Thomas Sowell: The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective; William Morrow; New York

If valley Girls could read, Thomas Sowell’s book would gag them with the facts. The author, a Chicago-educated economist now at the Hoover Institution, presents his readers with a carefully researched book that is replete with facts about economics, politics, and race. He then goes on to show how the forces emanating from all of these realms interact to shape a reality which is as far from the platitudinous thinking of limousine liberals as the United States is from the shores of many of the world’s lands that have contributed migrants to our richly diverse population.

Indicative of Sowell’s directness is his contention early on that there is no workable biological definition of race. This leads to a realization that most people do not grasp: that race is only incidentally or tangentially a biological phenomenon, and is far more enlighteningly conceived of as a sociological entity with profound economic as well as political implications. Sowell argues this point admirably from a theoretical in his first chapter.

My wife and I have four children, two sons and two daughters. According to our nomenclature the pairs are, respectively, homemade (the boys) and mail­ order (the girls, sisters, having been adopted together from Korea at ages three and five years). Physically and physiologically the girls are manifestly Asian, and anyone with sufficient experience would be able to place their origins in the northern part of the continent. They have straight dark hair, broad faces, eyes with marked epicanthic folds, snub noses, limbs short in relation to their sturdy trunks, and an amazing tolerance for cold weather. While biologically eastern, however, the girls are culturally western. Here for nearly a decade, they wear the teenage uniform of the day (typically jeans and some variety of striped pullover shirt), discuss sports with (to me) bewildering avidity, opine unabashedly that boys of Asian ancestry are “funny-looking,” and believe that rice–while suitable for throwing, dry, at newlyweds–is not really fit for human consumption. Like their brothers, the girls speak colloquial American English, have heard and spoken Spanish in high­ land Peru during trips for parental field research, and have studied enough Hebrew for the 13-year-old to have be­come Bat Mitzvah.

One of Thomas Sowell’s major points is that in an array of traits the biological features are less relevant to success in life than the cultural ones. He and I, however much we may agree with each other in this belief, are nevertheless at variance with the law of the land as made by the courts.  Complications such as the ones that exist in my own family, and which no doubt crop up in  a good many American households these days, have no effect on the pop biology racial classifica­tions that are created by social engineers for purposes of political expediency.

A prime example of one such arbitrary taxonomic system is that used in the most recent U.S. census. If you recall, our choices were white; black; American Indian/Eskimo/Aleut; Asian/Pacific Is­lander; Spanish origin. No one who made up such a classification could be accused of having wasted much time studying human biology, genetics, history, or even introductory logic. Does beingof Spanish origin, for example, bar one from having a skin color, the presumable basis for the categories black and white? What cause could there possibly be for separating the three Asian-derived popu­lations in the third category from their Asian parent stock?Why are the Asians other than those that beat the Europeans and Africans to these shores grouped together with the even later arrivals from the Pacific Islands–an incredibly heterogeneous sample that gathers in not only the Hawaiians and Samoans but also the black-skinned Melanesians and even the Pitcairn Islanders, exotic hybrid descendants of the British Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian consorts? Welcome to the politics of race. 

 In the U.S. census system now mandated by law, I presumably would be pigeonholed into the white group, though I try not to think in terms of skin colors anyway (partly because mine is really less white than pink, a color whose political associations I don’t particularly like). The more archaic label “choleric” comes a good bit closer to my pigmenta­tion as well as temperament, but it isn’t listed on the census form. My ancestors weren’t Caucasian, either–not by a distance of some 2000 miles as the crow flies. I really think of myself as an Amer­ican, though if it is necessary to deal with origins, my background is broadly northwest European.

My wife, of Ashkenazi Jewish extrac­tion, also would be classed in the white category by the mandated guidelines, although the most authoritative recent work on the subject of her ancestry (The Genetics of the Jewsby A. E. Mourantand his colleagues, 1978) demonstrates clear­ ly that nearly all Jewish communities show a proportion of African Negroid marker genes (chiefly for blood groups and other similarly invisible traits) substantial enough to imply a black African admixture in the range of five to ten percent. Were this same fraction represented in visible physical features there’s little doubt that at some times and places in the United States it would have sufficed for placement in the black category instead. Sowell himself points out that tens of millions of U.S. whites (thus something over 10 percent of the general U.S. population) have at least one black ancestor, by which I suspect he means one acquired in the relatively recent historical past, as from intermarriage with blacks brought to the United States as slaves.

There is a potential substitute for all of this unnecessary genetic gerrymanderinf that shows up in the national census and increasingly in other realms of our society. That is to treat every individual as an individual, and to form one’s opinion on the basis of that person’s behavior, talents, and contributions. This is the tradition in which I was raised, and it is the one I expect I shall die believing. It has ethical foundations, but of at least as much importance here, this individual-oriented strategy is entirely in keeping with what we know of the bio­logical basis of human variation. Both skin color (perhaps the most common touchstone of racial stereotypes) and intelligence quotient (a poorly under­ stood but commonly used proxy for human ability) are quantitative traits. Variation in each of these characteristics is known to be influenced by myriad genetic and environmental factors. To the best of our very considerable knowledge, the genetic factors are inherited indepedently of each other.

In quantitative traits, human popula­tions may differ on the average, but such differences are quite commonly small in proportion to the differences within each group. To use one of the dubious but accepted racial labels, socially de­fined whites include people as light­ skinned as Swedes and other northern Europeans, to some inhabitants of the lndian subcontinent who are as heavily pigmented as many African blacks. Again, among socially defined blacks in the United States we find some individu­als who are lighter in skin color than many socially defined whites of Mediterranean European ancestry, and others who are as dark-skinned as the African progenitors who contributed about seven out of every ten ancestors to this subpopulation of our country. With regard to I.Q., there are again intergroup differences. However, the average dif­ferences are so slight that the overlap between the two groups is about 95 percent, and once again the between­ group differences are but a small fraction of the range within any human group. For all of these reasons, attempting to prejudge a person’s abilities on the basis of skin color is absurd from a theoretical biological standpoint.

Though he sees the bioillogicality (if I may be neologistic) of this position, Sowell nevertheless realizes that people in general routinely use biological clues to identify the bearers of different social and cultural traditions. 

Race may have no intrinsic significance, and yet be associated historically with vast cultural differences that are very consequential for economic performance, physical health, personal safety, and political stability–regardless of whether racism is a major element in people’s subjective attitudes.

Much of The Economics and Politics of Race is devoted to an enumeration of these consequential differences among the traditions and attainments of various populations, and the historical back­ grounds which led to the disparities in the resultant human capital. Sowell does not represent cultures as utterly impervious to change, but perhaps his most directly pragmatic insight is that the time horizons over which cultural, evolution occurs differ greatly from group to group, from time to time, and from place to place–but that this change is almost invariably slower than the time horizon that is politically relevant to elected officials. Con­sequently, the short-term political fixes that are employed almost always impose costs that are as unpredictable ast hey are inequitable and counterproductive. Peter may be robbed to pay Paul, but thanks to the magic of political account­ing techniques, Paul never realizes more than a fraction of what Peter was deprived.

The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.

To this we might add, “As is the price, so is the value.” To Thomas Sowell goes the credit for telling us how and why this is so, and for recounting his story with wit and style.