on 15 June 1998
Thomas Sowell, a black senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University has aroused much controversy with his 329 page-long book on race and culture. His thesis runs contrary to most current trends in social sciences. And it seems incompatible with most assumptions underlying government policies and established academic notions with regard to racial and ethnic minorities.
Sowell's thesis maintains that differences in productive skills and cultural values are the key to understanding the advancement or regression of ethnic groups. In his opinion, skills and values make up the cultural capital of an ethnic group or of a people, whereas politics, environmental factors and genetics do not play the important roles widely attributed to the success of a group or nation.
Since Sowell's central topic is the universe of values, the reader will easily accept the general layout of his book: a world view. In order to make his universal perspective convincing, Sowell pays his respect to a one page long list of scholars world wide from whose wisdom he has been able to draw.
What is the result of Sowell's approach to "Race and Culture"? We learn that certain peoples have been more or similarly successful than others because of their human capital, their particular pattern of cultural values which enabled them to perform better than others. The Jews are said to have prospered wherever they went in the world because they were experts in the textile business. Italian immigrants we! re often similarly successful in the field of wine production. The Germans are said to have always been successful farmers and craftsmen, and the Chinese succeed everywhere as retailers and restaurant owners.
In one chapter he goes into the question whether intelligence tests allow any conclusion as to the genetic supremacy of one race over the other. The answer is negative. Chinese and some other immigrant groups have been economically and socially successful in America regardless of how they score on intelligence tests. This proves, in his opinion, that inherited traditional values and skills as well as the culturally based capacity to adapt to new conditions are the essential factors, and not genetics. He says the assumption that always environmental conditions are the determining factors of a group's success or failure is wrong. Consequently, he does not think that a disad- vantaged group of American society like the uneducated and poor blacks could be put on their feet by just improving the environmental factors of their lives. Throughout his argumentation he reproaches the intellectuals of often taking the lead in spreading misconceptions of history and doing harm to society: "The role of soft-subject intellectuals - notably professors and schoolteachers - in fermenting internal strife and separatism, from the Basques in Spain to the French in Canada, adds another set of dangers of political instability from schooling without skills." (p. 24)
He believes in hard core skills like the technologies and crafts which are the basis of cultural success. Cultures are conceived of as dynamically engaged ! in a competitive process in which the weaker and less successful elements are weeded out. At that, there are many parts of group cultures which do not deserve any respect. That is why he thinks the notion of "mutual respect" cannot always hold as a premise when comparing cultures.
To his mind there is the widely observable development of a modern world culture which gradually overcomes those cultures which are less apt. This looks much like social Darwinism.
No wonder that the book may easily be misunderstood as ultra conservative. In fact, its title would be almost impossible to translate directly into German because of the nazi connotations of the word "race".
The book provides stimulating reading because nowhere else does one get such a pragmatic concept with a material and substantial understanding of culture. Probably everybody has secretly believed that according to his private observations certain nations and cultures are more or less successful and deserve more or less respect. But for the sake of not nurturing prejudices everybody refrains from speaking out.
On the other hand it must be feared that the book will be grist to the mill of those conservative forces in society who have always believed that only they themselves deserve to be rich and powerful because in their blindfolded eyes the lower strata of society lack cultural stamina and don't like to work hard.
on 31 May 1996
Dr. Sowell describes centuries of turmoil in different parts
of the world involving issues that we mistakenly think of as being
unique to our time and region--the modern United States--like
immigration, affirmative action and slavery.
Take the example of slavery, for instance. Dr. Sowell
chronicles the prevalence of slavery in ALL parts of the
world, involving peoples of all races and geographic origin
at various times over the past 5000 years. Slavery was not
driven by race. Military power was more important in
determining a group's role in the slave trade--whether as
owners, traders or slaves. The British were slaves, to
take a particularly counter-intuitive example, during
the time of the Roman Empire.
Most pages of the book are sprinkled with footnotes which
attest to the exhaustive research that has gone into this
Dr. Sowell also treats the issue of immigration and
assimilation in a similar thorough manner.
In the process, he lays bare the fallacies behind certain
"conclusions" drawn by today's social commentators, e.g.
that the legacy of slavery is responsible for the problems
that certain groups have today.
Instead, Dr. Sowell shows convincingly that it is behavior
and attitudes that are the prime determinant of success and
that groups that maintain these successful traits--which
Dr. Sowell calls the "culture" of a group--tend to prosper
and forge ahead regardless of the surrounding environment.
Some groups have thrived even when having an explicitly
lower citizenship status.
He cautions us to be skeptical of policy experts who
promise to come in and "solve" the problems by waving the
wand of public policy. He suggests that those who want to
improve their lot should change their attitudes towards
work, thrift and education instead of relying on the
This book will compel the supporters of currently
fashionable public policy issues to examine their views
closely. There are very few issues that do not shrink
in size when put in the context of the great currents of
human history through the millenia.
on 6 March 2013
Thomas Sowell, for a lifetime economist and sociologist of considerable reputation, has - scholarly and intellectually - always been the lone wolf that never howled along with his contemporaries in their self-complacent cirkling around in their fancy mainstream fences. In this sense, he has few companions, but impressive predecessors - Hayek and Friedman, to name the most influencial. He owes a lot of his fame to the unique combination of profound knowledge and unwavering common sense that he possesses - and common sense in the Western World around the year 2000 owes a lot to him.