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
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
The importance of cultural capital is particularly clear in “middleman minorities’-Chinese in
In response, scores of countries have adopted preferential policies to correct ethnic “under-representation” in prestigious occupations and institutions. In
Examining how various ethnic groups have fared in the
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
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