A Brief History of Civil Rights

While on vacation I had the opportunity to read Thomas Sowell’s Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?  I recommend it as a concise treatment of the themes he has covered in other books and essays, and though originally published in 1984, the basic findings have not dated. This is, in a way, unfortunate. No doubt it was the author’s hope that by now America would have moved beyond racial rhetoric.

Sowell’s statistical evidence remains historically valid, though some ethnic patterns have shifted over the years. Just as important as the data are the ways in which those figures are interpreted. Groups promoting “affirmative action” cite data selectively, and where positive patterns exist for blacks they are often overlooked or explained away. It is not that Sowell (or any sensible person) is denying the need to remove legal racist barriers. What is unhelpful, however, are things like quotas and policies aimed not at equal opportunity but “equal outcome.” The latter goal is empirically impossible but apparently politically desirable. As Sowell puts it

It would perhaps be easier to find an inverse correlation between political activity and economic success than a direct correlation. Groups that have skills for other things seldom concentrate in politics.

The politicization of race does no good in the long run, and  Sowell’s book demonstrates this with devastating examples; nevertheless, such an agenda clearly favors the careers of the mediocre in the short term. Ironically it is to the advantage of leftist ideologues that racism persist, or at least be perceived as doing so.

Many groups, like Jews or Asians, who faced restrictions and prejudices upon first arriving in the United States, were basically apolitical and sought advancement in economic terms. They succeeded. By contrast, Irish immigrants long suffered from ghettoization and the debilitating influence of political bosses and trade unions. As a result, their climb up the social ladder was slower. In a similar manner government regulation and big labor policies have clearly hurt blacks.

Sowell is never gratuitously paradoxical, but he does cite facts that seem “counter-intuitive” in our highly conformist intellectual culture. There are plenty of success stories for blacks who have achieved parity with and in some cases surpassed whites. Yet this can only happen when Americans are willing to move beyond the rhetoric of race.

Related commentary: Booker T. Washington

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