Interviewing Thomas Sowell On Race And Social Issues

Although I have yet to finish The Thomas Sowell Reader, so far, so good. Sowell is a brilliant thinker, an extraordinary writer, and the book is written in crisp, clear, easy to read chapters. This book also focuses a great deal on subjects beyond economics, which was an enjoyable change of pace from Sowell’s latest tomes.

Last week, I got together for a phone interview with Thomas Sowell. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

There was a fascinating chapter in your book called “Do Facts Matter?” In it you talked about racism on campus when you were a young man versus racism more recently. You also talked about whether group quotas and identity programs actually improved race relations. Can you talk a little bit about those issues?

The idea that group quotas would improve race relations flies in the face of tons of evidence from countries around the world. I think the most tragic was Sri Lanka, which around mid-century when it became Sri Lanka — previously it was the British Colony of Ceylon — the relations between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority was held up as one of the models for other countries around the world. At that point there had never been a race riot between these two groups in the first half of the 20th Century. You put in preferential policies for the Sinhalese for the usual reason, namely that the Sinhalese didn’t perform as well as the Tamils, and you set in motion a polarization that led first to riots of which terrible atrocities were committed.

We’re talking about dragging a woman off a bus and because she was a Tamil, dousing her with gasoline, and setting her on fire in the street while people danced around as she died in agony. We’re not talking about an isolated thing. We’re talking about something that was done in public by people who knew they could get away with it. That then escalated into a civil war lasting for decades in which this little country had more people killed than the United States had killed during the Vietnam War. Again, the atrocities are just horrifying. But this all came from affirmative action.

Similarly in India, for example, there was a certain number of places set aside in the medical school in India for the people formerly known as Untouchables. Well, these are a very few places and most of them weren’t filled because they couldn’t find anyone qualified to fill them. And yet there were riots in which the number of people killed exceeded the number of places that they had set aside.

You can see the same thing happening in other countries and you see it happening in the United States — thank heaven, not yet on that kind of scale of violence. There was something that used to be called a few decades ago the “new racism.” On campuses where there had not been any racial incidents, there were now racial incidents. When I taught at Cornell for four years, there were no racial incidents on Cornell until my last year — after there were preferential programs for admitting black students with lower qualifications. I mean, the examples could go and on.

When you were younger, when you were a child, when you were in college, talk about racism back then because you actually did live through the bad old days. What was that like?

I can’t think of a single racial episode in the three years I spent at Harvard. I may have mentioned in the book that the closest thing to a racial episode was when a British student was referred to as “nasty, British, and short” and it was I who referred to him that way. But the class marshal for the year I graduated was black. You didn’t have this thing that’s so common now of at lunch time where you see the blacks at one table and the whites at another table. There was none of that the whole time I was at Harvard. We picked our friends for those who were interested in the things we were interested in and that usually meant that most of the black students had white friends.

Now let me ask you, why do you think that is — given that racial attitudes have obviously changed a lot? I mean, people today – I grew up with idolizing Muhammad Ali when I was a kid and a lot of people are like that. Racism was obviously much more prevalent in thought back then; so why do you think there was so less of it being shown publicly?

I guess part of it was due to the fact that in the era when there were racially separate colleges in the South, then, of course, there was no occasion for it except when someone tried to integrate one of the schools. But I think that there was a sense of decency that simply was there despite whatever the private views people may have had. I also think when you have people with an incentive to promote racial polarization, you’re going to get more racial polarization. When you admit people not on the basis of qualifications to be there, but because or racial quotas, you then move very quickly from the students admitted by racial quotas to faculty hired for racial quotas.

And again, they have every incentive to create trouble, especially if they know that they do not meet the same standards as their colleagues. At Cornell, one of the tip-offs early on for me was that the Admissions Committee had trouble admitting a black student who had English SATs over 700. The people who were part of the local campus black establishment fought against the admission of this girl — the reason being that obviously she was qualified to be there and they wanted people who were going to be disaffected and, therefore, would be part of their campus base of power.

Do you think Americans have a view of this country’s history of slavery that is probably too harsh, given the worldwide history of the institution?

Oh, I think the distortion is almost beyond belief. Tragically slavery existed for thousands of years of recorded history. For most of that period of time, the people who were enslaved and the people who enslaved them were the same race as a matter of logistics and wealth. There wasn’t the wealth or the technological means to go to another continent and transport people across an ocean. That just didn’t exist and when they finally did exist, you ended up with Europeans as well as Africans being transmitted into slavery — although this is seldom noticed.

For example, centuries ago the number of Europeans transplanted to North Africa as slaves exceeded the number of Africans transplanted to the United States and to the American colonies that preceded the United States. But that gets no attention whatever. Today looking back, it’s almost inconceivable that for thousands of years there was no serious challenge to slavery as a system — that you get the first serious challenge in the late 18th century and solely at that point within western countries. Nobody else saw anything wrong with it.

As you mentioned in the book, there are some people today who think Nagasaki and Hiroshima weren’t necessary. What do you think about that?

I think calling them revisionists is an unwanted euphemism. The facts are so brutally plain. The Japanese did not surrender easily. Most of them didn’t surrender at all. When the Marines took Hiroshima, there were like 22,000 Japanese soldiers there. I don’t believe they took 1,000 prisoners. The others fought to the death and among those they did take, I’m sure that many of them were just people so badly wounded on the battlefield that they couldn’t either commit suicide or put up a fight.

But I don’t know of any cases, there may have been some, of Japanese soldiers who voluntarily came forward with their hands up and surrendered to become prisoners of war — and this is fighting outside of Japan. You can imagine what a battle they would have put up to an invasion of Japan itself.

The man who had the heavy responsibility of estimating the casualties for an invasion of Japan primarily was General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur estimated to the Pentagon that there would be a million casualties among the Americans. Winston Churchill estimated to the British House of Commons that there would be half a million British casualties. I mean this would have been one of the greatest bloodbaths in the history of the world. The number of Japanese who would have been killed undoubtedly was greater than those in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. But there are people out there who are eager to find anything they can with which to undermine the American country and government — and they give us these rosy scenarios. The one figure they threw out was 20,000 deaths. My God, you know the Japanese had 5,000 Kamikaze planes. If these planes managed to kill only four people, there’s your 20,000 dead right there.

Last question, what do you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement and how do you think it compares to the Tea Party?

Oh, my heavens, there is no comparison. The Tea Party has ideas. It has positions they can argue for. The most appalling thing to me about the people interviewed from these Occupy Wall Street protests is they can’t seem to put together three sentences that make any logical sense. It’s “We’re entitled to happiness” or just a childish phrase here and there, but not a coherent argument at all.

It reminds me of years ago when I was debating some environmental issue with an environmentalist and he said to me with a sense of triumph, “but they’re raping the planet!” and I said, “Just what specifically does that mean?” He was baffled. It was like no one had ever challenged him to say, “Well, what are you talking about?” In the circles in which he moved, that was playing the Ace of Trumps.

Mr. Sowell, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you very much.

Once again, Thomas Sowell’s newest book is The Thomas Sowell Reader.

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