All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1985

Book Review: Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? By Thomas Sowell

(William Morrow & Co., Inc., 105 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016), 1984
164 pages • $11.95

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!” wrote Sir Walter Scott. Thomas Sowell recalls this eloquent couplet as he retraces the tortuous path of civil rights legislation from equal opportunity to reverse discrimination. Along the way he overturns many untenable assumptions, exposes contradictions, and lucidly expounds the logic of liberty.

Sowell acknowledges the historic significance of a great nation’s voluntary repudiation of “its own oppression of part of its own people” in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, but he detects in the Brown case the seeds of subsequent “political, constitutional, and human crises.” This institutionalized the pernicious practice of judging people as members of a group, rather than as individuals.

It is observed that some groups within society are better off financially than other groups. The civil rights vision assumes that wealth differentials result from discrimination, which only political interventions can remedy. The view implies that discrimination alone accounts for significant group economic differences, and that discrimination effectively suppresses the economic progress of those who are its target.

These assumptions are not regarded as hypotheses to be tested, but as axioms too obvious to be questioned. Overlooked in the civil rights vision are the cultural patterns which differentiate one group from another. Cultural patterns influence the lifestyles, and thus the financial situation, of a group’s members, and these patterns transcend the immediate context of any given society.

Take the case of the Chinese minority of Southeast Asia, which “has been—and continues to be—the target of explicit, legalized discrimination in various occupations, in admission to institutions of higher learning, and suffers bans and restrictions on land ownership and places of residence. Nowhere in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, or the Philippines have the Chinese ever experienced equal opportunity. Yet in all these countries the Chinese minority—about 5 percent of the population of Southeast Asia—owns a majority of the nation’s total investments in key industries.”

Political action has been neither successful nor necessary in improving the conditions of various immigrant groups in America. Many have avoided politics during their rise from poverty to prosperity—the Jews and the Germans, for example. The Irish, on the other hand, are an in stance of a politically successful group whose economic rise was much slower than that of others until their political machines fell into decline in the 20th century. “It would perhaps be easier to find an inverse correlation between political activity and economic success than a direct correlation. Groups that have the skills for other things seldom concentrate in politics,” writes Dr. Sowell.

Civil rights legislation in general has not accelerated ongoing trends in the economic improvement of different groups; statistics show that such laws have actually led to conse quences opposite to those intended.

Dr. Sowell does see a possible benefit to be derived from the modern civil rights debacle. “If there is an optimistic aspect of preferential doctrines,” he writes, “it is that they may eventually make so many Americans so sick of hearing group labels and percentages that the idea of judging each individual on his or her own performance may become more attractive than ever.” Thomas Sowell’s carefully documented research contributes mightily to that end.