Race and Culture: A World View
Jim Blair

Race and Culture
by Thomas Sowell (a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University)
BasicBooks (HarperCollins) 1994
331p

I read this book as a result of reading a very favorable short review of it on the web page of Karl Bunday.

I also found it to be very interesting and informative. Almost everything discussed in the book is in keeping with everyday experience and common sense. But that means Sowell's views are considered to be out of fashion in many circles.

The book is divided into a preface, eight chapters, 58 pages of footnotes and an index. Chapters have such provocative titles as "Race and Politics", Race and Intelligence" and "Conquest and Culture".

Internal or external factors?

There has been a controversy over the extent to which people are shaped by external factors, and to what extent by internal ones. By this, I don't mean the debate over genetics vs environment (but he does have some things to say about that too). Rather most of the focus of this book is on challenging the prevailing "social science" doctrines which say that a given group behavior is shaped primarily by the surrounding environment. Thus if some people don't do well, it must be fault of someone else. They must be oppressed or disadvantaged.

While agreeing that the external factors play a role, Sowell thinks that the internal influences have been under rated. And by "internal" he means the cultural system and values that are imparted to people, usually as children.

And while other books that I have read (the Truly Disadvantaged for example--see the review on my web page) deal with the problems of one group in one country, Sowell has a much broader perspective. He uses examples from all over the world and from many periods of history. Truly "A World View".

Does this broad perspective dilute the impact by trying to do too much? I found just the reverse. Sowell is more convincing because he illustrates his points using a wide range of examples.

Do we see only what we want to?

While reading this book, I was reminded of the story I have heard about the supernova explosion in 1054 that created the Crab Nebula. It was clearly visible on earth for several days, and was recorded by many ancient people in China, Australia and North America. But not in Europe. Why not? Well the Christian Church world view ruled Europe. And the prevailing theory was that the Heavens were the Domain of God: they were perfect and "incorruptible". Stars were not supposed to explode. So when it happened, people either didn't see it, or at least didn't talk about it.

Sowell gives the example of the return of Magellan's ship to Spain after sailing around the world in 1519-22. The log book had been carefully kept and showed the day to be Saturday. But when the crew went ashore it was Sunday! Scholars called to explain this baffling discrepancy concluded that it indicated that the earth was rotating on its axis. So the king ordered the log book burned. Does our society react the same way to factors involving race and culture. The Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome?

It is obvious that people from some cultures succeed more frequently than people from others. They work hard, do well in school and even if they immigrate into a new country and are poor, their children will be successful, unless strong measures are taken to hold them back. The "overseas Chinese" for example have done well in the USA, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and in every country where they live. It is only in China where a significant fraction of Chinese are poor. Other obvious examples of distinct cultural groups that have done well as minorities in many countries are Japanese, Koreans, Eastern European Jews and Asian Indians.

And people from some other cultural groups sink to the bottom. Sowell concludes that all cultures are not "equal". Some are "better" than others. And the entire culture does not have to be rated as a unit. The number system that originated with the Hindus of India (called "Arabic") spread all over the world because it is better than, say, the Roman system. The advantage becomes obvious when multiplication is needed.

People from some cultures are drawn to the same occupations, even in many different countries. He sites the disproportionate number of people of German heritage that have been military leaders in many countries from Czarist Russia to the USA. Jews usually chose to locate in major cities and engage in the same occupations whether in the US or Argentina or Australia. And how many college or NBA basketball games does a social science professor have to watch before he figures out that the players don't reflect a representative cross section of the population? It is commonly known that this is true, but it is considered "stereotyping" today to say it.

Some Examples

In the US we are conditioned to think that it is a disadvantage to be a "minority", and that such people are not expected to do as well as people from the "majority" group. In Malaysia the situation is just the reverse: The minority Chinese are resented for getting all the good jobs and generally rising to the top. Sowell points out that in the universities there, the Malay students mostly enroll in Malay Studies or Islamic Studies, while the Chinese students are taking math, science and engineering.

As an example of how ideology can turn morality upside down, he cites the response to the expulsion of Pakistanis and Indians from the newly independent nations of East Africa. There was much criticism of England for not taking in the refugees: "they behaved more badly than the most racist tyranny in the world". England that is, not the African governments that expelled the Asians and confiscated all they had.

Sowell has some unkind words for the "reformers" who pass laws to require people to live in "better housing". In many cultures it is considered desirable, even noble, to sacrifice now to provide a better future for your self and your children. Better, or less crowded housing, costs more money, and they would rather live in cheaper housing now and save the money for a much better house (and/or their own business) in the future. But the "reformers" are typically whites of northern European background and are insensitive to the values of other cultures.

He has a chapter on the history of slavery. Europeans are often blamed for the existence of slavery, but it existed in every culture and every inhabited continent, from the beginning of recorded history. The word slav (as in yugoslavia) and slave are from the same root. It was European and American action (European imperialism, as he puts it) that finally stopped slavery everywhere (except for a few countries like Sudan and Mauritania, where it may remain today).

How did they get that way?

Once you understand that different cultures transmit different values and prepare people differently for life, and that some produce people who are more successful than others, the next question is why. He has a section on what I call physiography: how geography shapes the way a culture develops. And of course, there is always the question of the relative role of genetics vs environment. Unlike Charles (Bell Curve) Murray, Sowell thinks genetics play a lesser role and cites some convincing studies to support that view. The IQ of black kids adopted and raised by white parents in the US match that of the general white population, for example. Or kids fathered by US GI's in Germany after WW II and raised there by their German mothers have about the same IQ whatever the race of the father. But he is open to contrary evidence.

And he points out that cultures change with time. Two thousand years ago the Mediterranean cultures were the leaders of civilization, while the north Europeans were wild savages. But today it is the Northerners who lead. Sephardic Jews were initially the leaders of Jewish culture after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, but by the founding of the state of Israel, the Ashkenazi were more advanced. Now intermarriage in Israel is merging the two cultures.

What is wrong with this book?

I have only two criticisms of the book. I think he could have made more use of Robert W. Fogel and S.L. Engerman: he refers to "Time on the Cross" but does not follow up with any comments on "Reckoning With Slavery" and the attempt to found a science of Cliometrics (a sort of mathematical theory of history) based on their study of the economics of slavery. The idea here was to begin what could grow into something like the "psychohistory" of Isaac Asimov's SF classic Foundation Series.

And he relies on Julian Simon as his only source for estimating the economic impact of immigration. He should at least acknowledge that there are opposing views, as for example George Borjas. The economic impact of immigration into the US today is a controversial topic: see the last several items in the Politics section of my web page.

Essays on related topics...

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