CIVIL RIGHTS by Thomas Sowell


Rhetoric Or Reality?
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A polemic aimed at what conservative economist and author Sowell (Hoover Institution, Ethnic America, The Economics and Politics of Peace) calls the "civil rights vision." The original intention of civil rights legislation, Sowell says, was to guarantee equality of opportunity; but the civil rights establishment, made up of an elite looking for more work, has extended and twisted that intention in the direction of equality of outcome. When civil rights advocates look at statistics showing income-disparities or under-representation in jobs, they immediately assume discrimination is the cause and turn to affirmative action, or some other adjustment, to redress the wrong. In rebuttal, Sowell presents a barrage of statistics and arguments to show that disparities can have complex causes. If blacks are discriminated against because of color, then why do West Indian blacks earn 94 percent of the national average, while blacks generally earn only 62 percent as much? Sowell settles on cultural factors, though he doesn't say what they might be; typically, he just mentions other "likely" explanations, such as selective migration--claiming that the only important point is that color isn't all-decisive. This example, familiar to readers of his books, shows Sowell's readiness to play fast-and-loose with numbers. Another typical argument follows: if discrimination is the cause of economic inequality, then how explain the economic advances of victimized overseas Chinese? The economic status of women, Sowell argues, follows from their tendency to go into publishing or teaching rather than law or hard sciences--because, with an eye on childbirth, they have to plan their careers around periods of inactivity. It's a familiar polemical tactic to set up a monolithic opponent, and then offer a series of discrete arguments to fragment the opposition. That's what Sowell does here, and it's fair to say that he makes no attempt to figure out what his absent straw-man would say in response. In a final chapter, however, Sowell responds to his critics in a very personal and emotional way: he didn't just make use of his race for advancement, then turn his back on his fellow-blacks. Against charges that he relies on principles of innate racial inferiority, he answers that he stresses complexity. (As the examples above show, his cultural approach can easily be confused with the innate view.) And, while he labels his opponents elitists who seek government programs to advance their own interests, Sowell manages elitist snipes of his own--like this double whammy: one critic is disparaged as "a professor of education" (one) at an "undistinguished university" (two). No surprises here, but Sowell's skin is thinning.
Pub Date: April 18th, 1984
ISBN: 0688062695
Page count: 158pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1984


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