Racism in Dr. Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities and Intellectuals and Race (2023)

From my notes while reading these two books, presented in somewhat random order…

Here is what you may learn from these books: there are two kinds of discrimination.

At a minimum, we need to know what we ourselves mean when we use a word like ‘discrimination’ especially since it has conflicting meanings. The broader meaning — an ability to discern differences in the qualities of people and things, and choosing accordingly — can be called Discrimination I, making fact-based distinctions. The narrower, but more commonly used, meaning — treating people negatively, based on arbitrary assumptions or aversions concerning individuals of a particular race or sex, for example — can be called Discrimination II, the kind of discrimination that has led to anti-discrimination laws and policies.

Ideally, Discrimination I, applied to people, would mean judging each person as an individual, regardless of what group that person is part of. But here, as in other contexts, the ideal is seldom found among human beings in the real world, even among people who espouse that ideal.

In short, Discrimination I can have prohibitive costs in some situations, especially when it is applied at the individual level. However, Discrimination II — the arbitrary or antipathy-based bias against a group, is not the only other option. Another way of making decisions is by weighing empirical evidence about groups as a whole, or about the interactions of different groups with one another.

This is still Discrimination I, basing decisions on empirical evidence. But the distinction between the ideal version of Discrimination I — judging each individual as an individual — and making decisions based on empirical evidence about the group to which the individual belongs is a consequential difference. We can call the ideal version (basing decisions on evidence about individuals) Discrimination Ia, and the less than ideal version (basing individual decisions on group evidence) Discrimination Ib. But both are different from Discrimination II, making decisions based on unsubstantiated notions or animosities.

Bravo, sir! Smashing! Just one question: if someone engages in obvious discrimination, and when confronted about it comes up with a “perfectly reasonable” Type Ib rationalization, how can we know that they are not just using this rationalization to excuse a Type II discrimination?

Okay, another question: If someone presents a bunch of anecdotes intended to show that statistical variation occurs, does that refute the existence of discrimination? Does it even have anything to do with it?

Discrimination and Disparities and Intellectuals and Race are part of a series of books that Dr. Sowell has written to “prove” that discrimination doesn’t exist. I’ll give you the short version of that proof here. First, someone must intend to discriminate. Let’s call this the Archie Bunker requirement; there must be a bigot involved. Second, they must engage in some activity, policy, or other observable action to enact their intent. Third, someone must actually be the victim of the discriminatory act. Without all three of those things, we don’t have discrimination.

For proof of the argument, Dr. Sowell shows you a bunch of factoids in which these three things are not present. Therefore, there is no discrimination. [aside: I assure you Dr. Sowell’s argument is not as systematically developed or closely argued as I am describing here, and I don’t consider this to be very closely argued]

So what’s the problem?

Well, there are several. I’ll outline them here, but I will show in more detail below.

  1. He frequently uses strawmen, red herrings, and anecdotal factoids to illustrate how a single aspect of his argument might be true. He then generalizes from those as if it were true. He curates his examples to avoid real cases where all three things are definitely present. In other words, he may show you a case where the end result may look like discrimination, but fails to find any intent (no Archie Bunker or no explicit policy). Or he may show you a case where someone intended to discriminate, but failed.
  2. He is an unreliable narrator of other people’s work. It is common to find Dr. Sowell citing sources which prove to have a very different, even contradictory, take on events to the one he is claiming. His takes on history have a tendency to skip over significant events, broad periods, and substantial demographic changes.
  3. He is quick to accept rationalizations, and quicker to reject evidence. If someone says they have a rational explanation for their discrimination, that’s good enough for Dr. Sowell.
  4. His belief in “the free market” is remarkably naïve. Somehow, he accepts that there may be bigots and bigotry in the world, but remarkably, those people never seem to own businesses or be in a position to make decisions. But when they do, they’re only being rational and discriminating for justifiable reasons.
  5. Despite his claims to be a steely-eyed, dispassionate, reality-based observer of history and the human condition, he never seems to consider that his explanations often require a naïve view of people and motivated reasoning. When one set of people says that they refuse to hire or work with another because of (pick one: language, skill, intelligence, odor, drunkenness, violence, laziness, untrustworthiness, etc.), it must be the truth and could never have anything to do with self-interest, bigotry, factionalism, religious conflict, provincialism, or just straight-up bigotry.

According to Dr. Sowell, private corporations never engage in Discrimination II because they are profit maximizers. Therefore, all discrimination that occurs only occurs in organizations characterized by their protection from market forces. These include colleges, legal monopolies like AT&T, governments, etc. And yet, he will in other instances argue that government discrimination doesn’t count because either (a) the free market overcomes government regulations, (b) all government policies are bad, so we can’t count government policies that result in discrimination, or (c) these are just the natural and understandable reaction of White people to a pathologically bad culture (Discrimination Ib) and therefore not really discrimination at all. So private corporations don’t discriminate, but when they do it’s somebody else’s fault (the government), and if it’s someone else’s fault, that’s because government and Black culture are bad. But definitely not Discrimination II.

What is the real difference between “treating people negatively, based on arbitrary assumptions or aversions concerning individuals of a particular race or sex” and “basing individual decisions on group evidence”? Dr. Sowell simply asserts that one is arbitrary and the other is based on evidence. Since Dr. Sowell likes to point out that there are always differences between groups, that it is unreasonable to believe that all groups are identical, it should therefore always be easy to pick out one different characteristic and cite that as your evidence. Dr. Sowell has handed any Archie Bunker an easy path to redefining their bigotry (Discrimination II) into rational thought (Discrimination Ib) and obliterating the difference between I and II in practice. This is what makes him so popular among the Archie Bunkers of the world. Examples include:

  • Of course businesses would always hire the Irish because they are cheaper and harder working, but of course individuals justly discriminated against the Irish because they associated them with cholera and they were dirty and violent. Of course, it’s entirely understandable that Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics will fight at work; therefore don’t hire the Irish — completely justifiable explanation for rational behavior. But it’s not discrimination!
  • Of course businesses would always hire Black laborers because they were cheaper and harder working, but of course individuals justly discriminated against Blacks because they associate them with laziness, untrustworthiness, and lack of intelligence. Of course, it’s entirely understandable that White and Black men will fight at work; therefore don’t hire the Black men — completely justifiable explanation for rational behavior. But it’s not discrimination!
  • Of course real estate agents and home sellers would work with Black customers because they are profit maximizers; and of course they would shun them because they depressed housing prices, destroyed their neighborhoods, etc. with their dysfunctional culture.

Heads — businesses are perfectly rational profit maximizers who will hire literally anyone if it saves a buck and therefore discrimination doesn’t exist; tails — they’re perfectly rational risk minimizers who will not hire just anyone without weighing the risks and therefore discrimination is justifiable. Dr. Sowell can explain anything just by making logical arguments based on the assumption of Econ 101 conditions.

Another type of questionable reasoning in his books is his insistence that the discrimination that arose in 1890–1910 is easily explained by movement of people from the South. Fantastically, Dr. Sowell never makes it clear why the discrimination rose in the South in the form of Jim Crow laws, since that could not have been a reaction to Black laborers moving in to the South from the South. Thus, his argument about the rise of Jim Crow, segregation, red-lining, and violent policing seems to consist of explaining all such discrimination in that period by the reaction in the North despite the simple fact that this cannot explain the discrimination in the South.

Dr. Sowell claims that certain people (usually without naming them, so we cannot check the facts for ourselves) claim that certain policies are intended to be racist, but have not shown that their outcomes are racist. Yet in other circumstances, he also argues that although the outcomes appear to be the result of intentional discrimination, “they” haven’t shown that cause and effect exists, i.e. “correlation is not causation”. So in effect, he seems to be arguing, sure you have the cause, and sure you have an effect, but you haven’t proven that the cause, the correlation, and the effect equals causation. Okay, the hired assassin is pointing a smoking gun at the dead body of the gangster’s rival whom he was hired to kill, the ballistics match, and several witnesses saw it, but how do we know the bullet that killed him came from this particular gun and was not self-inflicted? Sometimes people kill themselves, sometimes assassins miss. Nevermind your lying eyes, …

We can explore two instances in which Dr. Sowell applies this correlation is not causation argument, and wrongly at that:

  • Black labor force participation and employment rates went down after a minimum wage adjustment (right below), therefore that’s librul policies, not Discrimination II
  • Black people didn’t see wages substantially lower than white wages after the Civil War, therefore the market prevented discrimination (further down)

In one passage in Intellectuals and Race, Dr. Sowell writes in response to a 1981 article (emphasis in the original)

“‘Blacks make up a disproportionate number of the citizens dependent on public assistance. The unemployment rates among black males and teen-agers remain at least twice as high as among whites. The proportion of blacks dropping out of the labor force altogether has doubled over the last two decades.’

“The bare facts cited are undoubtedly true. But two of the three facts — higher unemployment and lower labor force participation among blacks than among whites– are worse today than in earlier times. By the logic of this editorial, that would imply that there was less racism in the past, which no one believes.

“Black labor force participation rates were higher than that of whites generations ago. Black unemployment rates were lower than that of whites in 1890 and, for the last time, in 1930. Black 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds had a slightly lower unemployment rate than white youngsters of the same age in 1948 and only slightly higher unemployment rates than their white peers in 1949. Moreover, these unemployment rates for black teen-agers were a fraction of what they would become in later times. These low unemployment rates existed just before the minimum wage law was amended in 1950 to catch up with the inflation of the 1940s which had, for all practical purposes, repealed the minimum wage law, since inflated wages for even unskilled labor were usually well above the minimum wage level specified when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938.”

While fascinating, this little tale leaves out several fundamental facts that render it nonsensical:

  1. In the early 20th century, 90% of all Black workers lived in the South and worked either as agricultural labor or domestic servants. In fact, segregated black schools, especially in the South, started significantly later in the Fall and ended significantly earlier in the Spring to free the black teenagers for harvesting and planting.
  2. The FLSA intentionally excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants from minimum wage requirements. This was done to ensure the cooperation of Southern Democrats, without whom Roosevelt’s coalition would have fallen apart. FLSA minimum wages were extended to agricultural workers in 1966 and to domestic servants in 1974, long after the period Dr. Sowell describes.
  3. During WWII and on into the 1960s, Black men and women migrated from the South to the North and West, seeking employment in the industrial sector.
  4. During that same period of migration, mechanization reduced the demand for farm labor.
Racism in Dr. Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities and Intellectuals and Race (2)

Returning to Dr. Sowell’s original question, it should be apparent that his explanation is just as wrong as it could be. It wasn’t the minimum wage increase, since over 90% were not eligible for a minimum wage. An agricultural workforce moved to become an industrial workforce just as American industry peaked in the late 1940s. Why would they experience higher unemployment and lower labor force participation in the 1950s? Because that’s the nature of industrial capitalism. Dr. William Julius Wilson has written a few books about this, the main points of which the eclectic scholar Dr. Sowell has ignored.

Something else to glean from that passage: Dr. Sowell clearly shows that he believes that racism was worse in the past. He also frequently argues that apparent racism is really just a rational reaction to bad behavior. He also argues in Intellectuals and Race that “liberals” and “intellectuals” have made black behavior worse by excusing it. So he believes that behavior has gotten worse while discrimination has improved even thought he also believes that discrimination results from bad behavior.

The motivated reasoning is palpable. Dr. Sowell claims on one hand that it’s perfectly understandable that people would apply what they know (Black people bad) because it is true that some Black people are bad (Discrimination 1b), but on the other hand he claims that it is also completely unthinkable that people would operate against their own self-interest to maximize profit. This manifests in several ways:

  • Clearly, Irish were only discriminated against for purely rational and justifiable reasons. They showed up at the same time as cholera. Of course they are dirty. And they fight and are drunk. Completely logical that someone would not want to hire them, even if they were cheaper and harder working. It wouldn’t have anything to do with irrational anti-catholicism or the self-interest of competing laborers.
  • Banks that review individual backgrounds will of course not discriminate arbitrarily, but this background check costs money, so we can expect them to charge extra. This sets up a bizarre distinction that it is perfectly understandable that when you cannot afford to do a background check, you have to rely on group characteristics as a heuristic. But this is not discrimination II! Oh, no, definitely not that! Discrimination II is therefore when you have weighed the individual as an individual and not found any problems with him or her … but decide to discriminate anyhow. He thus defines Discrimination II and profit maximization in ways that are mutually exclusive.

Remember that he always assumes rational, profit-maximizing, cost-minimizing, risk-minimizing actors. In Intellectuals and Race, he vacillates on the quality of data gathered by the eugenicists. He effusively notes how good it was at one point in the book, and much later in the book he off-handedly notes that some of the scientists even repudiated their own work. Despite this acknowledgment that such data are dodgy at best, he still maintains that data showing the reasonableness of discrimination to be completely adequate and legitimate as a cause for discrimination.

In Intellectuals and Race, he describes housing several times, spending entire sections discussing it. “Redlining” (“red-lining”, “redline”, “red-line”) does not appear at all. “Restrictive covenant” is mentioned once, and he explains it away as the perfectly natural reaction to the Great Migration. In Discrimination and Disparities, redlining appears three times in the text:

  • “Where there is a difference in costs when choosing between Discrimination I and Discrimination II, much may depend on how high those costs are, and especially on who pays those costs. People who would never walk through a particular neighborhood at night, or perhaps not even in broad daylight, may nevertheless be indignant at banks that engage in “redlining” — that is, putting a whole neighborhood off-limits as a place to invest their depositors’ money. The observers’ own “redlining” in their choices of where to walk may never be seen by them as a different example of the same principle.”
  • “Where there are real differences between groups, with potentially dire consequences, such as murder rates several times higher in one group than in another, Discrimination Ib may be carried to the point of ‘redlining’ a whole neighborhood or group, even when a majority of the group avoided are not guilty of the behavior feared.”

So as usual, racism isn’t really racism — it’s just totally understandable application of Discrimination Ib, which isn’t racism, it’s just plain common sense. Note: these leave a lot to be desired as full descriptions of the practice and pernicious effects of redlining; I would refer the curious reader to Rothstein’s The Color of Law.

— — — — — — — — — — —

Taking all of this into account, I want to look at how he treats a particular span of history. Is this an example of misreading, misinterpretation, or misrepresentation? Sowell writes,

Too many other observers, including some academic scholars, reason as if intentions automatically translate directly into outcomes. Thus, in his book The Declining Significance of Race, sociologist William Julius Wilson pointed out the various organized ways in which white Southern landowners and employers in the post-Civil-War South sought to keep down the earnings of black workers and black sharecroppers. But there was no reference in that book to empirical evidence on how those intentions actually turned out — in other words, on “what emerges,” as Engels put it.

What does Wilson actually say in the cited passages (Sowell breaks these up as pp52–53, 54–55, and 59)?

In an argument quite similar to that advanced by Oliver C. Cox in 1948, the Marxist scholar Baran and Sweezy gloss over the mass of historical data with the less than definitive statement that “when Negroes tried to take advantage of their legal freedom to organize along with poor whites in the Populist movement, the planters answered with violence and the Jim Crow system of legalized segregation.” As far as the postbellum period is concerned, only if we focus on the period immediately following the Civil War (the period prior to Reconstruction), can we attribute institutionalized racial inequality solely to the planter class. Initial legislation to restrict and control the black population was not generated by white workers, although they were indeed quite concerned about black competition, but by southern planters and their business and political allies.

Immediately following the Civil War, white supremacy, virtually unchallenged during the period of slavery, appeared to be in serious jeopardy. Slaves had been liberated and some were armed. Not only were fears expressed about blacks becoming full citizens and receiving equal political and civil rights, but there was even talk of blacks dividing up the plantation estates. “This was not only competition,” states historian C. Vann Woodward, “it looked to many whites like a takeover.” More fundamentally, the ruling economic elite was frightened because the southern economy was on the verge o total collapse without slave labor. For the ruling elite, “black freedom” signified not only a threat to white supremacy but also meant the loss of a guaranteed cheap and controlled labor supply for the plantations.

In 1865–66, southern legislatures, still controlled by business and planter groups, were given freedom by Presidents Lincoln and Johnson to devise ways to resolve the problems created by an economy no longer based on slave labor. The legislatures promptly passed a series of discriminatory laws known as the Black Codes. Although the provisions of the codes varied from state to state, one of their primary objectives was to insure an adequate and cheap labor supply for the plantations. Woodward informs us that the “Black Codes of 1865–66 were mainly concerned with forced labor and police laws to get the freedman back to the fields under control.” Those blacks without a permanent residence or who were unemployed were classified as vagrants and could be arrested and/or fined, and, if incapable of paying, were bound out to plantations under labor contracts. As a substitute for the social controls of slavery, the codes also restricted black movement, denied blacks political and legal rights, and in some states provided for segregation of certain public facilities.

These escalating efforts to regain control of the black population in the South aroused considerable opposition from many northerners. To some extent, criticism of the Black Codes sprang from lingering abolitionist sentiments generated prior to the Civil War. Northern liberals, in moral indignation, maintained that the Black Codes were a sinister attempt to reestablish slavery. To a greater degree, however, the opposition was political in nature. Benjamin Quarles put the matter squarely:

[Wilson quoting Quarles] As nothing else, the Black Codes played into the hands of the Republicans, who were looking for reasons to postpone the readmission of the southern states. For these states, if readmitted, would elect enough Democrats to insure that party’s control of the government. Hence the Republicans were determined to keep the SOuth in political limbo until the ascendancy of their party was assured. To achieve such ascendancy it would be necessary to enfranchise the southern Negro.

In April of 1886, the Republican-controlled Congress nullified the Black Codes by passing a Civil Rights Act which conferred citizenship on ex-slaves and specified that discriminatory acts against them were punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. (p52–53)

Okay, let’s unpack. Wilson is not so much talking about “ways in which white Southern landowners and employers in the post-Civil-War South sought to keep down the earnings of black[s]” as he is about how Southern white elites tried to reimpose slavery and were thwarted by the Radical Republicans in Congress — not by “the free market” as Dr. Sowell might have you believe. In fact, one of the more striking aspects of Dr. Sowell’s description of history in this book is his apparent ignorance of the events from 1865 to about 1890, which include significant Reconstruction and Redemption activities. Wilson’s story then moves on to Congress passing the Reconstruction Acts, and then the reaction:

In large measure, white reaction to Reconstruction and the specter of black control of the South was shaped by social class interests. Racial tension increased significantly among lower-class whites who perceived more clearly than ever before the impact of large-scale black competition for low-status jobs. Reconstruction did not destroy the landowning white aristocracy. Both poor whites and blacks were dependent on the planter class for their livelihood as tenants and sharecroppers at the very time when these positions were diminishing in the face of gradual industrialization. The evidence is clear that the planter class of the South effectively prevented any economic or political cooperation or class allegiance between poor blacks and poor whites. As long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them. “Indeed, one motive for the Ku Klux Klan movement of these years was a desire by low class whites to remove the Negro as a competitor, especially in the renting of the land.” The essential point is that, during the first two decades following the Civil War, poor whites lacked the power resources needed to bring about the kind of institutional changes that would have improved their economic lives, namely, segregationist laws restricting black competition. They were concentrated in positions such as tenant farmers and sharecropper where their economic situation was as precarious in the early postbellum period as it had been during antebellum slavery. Organized labor remained weak in the face of the overwhelming political and economic resources of the master class.

Got that? Again, Wilson is not so much talking about “ways in which white Southern landowners and employers in the post-Civil-War South sought to keep down the earnings of black[s]” as he is about how the planter class is keeping both poor white and poor black workers down. In this context, Sowell’s grandiose pronouncement that “By contrast, economist Robert Higgs, who researched the actual consequences of those efforts of white employers and landowners in the postbellum South, found that such organized efforts often collapsed, as a result of competition among white employers and landowners for black workers and sharecroppers” is not the dunk he things it is. Higgs compared the income of poor black tenant farmers and poor white tenant farmers and found that the white farmers did better, but only slightly better.

Two points about that: the white tenants were still doing better despite Sowell’s attempts to blithely slide by that point, and this does not contradict Wilson’s point that white elites tried to keep poor whites’ hatred focused on the black competitors rather than the upper class — in fact, it reinforces Wilson’s point.

Sowell skips over the next part of Wilson’s story:

The reaction of the “people at the top” to the changes in race relations brought about by Reconstruction contrasted sharply with that of lower-class whites. Within a few years after Reconstruction, the ruling economic elite realized that their earlier apprehensions concerning the Negro were unwarranted. [note that Sowell would prefer to skip over a historical ah-ha! moment in which elites realize that their Discrimination Ib turns out to have been unfounded] Northern Republicans gradually focused their attentions away from their platform of radicalism and protection of black freedom to a promotion of eastern capitalisic expansion in the South. There was greater competition between lower-class whites and blacks and therefore increased racial hostility; but the economic and political hold of the privileged classes over southern life was essentially unchallenged. The plantation elite, aligned with the growing industrial sector, was no longer fearful of a black threat or takeover. Indeed, blacks remained in a dependent economic relationship with this sector. Because of this, and because blacks were anxious about the manifestation of lower-class white reaction to black competition, conservative white rulers virtually controlled the black vote prior to 1890.

Again, I don’t know if Sowell simply skimmed over this part, misinterpreted it, or is simply misrepresenting it, but here Wilson is far from talking about “ways in which white Southern landowners and employers in the post-Civil-War South sought to keep down the earnings of black[s].” Instead, he’s talking about the class dynamics in the South. Wilson continues:

[A]s the South experienced gradual industrialization in the late nineteenth century, as new economic institutions generated technological development, as expanded modes of communications and elaborate systems of transportation connected cities with farms, not only was the distribution of power significantly altered in the South but race relations increasingly became associated with class conflicts.

After the Civil War, the planters had to share their power with a rising middle class of merchant-bankers and with owners and operators of factories, mines, and railroads. Nonetheless, the members of all of these groups were conscious of their over-lapping economic interests and consequently combined to form a disciplined ruling class. They also were mutually apprehensive of the gradual increase in political activity among the white working class in the 1880s and 1890s. Just as changes in the system of production modified the distribution of power among the ruling elite, so too did it place the workers of the South in greater proximity with one another and thus facilitated their mobilization into collective action groups.

From here, Wilson describes the massive dislocation that was going on at the time: increasing population, labor surplus everywhere, falling crop prices, black youths moving into the “uplands” for mining and industrial jobs, while white youths moved towards the “lowlands” for work in textile mills and tenancy. This gave rise to “a new breed of southern politician, whose style combined the evangelistic fervor of the southern preacher with the racist rhetoric of the upcountry hillbilly.” He summarizes:

When the Farmers’ Alliance, a movement consisting of hundreds and thousands of lower-class white farmers and tenants, first exerted its influence in southern state legislatures, Jim Crow segregation laws sprang up all over the South. For example, in 1887 in Florida, in 1888 in Mississippi, in 1889 in Texas, in 1890 in Louisiana, and in 1891 in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Georgia, laws requiring separate accommodations in railway stations and in streetcars were enacted. Perhaps C. Vann Woodward comes closest to summarizing the meaning of these developments when he writes:

It is one of the paradoxes of Southern history that political democracy for the white man and racial discrimination for the black man were often products of the same dynamics. As the Negroes invaded the new mining and industrial towns of the uplands in greater numbers, and the hill country whites were driven into more frequent and closer association with them, and as the two were brought into rivalry for subsistence wages in the cotton fields, mines and wharves, the lower-class white man’s demand for Jim Crow laws became more insistent …. The Negro pretty well understood these forces and his grasp of them was one reason for this growing alliance with the most conservative and politically reactionary class of whites against the insurgent white democracy.

Finally, we come to the last of the three sections that Sowell cites in which he claims that Wilson is talking about “ways in which white Southern landowners and employers in the post-Civil-War South sought to keep down the earnings of black[s]” (p59):

Accompanying disenfranchisement were increased Jim Crow segregation laws in both public and private institutions and facilities and also the virtual collapse of public education and the systematic exclusion by white laborers of blacks from jobs in the skilled occupations ranks they had held since slavery (such as barbering, masonry, bricklaying, carpentry, and the better agricultural jobs). Moreover, the system of Jim Crow segregation was reinforced by extralegal means of intimidation. Whereas, blacks were seldom lynching victims under the old paternalistic order (e.g. as I indicated in the previous chapter, it is estimated that of the 300 lynching victims between 1840 and 1860 less than 10 percent were black) “in the last sixteen years of the nineteenth century there had been more than 2,500 lynchings, the great majority of which were Negroes, with Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana leading the nation.

To summarize, Sowell cites a study that compares white farmers and black farmers and he claims

“that such organized efforts [to suppress black income] often collapsed, as a result of competition among white employers and landowners for black workers and sharecroppers. It might seem as if newly freed blacks — desperately poor, often illiterate and unfamiliar with working as free people in labor markets — would be easy prey for whites united to enforce whatever wage and sharecropper conditions they wanted. But to expect such opportunities to prevail continuously ignores the inherent, systemic competitive pressures in a market economy.”

The study he cites found a small but not zero difference between the two (9% is not an entirely “collapsed” effort). More importantly, he fails to note the more important point: there is no “[free] market economy”. The study he cites specifically set out to find differences in pay in a labor market where both races were allowed to compete. He completely fails to address the point that restricting black laborers to certain fields of work had differential outcomes.

Sowell, of course, should have known this since the source I will use to illustrate it is another source which he uses himself. It is E. Franklin Frazier, but this time writing in The Negro in the United States. Below we see (albeit in 1940, long after the periods that Sowell blends together as if there were no difference between 1865–1866, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow) the differences between the North, the “Border”, and the South in 1940. The further north one goes, the more black representation you find among more highly paid professions. Franklin also notes that “In [New York and Chicago], one out of every 30 employed Negro men is in professional or semiprofessional occupations as over against one in every 45 in southern cities. The contrast between northern and southern cities is even more important than the figures indicate because a large proportion of the Negroes in professional occupations in southern cities are ministers, whereas in northern cities only a small proportion are ministers and Negroes are found in practically all professional occupations.” Sowell leaves out any discussion of these points; they are simply not convenient to his theme that racism didn’t exist as a widespread problem, but if it did, it had no effect, and even if it had an effect, the discrimination was based on objective, valid concerns about blacks.

Racism in Dr. Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities and Intellectuals and Race (3)
Racism in Dr. Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities and Intellectuals and Race (4)
Racism in Dr. Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities and Intellectuals and Race (5)
Racism in Dr. Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities and Intellectuals and Race (6)

Interesting that Sowell seems to recognize that Black Americans migrated from South to North without taking note of the reasons for doing so, e.g. the “push” reasons (which would require that he recognize southern racism) or the “pull” reasons (jobs, pay, which would require that he recognize pecuniary reasons for racism that masquerade as “reasonable” concerns about crime). When considering immigration from outside the US, he is against it because it pulls wages down, but when considering internal migration, he denies its existence. He writes in I&R, ”Rejecting the economic analysis of free market wage rates by such leading economists of that era as Alfred Marshall in England and John Bates Clark in the United States, economists of a Progressive orientation advocated minimum wages laws as a way of preventing ‘low-wage races’ such as Chinese immigrants from lowering the standard of living of American workers.”

Clark demonstrated a much more nuanced understanding of the situation when he wrote wrote: ‘‘Hunger-discipline disqualifies the worker for (sic) making a successful bargain, and if the employer were everywhere at liberty to take men for what, under such pressure, they might individually offer to work for, he might get them for very little.’’ https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.13.2.221

In Discrimination and Disparities, Dr. Sowell relates a story told by William Julius Wilson about the fact that his neighbors treated him differently when he was dressed casually versus how when he was dressed for work. Sowell claims that the fact that they don’t discriminate against him when wearing a tie proves they aren’t racist. Dr. Sowell implies that it’s completely understandable because non-upper class black men are known to be dangerous. Here we see Sowell’s blind spot about class, and in fact this looks like a case of intersectionality. The neighbors don’t have a problem with rich men. The neighbors don’t have a problem with white men. But the neighbors have a problem with not-rich, not-white men. Dr. Sowell thinks it reasonable and rational to assume they are criminals.

I would like to note here that the passages I’ve quoted from two of Dr. Sowell’s books constitute maybe about 5 paragraphs, and that the source material used for refutation covers scores of pages from multiple sources. This is typical of what I have run into while reviewing Dr. Sowell’s work. He cites from sources and draws simple conclusions, but when you read those sources, you find a far more nuanced version of history. When you then double-check the sources, you quickly find yourself in an exponentially expanding reading list. And at the bottom of it all is the conclusion that Dr. Sowell is trying very hard to rewrite history to match his foregone conclusion that discrimination doesn’t exist, or is justifiable, or is the result of liberal intellectual government policies. From this, I have concluded to my own satisfaction that the man does not deserve the reputation he enjoys — one that he himself promotes. That reputation is of an eclectic scholar of the highest intellectual rigor and integrity.

I would have liked to have spent far more time pulling quotes from his work and going through them in excruciating detail. Unfortunately I’ve run into Brandolini’s Law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.” I’ve also started working on Black Rednecks and White Liberals and Race and Economics. Plus there’s his repeated mischaracterization of life in the North prior to the Great Migration, and his incredibly stunted representation of the period 1965–1965, and …

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Name: Roderick King

Birthday: 1997-10-09

Address: 3782 Madge Knoll, East Dudley, MA 63913

Phone: +2521695290067

Job: Customer Sales Coordinator

Hobby: Gunsmithing, Embroidery, Parkour, Kitesurfing, Rock climbing, Sand art, Beekeeping

Introduction: My name is Roderick King, I am a cute, splendid, excited, perfect, gentle, funny, vivacious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.