July 19, 2021


The Limitations of Black Conservative Thought (Aaron Hanna, 6/24/21, Quillette)

Why do racial disparities persist in our country? This is the key question that divides black intellectuals. Why do racial disparities in income, wealth, education, incarceration, healthcare, and homeownership persist, despite the fact that legal discrimination ended in the mid-1960s? Candidates for explanatory pre-eminence abound: current racism, past racism (the legacy of slavery and segregation), structural racism, institutional racism, implicit bias, excessive government intervention, insufficient government intervention, structural changes to our economy (deindustrialization, globalization, digitization, etc.), individual psychology, and black culture.

Rather than attempt to clarify these contested terms, I want to explore why black conservatives and progressives rank these explanatory factors so differently. Blacks of all political persuasions would agree that we are not yet free to alter our genetic inheritance, and that genetic differences do not explain current racial inequalities. Where conservatives and progressives disagree--without always recognizing the fundamental point of departure--is on the extent to which we can choose to alter, embrace, reform, or disown our cultural inheritance.

I intend to explore these differences by focusing on the two main strands of contemporary black conservative thought--the victimhood hypothesis and the cultural hypothesis, represented here by conservative writers Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, respectively. Most conservatives today would probably object to such a neat division. Nevertheless, this narrowing of the scope of this essay is justified, I believe. Not all simplifications are over-simplifications, and my hope is that this device will clarify more than it obscures.

To the great frustration of black conservatives, progressive black thought has dominated the intellectual and cultural landscape over the last few years (decades, many would complain). As a result, conservatives have spent a great deal of energy criticizing progressive intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and Isabel Wilkerson, rather than engaging in the kind of self-criticism that would help them develop their own arguments. Like most black conservatives, I am not convinced that racism/anti-racism is the best framework for advancing racial equality, that "caste" is the best metaphor for describing race relations in our country, or that movements to "defund" the police will decrease crime in majority black neighborhoods. But what do black conservatives offer other than criticism of progressive ideas? [...]

Sowell's work on race revolves around two fundamental questions. The first: what are the causes of racial inequality? The second: do welfare programs alleviate poverty, as they were intended to do, or exacerbate it? Sowell answers both questions with a degree of confidence that the evidence does not support. Throughout recorded human history, "grossly uneven distributions of racial, ethnic and other groups in numerous fields of endeavor" has been the norm. This is a point Sowell makes over and over again in his work, drawing on the experience of minorities here and abroad. We have different histories, religions, parenting styles, attitudes toward education, work traditions, and definitions of success, among other things, and these cultural differences, Sowell argues, lead to precisely the kind of inequalities that progressives attribute to racism.

It's important to point out that Sowell is not dismissive of the impact of racism. The history of race is a story of "hostility and hatred," he writes in Intellectuals and Race, and "racial issues show no sign of going away." At the same time, no subject is more in need of dispassionate analysis: race needs to be studied in an international, comparative context so that we do not misunderstand the nature of our own racial challenges. Two examples of the kind of comparative analysis he supports will make his argument more concrete.

In a 1979 essay for Commentary, Sowell presents data on the percentage of various ethnic and racial groups that were practicing lawyers, doctors, or teachers in our country. Most progressives would assume that white people would dominate these high-status jobs. Sowell reports that 15 percent of black West Indians fit into this employment category. The figures for Japanese- and Chinese-Americans were 18 and 25 percent, respectively. The percent of white Americans with the same impressive credentials? A mere 14 percent. Counterintuitive statistics like these do not prove that there was no racism in America in the early 1980s, but they should give progressives pause. Skin color certainly does not map as neatly onto socioeconomic status as many progressives assume.

A second example. The majority of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the United States before World War II came from a specific province in southern China. As a group they prospered, despite legal discrimination and widespread anti-Chinese sentiment. The majority of Chinese immigrants who arrived after World War II came largely from other parts of the country. They generally lacked the education and work experience of first-wave Chinese immigrants, and a dearth of marketable skills forced them to take low-paying jobs and live in poor urban neighborhoods. The difference between these two groups of Chinese immigrants was clearly something other than race.

At a minimum, data like these complicate the anti-racist narrative. How are we to explain the success of some black and other non-white groups in our society, if various forms of white supremacy have always reigned supreme? The answer, Sowell insists, is as obvious as it is unpopular. We no longer live in a society in which racism is a significant hurdle for black people. The primary reason some groups succeed in our country while other groups, unfortunately, struggle, sometimes for generations, is cultural. A group's norms and values--not its race or ethnicity--determines its relative success. The progressive assumption that black people are the victims of subtle or not-so-subtle forms of racism is simply mistaken. The success of black and other non-white immigrant groups proves that racism cannot explain the persistence of racial inequality.

The purpose of Sowell's comparative economics is not only to demonstrate that inequality is the norm throughout the world, rather than the exception that only government policy can fix, but to get his readers to focus on what successful minority groups have in common. Fixating on white and black differences in educational attainment or rates of homeownership, he argues, are distractions. Instead of asking why white people perform better than black people on some measure of success, and assuming it must be a consequence of some combination of past and present racism, we should ask why Japanese-Americans have higher incomes than Pakistani-Americans, why Nigerian-Americans have higher rates of entrepreneurship than Sudanese-Americans, and why immigrants from northern Italy have fared better socioeconomically than immigrants from the south of the same country. The answer, yet again: cultural differences. The disparities between groups in education, crime, income, and many other metrics are real and worthy of study. But attributing them uncritically to racism is as misguided as attributing them to differences in IQ, which was also once fashionable among progressive intellectuals.

Sowell has assembled a great deal of evidence over the course of his career in support of the claim that inequality among different racial and ethnic groups is natural and widespread. And yet, this evidence doesn't tell us anything about the cause of inequality in any particular case. Sowell and many other conservatives are convinced that a comparative analysis largely settles the debate over the cause of racial inequality here in the United States. But if ever there is a case in which the particulars matter, I would think it would be the case of African Americans. Is it really that methodologically sound to compare immigrants to our country--people who generally make great efforts to come here, and who arrive with the expectation of making substantial personal sacrifices to ensure their children have better lives than they did--with a native population that endured centuries of slavery, and then a hundred years of a state-supported racial discrimination? The majority of African Americans, after all, were deprived of the very education and work experience that Sowell rightly argues enabled past immigrant groups to flourish. Can conservatives who lean heavily on cultural differences to explain racial inequality really afford to ignore the culture-shaping legacy of slavery and segregation?

If the legacy of slavery and segregation at least partly explains the persistence of racial inequality, some kind of reparations or affirmative action program would be justified in the short- and medium-term. 

Which is where Mr. Sowell turns away from himself. 

Posted by at July 19, 2021 12:00 AM