Book Review: Sowell, Race and Culture

Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture
- A World View
Thomas Sowell, a black senior fellow at the
Hoover Institution at Stanford University has aroused
much controversy with his 329 page-long book on race and
culture. His thesis runs contrary to most current trends in
social sciences. And it seems incompatible with most
assumptions underlying government policies and estabished
academic notions with regard to racial and ethnic minorities.

Sowell's thesis maintains that differences in productive
skills and cultural values are the key to understanding
the advancement or regression of ethnic groups. In his
opinion, skills and values make up the cultural capital
of an ethnic group or of a people, whereas politics,
environmental factors and genetics do not play the important
roles widely attributed to the success of a group or nation.

Since Sowell's central topic is the universe of values,
the reader will easily accept the general layout of his
book: a world view. In order to make his universal
perspective convincing, Sowell pays his respect to
a one page long list of scholars world wide from whose
wisdom he has been able to draw.

What is the result of Sowell's approach to "Race
and Culture"? We learn that certain peoples have
been more or similarly successful than others because
of their human capital, their particular pattern of
cultural values which enabled them to perform better
than others. The Jews are said to have prospered
wherever they went in the world because they were
experts in the textile business. Italian immigrants
were often similarly successful in the field of wine
production. The Germans are said to have always been
successful farmers and craftsmen, and the Chinese
succeed everywhere as retailers and restaurant owners.

In one chapter he goes into the question whether
intelligence tests allow any conclusion as to the genetic
supremacy of one race over the other. The answer is
negative. Chinese and some other immigrant groups have
been economically and socially successful in America
regardless of how they score on intelligence tests. This
proves, in his opinion, that inherited traditional values and
skills as well as the culturally based capacity to adapt to
new conditions are the essential factors, and not genetics.

He says the assumption that always environmental conditions
are the determining factors of a group's success or failure
is wrong. Consequently, he does not think that a disad-
vantaged group of American society like the uneducated and
poor blacks could be put on their feet by just improving the
environmental factors of their lives.

Throughout his argumentation he reproaches the
intellectuals of often taking the lead in spreading
misconceptions of history and doing harm to society:
"The role of soft-subject intellectuals - notably professors
and schoolteachers - in fermenting internal strife and
separatism, from the Basques in Spain to the French
in Canada, adds another set of dangers of political
instability from schooling without skills." (p. 24)

He believes in hard core skills like the technologies
and crafts which are the basis of cultural success.
Cultures are conceived of as dynamically engaged
in a competitive process in which the weaker and
less successful elements are weeded out. At that,
there are many parts of group cultures which do not
deserve any respect. That is why he thinks the notion
of "mutual respect" cannot always hold as a premise when
comparing cultures.

To his mind there is the widely observable development of a
modern world culture which gradually overcomes those cultures
which are less apt. This looks much like social Darwinism.

No wonder that the book may easily be misunderstood
as ultra conservative. In fact, its title would be almost
impossible to translate directly into German because of
the nazi connotations of the word "race".

The book provides stimulating reading because
nowhere else does one get such a pragmatic concept
with a material and substantial understanding of culture.
Probably everybody has secretly believed that according
to his private observations certain nations and cultures are
more or less successful and deserve more or less respect.
But for the sake of not nurturing prejudices everybody
refrains from speaking out.

On the other hand it must be feared that the book will
be grist to the mill of those conservative forces in society
who have always believed that only they themselves deserve
to be rich and powerful because in their blindfolded eyes the
lower strata of society lack cultural stamina and don't like to work
Guenther Miklitz

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