Recently by Thomas Sowell: Economic Mobility
There are so many fallacies about race that it would be hard to say which is the most ridiculous. However, one fallacy behind many other fallacies is the notion that there is something unusual about different races being unequally represented in various institutions, careers or at different income or achievement levels.
A hundred years ago, the fact that people from different racial backgrounds had very different rates of success in education, in the economy and in other endeavors, was taken as proof that some races were genetically superior to others.
Some races were considered to be so genetically inferior that eugenics was proposed to reduce their reproduction, and Francis Galton urged “the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”
It was not a bunch of fringe cranks who said things like this. Many held Ph.D.s from the leading universities, taught at the leading universities and were internationally renowned.
Presidents of Stanford University and of MIT were among the many academic advocates of theories of racial inferiority — applied mostly to people from Eastern and Southern Europe, since it was just blithely assumed in passing that blacks were inferior.
This was not a left-right issue. The leading crusaders for theories of genetic superiority and inferiority were iconic figures on the left, on both sides of the Atlantic.
John Maynard Keynes helped create the Cambridge Eugenics Society. Fabian socialist intellectuals H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were among many other leftist supporters of eugenics.
It was much the same story on this side of the Atlantic. President Woodrow Wilson, like many other Progressives, was solidly behind notions of racial superiority and inferiority. He showed the movie “Birth of a Nation,” glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House, and invited various dignitaries to view it with him.
Such views dominated the first two decades of the 20th century. Now fast forward to the last few decades of the 20th century. The political left of this era was now on the opposite end of the spectrum on racial issues. Yet they too regarded differences in outcomes among racial and ethnic groups as something unusual, calling for some single, sweeping explanation.
Now, instead of genes being the overriding reason for differences in outcomes, racism became the one-size-fits-all explanation. But the dogmatism was the same. Those who dared to disagree, or even to question the prevailing dogma in either era were dismissed — as “sentimentalists” in the Progressive era and as “racists” in the multicultural era.
Both the Progressives at the beginning of the 20th century and the liberals at the end started from the same false premise — namely, that there is something unusual about different racial and ethnic groups having different achievements.
Yet some racial or ethnic minorities have owned or directed more than half of whole industries in many nations. These have included the Chinese in Malaysia, Lebanese in West Africa, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, Britons in Argentina, Indians in Fiji, Jews in Poland, and Spaniards in Chile — among many others.
Not only different racial and ethnic groups, but whole nations and civilizations, have had very different achievements for centuries. China in the 15th century was more advanced than any country in Europe. Eventually Europeans overtook the Chinese — and there is no evidence of changes in the genes of either of them.
Among the many reasons for different levels of achievement is something as simple as age. The median age in Germany and Japan is over 40, while the median age in Afghanistan and Yemen is under 20. Even if the people in all four of these countries had the same mental potential, the same history, the same culture — and the countries themselves had the same geographic features — the fact that people in some countries have 20 years more experience than people in other countries would still be enough to make equal economic and other outcomes virtually impossible.
Add the fact that different races evolved in different geographic settings, presenting very different opportunities and constraints on their development, and the same conclusion follows.
Yet the idea that differences in outcomes are odd, if not sinister, has been repeated mindlessly from street corner demagogues to the august chambers of the Supreme Court.
Once we recognize that large differences in achievement among races, nations and civilizations have been the rule, not the exception, throughout recorded history, there is at least some hope of rational thought — and perhaps even some constructive efforts to help everyone advance.
Even such a British patriot as Winston Churchill said, “We owe London to Rome” — an acknowledgement that Roman conquerors created Britain’s most famous city, at a time when the ancient Britons were incapable of doing so themselves.
No one who saw the illiterate and backward tribal Britons of that era was likely to imagine that someday the British would create an empire vastly larger than the Roman Empire — one encompassing one fourth of the land area of the earth and one fourth of the human beings on the planet.
History has many dramatic examples of the rise and fall of peoples and nations, for a wide range of known and unknown reasons. What history does not have is what is so often assumed as a norm today, equality of group achievements at a given point in time.
Roman conquests had historic repercussions for centuries after the Roman Empire had fallen. Among the legacies of Roman civilization were Roman letters, which produced written versions of Western European languages, centuries before Eastern European languages became literate. This was one of many reasons why Western Europe became more advanced than Eastern Europe, economically, educationally and technologically.
Meanwhile, the achievements in other civilizations — whether in China or in the Middle East — surged ahead of achievements in the West, though China and the Middle East later lost their leads.
There are too many zig-zags in history to believe that some single over-riding factor explains all, or even most, of what happened, either then or now. But what seldom, if ever, happened were equal achievements by different peoples at the same time.
Yet today we have bean counters in Washington turning out statistics that are solemnly presented in courts of law to claim that, if the numbers are not more or less the same for everybody, that proves that somebody did somebody else wrong.
If blacks have different occupational patterns or different other patterns than whites, that arouses great suspicions among the bean counters — even though different groups of whites have long had different patterns from each other.
When American soldiers were given mental tests during the First World War, those men of German ancestry scored higher than those of Irish ancestry, who scored higher than those who were Jewish. Mental test pioneer Carl Brigham said that the army mental test results tended to “disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent.”
An alternative explanation is that most German immigrants came to the United States decades before most Irish immigrants, who came here decades before most Jewish immigrants. Years later, Brigham admitted that many of the more recent immigrants grew up in homes where English was not the spoken language and that his earlier conclusions were, in his own words, “without foundation.”
By this time, Jews were scoring above the national average on mental tests, instead of below. Disparities among groups are not set in stone, in this or in many other things. But blanket equality of outcomes is seldom seen at any given time either, whether in work skills or rates of alcoholism or other differences among the various groups lumped together as “whites.”
Why then do statistical differences between blacks and whites set off such dogmatic assertions — and “disparate impact” lawsuits — when it is common for different groups to meet employment or other standards to different degrees?
One reason is that “disparate impact” lawsuits require nothing more than statistical differences to lead to verdicts, or out of court settlements, in the millions of dollars. And the reason that is so is that so many people have bought the unsubstantiated assumption that there is something strange and sinister when different peoples have different achievements.
Centuries of recorded history say otherwise. But who cares about history any more? Certainly not as much as they care about the millions of dollars available from “disparate impact” lawsuits.
The desire of intellectuals for some grand theory that will explain complex patterns with some solitary and simple factor has produced many ideas that do not stand up under scrutiny, but which have nevertheless had widespread acceptance — and sometimes catastrophic consequences — in countries around the world.
The theory of genetic determinism which dominated the early 20th century led to many harmful consequences, ranging from racial segregation and discrimination up to and including the Holocaust. The currently prevailing theory is that malice of one sort or another explains group differences in outcomes. Whether the lethal results of this theory would add up to as many murders as in the Holocaust is a question whose answer would require a detailed study of the history of lethal outbursts against groups hated for their success.
These would include murderous mob violence against the Jews in Europe, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and the Ibos in Nigeria, among others. Class-based mass slaughters of the successful would range from Stalin’s extermination of the kulaks in the Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s wiping out of at least a quarter of the population of Cambodia for the crime of being educated middle class people, as evidenced by even such tenuous signs as wearing glasses.
Minorities who have been more successful than the general population have been the least likely to have gotten ahead by discriminating against politically dominant majorities. Yet it is precisely such minorities who have attracted the most mass violence over the centuries and in countries around the world.
All the blacks lynched in the entire history of the United States would not add up to as many murders as those committed in one year by mobs against the Jews in Europe, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire or the Chinese in Southeast Asia.
What is there about group success that inflames mobs in such disparate times and places, not to mention mass-murdering governments in Nazi Germany or the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia? We can speculate about the reasons but there is no escaping the reality.
Groups that lag behind have often blamed their lags on wrong-doing by groups that are more successful. Since sainthood is not common in any branch of the human race, there is seldom a lack of sins to cite, including haughtiness by those who happen to be on top for the moment. But the real question is whether these sins — real or imagined — are actually the reason for different levels of achievement.
Intellectuals, whom we might expect to counter mass hysteria with rational analysis, have all too often been in the vanguard of those promoting envy and resentment of the successful.
This has been especially true of people with degrees but without any economically meaningful skills that would create the kinds of rewards they expected or felt entitled to.
Such people have been prominent as both leaders and followers of groups promoting anti-Semitic policies in Europe between the two World Wars, tribalism in Africa and changing Sri Lanka from a country once renowned for its intergroup harmony to a nation that descended into ethnic violence and then a decades-long civil war with unspeakable atrocities.
Such intellectuals have inflamed group against group, promoting discrimination and/or physical violence in such disparate countries as India, Hungary, Nigeria, Czechoslovakia and Canada.
Both the intellectuals’ theory of genetic determinism as the reason for group differences in outcomes and their opposite theory of discrimination as the reason have created racial and ethnic polarization. So has the idea that it must be one or the other.
The false dichotomy that it must be one or the other leaves more successful groups with a choice between arrogance and guilt. It leaves less successful groups with the choice of believing that they are inherently inferior for all time or else that they are victims of the unconscionable malice of others.
When innumerable factors make equal outcomes virtually impossible, reducing those factors to genes or malice is a formula for needless and dangerous polarization, whose consequences have often been written in blood across the pages of history.
Among the many irrational ideas about racial and ethnic groups that have polarized societies over the centuries and around the world, few have been more irrational and counterproductive than the current dogmas of multiculturalism.
Intellectuals who imagine that they are helping racial or ethnic groups that lag behind by redefining their lags out of existence with multicultural rhetoric are in fact leading them into a blind alley.
Multiculturalism is a tempting quick fix for groups that lag by simply pronouncing their cultures to be equal, or “equally valid,” in some vague and lofty sense. Cultural features are just different, not better or worse, according to this dogma.
Yet the borrowing of particular features from other cultures — such as Arabic numerals that replaced Roman numerals, even in Western cultures that derived from Rome — implies that some features are not simply different but better, including numbers. Some of the most advanced cultures in history have borrowed from other cultures, because no given collection of human beings has created the best answers to all the questions of life.
Nevertheless, since multiculturalists see all cultures as equal or “equally valid,” they see no justification for schools to insist that black children learn standard English, for example. Instead, each group is encouraged to cling to its own culture and to take pride in its own past glories, real or imaginary.
In other words, members of minority groups that lag educationally, economically or otherwise are to continue to behave in the future as they have in the past — and, if they do not get the same outcomes as others, it is society’s fault. That is the bottom line message of multiculturalism.
George Orwell once said that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them. Multiculturalism is one of those ideas. The intelligentsia burst into indignation or outrage at “gaps” or “disparities” in educational, economic or other outcomes — and denounce any cultural explanation of these group differences as “blaming the victim.”
There is no question that some races or whole nations have been victimized by others, any more than there is any question that cancers can cause death. But that is very different from saying that deaths can automatically be blamed on cancer. You might think that intellectuals could make that distinction. But many do not.
Yet intellectuals see themselves as friends, allies and defenders of racial minorities, even as they paint them into a corner of cultural stagnation. This allows the intelligentsia to flatter themselves that they are on the side of the angels against the forces of evil that are conspiring to keep minorities down.
When they cannot come up with hard evidence in any particular case to support this theory today, that just proves to the intelligentsia how fiendishly clever and covert these pervasive efforts to hold down minorities are.
Why people with high levels of mental skills and rhetorical talents would tie themselves into knots with such reasoning is a mystery. Perhaps it is just that they cannot give up a social vision that is so flattering to themselves, despite how detrimental it may be to the people they claim to be helping.
Multiculturalism, like the caste system, paints people into the corner where they happened to have been born. But at least the caste system does not claim to benefit those at the bottom.
Multiculturalism not only serves the ego interests of intellectuals, it serves the political interests of elected officials, who have every incentive to promote a sense of victimhood, and even paranoia, among groups whose votes they want, in exchange for both material and psychic support.
The multicultural vision of the world also serves the interests of those in the media, who thrive on moral melodramas. So do whole departments of ethnic “studies” in academia and a whole industry of “diversity” consultants, community organizers and miscellaneous other race hustlers.
The biggest losers in all this are those members of racial minorities who allow themselves to be led into the blind alley of resentment and rage, even when there are broad avenues of opportunity available. And we all lose when society is polarized.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His Web site is www.tsowell.com. To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page.