Nature, Nurture, Culture

Race and Culture: A World View.
by Thomas Sowell.
Basic Books. 331 pp. $25.00.

As long as mainstream publishers like Basic Books bring out works like Race and Culture, all is not lost—though one can just imagine teeth gnashing and blue pencil poised to strike as an editor’s sensitized eyes settled on terms like “Negroes” or “more advanced societies.” Thomas Sowell’s work is a relentless, 331-page attack against the wisdom of the day, which comes under the frazzled labels of “multiculturalism,” “PC,” and “affirmative action”; but the argument takes place on a breathtaking intellectual level that ought to command the respect even of those who violently disagree with him.

This is an “old-fashioned” book, one that has become rare in academia, which tends to produce ever longer answers to ever smaller questions. (Perhaps it is no accident that Sowell, who is in Stanford, California, is not ensconced at the university itself but at the Hoover Institution that lives in uneasy coexistence with it.) The book, to exaggerate just a bit, is a project in the way of Montesquieu or Macchiavelli: make your point and buttress it with examples drawn from different climes and cultures so as to highlight the universal in a sea of singulars, so as to distinguish real causes from assumed ones—and the fleeting truth from the general. Indeed, Sowell goes Montesquieu and Macchiavelli one better. There are no footnotes in The Spirit of the Laws or The Discourses; by contrast, Race and Culture offers 57 pages of them, displaying a breadth of cross-cultural research Sowell’s gainsayers will find hard to match.

Sowell’s intellectual enemy is “‘multicultural diversity’ as tribal symbolism and multiprovincialism.” His approach is this:

History shows patterns. . . . Its facts are especially needed when dealing with racial beliefs and issues, where powerful emotions reign, and where prejudice and bias have often been the norm. If nothing else, history can help dissolve the provincialism of time and place, and the hypocrisy of selective moral indignation.

And his terse warning is: if you cut yourself off from cultural competition, you lose.

“Multiculturalism,” as practiced in the United States (and in Britain and Canada) in the name of a shoddy relativism and of racial justice, is to culture what protectionism is to economics: it rewards inefficient producers, brakes innovation, and drives down the general welfare. Sowell compares this kind of isolation from competition or cross-fertilization to “population ‘islands’ on land—the Scottish highlanders, the montagnards of Vietnam, the Kandyan Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.” All of these are distinguished by “conspicuous cultural lags behind others who were either in contact with more of their own people or with other cultures more accessible by rivers, harbors, or plains.”

Sowell’s prime counter-example is the Jews,

[a] relatively small group of people spread thinly around the world, and yet so prominent in so many countries and in so many fields that it hardly seems credible that there are fewer Jews in the entire world than there are Kazakhs or Sri Lankans.

Yet there is a twist: not all Jews are alike. Where they have been stuck in “small separate countries in cultural backwaters” such as the East European shtetl or Yemen, “they have lagged far behind the achievements of other Jews exposed to the wider world.”

In other words, genetics is not destiny. But neither does the “environment,” that crude catch-all of social engineering, produce Einsteins at the snap of yet another affirmative-action program. What, then, does explain differences in the performance of groups, be they defined by ethnicity or race? Why, for example, do Japanese in Japan score about the same in comparable IQ tests as whites in the United States, whereas Japanese in the U.S. score dramatically higher than local whites?

Sowell seems to say that the key is “cultural values.” But “culture” is just as tricky as those rubbery terms “nature” and “nurture.” Do those Japanese who have emigrated to the U.S. have a different culture from their brethren back home? Or do they somehow represent a self-selected gene pool—composed of those who are smarter to begin with, or more ambitious, or more adventurous? Or is it the painful encounter with a new majority culture, one that seeks to deny the newcomer a “place in the sun,” that galvanizes and spurs performance?

Sowell does not give an explicit answer to this question (nor do I believe that one is possible). But his key message, suffusing chapter after chapter, is as clear as can be: do not fall into the trap of cultural protectionism, a/k/a multiculturalism. “Exaggerated cultural ‘identity,’” Sowell warns,

is more than a foible. Among its more serious social consequences are (1) putting a dangerous leverage in the hands of extremist fringes within each group, and (2) stifling the cultural advancement of lagging groups by sealing them off from the cultural advantages of the larger society around them.

If you glory in the ghetto, you will get plenty of identity, and identity-mongers, but little else: no economic clout, no skills for acquiring it, no tools for advancement. At best, you can learn how to exploit the racial/ethnic/religious spoils system, as have the ultra-Orthodox haredim of Jerusalem (an example Sowell does not use). But once you eschew the market in favor of identity politics, the spoils system, instead of “leveling the playing field,”feeds on itself. Thus,

Malay students [in Malaysia] . . . have tended to specialize in Malay studies and Islamic studies, which provide them with no marketable skills with which to compete with the Chinese in the marketplace. . . . Blacks and Hispanics in the United States follow a very similar pattern of specializing disproportionately in easier fields which offer less in the way of marketable skills.

What happens then? Unable to prosper, Sowell argues,

such groups then have little choice but to turn to the government, not only for jobs but also for group preferences to be imposed in the marketplace, and for symbolic recognition in various forms.

In other words, affirmative action begets not equality, but inefficiency; not justice, but zero-sum politics, the most divisive (and ultimately most ugly) contest there is.



With regard to justice, Sowell also warns us not to confuse “statistical ‘under-representation’” with “discrimination.” For instance:

There are about a dozen engineering schools in the United States where the average mathematics score alone on the Scholastic Aptitude Test is over 700 out of a possible 800. There were fewer than 200 black or Mexican-American students who scored at that mathematics level in 1985, fewer than 100 Puerto Ricans, and fewer than 50 American Indians. Even if all the students at the 700 mathematics level applied to engineering schools, all four groups would still be grossly “under-represented” in engineering schools, for together their pool included fewer than 500 students—compared to more than 3,600 among Asian Americans.

Yet in order to get “fair” representation, elite schools admit underqualified minority students. Sooner or later, they fail. And even this is not the worst of it. Minority students who would “otherwise qualify for admission to institutions at the second or third tier” having been siphoned away, these lower-ranking institutions may in turn also have to “begin to admit minority applicants who fall below their normal admissions standards.” And so,

youngsters who could have succeeded at San Jose State University may be failing at Berkeley, while youngsters who could have succeeded at a community college are failing at San Jose State. . . . In neither case does this imply that the students are “unqualified” in some absolute sense. They are mismatched institutionally.

The notion of collective justice (to each group its due) detracts not only from the most efficient allocation of resources, but also, as one must surmise, from individual happiness. As a collective, Group A may take pride in placing x percent of its own at Berkeley by means of quotas. But if too many of A fail, the individuals concerned will acquire neither credentials nor self-esteem.

Economists like Sowell do not deal with “happiness”; they base their models on “utility” and “indifference” curves, “nonsubjective” constructs that are thought to yield sturdier foundations for their theories of behavior. Nor do they deal with intentions; they are concerned with outcomes. A firm may want to amass profits; economists explain why it went bankrupt. A company may want to eliminate rivals and constrain trade; economists tell us why that is bad for the consumers and the economy as a whole.

This is why Sowell’s economic approach is such a valuable contribution to the post-Marxist debate which pits not classes but races, religions, sexes, ethnicities, or cultures—collectivities all—against one another. In every case, the object of the struggle—the intent—is “justice.” But beware of the law of unintended consequences, warns Sowell. What you want may not be what you get; you may get worse.

As an economist, Sowell takes us into a realm that economists, in their search for abstraction, have generally evaded: into culture, history, and geography. Some things, like “culture,” he cautions, are independent variables that explain outcomes better than “discrimination.” Indians in Uganda do better than Ugandans, Chinese in Malaysia do better than Malays—in spite (or perhaps because?) of discrimination. Yet unlike a set of chromosomes, “culture” is not an unyielding given. Culture can change, and thereby improve the performance of groups—but only if cultural values are themselves open to change and competition. Competition, the willingness to adapt, is vital not only for firms, industries, and economies, but also for individuals, groups, and societies.

How about “infant industries,” i.e., groups that cannot yet compete for one reason or another? Sowell, a rigorous free-marketeer, would probably oppose this special case of protectionism, too, on the grounds that not everybody must do equally well in all pursuits; let “comparative advantage,” hence specialization, reign. Yet it may make sense to shelter “infant industries” if—and only if—such protection is temporary and does not become away of life. In the former case, there is a built-in impetus for speedy adaptation. In the latter—permanent protection along the lines of America’s now 30-year-old affirmative-action regime—you get subsidized inefficiencies in the economy and a group-spoils system in the polity.



Sowell is not just the compleat economist. In this era of “nonjudgmentalism” and besotted relativism, he does not shy away from value judgments. “There is much in the history of all peoples,” he argues,

that does not deserve respect. Respect is earned, not conferred. It is not a door prize. Equal respect is a contradiction in terms, since the very concept of respect implies an inequality of esteem and regard. All may be entitled to a common decency but not all can receive a higher relative ranking.

This is true in the way that 2 + 2 = 4 is true. But it is a truth that multiculturalism denies and defies. A review of Race and Culture in the Washington Post (August 23, 1994) complains that the “point to this exercise in history, sociology, and culture is unclear.” This is probably the most polite put-down Sowell’s brilliant and contrarian book will receive. Though Race and Culture is densely written, and sometimes with more locutions than necessary, the “point” of the exercise is crystal clear: to make us question propositions that have passed all too quickly into the realm of correct thinking. Unmatched in the breadth of its scholarship and the decisiveness of its arguments, Sowell’s book is a splendid demarche against the Zeitgeist—which is the best recommendation an intelligent reader could want.

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