Sowell, Thomas 1930–
Thomas Sowell 1930–
In 20 years of prolific writing, Thomas Sowell has expressed his controversial views concerning race, ethnicity, and economics, often earning the label of visionary among conservatives and scoundrel among liberals. Believing blacks would be better off if they advanced by their own means, the conservative economist harshly criticizes ideas that most black leaders hold as essential to the social and economic advancement of the race, including affirmative action, minimum wage laws, and government assistance laws. In 1981 Newsweek described Sowell as “the intellectual fountainhead of the black conservatives” and “[President] Ronald Reagan’s favorite black intellectual,” while black commentator Carl T. Rowan once called him an “Aunt Jemima, giving aid and comfort to America’s racists,” according to People.
Hailed as “one of the brightest men around doing social research,” by columnist William F. Buckley, as quoted by People, Sowell has taught at some of America’s most prestigious universities and was offered a Cabinet post in the Reagan administration in 1981, which he turned down. As he told Forbes, “I don’t want to make policy. There are thousands of people in Washington who can formulate policy. What’s really crucial is that they have the facts straight before doing it, which by no means is the usual case.” Sowell did join the White House Economic Policy Advisory Board in February of 1981, but resigned after one meeting, saying the trip from his Palo Alto, California, home was too much of a strain. An intensely private person, Sowell has a false name-plate on his office door at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and keeps his home number and private life a secret, including details about his two marriages.
Sowell’s life experiences illustrate the values of self-help and determination he expounds on in his writing. He was born June 30, 1930, in Gastonia, North Carolina, and when he was eight years old, he moved with his parents to Harlem, New York, where his father worked in construction. Though ranked at the top of his high school class, Sowell dropped out after ninth grade to deliver telegrams for 65 cents an hour. Working odd jobs in his teenage years was an “invaluable experience,” Sowell recalled People. Once he had to sell his only suit to buy food—a knish and an orange soda. “Since then … I’ve
U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, DC, economist, 1961-62; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, instructor in economics, 1962-63; Howard University, Washington, DC, lecturer in economics, 1963-64; American Telephone & Telegraph Co., economic analyst, 1964-65; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, assistant professor of economics, 1965-69, director of Summer Intensive Training Program in Economic Theory, 1968; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, associate professor of economics, 1969-70; University of California, Los Angeles, associate professor, 1970-72, professor of economics, 1974-80; Urban Institute, project director, 1972-74; writer. Amherst College, visiting professor of economics, 1977; Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, CA, fellow, 1977; Stanford University, Hoover Institution, fellow, 1977, senior fellow, 1980—. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1951-53.
Member: American Economics Association, National Academy of Education.
Addresses: Office —The Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.
eaten at the Waldorf and the White House. It has never been as good.”
Sowell finished high school at night and enrolled at Howard University after a stint in the Marines. He transferred to Harvard University, where he wrote his senior honors thesis on the theories of left-wing German political philosopher Karl Marx and graduated magna cum laude in 1958. A committed Marxist when he left Harvard, Sowell gradually shifted his beliefs to the right during graduate studies at Columbia University and later at the University of Chicago. During the 1960s, Sowell’s academic sojourn took him to teaching positions at various universities with brief stops as an economic analyst at the U.S. Labor Department and American Telephone & Telegraph Company. For the better part of the 1970s, he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, and in 1980 he became a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Sowell’s overtly conservative views, asserted in such books as 1981’s Ethnic America: A History, quickly made him a target of criticism from liberals. One of his more controversial beliefs is that poverty among minority groups is less a result of racial and societal discrimination than of a group’s values, ethics, and attitudes. If discrimination alone were to hold a segment of the population back, Sowell contends, American Japanese, Chinese, or Jewish populations would never have accomplished what they have. In Ethnic America, Sowell writes that government assistance debilitates people who could make it on their own. To illustrate, he points to hundreds of small businesses successfully established during the economic depression of the 1930s by the low-income followers of Harlem’s Father Divine and contrasts them with “the massive business failures under the government-sponsored black-capital programs of the sixties and seventies.”
Sowell further suggests that “ghettoized urban blacks are like immigrants having headed north in waves from the foreign world of the rural South only in this century,” according to Newsweek. They are now in the second generation, he says, comparable to Irish-Americans of a century ago. “Just as the Irish progressed rapidly … without government aid, so can urban blacks.” Though the economist concedes that federal legislative and judicial efforts in the 1950s and 1960s were a substantial benefit to blacks in outlawing segregation and blatant discrimination, he believes such legislation as 1964’s Civil Rights Act was counterproductive. “He is incensed by the ‘social reformers’ who ‘don’t take seriously the ideas and interests of poor people,’” observed a writer in Newsweek. “Says Sowell: ‘Maybe people are poor not because they have made bad decisions, but because other people have made bad decisions for them. The liberals and civil-rights organizations have their own grand designs to impose on blacks. And the government is there to see you have no other choice.… If you allow the people to decide, you eliminate all the middlemen, the researchers, consultants and economists who fatten themselves at the expense of the poor.’”
Such opinions have alienated Sowell from liberal black leaders, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Hooks. Denouncing tenets like affirmative action and busing black children to white schools, which he feels are underlying causes of racial disharmony, Sowell has also spoken of “undoing the harm” resulting from minimum wage laws. He told U.S. News & World Report that such legislation makes it difficult for the poor to get anywhere in society. “Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the black teenage unemployment rate was a fraction of what it became by the 1970s,” he said. “When you raise the wages of unskilled labor, you lead people to substitute capital for labor, and that helps produce high unemployment.” He pointed out in Forbes the important lessons a teenager learns from having a job: “The 14-year-old shoving burgers across the counter at McDonald’s … learns to get there on time, or the manager will fire him.” Government programs “let [teens] get away with things they would never get away with in private industry. If you didn’t give in, you wouldn’t have a program. We shouldn’t train people to think that all the world is like a government program.” Sowell’s thoughts on the minimum wage have drawn criticism, notably from economist Bernard Anderson of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who told Newsweek that paying teens a sub-minimum wage would “just give the employer the incentive to fire the father and hire the son.”
Concerning the issue of busing children to forcibly integrate schools, Sowell concludes that the situation does not benefit black children, and it makes white adults angry. The U.S. Supreme Court’s integration decision reflects a paternalistic attitude toward blacks, he believes, and implies that black children can’t learn anything unless they go to school with whites. Sowell similarly scorns affirmative action and racial quotas. “Since affirmative action has come in,” Sowell commented in Forbes in 1981, “Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans and blacks don’t have any higher income than they had before, compared to whites. In some cases they have less.” In the same interview he chastised some black leaders who receive federal money to fund various social programs for blacks. He believes most blacks would prefer lower taxes to a few federally funded social programs. “I suspect that black people in general would be much more receptive to [cutting government funding] than the ‘black leadership.’ Blacks have no vested interest in high taxes. They don’t have many tax shelters. I’m sure there are far more blacks paying these incredible tax rates than there are on welfare.” Sowell further argues that black leadership represents a privileged few who view blacks as victims of racism who can only progress as far as the government will take them. “Black leaders … are providing fuel to extremist groups like the [fascist] Nazis and the [white supremacist] Ku Klux Klan through such programs as quotas and busing, which are producing no tangible benefits for blacks as a whole,” Sowell remarked in U.S. News & World Report in 1981. Ten years later, the economist’s words echoed true as radical right-wing groups attacked such programs and used them as political weapons against blacks in general.
In 1987, Sowell wrote A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle, in which he hypothesizes the origins of the political battle between right and left in terms of opposing world outlooks. Sowell defined the two views of mankind as “constrained” and “unconstrained”; the New York Times further described this theory as “two divergent visions of man and society that [Sowell] convincingly contends underlie many of the political, economic and social clashes of the last two centuries and remain very much with us today.” The unconstrained vision sees people as guided by reason and ever able to improve themselves and their surroundings. The constrained vision, on the other hand, imagines people basing their behavior on self-interest and possessing a limited ability to alter their surroundings. In short, as Time put it, “the unconstrained see humans as perfectible, the constrained as forever flawed.”
In A Conflict of Visions, Sowell uses the two concepts to illustrate the basis for political and social actions. The unconstrained—or leftists—Sowell writes, believe in government policies to improve life, and the constrained—or rightists—tout the workings of free market systems. To battle crime, seers of the unconstrained vision try to get to the cause of the problem, fighting poverty and unemployment, while those closer to the constrained vision count on the deterrence of the penal system. Furthermore, the unconstrained advocate equal income for all, and the constrained espouse equal opportunities to earn income. At the core of the idea of “social justice,” a phrase created by those with an unconstrained vision, Sowell opines, is the “notion that individuals are entitled to some share of the wealth produced by a society, simply by virtue of being members of that society and irrespective of any individual contributions made or not made to the production of that wealth.”
Sowell acknowledges that not every social theory falls easily into one category or the other. But a New York Times writer observed that “A Conflict of Visions does lay out styles of thinking that we can readily recognize today in the divisions between left and right on matters from nuclear arms to dangerous subways, illegitimate births and affirmative action. It helps us to see where, as they say, our political theorists are coming from.”
In his 1990 book, Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, Sowell sharply criticizes the use of preferential quotas in college admissions and employment opportunities, using examples from societies around the globe. Sowell attacks affirmative action policies in the United States and particularly the motives behind them. The New York Times wrote that Sowell “reserves his greatest contempt for the ‘trendy middle class,’ which support preference for certain groups because it makes them feel more virtuous.” Preferential treatment and relaxed standards, the book argues, can keep people from reaching their full potential. On the college campus, for example, relaxed admissions standards for certain groups can be detrimental to minority students; some black students may not be properly prepared for the pressure and competition of the university setting and may find themselves in a “softer” field of concentration instead of in a more practical field at a school more suited to their abilities. The result, Sowell asserts, may be heightened interracial tensions on campus.
In many of his previous writings, Sowell disputes the use of statistical disparities as being the result of racism. 1984’s Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, for example, questions whether differences in income, jobs, and education were proof of racial discrimination, citing that blacks hit on average many more home runs than Hispanics in major league baseball, but that doesn’t prove discrimination is the reason. Though critics charged Sowell with oversimplifying the argument, he expressed a similar viewpoint in 1990 in the Wall Street Journal: “Both majorities and minorities have been over-represented and under-represented in institutions and occupations that were good, bad and indifferent. Such widespread statistical disparities make it arbitrary to treat particular disparities as weighty evidence of discrimination.”
Though his views frequently stir up controversy and are diametrically opposed to those of most black leaders, Sowell is confident, according to Newsweek, in the black community’s ability “to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.” In general, the economist is more interested in “the improvement by degrees of the black masses than in the government efforts to shoehorn a few fortunate blacks into symbolic positions,” commented a Forbes contributor. “People ask me,” Sowell noted in Forbes, “‘Don’t you get an awful lot of flak from blacks?’ No, I don’t. There is a handful of black intellectuals screaming and yelling, and there are people who have vested interests in programs I criticize, but people know I’m being straight.”
(Contributor) Readings in the History of Economic Thought, edited by I. H. Rima, Holt, 1970.
Economics: Analysis and Issues, Scott, Foresman & Co., 1971.
Black Education: Myths and Tragedies, David McKay Co., 1972.
Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis, Princeton University Press, 1972.
Classical Economics Reconsidered, Princeton University Press, 1974.
Affirmative Action: Was It Necessary in Academia?, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1975.
Race and Economics, David McKay Co., 1975.
Patterns of Black Excellence, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Georgetown University, 1977.
(Editor) American Ethnic Groups, Urban Institute, 1978.
(Editor) Essays and Data on American Ethnic Groups, Urban Institute, 1978.
Knowledge and Decisions, Basic Books, 1980.
Markets and Minorities, Basic Books, 1980.
Pink and Brown People, and Other Controversial Essays, Hoover Institution Press, 1981.
Ethnic America: A History, Basic Books, 1981.
The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, William Morrow & Co., 1983.
Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, William Morrow & Co., 1985.
Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, William Morrow & Co., 1985.
Education: Assumptions Versus History, Hoover Institution Press, 1986.
A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, William Morrow & Co., 1987.
Compassion Versus Guilt, William Morrow & Co., 1987.
Judicial Activism Reconsidered, Hoover Institution Press, 1989.
Choosing a College: A Guide for Parents and Students, Harper & Row, 1989.
Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, William Morrow & Co., 1990.
Syndicated newspaper columnist; contributor to numerous periodicals, including Forbes, Commentary, Conservative Digest, Current, Ethics, Economic Review, Education Digest, Social Research, Oxford Economic Papers, and Economica.
Forbes, September 14, 1981; August 24, 1987.
Fortune, March 16, 1987.
Nation, October 10, 1981.
Newsweek, March 9, 1981.
New York Times, January 24, 1987; July 1, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1987.
People, December 28, 1981.
Time, March 16, 1987.
U.S.News & World Report, October 12, 1981.
Wall Street Journal, March 6, 1990.
—John P. Cortez
Thomas Sowell (born 1930) is noted for his conservative views on social and economic issues. An African American author and economist, Sowell opposes such programs as affirmative action, busing, racial quotas, minimum wage, and welfare. He has drawn fire from liberals and a number of African American leaders, while generating applause from fellow conservatives.
Sowell is an advocate of the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" philosophy, which encourages people to improve their positions not by government intervention, but by personal ambition and hard work. He believes that government initiatives to ensure a fair playing field for African Americans have actually hurt their chances for equality. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with his views, Sowell is respected as a top economist, having published extensively in economic journals and general periodicals. He also spent the better part of three decades teaching in prestigious academic institutions. Into the 1990s, his name was commonly seen in a weekly column for Forbes magazine and on his syndicated column appearing in newspapers nationwide. Sowell is the author of over 20 books and has edited or contributed to others. "The word 'genius' is thrown around so much that it's becoming meaningless," remarked renowned economist Milton Friedman in Forbes, "but nevertheless I think Tom Sowell is close to being one."
Sowell was born June 30, 1930, in Gastonia, North Carolina, and spent much of his youth in Charlotte, North Carolina. Being a very private person, not much is known about his family or early years, except that he moved to Harlem in New York City with his parents at around the age of eight or nine. His father worked in the construction industry. Sowell attended classes for gifted students and was ranked at the top of his class at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. He left school in tenth grade and worked for the next four years in a factory, as a delivery person, and as a Western Union messenger. These lean early years would heavily influence his politics later in life and provide him with arguments during debates with liberal leaders.
Sowell completed high school by attending night classes, then was drafted to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1951. He spent two years at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he worked as a photographer. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a majority African American institution, while working part-time as a photographer and a civil service clerk for the General Accounting Office. After three semesters, Sowell transferred to Harvard University. There, he wrote his senior thesis on the German political philosopher, Karl Marx. Sowell graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1958. A Marxist sympathizer as an undergraduate, Sowell gradually became more conservative as he pursued his master's degree at Columbia University. He continued his education at the University of Chicago, where he studied under economist and Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman, and George Stigler. Sowell obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1968.
Academic and Government Employment
Sowell began his illustrious professional career as a summer intern in 1960, then as an employee of the U.S. Department of Labor in 1960-61 as an economist. From there, he taught at Rutgers (1962-63) and Howard (1963-64) universities, later taking a post as an economic analyst with AT&T from 1964-65. Sowell taught from 1965-69 as an assistant professor of economics at Cornell and spent the summer of 1968 there as the director of the Summer Intensive Training Program in Economic Theory. After teaching from 1969-70 at Brandeis, Sowell went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as an associate professor of economics, where he was promoted to full professor in 1974. He also served as project director of the Urban Institute from 1972-74. Sowell stayed at UCLA until 1980 and also taught there from 1984-89. In 1980, he was named a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan took control of the presidency and ushered in a conservative political era that would last most of the decade. It seemed that Sowell's time had come. He organized a Black Alternatives Conference in San Francisco to publicize the conservative voice of African Americans. About 100 Republican business professionals and educators attended, advocating right-wing policies such as lowering the minimum wage, doing away with rent control, and reorganizing federal programs. After that event, Edwin Meese III, then the director of Reagan's transition team, announced that the new president would appoint African Americans to his cabinet and other high-level positions. Sowell was offered a cabinet post, but did not even entertain the notion. According to a Newsweekpiece from the time, "Such active participation in politics … would only damage his scholarly reputation." In February 1981, Sowell agreed to serve on the White House Economic Advisory Board, but resigned after one meeting. The distance between Washington, D.C. and his home in Palo Alto, California, was "too much of a strain," as People Weekly reported.
Wrote for Mass Media
Sowell continued working at the Hoover Institute, teaching at UCLA for part of the decade, and penning his controversial ideas. A prolific writer for much of his career, Sowell has churned out books nearly every year since 1971 and has contributed regularly to scholarly economic journals as well as periodicals, such as the New York Times Magazine and Spectator. His topics range from law to education in addition to economics and race relations. In 1984, Sowell began writing a newspaper column, believing that if George Will could make a point in 750 words, so could he. He was a regular columnist for the Scripps-Howard news service from 1984-90, then began writing a column for the weekly Forbes magazine as well as newspaper columns for the Creators Syndicate in 1991. He has been criticized by fellow economists who think his academic papers are not "formal" enough, but Forbes defended him by saying that his work was readable and not bogged down in algebraic formulas. A biography of Sowell on the web explained his desire to publish in the mass media: "Writing for the general public enables him to address the heart of issues without the smoke and mirrors that so often accompany academic writing."
Readers have also been taken aback by Sowell's authorship. His conservative opinions have been the cause of dissent. One of Sowell's often-targeted beliefs is that poverty among minority groups is less a result of racial and social discrimination than of a group's values, ethics, and attitudes. He contends that if discrimination is to blame for a group's lack of progress, then many of the Japanese, Chinese, and Jewish groups in America would never have reached the level of prosperity that they enjoy. As an example, he says that Chinese immigrants from a certain province have had more success in America than those from other areas. Those older immigrants from the Toishan district of the Kwantung Province are affluent, whereas newer immigrants from various other areas work in sweatshops and live in poverty. As he asserted in U.S. News & World Report, "The two have different cultures, and that accounts for the contrast in their situations. … The enormous difference between the groups cannot in any way be attributed to how the larger society treats Chinese people, because the average American employer cannot tell the two apart." He also cited statistics on West Indian blacks, who have higher incomes than whites in the United States, yet cannot be distinguished from other African Americans.
Sowell believes that government programs such as busing black children to white schools, welfare, affirmative action programs, and other social programs have hurt blacks by causing them to rely too heavily on government safety nets instead of using their own motivation to succeed. He also has said that government programs will harm African Americans by fueling racist sentiments of whites upset by busing, quotas, and other laws that Sowell feels discriminate against the majority. He claimed in U.S. News and World Report that the status of African Americans was rising prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that they were making strides in housing integration and career advancement. Thus the act did not really have the impact that people thought it did.
Sowell's 1990 book, Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, dealt specifically with the issue of affirmative action. In it, he vehemently opposed quotas in college admissions and jobs, using examples not just from American society, but from around the world. He argued that preferential treatment led to relaxed standards, which caused people to fail to reach their true potential. Quotas caused underprepared members of minority groups to suffer frustration and a higher drop-out rate, or may be a reason they were steered to "softer" fields of concentration instead of more practical pursuits at schools that fit their pace. Sowell also believed that quotas led to more interracial tension on campuses. Andrew Hacker in the New York Times Book Review related Sowell's claims that policies such as affirmative action make the "trendy middle classes" feel virtuous, as if they were somehow making up for slavery or for overrunning a native culture. Sowell disagreed with those who called for reparations to be paid by the government to African Americans for the slavery they endured, arguing that African Americans today should progress to thinking about the present, not the past.
Not surprisingly, many liberal African American leaders, including Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Hooks, as well as left-wing whites took offense with Sowell's arguments, saying, ironically, that he is the one promoting racism, and that his arguments are too simplistic. Economist Bernard Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School asserted in Newsweek, "We cannot separate the incredible gains that have been made [by blacks] from the strong role that the government has played." He added that the U.S. government is the largest single employer of middle-class African Americans in the nation. People Weekly reported that Carl T. Rowan charged that Sowell gave "aid and comfort to America's racists," but that "Sowell has dismissed Rowan as an 'idiot' whose 'dumb remarks' intimidate blacks holding differing views."
Sowell also expressed strong opinions in 1995, after publication of the controversial study, The Bell Curve. Emotions were highly charged when the book was released asserting that intelligence quotient (IQ) is genetic and that blacks scored lower on IQ tests than whites. Though it was derided by many as having a cultural bias, Sowell defended much of the study, detailing his arguments in a lengthy article in American Spectator. He did point out aspects that troubled him, but overall, he stated, "Contrary to much hysteria in the media, this is not a book about race, nor is it trying to prove that blacks are capable only of being hewers of wood and drawers of water."
With the repealing of affirmative action laws and the ensuing debates in the late 1990s, Sowell's works were more salient than ever. He continued to write a weekly column for Forbes, publish books, and make numerous appearances on the lecture circuit. Divorced from his first wife, Alma Jean Parr, he married again in the early 1980s, but remained secretive about his personal life; his name was not even posted on his office door at the Hoover Institute. He was reputed to be blunt and impatient, but humorous and outgoing among friends. Indeed, his wit often showed through in his writing. Known for his satire as well as his serious messages, Forbes once reprinted Sowell's "glossary of common political terms" as published in National Review, which included gems such as "Equal opportunity: Preferential treatment," "Stereotypes: Behavior patterns you don't want to think about," "Demonstration: A riot by people you agree with," "Mob violence: A riot by people you disagree with," "A proud people: Chauvinists you like," and "Bigots: Chauvinists you don't like."
Sowell's intent not to be swayed by voices of dissent among other African American leaders may be illustrated by one of his favorite quotations, as listed on his own home page and attributed to David Ricardo: "I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind."
American Spectator, February 1, 1995, p. 32.
Forbes, August 24, 1987, p. 40; August 26, 1996.
Newsweek, March 9, 1981, p. 29.
New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1990.
People Weekly, December 28, 1981, p. 66.
U.S. News & World Report, October 12, 1981, p. 74.
Washington Times, September 18, 1995.
"Biography of Thomas Sowell," Conservative Current web site, http://www.townhall.com (April 28, 1998).
"Online News Hour: A Gergen Dialogue with Thomas Sowell-July 11, 1996," PBS web site, http://www.pbs.org (April 28, 1998). □