was the classic case. And I use that example in the book instead of getting bogged down in these questions about how much racism exists and so forth. I deliberately picked the country where there is no question at all about the racism of the people in control of the country. Which is to say that the whites had openly proclaimed white supremacy. And yet in South Africa, there were occupations where the black workers outnumbered the white workers even though it was illegal to hire any black workers in that occupation. And this was not due to the white employers having different social views. Rather, the cost to them of not hiring blacks was just too high.
If I may, just the other day I came across an article about how employers setting up new factories in the United States have been deliberately locating those factories away from concentrations of black populations because they find it costlier to hire blacks than to hire whites with the same qualifications. The reason is that the way civil rights laws are interpreted, it is so easy to start a discrimination lawsuit which can go on for years and cost millions of dollars regardless of the outcome.
It makes no sense from a business standpoint to hire a black worker if a white worker can be hired with the same qualifications who can’t start a lawsuit. So what this suggests is that when you give some people special rights, those special rights have special costs, not only to other people but to the people with special rights.
Hogberg: Related to discrimination, you have a section where you note that Harlem, which was predominately white in the early 20th century, was less hostile toward blacks when it came to providing housing that blacks could afford than San Francisco is today. Please explain.
Sowell: The landlords of Harlem weren’t less hostile toward blacks, they were more hostile. The realtors and building owners were assuring the white tenants that they were not going to let any blacks move into Harlem and, thus, there was no reason for their tenants to leave. Well, as it turned out that was a bad prediction. And my point is the reason it failed was the cost to the discriminators.
Now, if every single realtor in Harlem had stood firm on not letting blacks into Harlem, then Harlem might not be black today. But even racists, who prefer one race to another by definition, tend to prefer themselves most of all. So if a landlord has a building where he is having trouble finding tenants at the prices he wants to charge, but he can find blacks willing to pay those prices, then he is not going to pass up that money. Most people would not. And once that process starts, it becomes costlier and costlier for the holdouts among landlords and realtors to continue holding out.
Now, in San Francisco, they have restricted the supply of housing by restricting the building of housing. And there is no cost—people who already own houses or apartment buildings can easily vote to restrict the building of more housing. That causes the price of existing housing to go up. So, by 2005, the number of blacks living in San Francisco was less than half of what it had been in 1970 even though the total population of the city had increased. And that’s because more and more blacks were priced out of the housing market and forced economically to leave San Francisco.
So I doubt there was anywhere near the amount of hostility toward blacks in San Francisco in the late 20th century as there was toward blacks in Harlem one hundred years earlier. But where the cost of discrimination was low, people discriminated and where it was high they had to give it up.
Hogberg: Let’s talk about crime. You write, “Statistics cited in support of claims that the police target blacks usually go no farther than showing that the proportion of black people arrested greatly exceeds the roughly 13 percent of the American population who are black.” Why is that charge misleading?
Sowell: It’s misleading because what is relevant is not the percentage of people in a population but the percentage of people who are doing a given thing, in this case committing crimes. As long as there has been data collected, the homicide rate among blacks has been some multiple of the homicide rate among whites. Among blacks and whites, murderers tend to kill people among their own race. It’s the one area where segregation still reigns. And so, therefore, the relevant comparisons are the number of black homicide victims as compared to white victims and the number of blacks arrested for homicide as compared to whites.
The media have this thing where they do not mention the race of people who commit a crime but they do mention the race of people who are punished for committing a crime. Well, just from that one inconsistency you can generate a whole range of outrageous rhetoric about how the cops are targeting blacks.
There have been studies, for example, of people who are speeding on the highway, and they show that blacks speed more than whites. Therefore, it is not at all surprising if the cops pull over more black motorists than white motorists. So the whole argument that cops are discriminating against blacks falls apart when you put facts into the equation. Unfortunately, there are lots of people who have great incentive to avoid putting facts into the equation.
Hogberg: In other books you talk about what you call the “cracker culture” among blacks. What is that, and how much does that have to do with the higher crime rates in black areas in the U.S.?
Sowell: It’s many things. It’s a culture that is far more violent. It is far less oriented around education or entrepreneurship. It puts far less emphasis on human capital. Andrew Carnegie once went down to Birmingham and saw iron ore and coal located very close to each other. He wondered why someone hadn’t thought to build a steel mill there. The transportation costs of bringing the coal and iron ore together would be relatively cheap.
But, of course, the people in Alabama were not the same as Andrew Carnegie. And even years later when they did develop a steel industry in the South, the more complicated things that had to been done with steel were still being done Pittsburgh and Gary, Indiana and other places in the North because they did not have the same skills in the South.
Now, the white population in the American South has had a higher violent crime rate than the white population of the rest of the country. Nor is this unusual. The murder rates in Eastern Europe have for centuries been some multiple of the murder rates in Western Europe. Like so many things that should theoretically be equal, they’re not, and they never have been.
Now, of course, over 90 percent of blacks in the U.S. came out of the South at some point in history. And so it’s not surprising that they bring many of the same cultural attitudes of Southern Whites to the North, East and wherever else they settle.
There is a whole history behind these things. But whatever the history, these groups were culturally different whether they were black or white or whatever.
Hogberg: You have a section on merit versus productivity, and you discuss the difficulties in judging merit in the sense of moral worth. Can you talk about that?
Sowell: Merit is the extent to which outcomes are due to the virtues of the particular individual compared to those circumstances the individual was born into or encountered in the larger world. I find it hard to believe that anyone specifically thinks that he can separate those things out in order to tell who is meritorious. Perhaps a mass murderer would have turned out to be a humanitarian under some other conditions, but we don’t know what those other conditions would be, and we certainly don’t know how to change him from a mass murderer into a humanitarian. And so we have to deal with things as they are.
What we can judge is productivity. We do know that someone will, say, produce a certain amount of a product per hour, while someone else will produce a lot more and someone else will produce a lot less. One of the problems of the political left is that they come up with things that they want to do, but pay very little attention to the key question of can you actually do those things? For example, wealth redistribution.
Those on the political left have no question in their minds that they can determine which rich people are unworthy and thus it is justifiable to confiscate wealth from them, and which poor people are worthy and should be given that wealth. One of the key problems for such schemes is that the source of wealth is human capital—the skills and knowledge about how to generate wealth.
Human capital is inside people’s heads and it can’t be confiscated. You can confiscate money and wealth and all the tangible things that you want to, but those things wear out over time. And unless you have someone there who can generate some more, you are worse off than before.
There are countries that have gone through that process and I mention some of them in the book. Some group in a country is prospering wonderfully and then a political leader says, well they have too much, we’ll take it from them. In some cases, they expel that group and in other cases, those people flee to a different country because they are tired of people taking their wealth.
Hogberg: Let me pose a related question. In Washington, D.C., there is the Trump International Hotel, owned by Donald Trump. People who stay there are certainly lining Donald Trump’s pockets. Now, Trump is certainly not a paragon of virtue. He has not been faithful to his wives for example, and he has at one time or another associated himself with vile people like Roy Cohn. What would you say to people who say it is immoral to book a room at Trump International Hotel?
Sowell: Is it immoral to buy a Volkswagen because Hitler was one of those promoting the Volkswagen? I mean, the Trump Hotel notion is silly beyond words. Perhaps there should be a moral surcharge based on the background of Hilton or some other hotel founder before we book a room at any of them? Again, that is asking people to do something we are not equipped to do.
Hogberg: Toward the end of the book you talk about what we can learn by examining the causes of disparities among different groups, and you write, “We can learn how dangerous it is, to a whole society, to incessantly depict outcome differences as evidence or proof of malevolent actions that need to be counter-attacked or avenged.” Why is that dangerous?
Sowell: I think we’ve seen a good illustration of why it is dangerous based on what has happened in the U.S. and Britain since the 1960s. Back then, one of the big preoccupations was with countering the fact that some people had more than other people. What the political left sets out to do is one thing; what they’ve actually done is quite another.
The left has polarized whole societies. They have set the sexes against each other, the races against each other, the classes against each other. They have delegitimized moral principles, they have delegitimized law and order, and the consequences can be seen almost daily. For example, the homicide rate among black males fell by 18 percent in the 1940s and by 22 percent in the 1950s. In the 1960s, it rose by dozens of percentage points—I don’t recall the exact number. [The homicide rate among black males per 100,000 population rose about 83 percent from 1960 to 1970—Ed.]
Steven Pinker’s book on violence internationally shows that this trend in homicide rates is something that happened across the Western world at the same time. There were declines in homicide rates until 1960, and then in the 1960s homicide rates did a U-turn. They shot up to levels that hadn’t been seen since the 19th century. It was quite a coincidence. Indeed, there were many such “coincidences” of trends that were getting better and then suddenly turned around and started getting worse in the 1960s.
Now the academics who study the history of that era aren’t likely to see it since they are often too busy celebrating the 1960s. Thus, the bad ideas and their consequence are not the sorts of things academics are going to put into their books.
Hogberg: What changed in the 1960s that caused all of that?
Sowell: It is what I call the “Social Justice” vision. That is, if there are disparities, it proves that somebody was wronged by somebody else. It’s one of those things that you don’t need one speck of evidence for. It sounds so good that many people will easily buy into it.
And many people around the world have paid with their lives for that vision. Especially in communist countries where communists came to power to supposedly correct such disparities. And once the communists are in power they create problems that make the problems that came before seem like nothing.
But that’s true of the left in general. They judge their actions by the wonderful things they are trying to do and are often oblivious to the actual harm they visibly doing to society.
Hogberg: Related to that, did you follow the controversy surrounding the actor Jussie Smollett? And what impact do hate-crime hoaxes have on fomenting racial evidence?
Sowell: I’ve tried not to, but it is hard to escape. The impact certainly isn’t good. What’s amazing is how impervious some people are to evidence that the charges are hoaxes. I think back to the Duke-Lacrosse case, where people were just hell-bent on believing that this terrible crime had been committed. And counter evidence didn’t stop the prosecution or the public. Some people, activists especially, are primed to believe certain things and when they see an opportunity they run with it, facts be damned.
Hogberg: We have an epidemic of hate crime hoaxes in the nation, going back at least ten years. Do you think that has a lot to do with the social justice vision?
Sowell: Yes. Especially given that these claims are so readily believed and rewarded. You can turn in the grievances for benefits just like they were airline miles.
Hogberg: And what makes it even worse is that Smollett got off with a slap on the wrist, apparently because he is connected to someone close to former President Obama.
Sowell: Yes. And that’s one of the deadly costs of all this stuff. You eventually erode the faith people have in the law. And once people no longer have faith in the law, you cannot hire enough police officers to maintain law. When the lawbreakers are a small group, the cops can keep that under control. But once the idea that the law is just a racket become pervasive then society is in a very dangerous situation.
Hogberg: You write that our society has a taboo “against discussing anything that might be considered negative in the individual behavior or social culture of lagging groups” and that is “counterproductive.” Why is that taboo counter-productive?
Sowell: It is counterproductive because human beings of every conceivable background are so imperfect that to exempt anybody from criticism is not a benefit but a curse. Think of the proverbial mother who dotes on her child and makes excuses for everything he does wrong. That child is going to have some hard time in our society. The reason is that not everybody is going to be making up excuses for him. And he could even end up behind bars for a long time because he didn’t realize that people other than his mother wouldn’t make excuses for him.
Hogberg: Finally, you’ve now released a revised edition of “Discrimination and Disparities,” a book that challenges this widely held notion that most if not all disparities are due to discrimination such as racism and sexism. And yet, outside of conservative media, this book doesn’t seem to be getting any attention. Why is that?
Sowell: I think back to a time when my books were reviewed not only by The New York Times but also the New York Review of Books. These days that doesn’t happen. I can’t say definitively, but I think people find that their best strategy is to pretend my books don’t exist if they can’t answer the arguments in them. And it’s not just with my writing but also other writers who challenge the prevailing vision. Their books are not going to get reviewed because the reviewers who believe in the prevailing vision don’t have a very effective answer to that challenge.
David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. He is author of Medicare’s Victims: How the U.S. Government’s Largest Health Care Programs Harms Patients and Impairs Physicians.
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