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The Politics Of Race

RACE AND CULTURE: A World View By Thomas Sowell. Basic Books, 331 pp., $25.Affirmative action may well be the hot …

RACE AND CULTURE: A World View By Thomas Sowell. Basic Books, 331 pp., $25.

Affirmative action may well be the hot issue in next year’s election. Already, Republican presidential candidates Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, and Robert Dole are challenging federal quotas and set-asides based on race and gender. And President Bill Clinton has ordered a review of federal affirmative action programs with an eye to eliminating many. In California, a proposal to forbid awarding contracts, university positions, and many other benefits on grounds of minority status or gender is likely to pass overwhelmingly in 1996.

As the U.S. begins to dismantle its ethnic spoils system, we would be wise to pay close attention to the work of Stanford University economist Thomas Sowell. Why? Because, as he reminds us, “Few mixtures are more volatile than race and politics. The normal frictions and resentments among individuals and groups seldom approach the magnitude of frenzy and violence produced by the politicization of race.”

Why do some ethnic groups and societies prosper while others lag behind? In “Race and Culture: A World View,” Sowell explores the concept of “cultural capital”: “those aspects of culture that provide the material requirements for life itself-the specific skills, general work habits, saving propensities, and attitudes toward education and entrepreneurship.” Deeply ingrained cultural attitudes toward work, commerce, and education have real-world consequences. Sowell says Hispanic cultures’ aristocratic bias and traditional disdain for commerce and industry have shaped the expectations and aspirations of their people, and thus South America lags in adopting modern economic methods. But in Britain, the enthusiastic practice of commerce bred the habits of mind that made it the world’s first industrialized nation and fueled 19th century rise to empire.

The importance of cultural capital is particularly clear in “middleman minorities’-Chinese in Southeast Asia, Indians in East Africa, Jews in Europe, and Lebanese in West Africa. All share the values of hard work, thrift, and risk-taking. All were first small retailers and moneylenders. All often were resented by the locals, despite the knowledge and productivity they brought to the countries they live in. “Down through the centuries,” Sowell notes, “the bearers of skills and disciplines that bring economic progress have been viewed as people whose prosperity has come at the expense of others.” Recall the pogroms against the Jews and Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indian businessmen from Uganda.

In response, scores of countries have adopted preferential policies to correct ethnic “under-representation” in prestigious occupations and institutions. In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese are favored over Tamils. In Malaysia, ethnic Chinese are passed over for Malays. In Nigeria, Muslim Hausas get preference over Ibos. Wherever adopted, such policies breed conflict and even civil war, as in Sri Lanka, Sowell says.

Examining how various ethnic groups have fared in the U.S., he points out that the immigrants’ habits and customs made a great deal of difference in how quickly they succeeded. Jewish immigrants had a strong work ethic, were thrifty, and valued education highly. Irish immigrants, in general, put a lower value on these habits. Consequently, Jews as a group achieved prosperity much earlier than the Irish did.

America‘s competitive society has encouraged people from diverse cultures to adopt new ways of living and working, but conspicuously has failed blacks. Why? Analysts often blame the legacy of slavery, but Sowell rejects this notion. “Most black children were raised in two-parent homes even during the era of slavery,” he argues. “Blacks had higher rates of marriage than whites in the early 20th century, and higher rates of labor force participation in every census from 1890 to 1950.”

But, he says, minimum wage hikes in the 1950s caused soaring unemployment among young blacks who, on average, were less well-trained than young whites. Employers, facing higher labor costs, hired those who were most skilled, and welfare became a trap for many locked out of the job market. Nor has the nation’s attempt at a quick fix with affirmative action worked. “Politics cannot create the skills, attitudes, and habits required for lasting economic achievement,” Sowell says. So America, especially blacks, suffers the unintended consequences of well-meant but corrosive policies.

The current debate over affirmative action, where benefits are awarded to select groups instead of earned by individual achievement, shows these policies have become poisonously divisive. “What can any society hope to gain by having some babies in that society born into the world with a priori grievances against other babies born into that same society?” Sowell asks.

Two powerful points come across in his book. First, race-based preferential policies have terrible long-run consequences for any society that adopts them. Second, open competitive societies dissolve cultural barriers and encourage ethnic harmony.


Ronald Bailey is the producer of the national weekly public television series, “Think Tank.” He is also the editor of recently published “The True State of the Planet” (Free Press) and author of “Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse” (St. Martin‘s Press).

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