September 7, 2015


The March of Foolish Things : The conservative sage on the decline of intellectual debate, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and what the welfare state has done to black America. (KYLE PETERSON, Sept. 4, 2015, WSJ)

No one can suggest that he doesn't say what he thinks. In 1987, while testifying in favor of Judge Robert Bork's ill-fated nomination to the Supreme Court, he told Joe Biden, a senator at the time, that he wouldn't have a problem with literacy tests for voting or with $1.50 poll taxes, so long as they were evenly and fairly applied. When I ask whether he remembers this exchange, Mr. Sowell quips, "No, Joe Biden is forgettable."

In our interview he maintains that the 1964 Civil Rights Act should have stuck to desegregating buses and government services, and let market forces take care of integrating lunch counters. Mr. Sowell says that the precedent set by imposing integration on people like Lester Maddox, a segregationist governor of Georgia who also owned a chicken restaurant, has opened a Pandora's box. "If you say that Lester Maddox has to serve his chicken to blacks, you're saying that the Boy Scouts have to have gay scout masters. You're saying--ultimately--that the Catholic Church has to perform same-sex marriages."

Mr. Sowell is unsparing toward those who purport to speak for American blacks. I ask him about the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. "People want to believe what they want to believe, and the facts are not going to stop them," he says, adding that black leaders--from President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder down to Al Sharpton--"do all they can to feed that sense of grievance, victimhood and resentment, because that's where the votes are."

What about Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black writer whose new book, a raw letter to his son about race relations in the U.S., is stirring public intellectuals? I read Mr. Sowell a line from Mr. Coates's 15,000-word cover story for the Atlantic calling for reparations for slavery: "In America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife."

"Ah . . . yes," Mr. Sowell sighs, as if recognizing a familiar tune. "What amazes me is not that there are assertions like this, but that there is no interest in checking those assertions against any evidence," he says. "One of the things I try to do in the book is to distinguish between what might be the legacy of slavery, and what's the legacy of the welfare state. If you look at the first 100 years after slavery, black communities were a lot safer. People were a lot more decent. But then you look 30 years after the 1960s revolution, and you see this palpable retrogression--of which I think the key one is the growth of the single-parent family."

Mr. Sowell says he cannot remember ever hearing a gunshot when he was growing up in Harlem, and he used to sleep on the fire escape to beat the summer heat. He cites changes in black enrollment at New York City's highly competitive Stuyvesant High School, which he attended. "In 2012, blacks were 1.2% of the students at Stuyvesant," he says. "Thirty-three years earlier, they were 12%."

Here's the point: Does anyone believe that racism and the legacy of slavery are stronger today than in the 1970s--or for that matter in 1945, when Mr. Sowell enrolled at Stuyvesant? "It's not a question of the disproportion between blacks and whites, or Asians, but the disproportion between blacks of today and blacks of the previous generation," he says. "And that's what's scary."

He offers another statistic: "For every year from 1994 to the present, black married couples have had a poverty rate in single digits," Mr. Sowell says. "Those people who have not followed the culture--the ghetto culture--are doing fine."

Posted by at September 7, 2015 8:34 AM

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