During the height of the BLM protests last summer, there was a focus on listening to black voices, the likes of Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and so on. But some people countered this, querying why people didn’t listen to or read black conservatives such as Candace Owens (which…y’know…c’mon). But one name came up a few times and I’ve seen it cited in a few different corners of the internet. Thomas Sowell. Having looked through two of his books, The Thomas Sowell Reader and Controversial Essays, I have found some inane and at times startling comments. Here I will be dissecting some arguments put forward in Controversial Essays as I found both the title and the enclosed essays more striking.
In ‘Minimum Journalism’, Sowell complains about a piece published by the Wall Street Journal on minimum wage workers. The Journal’s focus on middle-aged women irks Sowell as ‘just over half the people earning the minimum wage are from 16 to 24 years of age. Just over half of the minimum wage earners are working part-time.’ He considers this focus on middle-aged women as being ‘clever propaganda’, arguing the politically correct line is that people can’t afford to raise families on these wages. Although Sowell provides more perspective to this conversation on minimum wage, I think we can go a step further. As a study by the Public Policy Institute says, two thirds of minimum wage workers are neither spouses nor single parents within the family unit, although that is not to say that their income contribution is not necessary to the family wellbeing. The importance of the minimum wage worker cannot be undersold, when looking at the remaining one third of workers who are spouses or parents, they are said to bring home more than half of the family’s earnings. The study concludes that although not all minimum wage workers are poor, only one in four are, 60% of wage earners in poor families would benefit from a dollar increase in the minimum wage. This study and Sowell’s article are contemporaneous, coming from 2001. But there is still more to discuss. Sowell argues most of the younger workers ‘have better sense than to have children that they cannot feed and house.’ What has changed in the coming years? A study in 2013 highlights that only 30% of fast food workers are teenagers, 30% are aged 20-24, and the last 40% are 25 and older. As the study puts it ‘many teenagers do work in fastfood, but the majority of fast-food workers are not teenagers.’ 70% of fast-food workers fall in the range of the $7.25 federal minimum wage and the $10.10 wage proposed in legislation. Turning back to the question of families, 26.6% of workers aged 16-19 have a child whilst 36.4% of those aged 20 and over had a child. There is also a question of societal stigma. I suggest that the job role associated with minimum wage work particularly fast-food is one that dehumanises the worker in tandem with their low pay. Essentially, society knows these workers are poorly paid and more often or not require the income, and has no problem treating them badly. Furthermore, Sowell contends that minimum wage laws ‘increase unemployment among the least skilled, least experienced, and minority workers.’ A Vox article from 2019 makes the point that Democrat-run cities and states that have increased the minimum wage above the federal minimum ($7.25) have not seen a drop in unemployment. In a meta-analysis of 37 studies on minimum wages from 2001-2016, the authors found that the effect on employment levels was minimal. Their reasoning for this is that over the last 15 years, teenagers have become less important to the functioning of the labour market but simultaneously in the last 25 years the service industry has become increasingly important to the labour market. Overall, it shouldn’t be discounted that in 2001 and in the following years, minimum wage workers have various family situations, and a minimum wage increase would be beneficial for those on low pay.
Next, Sowell delves into academic performance and race in ‘Losing the Race.’ Here, he refers solely to the book ‘Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America’ by John McWhorter to contend that overall, the gap in academic performance between black and white youth comes from a cultural context rather than one of systemic racism. Unfortunately, I cannot get hold of a copy of this book but given it is the only source Sowell discusses in this piece I hope he wouldn’t mind if I use multiple other sources more readily available. Sowell says of McWhorter ‘of the things he wants done is putting an end to excuses and to the whole victimhood mentality which spawns excuses.’ This is an interesting claim, and one that seems to disregard the very real information about race and education. McWhorter’s justification for the claim that black youth are culturally lazy is that Asian-American students outperform them even coming from similar economic backgrounds. First, I would contextualise this with an Economic Policy Institute study that states that ‘black and Hispanic students—even if they are not poor—are much more likely than white or Asian students to be in high-poverty schools.’ Additionally, attending a high-poverty school for any student regardless of race had a negative effect on reading and mathematic achievements, with the biggest negative influence being for Asian students, even if they are working hard, they are not achieving as well as Asian students in low-poverty schools. Although supposedly McWhorter recognises the historical background of ‘slavery, discrimination and poverty’, he discards these factors when looking at black youth from middle class backgrounds who still fail in school. Again, even if these youth are not poor, they end up attending underfunded schools which would account for their poor academic performance. It is also incredibly noteworthy that outside of high school, systemic racism prevents black people from getting equal wages or opportunities as white people even at the same education level. In the Urban Institute’s report ‘Examining the Racial and Gender Wealth Gap in America’, they clearly show that when looking at full-time, full-year workers aged 25 to 64, that even those black people who have high school diplomas or college degrees are both underpaid and have higher unemployment levels than their white cohorts. Interestingly, white people with no high school diplomas on average have better wages than black people who have finished high school. I wonder how Sowell or McWhorter would explain this discrepancy? Additionally, the discriminatory hiring practices of the past and present have particularly hurt black women as they suffer both from racial and gender prejudice. At every education level, black women are paid lower than white men, black men, and white women. Overall, I find the contention that culture somehow is the primary reason black people underachieve isn’t convincing when we look at the data.
In ‘Reparations for Slavery?’, Sowell ridicules the notion of reparations as well as any notion of America apologising for slavery. I will argue that these two concepts should be treated singularly, that in a sense reparation would be the correct response to slavery and its continuing impact on America as well as an apology to the people who it has hurt. Sowell argues ‘during the era of slavery, most white people owned no slaves. Are their descendants supposed to pay for the descendants of those who did?’ He is correct here that most white people didn’t own slaves, but the problem is, they and their ancestors have benefitted from systemic racism against black people. The Homestead Act starting in 1868 granted acres of free land to mostly white families whilst leaving black people in the lurch. As Keri Leigh Merritt puts it in an article, ‘to receive 160 acres of government land, claimants had to complete a three-part process: first, file an application. Second, improve the land for five years. Third, file for the deed of ownership.’ Freshly emancipated slaves struggled with the bureaucracy of obtaining land from the government and had little to no money for necessary travel or the filing fees. As well as this much of the land was unfarmable, meaning even if black people could obtain it, they would struggle to work it for the mandatory five years. Across the several decades of the various land acts, over 1.6 million native and immigrant white families were granted land. By comparison, the number of black claimants who were granted land was about six thousand. Merritt concludes ‘the number of adult descendants of the original Homestead Act recipients living in the year 2000 was estimated to be around 46 million people, about a quarter of the US adult population. If that many white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single entitlement programme, then the perpetuation of black poverty must also be linked to national policy.’ Policy after policy in the last 200 years reveals discrimination against black people. Sowell deploys an interesting tactic by asking whether ‘does anyone seriously suggest that blacks in America today would be better off if they were in Africa? If not, then what is the compensation for?’ But of course, by 1914 90% of Africa was colonised. Spain, Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, and Belgium effectively dominated an entire continent and bled it dry of resources for their own benefit. If slavery and colonisation had not occurred, who is to say what today’s Africa might look like? Sowell tries to discount slavery in America as of course it has occurred all over the world throughout history. The problem here is that America from its foundation, has been linked to slavery and continues to feel the effect of its impact in the laws following its abolition.
Sowell argues in ‘Blacks and Bootstraps’ that most ‘blacks did lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps—before their political rescuers arrived on the scene with civil rights legislation in the 1960s or affirmative action policies in the 1970s.’ Sowell cites the statistic that in 1940 87% of black families lived below the poverty line but this fell to 47% by 1960 without ‘any major federal legislation on civil rights and before the rise and expansion of the welfare state under the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.’ So, the argument here is that black people progressed economically without major government programmes or assistance. It’s hard to tell what Sowell suggests allowed black people in this particular period of 1940-60 to escape poverty. As Sowell pointed out, 87% of black families were below the poverty line in 1940, but it shouldn’t be discounted that New Deal programmes like the Works Progress Administration helped employ many black people. About 425,000 black people worked under the WPA, a higher percentage than in the overall labour force. The jobs under the WPA allowed black workers better wages and access to more skilled roles than were previously available to them. Of course, it should also be noted that racism still undermined New Deal policy; federal housing programmes benefited many white Americans but strengthened segregation of the black population, often leaving them in unsafe living conditions. The discriminatory housing policies no doubt held black families back but efforts like the WPA helped normalise desegregated workforces and offered better working conditions. But again, poverty didn’t really decline until the period between 1940 and 1960. So, did the free market automatically lift everyone out of poverty in this period? Not exactly. Before and during World War Two, the government managed to convince 85 million Americans (the population was 132 million in 1940) to buy bonds worth over $180 million. Once the war was over and people were able to cash in on these bonds, they had more purchasing power and consumption increased. Not only this but growth during the war was down to government spending which increased the GDP whilst consumption was kept fairly level. As the Institute for Economics & Peace states though, America was already experiencing post-Depression growth prior to the war, and the increased spending and growth during the war acted as a bubble, one which reverted to pre-war baseline growth. It might also be worth noting that federal programmes during the war allowed many black people the chance to train in specific trade skills at historically black colleges and universities. The National WWII Museum highlights this new focus on education: ‘sixty-five black colleges participated in federal programs such as the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training (ESMWT) program. Twelve of those institutions had direct contracts with the federal government and offered a total of 74 courses in physics, mathematics, management, engineering, and chemistry.’ These colleges and universities were a mix of public and private institutions and reflects the larger overall cause of reduction in black poverty, it was not some mythic overcoming of systemically ingrained racism but a mixture of private enterprise and extensive public spending.
In ‘Global Hot Air’, Sowell gets testy about a National Academy of Sciences report that isn’t specifically written by scientists and somehow this means global warming isn’t occurring. Sowell builds on his scepticism by pointing to the ‘global cooling’ and ‘new ice age’ hysteria of the 1970s which clearly didn’t come to pass and therefore global warming has been debunked as the same hysteria. In an American Meteorological Society paper, the authors highlight that much of the concern around global cooling was manufactured by media figures misreading scientific literature selectively. The paper notes that as far back as 1957 there were scientists working in Hawaii and Antarctica jointly concluding that their data meant ‘that atmospheric carbon dioxide was rising as a result of fossil fuel burning.’ Much of the scientific literature of the 1970s trended towards believing in global warming over cooling. This point of hysteria about cooling therefore doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Sowell then refers to two scientists, S. Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen who are extremely sceptical of climate change. Both men have worked for and on behalf of right wing think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute, which have received funding from the oil and gas company ExxonMobil. S. Fred Singer once made the claim on his website ‘Science and Environmental Policy Project’ that ‘555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich have been growing since 1980’, a claim reproduced in New Scientist Magazine by sceptic David Bellamy. When George Monbiot checked with the World Glacial Monitoring Service, they stated that this claim originating from Singer was ‘“complete bullshit.”’ Monbiot continues, ‘he had cited data that was simply false, he had failed to provide references, he had completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world’s glaciers are retreating.’ Singer hardly seems convincing. On the other hand, you have Lindzer. In a blog for the Cato Institute, Lindzer wrote ‘climate alarm belongs to a class of issues characterized by a claim for which there is no evidence, that nonetheless appeals strongly to one of more interests of prejudices. Once the issue is adopted, evidence becomes irrelevant. Instead, the believer sees what he believes.’ If you were to change the word ‘alarm’ to ‘denialism’ it works significantly better. Grifters like Singer and Lindzer always operate on either cherry-picked evidence or in Singer’s case, they make it up. Sowell does try to make the case the NAS report doesn’t wholly explain ‘that the timing of temperature increases does not coincide with the timing of increases in greenhouse gasses.’ This may cause some doubt but in a paper to Environmental Research Letters, Ricke and Caldeira write that using carbon-cycle and physical-climate model intercomparisons, they estimate that there is a delay between emissions and maximum warming of about a decade. Emissions are not immediate in their effect. Overall, Sowell relies on two very biased individuals which are heavily undermined by the overwhelming consensus amongst scientists that not only is climate change and global warming a problem, but it is also one we are causing. Perhaps of interest to Sowell, is that as NASA points out, 10 of the warmest years in the 141-year record occurred since 2005.
In ‘Gay Marriage’, Sowell makes some familiar arguments and some I haven’t heard in relation to gay marriage, maybe I’m just so lucky. First, he starts off by complaining that ‘homosexuals were on their strongest ground when they argued that what happens between consenting adults is nobody else’s business. Now they want to make it everybody’s business by requiring others to acquiesce in their unions and treat them as they would other unions, both in law and in social practice.’ Now, to be fair, I think gay people wanted their marriage to be everybody’s business in the same way that straight people make marriage everyone else’s business already. Sowell argues that straight couples can reproduce which is of course important, but ‘this consideration obviously does not apply to homosexual unions’ is downright wrong. In data provided by the Williams Institute, between 2014 and 2016 16.2% of all gay couples were raising children, with higher rates of childrearing amongst married gay couples. Not only this but 68% of gay couples were raising biological children through means like surrogacy and in vitro fertilization. Although the majority of gay couples were raising biological children, they were still more likely (21.4%) to adopt than straight couples (3%) or foster (2.9% to 0.4%). Sowell argues that as men and women are biologically different, the issue of responsibility for the child is different and the couple must be made jointly responsible by law. In one paper Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi find that children living in gay households fare just as well as children in straight households accounting for factors like: ‘academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse.’ So gay couples marrying and raising children is as equally good for society as when straight people do it. Sowell also contends that marriage between straight couples is beneficial in terms of divorce settlements for potentially disadvantaged women, as if gay people do not face any disadvantages in society that could be alleviated by legal marriage status. Sowell says, ‘when they are simply “consenting adults,” they can consent on whatever terms they choose to work out between themselves. It is nobody else’s business and should not be the law’s business.’ Unfortunately, whether Sowell likes it or not, it is already the law’s business. As highlighted in a Vox article, if gay couples can marry, they can file taxes jointly, and in cases where only one person is working this can lower taxes. If a husband or wife dies, the surviving spouse can inherit the estate without being subject to estate or gift tax. Married couples can procure family rates for health insurance plans. On the matter of ‘nobody else’s business’ as Sowell puts it, if a gay couple are married the government cannot force them to disclose information privately discussed during a marriage and couples may also have visiting rights to places like prisons and hospitals where access is restricted to only immediate family. Sowell concludes ‘the issue of gay marriage is just one of many examples of the victim’s ploy, which says: “I am a victim. Therefore, if you do not give in to my demands and let me walk over you like a doormat, it shows that you are a hate-filled, evil person.”’ I think Sowell is being overly sensitive here, as I am unaware of how equal marriage rights implies gay people walking all over straight people. As the literature shows, there are a great many benefits to allowing gay people to marry. No matter how hard he tries to intellectualise it, Sowell comes off as a crotchety old man who doesn’t understand the struggles of gay people. Also, as of 2015 gay marriage has been legalised in America nationwide, and the sky did not in fact fall on the country nor did the traditional unity of man and woman wholly collapse.
This sample of Sowell’s large work doesn’t cover every topic, but I thought it provided enough of an exploration of fairly diverse topics. Overall, I find it odd Sowell has the acclaim and audience that he does. His ideas around race in particular seem regressive to me and are utilised by people wishing to undermine movements like BLM or others looking for racial justice. I am not saying all of Sowell’s ideas about economics must be inherently wrong or flawed, but when looking at his approach to topics of social justice, he seems to so often miss the mark and then appear smug about doing so.
Public Policy Institute’s ‘Workers at the Bottom: An Update on America’s Minimum Wage Workers’: https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/econ/dd65_workers.pdf
Center for Economic and Policy Research’s ‘Slow Progress for Fast-Food Workers’: https://cepr.net/documents/publications/fast-food-workers-2013-08.pdf
‘Behind the Arches: How McDonald’s Fails to Protect Workers from Workplace Violence’: https://www.nelp.org/publication/behind-the-arches-how-mcdonalds-fails-to-protect-workers-from-workplace-violence/
Vox’s ‘A $15 federal minimum wage won’t cost Americans jobs, new study says’: https://www.vox.com/2019/7/2/20678821/15-federal-minimum-wage-increase-study
Meta-analysis: ‘15 Years of Research on U.S. Employment and the Minimum Wage’:
Economic Policy Institute’s ‘Five key trends in U.S. student performance’: https://www.epi.org/publication/five-key-trends-in-u-s-student-performance-progress-by-blacks-and-hispanics-the-takeoff-of-asians-the-stall-of-non-english-speakers-the-persistence-of-socioeconomic-gaps-and-the-damaging-effect/
Urban Institute’s ‘Examining the Racial and Gender Wealth Gap in America: https://people.umass.edu/fidan/Kurtulus_AffirmativeAction_AEJSubmission_06_26_2012_web.pdf
Keri Leigh Merritt’s ‘Land and the roots of African-American poverty’: https://aeon.co/ideas/land-and-the-roots-of-african-american-poverty
The Living New Deal’s ‘African Americans’:
Institute for Economics & Peace’s ‘Economic Consequences of War on the U.S Economy’: https://www.economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Economic-Consequences-of-War-on-US-Economy_0.pdf
The National WWII Museum’s ‘The Double V Victory’: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/double-v-victory
American Meteorological Society’s ‘The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Consensus’:
George Monbiot’s ‘Junk Science’:
Ricke and Caldeira’s ‘Maximum warming occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission’:
NASA’s ‘Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming’: https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
Williams Institute’s ‘How Many Same-Sex Couples in the US are Raising Children?’:
Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi’s ‘Child Well-Being in Same-Sex Parent Families: Review of Research Prepared for American Sociological Association Amicus Brief’:
Vox’s ‘Same-sex marriage in the US, explained’: