Meeting with Thomas Sowell
The first time I heard the name Thomas Sowell was during this bitterly partisan – if in retrospect comparatively tame – transition period from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. My mother’s younger sister, a gun-owning, born-again Evangelical Christian and staunch Republican from Southern California, had become an active and vocal Facebook user. In those days, half a decade after graduating, I was in New York City making my first forays into the world of professional opinion-forming. In my exuberance over the candidacy and election of the first black president, I felt my first (and, it would turn out, my last) stir in political romance. Suffice it to say that we have regularly banned digital horns. “I don’t care about color,” said my aunt while ranting Obama. “For example, I love Thomas Sowell.”
For this side of my extended family, I became the stereotype of a coastal liberal who wrote for the New York Times and had no contact with real America at all. In fact, I was always proud of and defined myself as an anti-tribal thinker and sometimes an adversary who worked firmly in a left-of-center black tradition – a tradition populated by brave and brilliant minds from Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray to Harold Cruse, Stanley Crouch, Orlando Patterson, sometimes even Zadie Smith and James Baldwin. I had never been a stranger to the wrath of my own group, but I had also recognized the ideological limits of this tradition. I really didn’t know what else was on offer. That is, it wasn’t that I actively avoided the work of the black conservatives, but that the work existed completely outside of my frame of reference. Conservative ideas in general, and black conservatism in particular, weren’t things I knew would go out of their way to refute them.
Hearing my aunt speak approvingly of Sowell immediately reminded me of the other famous black Conservative named Thomas. My brother’s name is Clarence. Linking our names together was the wildest nickname on the playgrounds of my youth. It was extremely difficult even for me to get a mental space and a level of curiosity in which to engage with Sowell’s thinking. It was by chance that I personally met and admired the writer Coleman Hughes, a brilliant young Sowell acolyte, along with the release of a new documentary from the Free-to-Choose network, Common Sense in a Senseless World, That of Jason Riley was told to finally give him a hearing.
Riley, a longtime Wall Street Journal columnist and member of the Manhattan Institute, has made it a personal mission to change the dynamic of prejudice and the occasional layoff that I have outlined, or at least to bring Sowell’s ideas as far as possible to an audience like possible. In May, he will publish Maverick, a biography of the thinker who has been 91 for 91 years and has been on partial retirement since 2016. The documentary is based on archive footage as well as hours of interviews that Riley recorded with Sowell, who has been doing his PhD since graduation. DD Graduated from the University of Chicago in economics at age 38, he has recently pursued one of the most productive and long-running careers in public thought. He has published over 30 books on a variety of subjects from Marxist political economy to Late Talking Children and thousands of syndicated columns, despite his near-complete absence from the mainstream American imagination.
Sowell’s rise wasn’t predestined. His father died shortly before he was born as a single mother in North Carolina in 1930. By the time he was eight, his mother died and he was raised by his aunt and uncle in Harlem – a devastating turn in the fortunes of Sowell insists on describing as a godsend. “We were much poorer today than most people in Harlem or elsewhere. It was my last or second year at home when we finally had a phone. We had a radio, but we never had a TV, ”we hear him explain in a voice-over. “But in another sense, I was a lot luckier than most black kids today.” He describes his family as “interested” in him, and it is this interest and commitment to developing his apparent talents that has been critical to his future. A family friend made it available to the public library and lit a fire in his imagination. He gained admission to the competitive Stuyvesant High School but dropped out to serve with the Marines before graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in the late 1950s.
It was his first job in the Ministry of Labor that drove Sowell to red pills in today’s parlance from the Marxism he had clung to up to that moment. “The vision of the left – and I think a lot of conservatives underestimate it – is really a more attractive vision,” he explains with an ironic smile and his heavy New York accent at the beginning of the film. “The only reason not to believe it is that it won’t work.” This idea of contrasting visions – and their comparative effectiveness – would become a central facet of his thinking. But it was the time in his life teaching at UCLA and Cornell that a group of black student radicals took over a student center that seems to have permanently disaffected him. Like so many aspects of his life and work, the situation feels extremely timely. It was not just the behavior of the student activists but the administration’s total surrender to a mob that upset him. In 1980 he quit teaching entirely and pursued his quiet scholarship at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which was shielded from campus politics but also completely anchored outside the Overton window.
In this era of race settlement and pseudo-religious panic over identity, it is truly shocking to realize that Sowell not only anticipated these debates a few decades ago – he disproved many of the positions now rising.
The documentary is a welcoming introduction to a fascinating character that many of us have mistakenly made, in one way or another, fearful or ignored, but the film cannot do for Thomas Sowell what Raoul Peck’s I am not your negro reached out for James Baldwin. It doesn’t crackle with this type of televisual electricity. This may have as much to do with the filmmakers’ ambitions and compulsions as it does with the speaking talents and behaviors of the subjects at hand. Anyway, Common Sense will appeal to the legions of Sowells conservative fans who are already familiar with his ideas and also serve as an effective means of guiding the more curious members of the uninitiated to his books, which I believe is the very purpose of the Films is. And it is there in these bold and exhaustive texts that one encounters the full, unadulterated effect of Sowell’s far-reaching brilliance.
In this era of race settlement and pseudo-religious panic over identity, it is truly shocking to realize that Sowell not only anticipated these debates a few decades ago – he disproved many of the positions now rising. Many people asked themselves last summer why, for example, the organization declared (and has since deleted) a “disruptive” attitude towards the nuclear family on the Black Lives Matter website. What did this have to do with mobilizing against police violence? Why did the BLM call itself a Marxist? In his 1995 book The Vision of the Anointed, Sowell argues convincingly: “The family is by nature an obstacle to systems for the central control of social processes. Hence the anointed [essentially his proto-term for “woke”] always have to be on a collision course with the family. “This is due to the fact that“ maintaining the family ”is fundamentally a source of freedom. “Friedrich Engels’ first draft of the Communist Manifesto involved deliberately undermining family ties as part of the Marxist political agenda.”
After George Floyd’s death last May, Minneapolis City Council experimented with ill-conceived notices to disappoint and even “get rid of” the local police force. This has been portrayed – often by white progressives – as being in the best interests of the black community, despite the often vocal opposition from that community, based not on guesswork but on painful experiences. Sowell had already pointed out the shortcomings of this line of reasoning in relation to the 1992 LA riots (reminiscent of both Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wisconsin). “Many of the anointed justified the violence and destruction by turning to the presumed standpoint of the ‘black community’ – in fact, 58 percent of the blacks surveyed described the unrest as ‘totally unjustified’.” a lot of mainstream media outlets, but those numbers have remained amazingly consistent.
Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be a Antiracist, one of the most influential and widely cited books on race today, popularized the notion that significant discrepancies between so-called racial groups necessarily indicate racist politics. Here too, Sowell not only anticipates this new fashionable way of thinking, but refutes it – about 26 years before its publication:
Many racial differences are often automatically attributed to race or racism. In the past, those who believed in the genetic inferiority of some breeds tended to view different results as evidence of different natural abilities. Nowadays it is more common for such differences to reflect biased perceptions and discriminatory treatment by others. A third possibility – that there are different proportions of people with certain attitudes and attributes in different groups – has received far less attention, although this agrees with a considerable amount of data from countries around the world.
And that is the revelation in a nutshell: Reading Thomas Sowell has this Déja Vu quality. The most important lesson you have left is not that he has the final say on every subject, but that he has in-depth insights and vast amounts of data and comparative research on many of the debates that still concern us. As a conscientious liberal, you have a delicate question: why did you or someone you know not even acknowledge the existence of his work? If we’re lucky, this documentary and Riley’s biography will be part of the necessary and overdue work to correct the oversight. I guess I owe my aunt an apology.