Civil rights, civil wrongs

Edwin Feulner

December 15, 1992|By Edwin Feulner

IF black America's problems are due to anything other than discrimination, Bill Clinton's administration will have a hard time finding out about it.

Why? Because the civil rights establishment is so fixated on discrimination that it reflexively attacks anyone who suggests there could be other reasons for the fact that blacks hold fewer professional jobs than whites, and for other such "evidence" of inequality.

If you don't believe this, just ask Thomas Sowell.

Mr. Sowell, a black scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, has tried his best to explain that while discrimination exists in America, it does not entirely explain black underachievement -- and that the fixation on discrimination diverts our attention from other problems.

As a result of his heresy, Mr. Sowell is shunned by the civil rights establishment, and his scholarship -- some of the best in the country on the issue of race -- has been dismissed.

That's why you may never have heard of him.

It's unfortunate. Mr. Sowell is not some right-wing nut, as the civil rights establishment likes to portray him.

He is a serious social scientist -- and the evidence he has found does not support the hypothesis that "discrimination causes underachievement."

"Groups with a demonstrable history of being discriminated against have, in many countries and in many periods of history, had higher incomes, better educational performance, and more 'representation' in high-level positions than those doing the discriminating," Mr. Sowell says in his controversial 1984 book, "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality."

The case of blacks, argues the civil rights establishment, is unique -- intense discrimination, based solely on the color of their skin, worse than what other groups have faced, keeps them from succeeding.

If that were true, Mr. Sowell says, West Indian blacks who emigrate to the United States should fare no better than American blacks. But they do. West Indian family incomes are 94 percent of the U.S. national average, compared to 62 percent for blacks as a whole, Mr. Sowell says.

Furthermore, West Indian representation in professional occupations is double that of other blacks, and slightly higher than that of the U.S. population as a whole, Mr. Sowell found.

Mr. Sowell's fundamental point is that different performance levels between different groups cannot automatically be ascribed to racism.

To the civil rights establishment, Mr. Sowell is a quack doctor who misses the obvious diagnosis of what ails the patient. But in its stubborn refusal to re-examine its own theories, the establishment overlooks the possibility that a real solution to the problem of black underachievement might lurk elsewhere.

Edwin Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

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