Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality
by Thomas Sowell

Another gem from Sowell. He brings sound reasoning, research of relevant historical facts, and clear writing to the subject of civil rights in the USA. Here are some examples:
It is now estimated that 70 percent of the American population is entitled to preferential treatment under "affirmative action." page 14.

Ironically, the civil rights revolution began by emphasizing precisely what was unique about the history of black Americans - slavery, Jim Crow laws, and some of the most virulent racism ever seen anywhere. But upon that very uniqueness, general principles of morality and causation were established. These principles constitute the civil rights vision of the world. page 15.

One of the most central - and most controversial - premises of the civil rights vision is that statistical disparities in incomes, occupations, education, etc., represent moral inequalities, and are caused by "society." page 15

Another central premise of the civil rights vision is that belief in innate inferiority explains policies and practices of differential treatment, whether expressed in overt hostility or in institutional policies or individual decisions that result in statistical disparities. Moral defenses or causal explanations of these statistical differences in any other terms tend themselves to fall under suspicion or denunciation as racism, sexism, etc. page 16

A third major premise of the civil rights vision is that political activity is the key to improving the lot of those on the short end of differences in income, "representation" in desirable occupations or institutions, or otherwise disadvantaged. page 16

Several unspoken assumptions underlie the principle that statistical disparities imply discrimination. The first, and apparently most obvious, is that discrimination leads to adverse effects on the observable achievements of those who are discriminated against, as compared to the discriminators or to society in general. The second assumption is that the converse is equally true - that statistical differences signal, imply and/or measure discrimination. This assumption depends upon a third unspoken premise - that large statistical differences between groups do not usually arise and persist without discrimination. For if they do, then discrimination takes its place as only one cause among many - and inferences from statistical disparities lose their validity as evidence. pages 16-17

The civil rights vision is one of a more or less random statistical distribution of results (income, "representation," test scores, etc.) in the absence of discrimination of one sort or another. page 17

Pages 20-21 give examples of groups who have been discriminated against (Chinese, Jews, East Indians, Armenians, Italians, and Japanese) who nevertheless earned higher incomes than the discriminating group.
The civil rights vision tends to dichotomize the spectrum of possible reasons for group differences into (1) discrimination and (2) innate inferiority. Rejecting the latter, they are left with the former. Moreover, others who reject the former are regarded as believing the latter. Finally, institutional practices that either differentiate explicitly (as between men and women, for example) or have differential impact (test scores of blacks vs. whites) are attributed to their proponents' overt or tacit belief in innate inferiority. page 21

Ironically, the innate inferiority doctrine and the opposite "equal representation" doctrine proceed on the same intellectual premise - that one can go from innate ability to observed result without major concern for intervening cultural factors. page 23

Just how far the civil rights vision can take this line of reasoning was demonstrated by Supreme Court Justices in the Bakke and Weber cases. Alan Bakke could not have outperformed minority candidates applying to the same medical school if it were not for prior discrimination against these minority candidates, according to four of the Justices. Similarly, Brian Weber would not have been able to compete successfully with black workers applying for the same training program, for "any lack of skill" on the black workers' part resulted from "purposeful discrimination in the past." There are apparently no other reasons for differences in skill or capability other than discrimination, which is illegal, or innate inferiority, which is rejected. Or so it appears in the civil rights vision. page 23

Irish alcohol consumption is a cultural phenomenon rather than a result of discrimination - see pages 26-27.
In the United States, more than half of all Chinese faculty members teach engineering and the natural sciences, and outside the academic profession, Chinese are similarly concentrated in the same fields. Yet this has been blamed on American society's excluding them from other fields. It is a tribute to the power of the civil rights vision that this could be said in all seriousness, even though (1) other fields are generally less well paid than science and engineering, and (2) Chinese Americans as a group earn higher incomes than white Americans. page 28

The civil rights vision tends to view group characteristics as mere "stereotypes" and concentrates on changing the public's "perception" or raising the public's "consciousness." Yet the reality of group patterns that transcend any given society cannot be denied. Jewish peddlers followed in the wake of the Roman legions and sold goods in the conquered territories. How surprising is it to find Jewish peddlers on the American frontier or on the sidewalks of New York 2000 years later - or in many other places in between? No one needs to believe that Jews are genetically peddlers. But it does suggest that cultural patterns do not readily disappear, either with the passage of time or with social engineering. pages 28-29

Given the civil rights premise that statistical disparities are moral inequalities and are caused by social institutions, with group characteristics being derivative from the surrounding society, it follows that the solutions are basically political - changing laws and perceptions. page 29

Pages 30-31 give examples of minority groups who have been discriminated against and who earned higher incomes than the politically powerful discriminating groups.
Empirically, political activity and political success have been neither necessary nor sufficient for economic advancement. Nor has eager political participation or outstanding success in politics been translated into faster group achievement. The Irish have been perhaps the most striking example of political success in an ethnic minority, but their rise from poverty was much slower than that of other groups who were nowhere near being their political equals. page 32

It would perhaps be easier to find an inverse correlation between political activity and economic success than a direct correlation. Groups that have skills for other things seldom concentrate in politics. Moreover, politics has special disadvantages for ethnic minority groups, however much it may benefit individual ethnic leaders. Public displays of ethnic solidarity and/or chauvinism are the life blood of ethnic politics. Yet chauvinism almost invariably provokes counter-chauvinism. page 32

...more than half of all black doctorates are in the field of education, a notoriously undemanding and less remunerative field. So are half the doctorates received by American Indians, not one of whom received a Ph.D. in either mathematics or physics in 1980. Female Ph.D.'s are in quantitatively based fields only half as frequently as male Ph.D.'s. page 45

Female headed households are several times more common among blacks than among whites, and in both groups these are the lowest income families. page 48

Chinese and Japanese Americans overtook other Americans in income by 1959 - five years before the Civil Rights Act. page 50

Black college-educated couples with husband and wife working had by 1980 achieved incomes higher than white couples of the same description. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the black female-headed household was receiving only 62 percent of the income of white, female-headed households - down from 70 percent in 1970. page 52

None of this is easily reconcilable with the civil rights vision's all-purpose explanations, racism and discrimination. To explain such diametrically opposite trends within the black community on the basis of whites' behavior would require us to believe that racism and discrimination were growing and declining at the same time. page 53

Even if carpenters were assigned to employment by drawing lots (or by some other random process) there would be variance in the proportion of Hispanic carpenters from one employer to another. To convict those employers with fewer Hispanics of discrimination in hiring would be to make statistical variance a federal offence. page 54

If crime is a product of poverty and discrimination as they say endlessly, why was there so much less of it when poverty and discrimination were much worse than today? If massive programs are the only hope to reduce violence in the ghetto, why was there so much less violence long before anyone ever thought of these programs? page 85

In the South where racism has been strongest, blacks remained better represented in the railroad industry (as well as the construction industry and other well-paid occupations) longer than in the North, because the South was more resistant to unionization. page 89

Unionization, like minimum wage laws, protect those who are already established on the inside, at the expense of those on the outside. In the construction industry, unionized contractors are aided by the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that "prevailing wages" - in practice, union wages - be paid by contractors who do work for the government. This makes it virtually impossible for non-union contractors to get the vast amount of business coming from the government. Most minority contractors are non-union. page 89

The civil rights vision and the civil rights leadership continue pushing an approach which has proved counterproductive for the mass of disadvantaged blacks, beneficial primarily to those already advantaged, and which accumulates resentments against all blacks. page 90

Women who remain single earn 91 percent of the income of men who remain single, in the age bracket from 25 to 64 years old .... Moreover, the rise of unwed motherhood means that even among women who never married, the economic constraints of motherhood have not been entirely eliminated. page 92

A married man's hours worked annually increase with the number of children. A married woman's hours decrease as the number of children increase. Married men work more and earn more than single men, while it is just the reverse with women .... The big difference is not between men and women, but between married women and everyone else. page 93

The imposition of monthly equality in pensions, rather than lifetime equality, has the net effect of making pension plans more expensive, the more female employees there are. Viewed as prospective behavioral incentives, rather than as a retrospective status pronouncement, this means that employers will find it more costly to hire female workers with a given pension plan and more costly to institute a given pension plan when there are more female workers. pages 104-105

But quantifying something inherently arbitrary makes it no less arbitrary, however much it imitates the outward signs of "science." page 107

What are called "traditional" women's jobs are often jobs which meet other special requirements that make sense to women - slow obsolescence rates, adjustable hours, and less demand for physical strength are just a few examples. page 107

No one can be blamed if he did not bring the same skills from Mexico as someone else brought from Germany, or if his school or home did not teach him what people need to know in order to function in a modern technological society. But neither can employers be blamed if people who have more of the required skills are more in demand and others "under-represented." page 132

As the government makes it more dangerous to fire, demote, or even fail to promote, members of minority groups, this tends to increase the demand for the more demonstrably able among them and reduce the demand for the average, or those with too little experience to provide a reassuring track record. page 134

Year Read: 1987

Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on October 1, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to