Movers and shakers

Race and Culture
February 16, 1996

Thomas Sowell is one of the best-known black scholars, with a distinguished list of publications in economics, education and sociology. While he sneers at so-called social science in the preface to this book, he uses all the methods of the social scientist to argue his case. He advances hypotheses and offers empirical evidence in their support. He points to his objectivity frequently and writes soberly and dispassionately. But there is a hole in the centre of his argument.

The argument is that the experience of being an immigrant is not of itself disadvantaging or disabling. On the contrary - as data from various countries and a variety of immigrant groups that Sowell cites seems to demonstrate - immigrants work harder and succeed more often than the natives. Diasporas of the Jews, the Chinese and the Indians bear some testimony to this. The United States is after all the supreme example where the natives lost out comprehensively to immigrants. A similar story of native disadvantage could be told in Australia, New Zealand and much of South America.

The relative position of natives versus the immigrant is not Sowell's concern, however. He is fighting a different battle. The enemy is invisible and not named, but all-pervasive. While his coverage is worldwide, the argument is about the American black community and its relative low economic and social status/performance. Since this low status has been argued as a ground for extensive positive discrimination and since, despite 25-plus years of such positive discrimination, the black/white divide continues to fester at the heart of American politics, Sowell's book is consciously combative.

The argument that certain minorities, often immigrant ones, succeed economically is not new. But in any such argument, the presence of other variables is crucial to the success and being immigrant, by itself, is not enough. Thus the Parsees achieved economic success, not prominence, only after the arrival of the British in India by which time they had been around in Gujarat for centuries. The Irish have done very badly in the UK but much better in the US and Australia. The Indian diaspora is not homogeneous. The Gujaratis have, by and large, done well, as have the Sikhs but, again, the migrant labourers who went to South Africa and the West Indies have hardly been that successful. The Chinese were for many years the poorest community in California and have really only prospered in the past 30 years, a century after their arrival.

The point is that one wishes to have a careful account of the relative contribution of both the fact of being an immigrant and of other extraneous factors. A very important consideration is the time it takes before an immigrant community becomes prosperous. It may take two generations or several. An immigrant community is not homogeneous either. The newly arriving Jews from Eastern Europe were made less than welcome by their earlier arriving cousins in Britain.

Such, however, is not Sowell's agenda. He wants to show that most, if not all immigrant groups have done well. The problem of the American blacks therefore lies not in that they are immigrants, but in various attitudes towards work, savings and so on that cannot be attributed to their immigrant status.

Slavery is, of course, not peculiar to the blacks nor only an American phenomenon, but slavery in a capitalist context was seen uniquely in America. The added fact that the American revolution was predicated on a doctrine of equality added piquancy to the situation. While the American South was a rapidly growing economy in the first half of the 19th century, the postbellum stagnation in the southern economy, plus the racial discrimination faced by the blacks, could not have helped. It was only the collapse of the share-cropping agriculture, in the 1950s, which caused the second big migration of the blacks from the rural south to the urban north. This brought to light the horrendous inequalities and inequities suffered by the blacks. Indeed, full adult franchise for the blacks can be said to date only from the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights bill and even that caused quite a trauma.

There has been some progress among the American blacks in the past 30 years but one would hardly expect the backlog of two centuries of disadvantage to be wiped out by a short period of positive discrimination. There is now, as was not the case in the 1950s, a black middle class. The problem is that it is not enough for the black Americans and it is already too much for the white. But it would have been interesting to examine the changing position of the blacks, both relative to their past position and to the other communities. That would have been useful. But then that almost smacks of social science!

Lord Desai is professor of economics and director of the centre for the study of global governance, London School of Economics.

Race and Culture

Author - Thomas Sowell
ISBN - 0 465 06796 4
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £16.99
Pages - 331

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