Sowell examines culture and migration


"Migrations and Cultures: A World View," by Thomas Sowell. Basic Books. 516 pages. $30

Immigration is resurfacing as an issue dividing American public opinion and has produced some strange bedfellows. Persons of various political stripes alarmed at the spectacle of a nation unable to control its borders include conservatives fearful of cultural engulfment and liberals worried about jobs and wages. Meanwhile, lining up to defend immigration are supply-side conservatives, who welcome the immigrants' ambition and work ethic, and liberals who pounce on any attempt to restrict even illegal immigration as a "racist" violation of civil rights.

When one of America's most articulate black conservatives offers a hefty tome on "Migrations and Cultures," one wonders which way he will jump.

For well over a decade, Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institutions, a columnist for Forbes (capitalist tool) magazine and author of numerous books on race, economics, culture and social policy, has been contending that the economic success of minorities depends far less on the way they are treated by the surrounding society and much more on the troupes' own cultural values (e.g., hard work, education, self-discipline, thrift, probity).

Not surprisingly, Mr. Sowell's survey of six major immigrant groups in "Migrations and Cultures" presents a very positive -indeed, inspiring - picture of the contributions that immigrants throughout the course of history - often under harsh, even hostile, circumstances - have made to the economic and cultural development of the countries where they came to sojourn or settle. What is perhaps something of a surprise - and a pleasant one - is the broad scope of this study and its lower-than-usual level of tendentiousness.

Mr. Sowell, to be sure, reaches some conclusions that bear directly on the current political debate: He deplores nativist backlash wherever it occurs, from Canada to Uganda, but he considers it downright counter -- productive to provide special concessions, like affirmative action and bilingualism, to immigrant groups. Ironically, after movingly chronicling immigrants' historic role in disseminating skills and knowledge, he concludes by noting that modern telecommunications may enable such to take place without human migration.

But immigrants, as the bulk of his book well illustrates, have conveyed more than information. Addressing himself to the general reader and to the journalists, academics and politicians involved in the debate, Mr. Sowell aims to bring a broader perspective to bear on the subject by surveying the diverse experiences of six groups (Germans, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Jews and Indians) over the centuries in a variety of settings.

Despite a penchant for the occasional sweeping generality, Mr. Sowell has based his survey on a solid foundation of facts drawn from the research of reliable specialists. He writes crisply, argues forcefully and organizes his material in a way that renders it accessible to the nonspecialist reader. The wealth of evidence he presents makes a persuasive case for his theme: that uprooted people willing to work, to sacrifice immediate rewards in hope of future betterment and to maintain strong family ties have benefited the countries that gave them the opportunity to prove themselves.

Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia.

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