Thomas Sowell is that rarest of things among serious academics: plainspoken. This characteristic, a by-product of both his innate temperament and the intellectual courage for which nature does not deserve the credit, surely has been bad for his career. (Intellectual courage tends to impede the career path of an intellectual.) If he were the obfuscating sort, he might have made Harvard don; if he were the cheaply poetical sort, he might have made U.S. president. His plain speaking also makes him dangerous, and that danger is intensified by the fact that Sowell is black. And not just black, but unassailably black: He’s Southern-born, Harlem-raised, brought up poor, and the first of his family to be educated beyond the sixth grade.
If a mad scientist were to repair to his laboratory to design a machine that would make white liberals uncomfortable, that machine would be Thomas Sowell, whose input is data and whose output is socioeconomic criticism in several grades, ranging from bemused observation to thorough debunking to high-test scorn—all of which are represented in The Thomas Sowell Reader (Basic Books, 404 pages).