All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1995

Race and Culture: A World View

A Challenge to Many Dogmas of Social Science

Thomas Sowell, a prolific economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in California, has written an important and heretical book on the relationship between race and culture–heretical, that is, as judged by the prevailing dogmas of social science.

Sowell states the obvious, which apparently is not at all obvious to many social scientists: there are significant differences among cultures; some cultures are in fact superior to other cultures; and they are superior because some values, skiffs, habits of thought and practice, and ideas are superior. All these notions, Sowell says, are rejected by the social science establishment: “This book challenges many dogmas of so-called social science, as well as many underlying assumptions about racial issues and cultural differences.”

Based on extensive travel and research (the hundreds of notes run for 58 pages), Race and Culture is packed with information about races, ethnic groups, migration, conquest, intelligence, slavery, economics, politics, and history. It is indeed a “world view,” not in the sense of a Weltanschauung, but in the sense that Sowell has canvassed the world for evidence for his thesis–an international view. He believes that those who are preoccupied with race relations in the United States have failed to study race relations throughout the world and recorded history, and thus entertain warped and distorted views. His book is a badly needed rebuttal to the social science charlatans who infest academia.

In order that he not be misunderstood, Sowell defines his terms immediately in the preface: by “culture” he means “specific skills, general work habits, saving propensities, and attitudes toward education and entrepreneurship—in short, what economists call ‘human capital.”‘ He warns us that “the purpose of this book is not to offer some grand theory explaining cultural differences”—and it does not—but to demonstrate the “reality, persistence, and consequences of cultural differences. “Culture” as Sowell defines it–not genetic superiority or inferiority, nor objective conditions, economic forces, or social structures–is what shapes peoples and history.

Sowell uses the word “race” in a colloquial sense: “a more scientific definition of race is not attempted.” Sowell argues that the preponderance of historical evidence does not support any theory of inherent racial superiority or inferiority, whether the race be Black, Oriental, Semite, or Caucasian. He cautions the reader against drawing unwarranted conclusions from empirical evidence, especially statistics: “Vast differences between the economic productivity of peoples from different cultures do not imply that these differences are permanent, much less hereditary.”

More important than any “objective conditions” are attitudes: “attitudes toward education, toward business, and toward labor, especially so-called ‘menial’ labor.” A poor attitude toward productive labor has resulted in three-quarters of college graduates in India going to work for the government. Schooling—I do not say education—in many countries has imbued the graduates with what Sowell calls “a passionate sense of entitlement.” Sowell scorns “self-flattering” ethnic studies, which he finds in many countries, not only in the United States.

What requires explanation, Sowell says, is not the disdain for labor one finds in most cultures, including Latin America (“Work is for dogs and Negroes” is a Brazilian saying), but “the extremely high productivity of a relative handful of northwestern European nations and their overseas off-shoots, such as the United States and Australia.”

Sowell is at his analytical best in the chapter “Race and Economics,” explaining the economics of the nineteenth-century help-wanted ads that read, “No Irish need apply”; why the “vicious cycle of poverty” is a myth; why nineteenth-century American workforces were wholly Jewish or wholly Gentile; and much more. Along the way he informs us of innumerable and fascinating details, e.g., Japanese immigrants at the turn of the century were more prevalent in agricultural and domestic labor than blacks.

His book is very readable and his style is epigrammatic at times: “The most dangerous kind of ignorance is the ignorance of the educated”; “The political mobilization of envy”; “A society can be made ungovernable by the impossibility of satisfying those with a passionate sense of entitlement”; “Being wrong may be a free good for intellectuals, judges, or the media, but not for economic transactors competing in the marketplace”; “Respect is earned, not conferred. It is not a door prize. Equal respect is a contradiction in terms.”

On slavery Sowell writes: “The biggest story about slavery–how the ancient institution, older than either Islam or Christianity, was wiped out over vast regions of the earth–remains a story seldom told.” Sowell reports how “the anti-slavery political crusade [that] began among evangelical Christians in eighteenth-century Britain” was wildly successful, even beyond the dreams of its founders, William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton.

Sowell’s concluding chapter, “Race and History,” is, unfortunately, his weakest. He seems fascinated by the influence of geography on history, although he does not endorse Montesquieu’s geographical soft-determinism. Despite ending weakly, Race and Culture is first-rate: readable, interesting, timely, and important.

Dr. Robbins is Director of The Freedom School and Professor of Political Philosophy at College of the Southwest, Hobbs, New Mexico.