Economist Thomas Sowell, who just turned 90, has devoted a great deal of attention over his career to analyzing inter-group differences occurring around the world and across many centuries. The trilogy he wrote in the 1990s—Race and Culture; Migrations and Culture; and Conquests and Cultures—is his most comprehensive examination of the issue. His conclusion is that wide, persistent disparities are a fact of life in every heterogenous society. If all disparate socioeconomic outcomes are bad (except, perhaps, for purely random ones) then the pursuit of justice requires constantly reducing and ultimately eliminating every such disparity. According to Sowell, however, this supposed ideal is in fact contrary to the operation of every large, complex society known to the disciplines of history and anthropology.
He offers so many particulars that it becomes clear the supply is infinite. A century ago, for example, Jews were 6% of Hungary’s population and 11% of Poland’s, but accounted for the majority of physicians in each country. Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, about 5% of the population, owns some 80% of the nation’s invested capital. In the multinational Austro-Hungarian empire, 75% of Serbo-Croatian adults were illiterate in 1900, as were 40% of Poles, but only 6% of Germans.
Among the large number of immigrants who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those from northern Europe were more likely to come from cities, where an extensive division of labor made it both necessary and possible to acquire specialized skills. Those from southern and eastern Europe usually came from rural areas lacking such opportunities. As a result, immigrants from Mediterranean and Slavic countries had incomes that were only 15% as large as those who came from Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. By the same token,
Japanese and Mexican immigrants began arriving in California at about the same time and initially worked in very similar occupations as agricultural laborers. Yet a study of a school district in which their children attended the same schools and sat side-by-side in the same classrooms found IQ differences as great as those between blacks and whites attending schools on opposite sides of town in the Jim Crow South.
Why do such large disparities exist? Discrimination is a factor, Sowell says, but not the only one, the biggest, or one that operates in a simple linear fashion. The groups most discriminated against, in other words, are not always or even usually the most disadvantaged, and the groups doing the discriminating are not necessarily the most advantaged.
If discrimination were the sole or decisive factor explaining group disparities, argues Sowell, we should expect the descendants of African slaves in Haiti to be far better off than the descendants of African slaves in the United States. Haiti, after all, has been an independent nation for two centuries, in which the huge black majority has been politically and economically dominant. In the U.S., blacks are a minority, slightly more than one-eighth of the population, subjected to various forms of discrimination since the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery. And yet, he writes, “it is Haitians who are the poorest and American blacks who are the most prosperous in the [western] hemisphere—and in the world.”
The social justice jihad against socioeconomic disparities is not only infeasible but also pernicious, leading inevitably to resentment, envy, and discord. If white privilege explains virtually everything about how whites come out ahead of blacks, how can “Jewish privilege” not explain how Jews come out ahead of Gentiles? How can “Asian privilege” not explain the educational and economic advantages that Americans of Asian ancestry enjoy over whites, blacks, and Hispanics? After all, the social justice framework demands summary rejection of the idea that there are reasons other than racism why some groups, including ones that have endured virulent bigotry within living memory, get along better in the modern world than other groups.
Whites account for 15% of all NYC students and 24% of those at the specialized schools, which means that they’re three-fifths again as likely to get into the specialized schools as you would expect if placement were determined through a city-wide lottery. Asian students, however, are 16% of all NYC pupils but 62% of those in the selective schools: there are nearly four times as many Asian students in New York’s specialized high schools as simple demographic proportions would predict.
Thus, a coherent but also absurd way to blame racism for the small number of black and Hispanic students at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science would be to hold that New York’s whites have devised an admissions process that is far more beneficial to Asians than to whites because white racism is so pathological that its highest priority is to harm blacks rather than help whites.
To ascribe all moral and practical responsibility for disparities adversely affecting blacks to white racism requires insisting that higher rates of criminal behavior and out-of-wedlock births among blacks, to mention the two likeliest causes of chronic poverty, are either inconsequential or themselves the result of white racism. To take that position, however, is to contend that the minimal decencies and competencies we demand of everyone else are somehow an unwarranted expectation for this one victimized group. In the words of economist Glenn Loury (who, like Sowell, is black):
You’re telling me that people have to run up and down the street, firing guns out of windows and killing their brethren because we didn’t get reparations for slavery handed over to you yet?… And you’re telling me that that explains or somehow excuses or cancels out the moral judgment that I would otherwise bring to bear against any other community in which I saw this happening?
This contempt for blacks—the all-but-explicit belief that respecting blacks requires, as it does for children or the mentally disabled, making excuses and accepting otherwise unacceptable conduct—is not one of social justice’s fixable problems, but one of its integral features.
- During the decade of the 1960s, for example, the Chinese minority in Malaysia earned more than a hundred times as many engineering degrees as the Malay majority. Halfway around the world at the same time, the majority of the population of Nigeria, living in its northern provinces, were just 9 percent of the students attending that country’s University of Ibadan and just 2 percent of the much larger number of Nigerian students studying abroad in foreign institutions of higher learning. In the Austrian Empire in 1900, the illiteracy rate among Polish adults was 40 percent and among Serbo-Croatians 75 percent– but only 6 percent among the Germans.
- Given similar educational disparities among other groups in other countries– disparities in both the quantity and quality of education, as well as in fields of specialization– why should anyone expect equal outcomes in incomes or occupations?
- Back in the fifteenth century, China sent ships on a voyage of exploration longer than that of Columbus, more than half a century before Columbus, and in ships more advanced than those in Europe at the time. Yet the Chinese rulers made a decision to discontinue such voyages and in fact to reduce China’s contacts with the outside world. European rulers made the opposite decision and established world-wide empires, ultimately to the detriment of China.
- There are other groups to whom none of these factors apply– and who still have had test score differences as great as those between black and white children in the Jim Crow South. Japanese and Mexican immigrants began arriving in California at about the same time and initially worked in very similar occupations as agricultural laborers. Yet a study of a school district in which their children attended the same schools and sat side-by-side in the same classrooms found IQ differences as great as those between blacks and whites attending schools on opposite sides of town in the Jim Crow South. International studies have found different groups of illiterates— people with no educational differences because they had no education– with mental test differences larger than those between blacks and whites in the United States.