Saturday, March 09, 2019

Insight and Eloquence in Thomas Sowell’s A Man of Letters

Awhile back I ordered economist Thomas Sowell’s book A Man of Letters. I seldom read entire books of letters, but Sowell’s was quite enjoyable, both insightful and eloquent.

The book consists of Sowell’s letters from 1960 to 2006 with emails intermixed in the later years, along with editorial comments between the letters.

Sowell is known for his strict adherence to facts through the extensive research he has conducted over the decades. Let me cite several examples that shine through his letters and comments.

On IQ and other forms of assessment testing, Sowell offers data that show race does not explain differences, as white groups both in the US and abroad have similar IQ scores as blacks. In the US, some black schools have IQ’s equal to or better than the national average and black women outscore black men (p. 110).

Commenting on his Harlem high school classmates, Sowell writes, “The kids I had trouble keeping up with had an average IQ of 84. . . . A few years later I was able to hold my own in a class where the average IQ was over 120.” Sowell says he is “appalled at some of the questions [test makers] ask to test ‘intelligence.’” His conclusion: nearly all mass assessment testing is “biased against the poor and the disadvantaged” (pp. 154-55).

On the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Sowell was not a huge fan of, he points out the steady improvements in the standard of living of blacks as well as their increased success at securing higher-level employment throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. In the 1960s, however, after passage of the bill, improvements slowed with new trends of increased crime, unemployment, and unwed motherhood taking over (p. 44).

In his younger years, Sowell’s research convinced him that minimum wage laws increased unemployment, especially among poor blacks. In a letter to a black mayor in Alabama who wanted to relax the wage laws, Sowell of course praised the mayor but went on to emphasize how necessary it is for young blacks to obtain work experience, no matter how “menial” it may be. “They need the work experience even more than they need the money,” he writes. Work experience of any kind teaches young people the meaning and value of work.

“In my research on racial and ethnic groups around the world,” says Sowell, “I discovered again and again that groups who are hung up over ‘menial’ work get overtaken and left behind by groups who consider a job a job” (pp. 204-205).

And as for “preferential treatment”—his preferred term instead of “affirmative action”—his letter from 1972 to the economics department chairman at Swarthmore College may sum up his attitude. The letter to Sowell said the college is “actively looking for a black economist.” Sowell’s reply: “Many a self-respecting black scholar would never accept an offer like this. . . . You and I know that many of these special recruiting efforts are not aimed at helping black faculty members or black or white students, but rather at hanging on to the school’s federal money.”

The result of “quotas” and “affirmative action,” says Sowell in his editorial transition, is “the ‘new racism’—that is, more racial polarization than had existed on those same campuses decades earlier" (pp. 97-99).

Numerous letters are to his longtime friends economist Walter Williams and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In a 1991 letter to Williams, about the contentious nomination hearings of Thomas, Sowell writes, “Clarence is still young enough to be shocked at being knifed in the back by someone he went out of his way to help . . . My theory is that Clarence’s problem arose precisely because he did not sexually harass Anita Hill. . . . As for Clarence, he has done himself proud in the way he has handled this thing (pp. 232-33).” [That is, his righteous moral indignation at the falsehoods hurled at him, falsehoods not unlike those slung at a recent Supreme Court nominee who also dared to defend himself with equally righteous moral indignation.]

In an editorial comment, Sowell tells this anecdote about Clarence Thomas’s “human touch” and “respect for other people” (something the press did not grant him). When Thomas in 1982 became chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he was entitled to a chauffeur, an elderly man referred to by everyone at the time by his first name. Thomas immediately addressed him “Mr. Randall,” with the staffers subsequently following suit. Writes Sowell, “When riding in the car with the two of them, I was struck by their considerate politeness toward each other.” It was difficult to tell “who was the chauffeur and who was the head of the agency” (p. 234).

In response to a 1981 letter inviting Sowell to write a bi-weekly column in the Washington Post, he submitted two on a topic he said “needs to be confronted clearly.” After their publication, the columns “sparked the bitterest attacks” on him “before or since.” The columns are reprinted following the invitation letter.

“Blacker Than Thou” and “Blacker Than Thou (II)” are the columns. The bitter attacks stem from his revealing “the dirty little secret of internal color discrimination among blacks in a white newspaper.” The discrimination derives from the differences—physical, cultural, and educational—between lighter skinned blacks and the darker ones. In the days of slavery, the lighter skinned tended to be slaves who were freed or who worked as house servants. The darker skinned blacks were field slaves.

Over the last century and a half the lighter skinned and their descendants were more privileged than the darker ones, absorbing the dominant culture and attending school, including college. Many subsequently adopted “holier than thou” condescension toward their darker brothers. Not coincidentally, the lighter skinned blacks have tended to become “the militant black leader[s] not only distant from but snobbish toward the people in whose name [they speak].”

Sowell does not hesitate to name names. Patricia Roberts Harris, cabinet secretary in Jimmy Carter’s administration, is quoted as saying that people like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell “don’t know what poverty is.” Harris and Sowell attended Howard University at the same time, but, as Sowell says, “under entirely different conditions.” Sowell worked full time and attended school at night. Harris, on the other hand, attended school full time, was a “campus social leader,” and also a member of “an ‘exclusive’ sorority” (pp. 166-76).

As for Sowell and Williams? Both were raised in fatherless homes. Thomas Sowell lived initially in North Carolina without hot running water or electricity, then moved to Harlem where he had to quit high school to make money. Williams grew up in the projects of Philadelphia.

I believe Sowell has insightfully and eloquently made his point.


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