By Thomas Sowell
Published December 2014
Everyone seems to have an opinion about the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri. But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
Soon after the shooting death of Michael Brown, this 285-pound young man was depicted as a “gentle giant.” But, after a video was leaked, showing him bullying the owner of a store from which he had stolen some merchandise, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed displeasure that the video was leaked. In other words, to Holder the truth was offensive, but the lie it exposed was not.
Many people who claimed to have been eyewitnesses to the fatal shooting gave opposite accounts of what happened. Some even gave accounts that contradicted what they themselves had said earlier.
Fortunately, the grand jury did not have to rely on such statements, though some in the media seemed to. What the grand jury had, that the rest of us did not have until the grand jury’s decision was announced, was a set of physical facts that told a story that was independent of what anybody said.
Three different medical forensic experts — one representing Michael Brown’s parents — examined the physical facts. These facts included the autopsy results, Michael Brown’s DNA on the door of the police car and on the policeman’s gun, photographs of the bruised and swollen face of policeman Darren Wilson and the pattern of blood stains on the street where Brown was shot.
This physical evidence was hard to square with the loudly proclaimed assertions that Brown was shot in the back, or was shot with his hands up, while trying to surrender. But it was consistent with the policeman’s testimony.
Moreover, the physical facts were consistent with what a number of black witnesses said under oath, despite expressing fears for their own safety for contradicting what those in the rampaging mobs were saying.
The riots, looting and setting things on fire that some in the media are treating as reactions to the grand jury’s decision not to indict the policeman, actually began long before the grand jury had begun its investigation, much less announced any decision.
Why some people insist on believing whatever they want to believe is a question that is hard to answer. But a more important question is: What are the consequences to be expected from an orgy of anarchy that started in Ferguson, Missouri and has spread around the country?
The first victims of the mob rampages in Ferguson have been people who had nothing to do with Michael Brown or the police. These include people — many of them black or members of other minorities — who have seen the businesses they worked to build destroyed, perhaps never to be revived.
But these are only the first victims. If the history of other communities ravaged by riots in years past is any indication, there are blacks yet unborn who will be paying the price of these riots for years to come.
Sometimes it is a particular neighborhood that never recovers, and sometimes it is a whole city. Detroit is a classic example. It had the worst riot of the 1960s, with 43 deaths — 33 of them black people. Businesses left Detroit, taking with them jobs and taxes that were very much needed to keep the city viable. Middle class people — both black and white — also fled.
Harlem was one of many ghettos across the country that has still not recovered from the riots of the 1960s. In later years, a niece of mine, who had grown up in the same Harlem tenement where I grew up years earlier, bitterly complained about how few stores and other businesses there were in the neighborhood.
There were plenty of stores in that same neighborhood when I was growing up, as well as a dentist, a pharmacist and an optician, all less than a block away. But that was before the neighborhood was swept by riots.
Who benefits from the Ferguson riots? The biggest beneficiaries are politicians and racial demagogues. In Detroit, Mayor Coleman Young was one of many political demagogues who were able to ensure their own reelection, using rhetoric and policies that drove away people who provided jobs and taxes, but who were likely to vote against him if they stayed. Such demagogues thrived as Detroit became a wasteland.
The Grand Myth and the Legacy of American Liberalism
By Thomas Sowell/ Nov. 2014
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said there were “phrases that serve as an excuse for not thinking.” One of these phrases that substitute for thought today is one that depicts the current problems of blacks in America as “a legacy of slavery.”
New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof asserts that there is “overwhelming evidence that centuries of racial subjugation still shape inequity in the 21st century” and he mentions “the lingering effects of slavery.” But before we become overwhelmed, that evidence should be checked out.
The evidence offered by Mr. Kristof in the November 16th issue of the New York Times seems considerably short of overwhelming, to put it charitably. He cites a study showing that “counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today.” Has he never heard statisticians’ repeated warnings that correlation is not causation?
The South long remained a region that blacks fled by the millions — for very good reasons. But, in more recent years, the net migration of blacks has been from the North to the South. No doubt they have good reasons for that as well.
But there is no reason to believe that blacks today are unaware of the history of slavery or of the Jim Crow era in the South. Indeed, there are black “leaders” who seem to talk about nothing else. Yet blacks who are moving back to the South seem more concerned with the present and the future than with the past.
Kristof’s other “overwhelming” evidence of the current effects of past slavery is that blacks do not have as much income as whites. But Puerto Ricans do not have as much income as Japanese Americans. Mexican Americans do not have as much income as Cuban Americans. All sorts of people do not have as much income as all sorts of other people, not only in the United States, but in countries around the world. And most of these people were never enslaved.
If we wanted to be serious about evidence, we might compare where blacks stood a hundred years after the end of slavery with where they stood after 30 years of the liberal welfare state. In other words, we could compare hard evidence on “the legacy of slavery” with hard evidence on the legacy of liberals.
Despite the grand myth that black economic progress began or accelerated with the passage of the civil rights laws and “war on poverty” programs of the 1960s, the cold fact is that the poverty rate among blacks fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960. This was before any of those programs began.
Over the next 20 years (1960-1980), the poverty rate among blacks fell another 18 percentage points, compared to the 40-point drop in the previous 20 years. This was the continuation of a previous economic trend, at a slower rate of progress, not the economic grand deliverance proclaimed by liberals and self-serving black “leaders.”
Ending the Jim Crow laws was a landmark achievement. But, despite the great proliferation of black political and other “leaders” that resulted from the laws and policies of the 1960s, nothing comparable happened economically. And there were serious retrogressions socially.
Nearly a hundred years of the supposed “legacy of slavery” found most black children being raised in two-parent families in 1960. But thirty years after the liberal welfare state found the great majority of black children being raised by a single parent.
The murder rate among blacks in 1960 was one-half of what it became 20 years later, after a legacy of liberals’ law enforcement policies. Public housing projects in the first half of the 20th century were clean, safe places, where people slept outside on hot summer nights, when they were too poor to afford air conditioning. That was before admissions standards for public housing projects were lowered or abandoned, in the euphoria of liberal non-judgmental notions. And it was before the toxic message of victimhood was spread by liberals. We all know what hell holes public housing has become in our times. The same toxic message produced similar social results among lower-income people in England, despite an absence of a “legacy of slavery” there.
If we are to go by evidence of social retrogression, liberals have wreaked more havoc on blacks than the supposed “legacy of slavery” they talk about. Liberals should heed the title of Jason Riley’s insightful new book, “Please Stop Helping Us.”
Thomas Sowell, a National Humanities Medal winner, is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.