Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1958
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 a uniform people. Those from Guangdong (Kwangtung, the Canton region) went to Thailand, Indochina, and the United States; those from Kukien went to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. They first held the most menial occupations, those the native populations did not want to do themselves, but they quickly found other niches, often ones that they had held in the home country. They did not assimilate. If it had not been for war and revolution, many would have returned home in their old age to die among relatives and be buried in ancestral plots. Since many more males emigrated than females, however, there was intermarriage with local women; there was additional incentive to marry outside—a significant percentage of the women of the immigrant generation went into prostitution. In the Western Hemisphere, the early “coolie trade” more resembled slavery than immigration. The perils and horrors of sea travel from Macao invites a natural comparison to the transportation of African slaves to America. Eventually, however, the characteristics of family solidarity, frugality, pride in their own culture, and business skills aided their rise to middleman prosperity.
The post-colonial era presented the large and prosperous Chinese populations in Asia with considerable stress and no little danger. Affirmative action laws in Malaysia worked to displace them in favor of native Malays. When Singapore proved too strongly Chinese to accept this discrimination quietly, that island was simply expelled, to become a nation itself. In Indonesia the Chinese were subjected to nationalization of their property and massacres, then to suppression of their separate cultural identity.
Wherever they went in the world, the Chinese encountered hostility and resentment. They were accused of being clannish, ambitious, ruthless; of taking shortcuts, taking advantage of locals by offering usurious loans, practicing cutthroat competition; of being dirty and uncultured, of gambling and taking drugs; of being criminals, joining secret societies, corrupting the authorities; of being agents of a foreign government; of being unbelievers and pagans. There was some truth to each stereotype: They did spit in public, eat meat, speak their difficult language and write in an unintelligible script, and some employment niches were in areas that were morally questionable and illegal. Most of all, they were tough competitors, willing to work longer hours for less pay, ignoring humiliation and discrimination, and still succeeding. No wonder they were unpopular.
No wonder either that the Chinese did not assimilate completely, much less assimilate in ways that gave them proportional representation in every aspect of the host culture. Sowell concludes that one should expect minority populations to clump in some localities and some occupations—which ones depend on the individual situation and time. Furthermore, he believes there is such a thing as cultural capital. It is something which may be borrowed, expanded, or lost. Europe at the time of Rome had considerable cultural capital which was destroyed by the Germanic barbarians; it took the conquerors centuries to gain back what was lost. This teaches first that it would be a dramatic error to look upon any group today as permanently dominant or subordinate, or that any culture can be guaranteed survival; second, that some cultural traits are indeed better for meeting specific economic, military, or social challenges than others. Quite the contrary of the common assertion that all cultures are equally good, Sowell says that some are indeed better than others in some ways. In the modern world orderliness, punctuality, adaptability, education, secularism, and inventiveness are prized. If other traits were useful or desirable in the past, he reminds readers that they do not live in the past. Cultures have to evolve or stagnate or die.
Is Sowell correct? A reference to any Yellow Pages will suggest that the general public votes with its money for certain cuisines more often than others. A walk or drive through any ethnic neighborhood will uncover confirmation of his major points. Each business reflects a choice made on the basis of both rational and nonrational reflections, but none are accident. No family decides to risk its financial future and its present comforts on whims. In America today, one sees a college education as the first step upward. In actual practice, that may not be the best way to start a small business, but the choice is logical if one wants a career in big business or the professions, or if one simply wants an unchallenged middle-class lifestyle. The distinguishing characteristic of the immigrant groups studied is their success in finding employment in areas that require practical skills and hard work. On the whole, the host country benefits.
In addition, it has been noted from the very beginning of migration studies that immigrants are not chosen by random from the home country’s population. In general, only those with courage, daring, and some capital are willing to become immigrants. Sowell does not suggest that unwilling immigrants, whether coolies or slaves, may not carry as much of that cultural capital with them as the willing migrants, but his text encourages the leap of imagination. If one fears of being accused of racism for harboring the thought, one might remember that Sowell gives strong emphasis to the ability of individuals to acquire new cultural traits and adapt old ones. History may be our guide, but it does not require anyone to be its slave. Ideology does.
In the late twentieth century there is a new phenomenon in immigration—the sojourner, a form of human capital which moves around the world to apply the possessors’ greater technological know-how to local problems. Immigrants from India to the United States of the 1990’s are typically Ph.D’s and M.D.’s. This is not unlike the decades through which British engineers and German watchmakers went abroad in search of well-paying jobs. Japanese not longer leave home to work on pineapple plantations, but to set up Toyota plants.
Migration is a complex issue. Whether the emigrants leave home for political, religious, or economic reasons, whether they go to countries lacking in labor forces or in special skills, and whether or not they assimilate or not—those are matters which cannot be summarized quickly and cleanly except for propaganda purposes. In recent years the problems of minorities have been reduced to easily memorized formulae, foremost of which is that racism and discrimination account for the observable fact their communities often hold less well-paying and less-desirable jobs and that the dominant culture feels itself superior to and threatened by them. Sowell offers an alternative explanation for this that does not dismiss the importance of racism and discrimination but frees it from sole blame. More important, he warns readers that concentrating on personal and societal prejudices will not change the situation much. At best, they will become discouraged. What Sowell offers in place of the ideology of despair is a way to rethink the nature of culture, the possibility of adopting those cultural traits which lead to success in the modern world, and of getting on with the hard work of life.
Sources For Further Study
Commentary. CII, September, 1996, p. 78.
Forbes. CLVII, May 6, 1996, p. 152.
Foreign Affairs. LXXV, March, 1996, p. 128.
Headway. VIII, July, 1996, p. 36.
Los Angeles Times. April 11, 1996, p. E3.
National Review. XLVIII, November 25, 1996, p. 65.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, June 2, 1996, p. 9.
The Wall Street Journal. June 27, 1996, p. A16.