Special Report

The Original “Woke” Economist: An Interview with Dr. Thomas Sowell, Part I

The Original Woke Economist: An Interview with Dr. Thomas Sowell (Full Series)
Part I Part II | Part III | Part IV

Summary: Long before social media campaigns encouraged millennials to “stay woke,” noted economist Thomas Sowell was speaking real truths about the reasons for different outcomes among ethnic groups and how the NAACP does more harm than good for black Americans.  Former Capital Research Center Senior Researcher David Hogberg recently interviewed Dr. Sowell about the publication of his latest book, Discrimination and Disparities, which promises to help correct long-held myths that are still prominent in American discourse.

David Hogberg: Why did you write this book? I ask because you are always threatening to retire, so you must have thought that such a book would meet an important need.

Sowell: The need was to challenge what I call the “invincible fallacy,” that different groups would have similar outcomes if not for either discrimination or genetic determinism. Both those who believe in genetics as the automatic reason for group differences and discrimination as the automatic reason for group differences are reasoning from the same fundamental misconception. An examination of the facts indicates there is little evidence that either of those factors are universally culpable. So many different factors are involved that you don’t need to resort to those two explanations to understand outcomes.

Hogberg: Why is it such a common fallacy?

Sowell: I think these two explanations are part of a much larger set of preconceptions that applies to all kinds of other issues, including issues of nature. There is a great temptation to seek one key factor for whatever you are trying to explain. For example, we all know that the sunlight is hotter in the tropics than it is in more temperate zones. And yet when you do empirical research, you discover that the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the world were all recorded outside the tropics. So what that says is that, yes, sunlight is an important factor, maybe the most important one, in temperature differences. Yet in particular cases there are many other factors, none of which may be as important as sunlight, but in combination may override the factor that you think is the key to everything.

Hogberg: One theme that runs through the book is that human beings are not random outcomes. For example, if Black Americans are 12 percent of the population, you will not necessarily see roughly 12 percent of blacks in every profession in America. Can you give some examples of what you mean by that and explain why the outcomes are not random?

Sowell: I’m always amazed at how simple explanations often escape people, including myself. I discover them belatedly and in retrospect they should have been obvious. One is that groups have different median ages. Japanese Americans, for example, have a median age two decades older than Mexican Americans. You cannot expect these two groups to be equally represented in any kind of activity where you need the strength and vitality of youth or long years of experience that come with age. You can’t expect them to be evenly represented among corporate CEOs or among generals and admirals in the military because all of those things require long years of education and/or experience. You won’t find many 26-year-olds represented there. Now, it just so happens that Hispanics are overrepresented among baseball stars. You don’t find a lot of 50-year-old men being baseball stars. And, again, this all seems very obvious in retrospect.

Or, look at Jews. We’re very accustomed to seeing great numbers of Jewish intellectuals and Jewish leaders in other areas. For example, Jews are not even 1 percent of the world’s population, but they have won about 30 percent of Nobel prizes in chemistry. But if you go back a few centuries, you don’t find Jews overrepresented in those particular areas. Now, the Jews have one striking difference from most other groups and that is they have been literate for centuries—if not millennia. As recently as 1900, just over half of the people in the world were still illiterate. Literacy is something that is still new to most peoples. However, literacy by itself will not take you all the way. So, Jews for many centuries were not admitted to most of the universities in Europe. In the 19th century Europe and America began to pull back on the restrictions on Jews and then Jews flooded into the universities. And from that point on you see Jews greatly overrepresented among intellectual figures and landmark figures in other fields. That doesn’t mean that if you let other groups into universities that you can expect the same outcome. The Jews already had most of the prerequisites that they needed to do these things, and only the fact that they weren’t allowed in universities prevented them from achieving what they later did.

This is where people with a lot of verbal talent come in and create the appearance of discrimination just by calling things the same that are not the same. Just recently there was a big outcry in England because male and female employees of airlines have very different incomes. What that boils down to is that males are the overwhelming bulk of the pilots and females are the overwhelming bulk of the flight attendants. So, you lump together pilots and flight attendants and you call them by the same name, “airline employees”—by doing that you create this great divide and great sense of grievance.

In the next segment of this interview, Dr. Sowell discusses self-sorting and how central planning can wreak havoc on communities.