This book is a wonderful spin-off from Thomas Sowell’s magnificent 2009 volume Intellectuals and Society. For those who want a short introduction to Sowell-think, this small book is a perfect place to start. His main message — amply illustrated — is that, on the subject of race, intellectuals are useless. Indeed, they don’t even ask the right questions. Thus, they’re woefully lost when it comes to analyzing America’s most important domestic issue: the status of blacks and the state of race relations. Of course his point about lame-brained intellectuals extends far beyond their writings on race. Indeed, his book is a primer on rigorous thinking about social and economic issues in general, here and abroad.
“There is no subject that is more in need of dispassionate analysis, careful factual research and a fearless and honest discussion than is race,” Sowell writes. Precisely those qualities are exceedingly hard to find in the mass media, or in academic and popular writing. His book is a gold mine of invaluable insights; he is the teacher most of us never had and badly needed — indeed, still need.
Two very important cases involving race are before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. The Court’s woolly thinking is a minor thread in the tale Sowell tells, but the Court is not a minor American institution, and the opinions of the justices shape our seemingly never-ending debate on race. Intellectuals and Race should be mandatory reading for those who hand down wisdom from their high judicial perch.
Too often the arguments of at least some on the bench are full of gaping holes. Take Brown v. Board of Education, the Court’s most important decision in the 20th century. Sowell does not discuss it, but the Court’s unanimous opinion was a mess. With its reliance on the results of an experiment involving black children who showed a preference for white over black dolls, it barely qualified as constitutional reasoning. Let’s leave the Constitution aside: What was the evidence that black children, as a consequence of segregation, acquired “a feeling of inferiority . . . unlikely ever to be undone”? Or that their preference for the white dolls was a sign of low esteem? The doll study had numerous flaws, including the sample size and the lack of a control group. But, most important, a study by the same researcher, Kenneth Clark, found that black children in a northern state without segregated schools were even more likely to prefer the white doll than those in the Jim Crow South.
Evidentiary problems are high on the list of things that rightly infuriate Sowell. Got evidence? Most often the answer is no.
But who needs hard evidence when the story is always the same? What accounts for today’s residential clustering of black families (mislabeled “segregation”)? White racism. The disproportionately high rates of black students disciplined for disruptive behavior in schools? Racism. Too many black youngsters who are academically behind their white and Asian peers? Racism. In 1981, the New York Times ran an editorial arguing that black unemployment rates and every other “index of misery” showed the degree to which “the devastating effects of racism” linger on. Sowell responds: “Only the fact that the intelligentsia tend to make racism the default setting for explaining adverse conditions among blacks enables such statements . . . to pass muster without the slightest demand for either evidence or analysis.”
Sowell asks obvious historical questions whose absence in mainstream discourse should put the intelligentsia to shame. Did the “devastating” and “lingering” effects of racism explain the black riots in Detroit and elsewhere in the mid-1960s? That is the conventional wisdom, and it’s not right. Was the Motor City in fact a City of Black Rage? Sowell points to some “inconvenient but inescapable facts of history.” Among them: The poverty rate in Detroit before the riots was half that of blacks nationwide; the black homeownership rate there was the highest in the nation; the black unemployment rate was lower than that of whites nationwide.
There were other inconvenient facts Sowell could have cited, absent space constraints: Jerome Cavanagh, the mayor, was a committed liberal, credited by the MSM for much progress in race relations; the city contained a large, affluent, and growing black middle class; if black fury was directed at white oppressors, it was passing strange that rioters did not especially target white-owned shops or restaurants. As one scholar wrote in 1996, the riots remain “one of the most enigmatic social phenomena in American history.”
Ghettos are generally assumed to be a fact of black urban life, but they came and went and came again. In the last decade of the 19th century, residential segregation eased, but restrictions on black housing choices soon reappeared. “Do the racial predispositions of white people just come and go unpredictably?” Sowell asks. The mass migration of millions of blacks out of the South early in the 20th century affected white racial attitudes, he argues. The massive migration “not only greatly multiplied the black populations living in many Northern cities, the newcomers were seen by both the pre-existing black populations and the white populations of these cities as creating greatly increased social problems such as crime, violence, and offensive behavior in general.” In other words, there went the neighborhood, and the new arrivals found themselves unwelcome.