Migrations and Cultures

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The third of three books to emerge from a study well defined by the titles of those already in print: Preferential Policies: An International Perspective (1991) and Race and Culture (1994). In this volume, as in those, Sowell takes dead aim at the concept of equality as defined by adherents of political correctness as equal outcomes, with the corollaries that wherever equal outcomes are not present, that is proof of discrimination and a reason for the implementation of affirmative action programs. His aim is deadly. His dirty little facts shoot holes in the woolly theories of those who have ignored or distorted history.

This is not always an uplifting story. As Sowell notes, history cannot always be prettified, nor should it be, even in the interesting of promoting mutual respect and self-respect. Respect is not a door-prize, but something which is earned. While the potential to earn respect can be limited by existing conditions, the ability of individuals and groups to rise above adversity is more resilient than current victimization theorists wish to acknowledge.

Sowell studies a variety of immigrant experiences. What differentiates his approach from those of his predecessors is that they concentrated on one host country, whereas Sowell’s approach is comparative: How did the Germans, for example, fare in the United States, in Brazil, in Russia? Moreover, he is more concerned with nuances: Asian Indians from different areas and different subcultures emigrated to different lands. Why? And how did this affect their fate?

None of the information he presents is particularly new. Anyone who has studied migration will not be surprised at Sowell’s facts, most of which are culled from previous publications. Some people may be mortified to note that either lack of imagination or courage had prevented them from transforming their existing knowledge into a complete and compelling narrative. (It helps that Sowell is African American, for a white scholar would likely have been dismissed as racist for having written this book. As might be expected, Sowell has been criticized for breaking the ranks of black solidarity and providing ammunition for its enemies.)

Sowell reasons thus: first, that cultures are more complex than our usual generalizations about them; second, that the success any immigrant culture has in a new culture depends greatly upon the employment niches that are available; and third, that success in exploiting the opportunities available in these niches depends upon adapting one’s own culture to the needs. Explicit in this is the argument that under varying conditions, some cultural traits are better than others. Also, that one culture can learn from another, and that cultures evolve. These statements are more common-sense than profound, which makes it all the more striking that many American intellectuals have adopted views which deny them.

It is understandable, however, that many will deny Sowell’s conclusions: For thirty years, Americans have followed a public policy based on the concept that “affirmative action” programs and education can change radically the status of minority groups in the United States and in other nations. India sought to end the subjugation of Untouchables; the United States, the oppression and poverty of African Americans, Native Americans, and women. The results have been mixed rather than encouraging. Progress was made in some areas, but not in others. Sowell’s demonstration that some groups naturally gravitate toward well-proven areas of past competence suggest that policies aimed at equal outcomes are not only going to fail, but that they should never have been expected to succeed. It is not as though this were an academic discussion without consequences: Careers, even giant bureaucracies, have been built on the premises that social engineering is possible. Sowell questions the sound- bite quality of the current debate, the sweeping nature of expectations, and the suppression of dissenting voices under charges of bigotry and racism. What is most remarkable is that he does this without dealing directly with the principal groups affected in the American debate. Instead, he looks at the immigrant experiences of Germans, Japanese, Italians, Jews, Chinese, and Asian Indians, largely their non-American experiences.

The “overseas Chinese” are the largest of what Sowell calls the “middleman” minorities (meaning that they are involved in trade rather than physical labor). In Southeast Asia, in addition to opening banks and trading firms, they entered into retail trade, hotels, and restaurants. Not unexpectedly, they settled in cities, generally the largest ones in the host country. Although they came generally from the southern provinces of China, they were not...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)