Politics & Policy

Bookstore Ghettoes

Why should an author's race matter?

If Rachael Ray had been black, there are bookstores where her cookbook would not be displayed in the same section with all the other cookbooks. It would be displayed off in a special section for black authors.

This means that many people who were looking for cookbooks would not even see Rachael Ray’s cookbook, much less buy it.

This is not rocket science, but it seems to have escaped the notice of those publishers who supply racial information on their authors, thereby jeopardizing sales of their own books.

Some years back, I was looking for a particular book on child development and was surprised not to see it in the large section of child development books at a local bookstore.

When I asked a clerk to check and see if that book was available, she checked her computer and then said that there were copies in the store right now — in the section for black writers.

I had no idea what race the author of this child-development book was, and would have considered it irrelevant if I had known. But our schools and colleges have turned out millions of people steeped in the new sacred trinity of “race, class, and gender.”

I was reminded of all this recently when I noticed that my own latest book, A Man of Letters, had as its number one official classification “African-American Intellectuals.”

This book is no more about black intellectuals — I don’t even use the term “African American” — than the child development book was about race.

Fortunately, a local San Francisco Borders bookstore that I visited seems to have ignored that classification and had the book on the shelves for books on government and politics.

Actually, A Man of Letters is a collection of excerpts from letters I have sent and received since 1960, on topics ranging from education to economics, law, the media, third-world countries and — in a very few places — black intellectuals.

Since these letters also cover events in my own life, the book is probably best classified as autobiographical. But I was happy to see it on the bookstore shelves under “government and politics,” instead of being shunted off into a racial ghetto, where people looking for this kind of book are unlikely to go.

This is only one of many examples of how much this generation — especially the “educated” part of it — has let symbolism over-ride substance.

With just a moment’s thought, anyone whose IQ is not in single digits would see the absurdity of the idea of losing book sales for the sake of symbolism. But the real problem is that so many people today don’t stop and think when they are being swept along by some fashionable notion.

The notion of honoring black (“African American”) writers with a special section in bookstores is just one of innumerable fashionable symbolic notions that ignore consequences.

In other situations, the negative consequences of mindless symbolism can be far more serious.

For example, one of the letters in A Man of Letters is from my friend and fellow economist Walter Williams, mentioning that he learned of a teaching hospital near him which had an unwritten policy against giving a failing grade to any black medical student.

Similar policies are mentioned in other letters, to and from other people, about double standards for black medical students at other places, including the Harvard Medical School in the 1970s.

Apparently the symbolism of having more black medical students on display was allowed to over-ride consideration of the consequences of sending out into the world under-qualified doctors, at the risk of their patients’ lives.

It is not that these consequences are too complicated for the people who run medical schools to figure out. But nothing gets figured out if you don’t bother to stop and think about it.

One of the reasons people don’t bother to stop and think is that symbolism lets them feel good about themselves. They can go through life leaving havoc in their wake, while enjoying a warm glow of self-approval.

Lower book sales for black writers are one of the milder consequences.

Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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