All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1980

Book Review: American Ethnic Groups edited by Thomas Sowell

(The Urban Institute, 2100 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037) • 249 pages • $7.50

Why have some racial, religious and ethnic groups advanced rapidly in the American society while others have progressed economically and educationally more slowly? Are some groups inherently superior, or is there something in the background of each which may account for both successes and failures?

This study is the product of research conducted at The Urban Institute from 1972 to 1975 under the direction of Thomas Sowell. Dr. Sowell is a widely respected black economist and the author of a number of important books, including Race and Economics, a landmark study of the impact of race upon economic advancement in the American society. He is an advocate of free enterprise and believes that through the working of the market blacks will progress as have the various immigrant groups which preceded them to urban America.

Of the dozen or so groups that were examined, six were selected for special emphasis: those with black, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Italian or Jewish background. These groups, writes Dr. Sowell, “are all minorities, they share many aspects of the immigrant experience, although only blacks suffered the burden of slavery; and all have faced exceptional barriers and experienced frustration in achieving economic and social mobility. One of the chief structural concepts implicit in this study is that the evolution of minority immigrant groups proceeds in parallel continua, in the course of which each group experiences similar developments, although not necessarily at the same time, with the same intensity, or in exactly the same way.”

In an essay concerning black Americans, Sowell discusses three separate and distinct categories: (1) Those “free persons of color” who were emancipated before the end of the Civil War and in 1830 constituted 14 per cent of the American Negro population; (2) The largest component of the American Negro population, those blacks emancipated aider the Civil War and their descendants; and (3) Black immigrants, primarily from other parts of the Western Hemisphere, and especially from the British West Indies.

Many traditional myths are shattered in this study. Dr. Sowell declares, for example, that, “Despite a large literature which has repeated, without evidence, the theory that slavery was responsible for broken or matriarchal homes among American Negroes, it was precisely among freed slaves that the highest incidence of two-parent families was found in mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia and it is only in a much later era that the incidence of broken homes in urban ghettoes reached unusually large proportions.” Figures show that a similarly high rate of broken homes may be found among other, nonenslaved groups, such as the Irish in an earlier era, and Puerto Ricans and Mexican- Americans today.

The West Indians are of particular interest because their rate of progress in the U.S. has been far ahead of that of native-born blacks, indicating that race has not been the key factor. Dr. Sowell writes that slavery in the West Indies differed significantly from that in the U.S. because, “instead of a minority of blacks surrounded by a larger white society, the West Indies has long been a place with an overwhelmingly black population . . . . The West Indian plantation could not draw upon a larger white society for its economic needs, and in fact members of the enslaved black population grew their own food individually, and sold the surplus in the market off the plantation. Unlike slaves in the U.S . . . . slaves in the West Indies were assigned individual plots of land in which each family grew its own food. In short, even during the era of slavery, black West Indians had generations of experience in individual reward for individual effort . . . also, the virtual absence of a white working class meant that ‘free persons of color,’ and later the whole free black popu lation, could not be restricted to the most menial occupations, as in the U.S., or the more skilled and more responsible positions would have gone unfilled . . . . The whole West Indian experience followed a pattern reminiscent of European immigrants rather than the pattern of their native black contemporaries.”

In an essay concerning Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the U.S., William Petersen points out that the gross discrimination and collective frustration to which these groups were subjected “ordinarily result in a pattern of poor education, low income, high crime rate and unstable family life . . . . However, these two minorities themselves broke through the barriers of prejudice and, by such key indices as education and income, surpassed the average levels of native born whites. This anomalous record, like the earlier one of Jews, challenges the premises from which the etiologies of poverty, crime, illegitimacy and other social ills are typically deduced. That discrimination is evil in itself is beyond question . . . the question is whether even the most debilitating discrimination need incapacitate a people if it is not reinforced by other pressures.”

Dr. Petersen writes that, “Like Negroes, Orientals got few loans from regular banks; but unlike Negroes, they used traditional institutions to amass the capital needed to establish small businesses. One system has worked more or less like a building-and-loan association: subscribers paid in regularly, received interest for their deposits, and were eligible for interest-bearing loans when they needed them . . . .”

During World War II, the Japanese were placed in internment camps and lost most of their property—losses estimated at more than $400 million in 1940 dollars. “One might have anticipated that the camp inmates would succumb to bitterness and apathy. Instead most lived out the Japanese proverb, ‘Six times down, seven times up!’ . . . For both Chinese and Japanese, the self-discipline of individuals was supplemented by various types of their own organizations designed to further their joint efforts.”

Discussing the European immigrant groups, and the reasons for swift Jewish advance and much slower advances by other European groups, particularly the Roman Catholic Irish and Italians, Alice Kessler-Harris and Virginia Yans-McLaughlin note that, “When choices had to be made, such groups as Italians, Irish and Poles would sacrifice the educational interests of their young, withdrawing them from school, sending them to work, absorbing their earnings. Such decisions increased present earnings at the expense of future skills. Jews do not seem to have made similar compromises . . . . Jewish mobility is legendary . . . . Seventy-five per cent of the sons of Jewish immigrants had moved up to middle class status by 1950, an almost exact reversal of the proportions among Italians . . . . Religious tradition and community approval encouraged the Jew in America to invest in education and correspondingly to increase his upward mobility. No other group had this advantage . . . . By 1953 . . . while one in every 20 Americans had completed college, or.e in every six Jews had done so.”

The authors point out that every group which has been successful has “come from a cohesive community, one characterized by concerned participation in religious institutions, charitable enterprises and self-help groups.” They also point out that political power and economic advance have little relationship to one another. “Irish political acumen, as evidenced in the big city political machines of New York, Chicago, and Boston, was not translated into mobility for the ethnic group . . . . The Boston Irish who had political control of that city from the 1880s on, were twice as likely as any other group, native or foreign, to be low-level manual workers in the 1890s.”

This study challenges the idea that discrimination causes poverty, crime and other social problems. The dramatic advance of black West Indians, Japanese, Chinese, Jews and others indicates that far more is involved in achieving economic success. Those who seek to correct social problems by interfering in the workings of the free market—the same market which enabled all of these other groups to succeed as a result of their own efforts—are misreading the problems we face. A free society rewards hard work, self- discipline, respect for education, and self-help. How to imbue those who do not share these values with Such an approach to life is our real problem. It cannot be done by one or another of the “Wars on Poverty” we have entered into.

  • Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.