Acton Institute Powerblog

The Sowell of black America

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Thomas Sowell is a hero to many Christian conservatives for his frank, well-researched, and contrarian studies of the socio-economic conditions of black Americans. But how many of those Christians know that Sowell is an atheist? Does it matter? Perhaps more than you’d think. […]

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“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” —Augustine

Thomas Sowell is a towering figure in the liberty movement, certainly the most (in)famous “black conservative” of the 20th century. His biographer, Jason L. Riley, author of Please Stop Helping Us, Black Boom, and years of columns in the Wall Street Journal, is a mainstay of black American heterodox thought himself. The group I refer to as the black heterodox thinkers stubbornly resists the truisms of the academic left, not just on race but on broader questions of economics, culture, and politics as well. It includes Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, as well as a younger generation of mavericks like Coleman Hughes, John Woods Jr., Chloé Valdary, and Wilfred Reilly. Like Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, Robert Woodson, and Anne Wortham before them, these black thinkers do not as a group conform to any well-defined school of thought but are rather distinguished by their unwillingness to concede the conversation around black flourishing to leftist academic orthodoxies.

Riley’s biography is outstanding, a page-turner for those of us who value Sowell’s panoply of insights on social and economic issues. He covers Sowell’s hardscrabble childhood in Harlem, his Marxist university years at Harvard, the convergence of his shift to free market thought and disillusionment with the direction of academia, and he brilliantly summarizes Sowell’s major intellectual contributions on everything from the minimum wage, to affirmative action, to late-talking children, to charter schools. But the title says it all: Maverick. Sowell’s story would not be what it is were it not for his contrarian personality and tenacious dedication to reason, empiricism, and “pragmatic individualism.” He was a maverick in every possible way, picking a dissertation topic that his adviser, George Stigler, disagreed with; picking the job that his professor, Milton Friedman, warned against; quitting the job when the academic standards didn’t meet with his approval; tendering his resignation from institutions no less prestigious than Cornell for interfering with his teaching; switching publishers when formatting guidelines displeased him; and quitting academia altogether to work as an independent scholar at the Hoover Institute. Riley paints a florid picture of Sowell’s obstinate spirit, but Sowell doesn’t come off as unteachable. He learned and changed significantly throughout his life, but only in response to convincing arguments and genuine experience, never in response to mere opinion or social pressure.

Since writing a review of Riley’s Black Boom for a secular outlet, I’ve been reflecting on what the Acton Institute, which focuses on the interplay between liberty and faith, has to add to what the many wonderful reviews of Riley’s Maverickhave already said. It raises for me a fascinating question. Look again at the list of thinkers in my first paragraph. In spite of the fact that black Americans are the most religious demographic in the United States, almost none of these men and women are people of faith. So far as I know, Robert Woodson and John Woods Jr. are the only two on the list who identify as people of faith at all, although Chloé Valdary seems to embrace a kind of vague spirituality, and Glenn Loury had a “born-again” conversion experience only to abandon Christianity years later. When discussing black heterodox thinkers in Christian liberty circles, I have on many occasions received a very surprised response when I inform my interlocuter that Thomas Sowell is an atheist, as was his best friend, Walter Williams. I had lunch with Williams just a year before his death, and he laughed about Father Sirico of the Acton Institute showing concern for his eternal destiny. So far as I can tell, Williams was a rationalist, frustrated that people couldn’t simply accept and act on what reason and evidence demonstrated. He may have valued religion as a sociological matter, admitting that it can have good effects on things like family formation or business networks, but he was (as Sowell is) entirely secular in his personal commitments.

Nevertheless, Sowell’s influence among American conservatives has been so profound that his name is like a mantra recited by Christian conservatives when issues of race arise. “Have you read Thomas Sowell?” is now seen as the typical cringe-inducing Facebook response of that conservative white guy from church. Christians interested in engaging racial-reconciliation issues might not be blamed for wondering why the one person their Christian conservative friends always reference when it comes to race is an atheist.

It’s easy to get the false impression from Sowell’s curmudgeonly style that he has the cold, bean-counting stone heart of the stereotypical economist. In Maverick, Riley draws out the source of Sowell’s grievances with the academic left in a way that belies this caricature of him. At base, Sowell finds the approach of white “liberals” (by which he means leftists) to be both demeaning to black people and destructive to black advancement. He felt that his students at Howard University were just as able to do great work as their white counterparts, but that cloying white liberal professors undermined their work ethic by constantly expecting less of them and teaching them to expect less of themselves. He argued that affirmative action sent the message to employers and co-workers that black hires weren’t fully qualified for their jobs and sent the message to prospective black employees that they couldn’t really advance without that kind of help. Riley notes here that the father of critical race theory, Derrick Bell, promoted the exact same analysis of “benevolent paternalism” in a 1970 law review article. Sowell was insulted when he was sent a letter of interest from a top-tier school looking to hire a “black economist.” It’s not just that he wanted to be hired for his excellent research publications and teaching prowess, and not for his skin color. He also knew that black Ph.D.s weren’t the ones in need of help getting good positions. This kind of “help” would only give better chances to already successful middle-class blacks. Instead, people who wanted to be helpful should focus on providing great primary and secondary education with high standards in really tough neighborhoods. Between university jobs, Sowell did a stint at AT&T, where he used his position to get his former students from Howard good corporate positions. His frustration with the left’s unwillingness to face harsh truths about cultural issues like family formation, school discipline, and study habits grew out of his deep desire to see real black success. Sowell didn’t see himself as inventing this position either; he consciously placed himself in a long line of black thinkers like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Schuyler. He didn’t want to focus on the inner racist attitudes or possibly unearned social standing of white people, but on the advancement and flourishing of black people.

One only finds the love at the heart of Sowell’s work by looking beneath the frustration. The left angers him because they won’t pay attention to the data and won’t focus on what really works for black economic advancement. In this, Sowell has more in common with everyday black Americans than his reputation would indicate. For a variety of reasons I outline here, there’s a strong association between black Americans and the Democratic Party. But in polling, black Americans lean right, particularly on social issues. While many black Americans would favor a thicker welfare state than Thomas Sowell would, the enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and market success defies talk of democratic socialism from the party’s far-left luminaries. Since he is often condemned as a race traitor by black academics and associated strongly with conservatism, many assume that Sowell would be highly unpopular among black people more widely. However, Sowell correctly points out that black academics have never represented black Americans well, and that his reception among the black American public is often warm and appreciative.

It must be noted that much of the social conservatism in the black American community should be attributed to the historical black church tradition, which is theologically orthodox, with a high view of scripture. It’s this tradition that led black Americans to push so hard for literacy following emancipation, to build the network of historically black colleges and almost ubiquitous mutual aid societies and fraternal associations, and to inspire a movement for political rights driven by love for one’s enemies. Sowell is not wrong to criticize overconfidence in what civil rights could accomplish, but he may give short shrift to the “cultural womb” that gave rise to the successes of the post-Reconstruction era and to the kind of solidarity and real discipline that fueled the civil rights movement. That the movement took a turn in the direction of economic dependence on government as it reached its substantive legislative goals says less about these deep black cultural roots in the church and more about trends in academia in the 1960s. Sowell may have been unwittingly relying on some “gospel capital” in his insistence that liberal elites shouldn’t be trusted to represent real black American values.

That black America is not well represented by “liberal orthodoxy” is not to say that black America is well represented by the conservative movement either, and for the same reason. In Riley’s rousing final few pages, he places Sowell among a larger set of black thinkers who favor individualism and self-help, in contradistinction to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “collective identity,” which seems to indicate a “single racial opinion.” But black America is really neither individualist nor collectivist, largely because it’s so deeply Christian. According to Pew, almost 80% of black Americans identify as religious, the most of any American demographic. This arises from an experience in the black church in which the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God was fundamental to one’s identity and sense of self-respect. The identification of the black experience with the sufferings of both the Hebrews under Egyptian slavery and the unjustly rejected Christ is central to that tradition, and frankly incompatible with any sort of Enlightenment-style, rationalist hyper-individualism. But neither can Crenshaw’s idea of “collective identity” capture the black American experience, particularly as Crenshaw’s own concept of intersectionality demands approval from black people for claims about sexuality and gender that run counter to the whole reality of the Jewish and Christian scriptures upon which so many black Americans base their lives.

Then again, the black idea of “self-help” has never referred to the lone individual, but always to driven and determined individuals supporting one another within the black group economy. And one must admit, Sowell’s behavior doesn’t itself line up perfectly with a caricatured atomistic individualism. Instead, Sowell seems to have operated from a place of genuine solidarity with black people and concern for their self-conception and ultimate success. After all, it was he who insisted against Friedman’s advice to take that first job at the historically black college, Howard University, when he had several more prestigious offers on the table. It was he who fought hard to create a program for black students at Cornell where he would be allowed to hold the students to high academic standards. And it was he who withstood the wrath of the American left by addressing all the racial taboos in a bid to focus on more realistic efforts for black flourishing.

Riley does bring up various criticisms of Sowell, one of which is that he often challenged what didn’t work but wouldn’t say what does. Sowell defended his work by appealing to the division of labor: It was his role to critique and the role of others to build. But this lack of vision may also be a product of Sowell’s lack of faith. We can contrast Sowell here with someone like Marvin Olasky, who in The Tragedy of American Compassion deeply denounced the welfare state but also presented the stories of successful efforts at uplift and real transformation through an older model of religiously informed intervention that requires deep commitment and personal presence with the poor. Being a truthful man, I suppose Sowell would admit that if every perverse incentive of the welfare state were removed and if every child had school choice, those things by themselves could not rebuild what has been lost in our least flourishing neighborhoods.

At that lunch with Sowell’s best friend, Walter Williams, he and I had a friendly argument about hope. For Williams, the loss of family structure and spiraling crime rates spelled the end for inner-city kids. He couldn’t see a way out and frankly scoffed at me for what he probably saw as bushy tailed and untempered optimism. I brought along a friend from the neighborhood stabilization movement to tell him about what we’re doing in St. Louis. It felt like we couldn’t make him believe the evidence of our own eyes: that people with real love, personal presence, and well-resourced networks could surround young kids with opportunity and care, and that 95% of these kids would end up on a completely different track than the one they had witnessed for their older brothers and cousins. I wish I had taken him on a tour of our neighborhood, with its community gardens, art gallery, and refurbished homes housing the exact same neighbors who lived on this same street 10 years before but in far worse conditions and with far fewer prospects. Sowell can diagnose what went wrong in these many decades of government malfeasance. But in the end, who believes, realistically, that a small army of loving people will rise up as well as give up their own comfort and ease for a life of stabilizing deeply impoverished and highly criminal neighborhoods? It’s eye-rollingly idealistic. It’s absurd. And it’s happening. There’s only one inspiration for that kind of thing. And it’s the one thing Sowell is missing.

Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson, Ph.D., is a professor of business ethics, assistant dean of the College of Business, and director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago. She is also a board member for LOVEtheLOU, a neighborhood stabilization ministry in North St. Louis; the Freedom Center of Missouri; and ReThink315. Her new book, co-written with historian Marcus Witcher, is Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.