Civil Rights
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Civil Rights

Thomas Sowell

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📖 eBook - ePub

Civil Rights

Thomas Sowell

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It is now more than three decades since the historic Supreme Court decision on desegregation, Brown v. Board of Education. Thomas Sowell takes a tough, factual look at what has actually happened over these decades -- as distinguished from the hopes with which they began or the rhetoric with which they continue, Who has gained and who has lost? Which of the assumptions behind the civil rights revolution have stood the test of time and which have proven to be mistaken or even catastrophic to those who were supposed to be helped?

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May 17, 1954 was a momentous day in the history of the United States, and perhaps of the world. Something happened that afternoon that was all too rare in human history. A great nation voluntarily acknowledged and repudiated its own oppression of part of its own people. The Supreme Court decision that day was announced in an atmosphere of high drama, and some observers said that one of the black-robed Justices sat on the great bench with tears in his eyes.
Brown v. Board of Education was clearly much more than another legal case to go into the long dusty rows of volumes of court decisions. It represented a vision of man and of the world that touched many hearts across the land and around the world. The anger and rancor it immediately provoked also testified to its importance. In a larger historic context, that such an issue should reach the highest court in the land was itself remarkable. In how many places and in how many eras could an ordinary person from a despised race challenge the duly constituted authorities, force them to publicly defend their decisions, retreat, and finally capitulate?
Brown v. Board of Education may have been intended to close the door on an ugly chapter in American history, going back to slavery and including both petty and gross bigotry, blatant discrimination, and violence and terror extending all the way to brutal and sadistic lynchings. Yet it also opened a door to political, constitutional, and human crises. It was not simply a decision but the beginning of a revolution that has not yet run its course, but which has already shown the classic symptoms of a revolution taking a very different path from that envisioned by those who set it in motion.
The civil rights revolution of the past generation has had wide ramifications among a growing variety of groups, and has changed not only the political landscape and social history of the United States, but has also altered the very concept of constitutional law and the role of courts.
Behind the many visible changes has been a change in the way the world is visualized. The civil rights vision is not only a moral vision of the way the world should be in the future, but also a cause-and-effect vision of the way the world is today. This cause-and-effect vision of the way the world works is central to understanding the particular direction of thrust of the civil rights revolution, its achievements, its disappointments, and its sharp changes in meaning that have split its supporters and confounded its critics.
It is far from incidental that the civil rights movement began among black Americans. The basic vision of what was wrong, and of what social effects would follow from what institutional changes, bore the clear imprint of the history of blacks in the United States, though the general principles arrived at were later applied successively to very different groups in American society—to women and the aged, for example, as well as to such disparate racial and ethnic groups as Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians. It is now estimated that 70 percent of the American population is entitled to preferential treatment under “affirmative action.”1 The civil rights vision has even been extended internationally to the plight of the Third World and to racial policies in other nations, such as South Africa.
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. The extent to which that vision corresponds to reality is crucial for understanding both the successes and failures of the civil rights revolution thus far, and for assessing its future prospects and dangers.
Because civil rights laws and civil rights concepts are applied generally—to both racial and non-racial groups—their general validity must be examined. The special case of blacks can then be examined precisely as a special case.
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 inequities, and are caused by “society.” Historically, it was easy to show, for example, that segregated white schools had had several times as much money spent per pupil as in segregated black schools and that this translated into large disparities in physical plant, teacher qualifications, and other indices of educational input. Large differences in educational output, such as test scores, seemed readily attributable to these input differences. How well this model applied to other statistical disparities for other groups is another question entirely. Moreover, even for blacks, the causal link has been established by immediate plausibility rather than by systematic verification of an hypothesis.
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. Again, the question must be raised as to the general validity of these premises, as well as the separate question of their applicability to the special case of blacks.
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. Once more, it is possible to cite such things as dramatic increases in the number of black elected officials after passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. But once again, the general validity of the premise for the wide variety of groups covered by civil rights policies must be examined as a separate issue. And once again, even the special case of blacks must be systematically analyzed.
Statistical Disparities
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 of this 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. Discrimination may still exist and be harmful, but the convenient statistical barometer would be lost. Even a disease that is fatal 100 percent of the time provides no automatic explanation of death if there are many other fatal diseases, along with accidents, murder, and suicide. These are the inherent pitfalls of inductive reasoning. Even if A is known to cause Z, we still cannot infer A whenever we find Z, if B, C, D, etc., also cause Z.
How important are other factors besides discrimination in producing vast statistical disparities? 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. Alternative visions are also conceivable, but the crucial question here is not plausibility but how to test any given vision against observable factual evidence.
There are many decisions wholly within the discretion of those concerned, where discrimination by others is not a factor—the choice of television programs to watch, opinions to express to poll takers, or the age at which to marry, for example. All these show pronounced patterns that differ from group to group—not a random distribution.
A whole industry exists to determine the statistical profile of people who view given television programs, for the differences between the demographic and economic characteristics of the respective audiences for sports events, “soap operas,” cartoon programs, news features, etc., are worth millions of dollars to advertisers and networks. Public opinion polls show similarly wide disparities on many issues by income, education, sex, age, and religion. Marital patterns also differ widely from one group to another. For example, half of all Mexican American wives were married in their teens while only 10 percent of Japanese American wives were married that young.2
People do not move randomly, either within a nation or between nations. The great movement of nineteenth century European immigrants to the United States was largely a movement of young adults.3 So was the great migration of blacks out of the South, beginning in the early twentieth century.4 Of the Chinese immigrants to the United States before the First World War, 60 percent came from only one of 98 districts in one province in southern China.5 Among Japanese immigrants to the United States in 1935, more than 90 percent of those from Okinawa went to Hawaii, while a majority of those from the Hiroshima area went to the mainland of the United States.6 At the same time, Japanese emigrants from the area around Nagasaki went primarily to China and southeast Asia.7 In post-World War II Japan, 70 percent of the emigrants from the Hidaka district settled in Canada, and of these, 90 percent from one village settled in one area of Canada.8 Among German emigrants in the early nineteenth century, a majority went to South America, but from the 1830s to the end of the century, 90 percent went to the United States.9 Among those Germans who emigrated to Chile in the mid-nineteenth century, most came from just one city, Hamburg.10 Among the Jews scattered through the many countries of Latin America today, nearly half live in just one city, Buenos Aires.11
The sex composition of immigrants has also shown great disparities, both within groups and between groups. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, about 80 percent of all emigrants from Italy were male.12 Among Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the United States during the same era, the men outnumbered the women by more than twenty-to-one,13 and there were virtually no children. But among the Irish immigrants to the United States, the sex ratio was roughly even, and in some decades females outnumbered males.14
Statistical disparities extend into every aspect of human life. In major league baseball, for example, black players have hit home runs with significantly greater frequency than white players (in proportion to their respective times at bat) and with nearly twice the frequency of Latin players.15 Of the five highest totals of home runs in a lifetime, three are by black players. But of the ten highest slugging averages ever achieved in a season, seven are by players of German ancestry—indeed, just two players, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Of the five times that someone has stolen 100 or more bases in a season, all were by black players.
In the toy industry, firms do not spend their annual television advertising budgets evenly—that is, 25 percent in each quarter of the year. Some of the best known toy manufacturers spend upwards of three-quarters or four-fifths of their annual television advertising budget in the last quarter.16
In short, statistical disparities are commonplace among human beings. Many historical and cultural reasons underlie the peculiar patterns observed. But the even “representation” of groups chosen as a baseline for measuring discrimination is a myth rather than an established fact. It is significant that those who have assumed that baseline have seldom, if ever, been challenged to produce evidence.
The civil rights vision focuses on groups adversely affected in statistical disparities. Here the relationship between discrimination and economic, educational, and other disadvantages is taken as virtually axiomatic. But if this apparently obvious proposition is taken as an hypothesis to be tested, rather than an axiom to be accepted, a very different picture emerges. Groups with a demonstrable history of being discriminated against have, in many countries and in many periods of history, had higher incomes, better educational performance, and more “representation” in high-level positions than those doing the discriminating.
Throughout southeast Asia, for several centuries, the Chinese minority has been—and continues to be—the target of explicit, legalized discrimination in various occupations, in admission to institutions of higher learning, and suffers bans and restrictions on land ownership and places of residence. Nowhere in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, or the Philippines have the Chinese ever experienced equal opportunity. Yet in all these countries the Chinese minority—about 5 percent of the population of southeast Asia—owns a majority of the nation’s total investments in key industries. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Chinese owned 75 percent of the rice mills in the Philippines, and between 80 and 90 percent of the rice mills in Thailand.17 They conducted more than 70 percent of the retail trade in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.18 In Malaysia, where the anti-Chinese discrimination is written into the Constitution, is embodied in preferential quotas for Malays in government and private industry alike, and extends to admissions and scholarships at the universities, the average Chinese continues to earn twice the income of the average Malay.19
Nor are the Chinese minorities in southeast Asia unique. Much the same story could be told of the Jews in many countries around the world and in many periods of history.20 A similar pattern could also be found among East Indians in Africa, southeast Asia and parts of the western hemisphere, or among Armenians in the Middle East, Africa, and the United States. Italian immigrants to Argentina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also encountered discrimination, but nevertheless rose from poverty to affluence, surpassing the Argentine majority. Around the turn of the century, when Italians were 14 percent of the Argentine population, they owned more than twice as many food and drinking establishments in Buenos Aires as the native Argentines. They also owned mo...

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APA 6 Citation
Sowell, T. (2009). Civil Rights ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins. Retrieved from (Original work published 2009)
Chicago Citation
Sowell, Thomas. (2009) 2009. Civil Rights. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins.
Harvard Citation
Sowell, T. (2009) Civil Rights. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Sowell, Thomas. Civil Rights. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins, 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.