Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell, man of reason

Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?

Thomas Sowell July 16, 1998

WHEN I FIRST SAT DOWN to begin preparing an international study of racial and cultural differences back in April 1982, in a London hotel room, there was no way I could have imagined that the final volume in that study -- my recently published Conquests and Cultures: -- would come out in the midst of a "national dialogue on race," based on assumptions wholly contradicted by everything I had found in countries around the world.

The social dogma that is still being endlessly repeated is that disparities in incomes, occupations and other kinds of success are all due to "stereotypes" that lead to discrimination against minorities. Yet some minorities are doing better than the majority that has been doing the discriminating. Certainly that is true of Japanese Americans and it has been true of other minorities in other countries around the world.

Jews, for example, have prospered in countries seething with anti-Semitism. The Chinese have never had equal rights in Indonesia or Malaysia, but they have had higher incomes than the Indonesians or the Malays. Much the same story could be told of the Lebanese in West Africa, Indians and Pakistanis in East Africa, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, Germans in czarist Russia -- and on and on around the world.

None of this would be possible if discrimination were the be-all and end-all explanation of intergroup differences in incomes, occupations or other measures of success. Groups differ in their skills and cultures and always have. More fundamentally, there was never any reason to expect them to be the same, in the first place. How could Eskimos have acquired the knowledge, skills, and experience to grow pineapples or other tropical crops? How could the peoples of the Himalayas have learned to navigate on the high seas?

Geography alone is enough to prevent all groups, nations or civilizations from having the same skills. The British created the industrial revolution, but there was no way that the peoples of the Balkans could have done so, since the Balkans lack both the raw materials needed and any economically feasible way of transporting those materials there. Man may discriminate but nature discriminates on a scale that dwarfs what human beings can do. Too many people take "nature" to mean genes but geography is also nature and it is by no means egalitarian.

For most of history in most of the world, people living in cities have been more advanced than people of the same race living in the hinterlands or up in the mountains. But cities do not arise at random in all geographic settings. Most cities arise on navigable waterways, which have been as plentiful in Western Europe as they have been scarce in sub-Saharan Africa, leaving Western Europe one of the most urbanized regions of the world and tropical Africa the least.

Add to geographic differences the differences in demography, history and other factors -- and the conclusion becomes virtually inescapable that there was no reason to have expected equality of inputs or outcomes in the first place. Is discrimination one of these other factors? Of course. But can we automatically make discrimination the reason for all intergroup differences? Not if we are serious, as distinguished from being political. The most that we can hope for is equality of opportunity. But when different individuals and groups do not even want the same things, how can they be expected to achieve the same things?

Focussing on discrimination is fine if you are more interested in smiting the wicked than in advancing the less fortunate. Laying a guilt trip on people who are more successful is fine if your goal is to score political points and maybe get a few crumbs from their table. But don't expect to advance a whole race that way. We have to understand the past if we are serious about preparing for the future. You can re-run all the pictures you want of marches on Selma or firehoses and police dogs in Birmingham in the 1960s.

But the cold, hard fact is that blacks were rising economically more rapidly in the 1940s and 1950s than after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. The civil rights revolution was right and overdue but let us not confuse a moral necessity with an economic cause. We have to fight today's problems, not yesterday's, if we want a better tomorrow.