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Home News Thomas Sowell’s wise words on ‘racism’

Thomas Sowell’s wise words on ‘racism’


Thomas Sowell: Race and Culture (Basic Books, 1994) 

THOMAS Sowell is a noted economist and one of America’s great public intellectuals. He also happens to be black. Last week he told Fox News that in his view systemic racism ‘really has no meaning that can be specified and tested in the way that one tests hypotheses’. 

He said: ‘It is one of many words, I don’t think even the people who use it have any clear idea what they are saying. Their purpose is served by having other people cave in.’ 

He voiced concern that if Joe Biden and the Democrats are elected in November, ‘considering the kinds of things that they are proposing, that can well be the point of no return for this country’.

The leading conservative scholar has been writing on these issues for 50 years. Back in 1994 he published his seminal Race and Culture, the fruit of a decade of research. It cannot be recommended highly enough and should be required reading for anyone who wants to have an informed opinion on these matters. I’ve compiled some of the most prescient and incisive quotations, which speak for themselves.

On difference and discrimination:

‘One of the most used and least defined words in the contemporary ideological vocabulary is “racism” . . . To some, every adverse judgment about any aspect of the behaviour or performance of any racial or ethnic group is “racism”. To others, it is only adverse judgments on the behaviour or performance of a selected list of racial or ethnic groups which is “racism”. Thus, even sweeping denunciations of whites, “Anglos”, or perhaps Jews, may be exempted from the charge of racism. More generally, those particular groups whose historic treatment is part of a general ideological indictment of Western civilisation cannot be criticised in any way without risking the charge of “racism”. Conversely, verbal (or even physical) assaults originating within such groups are often exempted from condemnation as racism – sometimes by an explicit redefinition which requires power as an essential ingredient in racism, so that blacks for example cannot be called racists in American society.’ (p154)

‘If all differences between the earnings, occupations, and employment rates of different groups are simply defined as “discrimination”, then it is circular reasoning to say that discrimination causes these differences, and compounded meaninglessness to quantify these “effects” of discrimination. The reiteration of assumptions in the midst of statistics does not constitute evidence.’ (p114)

‘Differences among groups, and even among subgroups within a given people, are the rule rather than the exception, all over the planet – in matters within their control, as well as in matters influenced by decisions made about them by other individuals or institutions. Fertility rates, alcohol consumption, performance and behaviour in school, suicide rates, and output per man-hour are just some of the indicators of behavioural differences among racial and ethnic groups, whether in the same society or in different societies.’ (p3)

‘Factors such as intergroup differences in demographic characteristics, geographical distribution, skill levels, or cultural values tend to be ignored [by political leaders], however demonstrably important they may be in a cause-and-effect sense. Thus, while the black population in late twentieth-century America suffered greatly from soaring rates of violent crime, from having much of its newborn generation raised by teenage mothers, and from widespread drug addiction, its political leaders have focused their efforts on correcting the failings (real and presumed) of the white population – racism, discrimination, and the like.’ (pp139-40)

‘Performance differences among racial and ethnic groups are ideologically embarrassing to those who wish to present group differences in incomes or occupations as reflecting differential treatment of groups by “society”, particularly when it is Western society. The whole issue of performance differences is often verbally pre-empted by confounding them with differential treatment, or initial good fortune, through the use of such words as “advantage” or “privilege” on the one hand, or “opportunity” or “access” on the other to characterise empirical differences in outcomes . . . Any group “under-represented” in desirable occupations or institutions is thus said to be “excluded” – regardless of what the facts may be.’ (p151)

On education:

‘A rapid expansion of education is thus a factor in producing intergroup conflict, especially where the education is of a kind that produces diplomas rather than skills that have significant economic value in the marketplace. Education of a sort useful only for being a clerk, bureaucrat, or school teacher – jobs whose numbers are relatively fixed in the short term and politically determined in the long run – tend to increase politicised intergroup strife. Yet newly emerging groups, whether in their own countries or abroad, tend to specialise precisely in such undemanding fields. Malay students, for example, have tended to specialise in Malay studies and Islamic studies, which provide them with no skills with which to compete with the Chinese in the marketplace, either as businessmen, independent professionals, or technicians. Blacks and Hispanics in the United States follow a very similar pattern of specialising disproportionately in easier fields which offer less in the way of marketable skills. 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.’ (p143)

‘Blindly processing more people through schools may not promote economic development, and may well increase political instability. A society can be made ungovernable by the impossibility of satisfying those with a passionate sense of entitlement – and without the skills or diligence to create the national wealth from which to redeem these expectations.’ (p24)

‘When one group has a higher mean test score than another, the disparity between the representation of the two groups becomes progressively more extreme at higher and higher test score levels. Even within the black American population, for example, a relatively minor difference of a few points in average IQ score between men and women translates into a several hundred per cent over-representation of black women, relative to black men, at high IQ levels . . . At the extremely high test score levels prevailing at elite American academic institutions, blacks are very rare . . . The eight Ivy League colleges alone could absorb every black undergraduate in the United States who scored over 1,200 and still have blacks statistically “under-represented” in the Ivy League . . . In a climate of opinion in which statistical “under-representation” is equated with discrimination, both in political and legal discourse, each tier of schools may in self-defence admit minority students it knows to be unable to keep up academically.’ (pp175-6)

‘One of the most mixed pictures in mental test results is that among American Negroes. Black soldiers in World War II scored further behind white soldiers than in World War I. Yet a more recent study shows black orphans adopted by white families to have an average IQ of 106. Moreover, regional differences in IQ have been significant and persistent among blacks – those in the South averaging about 80 and those outside the South averaging about 90. Regional differences also cut across racial lines. During World War I, for example, black soldiers from Ohio, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania scored higher on mental tests than white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi.’ (p167)

On self-segregation:

‘The pattern known as “white flight” – the exodus of whites from a neighbourhood when blacks begin moving in – is likewise part of a much larger, if less visible, phenomenon . . . Indeed, middle-class blacks have moved away as lower-class blacks moved in – or have left neighbourhoods in Detroit to get away from Polish immigrants and left neighbourhoods in Manhattan to get away from the Irish . . . In the Caribbean, the same pattern can be seen between descendants of people from India (called “East Indians” in the Caribbean) and people of African ancestry (called “Creoles”). As a scholarly study found, “where East Indians settled, Creoles generally departed”.’ (p104)

‘The new mass exodus of blacks from the South [beginning in the 1890s] represented far less acculturated people – people whose behaviour was widely decried within the black community, as well as by whites. In the wake of this migration, the previous racial progress, in housing and other areas, not only halted but reversed. Where all-black neighbourhoods had once been rare or non-existent in various cities – Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, or Detroit, for example – the familiar black ghettoes of the twentieth century now took shape.’ (p107)

On slavery:

‘The biggest story about slavery – how this ancient institution, older than Islam or Christianity, was wiped out over vast regions of the earth – remains a story seldom told. At the heart of that story was the West’s ending of slavery in its own domains within a century and maintaining pressure on other nations for even longer to stamp out this practice. Instead, the West has been singled out as peculiarly culpable for a worldwide evil in which it participated, when in fact its own real uniqueness was in ultimately opposing and destroying this evil . . . A vast literature exists in which this same general ideological pattern is pervasive, whether the issue is slavery, racism, sexism, or other evils. In this literature, the sins and shortcomings of the human race are depicted as evils peculiar to the Western world, even when such evils have been demonstrably more prevalent or demonstrably worse in regions of the world ignored during outbursts of selective moral indignation.’ (p150)

‘Africa remained prey to other nations, long after mass enslavement was no longer viable in many other parts of the world, because it remained vulnerable longer . . . Many of the peoples victimised by the Arabs in Central Africa had lived isolated from the outside world and were easy prey for marauders with firearms, who seized their goods and such people as they wished, leaving behind famine brought on by looted granaries and diseases spread by caravans. Europeans became mass traders of African slaves largely by purchase from Africa’s more powerful tribes and empires.’ (p195)

‘A sharp distinction is apparent between the ending of slavery in Western civilisation and in non-Western regions. By 1888, slavery had been abolished throughout the Western Hemisphere. Yet the struggle to end slavery, or even the slave trade, continued on into the twentieth century in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East . . . Slave trading continued on land until after European imperialism took control of most of the African continent. Only then could the attempt be made to stamp out slavery itself . . . Among the Islamic nations of North Africa and the Middle East, the abolition of slavery came especially late, with Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and the Sudan continuing to hold slaves on past the middle of the twentieth century.’ (p213)

‘Some have attempted to claim that profits from slavery provided the investments that made the industrial revolution possible in Britain. But even if all the profits from slavery had been invested in British industry, this would have come to less than 2 per cent of Britain’s domestic investments during that era. Moreover, neither in Britain nor the Western Hemisphere was there any evidence that slave owners were such dedicated capitalists as to invest all or most of their incomes. Contemporary observers frequently characterised slave owners as self-indulgent or ostentatious consumers, often in debt. Finally, when the total cost of Britain’s naval and military efforts against the slave trade for more than a century are added up, they are comparable to all the profits ever made by Britain from the slave trade in earlier times. In the United States, it is also questionable whether all the profits from slavery exceeded the enormous cost of fighting the Civil War.’ (p215)

‘Another distortion of history is to assume a priori that social problems afflicting contemporary blacks in the United States are a “legacy of slavery”. Broken families, lower rates of marriage, and lower rates of labour force participation have been included among the social phenomena explained and excused on grounds of a “legacy of slavery”. In reality, most black children were raised in two-parent homes even during the era of slavery and for generations thereafter, blacks had higher rates of marriage than whites in the early twentieth century, and higher rates of labour force participation in every census from 1890 to 1950. Whatever may be the real causes of the very different patterns among blacks in the world of today must be sought in the twentieth century, not in the era before emancipation.’ (220)

‘The same approach which treats sins common to the human race as peculiarities of “our society” often also makes the fatal error of confusing victimhood with virtue, by lining up on the side of the victim, instead of lining up on the side of a moral principle. Yet nothing has been more common in history than for victims to become oppressors when they gain power, whether among the successor states of the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire after World War I or among the successor states of the European overseas colonial empires in Asia and Africa after World War II.’ (p250)

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Will Jones
Will Jones
Dr Will Jones is a maths graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017).He blogs at

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