Intellectuals and Race


By Thomas Sowell

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Thomas Sowell’s incisive critique of the intellectuals’ destructive role in shaping ideas about race in America

Intellectuals and Race is a radical book in the original sense of one that goes to the root of the problem. The role of intellectuals in racial strife is explored in an international context that puts the American experience in a wholly new light.

The views of individual intellectuals have spanned the spectrum, but the views of intellectuals as a whole have tended to cluster. Indeed, these views have clustered at one end of the spectrum in the early twentieth century and then clustered at the opposite end of the spectrum in the late twentieth century. Moreover, these radically different views of race in these two eras were held by intellectuals whose views on other issues were very similar in both eras.

Intellectuals and Race is not, however, a book about history, even though it has much historical evidence, as well as demographic, geographic, economic and statistical evidence — all of it directed toward testing the underlying assumptions about race that have prevailed at times among intellectuals in general, and especially intellectuals at the highest levels. Nor is this simply a theoretical exercise. The impact of intellectuals’ ideas and crusades on the larger society, both past and present, is the ultimate concern. These ideas and crusades have ranged widely from racial theories of intelligence to eugenics to “social justice” and multiculturalism.

In addition to in-depth examinations of these and other issues, Intellectuals and Race explores the incentives, the visions and the rationales that drive intellectuals at the highest levels to conclusions that have often turned out to be counterproductive and even disastrous, not only for particular racial or ethnic groups, but for societies as a whole.


Chapter 1

Questions About Race

Like many things that people are reluctant to discuss in polite society, or to discuss honestly, race is too important to be ignored or— worse yet— to think about only in the safe conventions and evasive phrases of our time. Too much of the history of race, in countries around the world, has been a story of hostility and hatred, and often a story written in blood. Ignorance about race is a luxury that few people of any race can afford. Misinformation is even worse, even when it is well-meaning misinformation.

The emotional difficulties of discussing race are matched by the intellectual difficulties. These difficulties begin with defining race itself. Ideally, we might think of a race as a set of people genetically and indelibly different from others in physical characteristics of one sort or another. But the ideal and the reality can differ as much when it comes to race as in any other aspect of human life. People have been singled out for racial discrimination, or even extermination, who looked so much like other members of the society in which they lived that they had to be forced to dress differently or to wear identifying insignia. Some have defined race broadly, such as black, white and yellow races, while others have considered Anglo-Saxons, Slavs and Celts to be different races. Racial intermixtures complicate definitions even more.*

Race is not entirely in the eye of the beholder, but it is a social concept with a biological basis. A stricter definition could lose touch with realities in societies where intermarriage is sharply increasing. Nor is intermarriage the ultimate solution to racial problems that many once thought. Jews in Germany in the 1920s had high rates of intermarriage,1 but that did not stop the rise of Hitler in the 1930s or the Holocaust in the 1940s. Indeed, intermarriage led to larger numbers of offspring being classified as Jews, with tragic consequences. Arbitrary demarcations and inconsistent definitions of race have marked societies preoccupied with race, including the South of the Jim Crow era in the United States and white-ruled South Africa of the apartheid era.

Many have yearned for a society where race was irrelevant, and some saw the election of the first black President of the United States as a major step toward that kind of society. But polls on support for, and opposition to, that president among different ethnic groups are just one sign of continuing racial polarization. In short, no matter how ultimately irrelevant race may seem to some, racial issues show no sign of going away. They cannot be ignored. The only question is how we confront them.

That is a special question when it comes to intellectuals, because their views can influence the way millions of other people see race, as the tendencies, preconceptions and conclusions of the intelligentsia spread through the media and educational institutions from the schools to the universities. For better or worse, intellectuals have played a large role in racial issues in many countries around the world. In the United States, they have played opposite roles on racial issues in the early twentieth century as contrasted with the late twentieth century. These roles and these issues are explored in the chapters that follow, leading to many conclusions very different from those currently prevailing in the media, in politics or in academia.

Both “intellectuals” and “race” are words with many elusive definitions. By “intellectuals” is meant here people in a particular occupation— namely, people whose work begins and ends with ideas. It is an occupational designation, rather than an honorific title, and implies nothing about the mental level of those in that occupation. Chemists or chess grandmasters may be of equal or greater mental accomplishment, but they are not intellectuals because their work ends with an outcome subject to empirical verification by known standards, while the outcomes of the work of intellectuals are subject essentially to peer consensus. Even in academia, professors of medicine or engineering are not what come to mind when intellectuals are discussed, even though they may be the mental equals or superiors of professors of sociology or literature.

These are not just verbal issues about nomenclature. Any attempt to have rational discourse requires that those with different views have a common language in which to discuss their differences. And there is no subject more in need of rational discourse than is the subject of race.

While Americans are rightly concerned about issues involving racial and ethnic groups in their own country, such issues are common in other societies around the world. Moreover, even to understand what is happening in one country may require some knowledge of the extent to which similar things have been present in other societies, and whether they have led to similar or different outcomes.

This is especially so when a given outcome in one country is attributed to a given factor— and yet that same outcome can be found in other countries where that factor is absent. For example, when lower class whites in Britain exhibit strikingly similar behavior patterns to those of blacks in America, attributing those behavior patterns among American blacks to “a legacy of slavery” or to past or contemporary racial discrimination, is offering an explanation which obviously cannot apply to lower class Britons who have experienced neither. That then calls into question to what extent it applies to American blacks, though many take such explanations as a foregone conclusion requiring no further inquiry or closer scrutiny.

Much that has been said on many sides of racial and ethnic issues requires far more inquiry and far closer scrutiny than that behind currently prevailing views. This book attempts to provide some of that further inquiry and closer scrutiny.

E. Franklin Frazier urged that the history of black Americans be studied in a larger, international context.2 In the chapters that follow, American racial and ethnic issues in general will be put in an international context. This neither assumes nor denies the uniqueness of American racial and ethnic issues, but lets that be an empirical question.

There is no subject that is more in need of dispassionate analysis, careful factual research and a fearless and honest discussion than is race. Ideally, we might look to intellectuals for such things. But it is also true that the mental skills and verbal dexterity of intellectuals can be used to evade evidence and promote whatever beliefs or agendas are in vogue among their peers. The intelligentsia in the media can decide what to emphasize, what to downplay and what to ignore entirely when it comes to race. These may be individual choices, rather than a conspiracy, but individual choices growing out of a common vision of the world can produce results all too similar to what is produced by centralized censorship or propaganda.

As a concrete example, statistics comparing American blacks and whites in many respects— jobs, incomes, and mortgage approval rates, for example— are often drawn from data that include similar information about Asian Americans. Yet seldom are the Asian American data included in news stories, or even in academic studies, which conclude that racial discrimination explains much or most of the disparities between blacks and whites. In many, if not most, cases, reporting the data for Asian Americans would undermine, if not devastate, the conclusions reached from black-white comparisons.

In the job market, for example, it has often been said over the years that blacks are “the last hired and the first fired,” since black employees are often terminated during an economic downturn sooner or to a greater extent than white employees. Data thus seem to substantiate this social vision of the world common among the intelligentsia and others. But if data on Asian Americans were included— which seldom happens— it would turn out that white employees are usually let go before Asian American employees.3 Can this be attributed to racial discrimination against whites by employers who are usually white themselves? More fundamentally, can we accept statistical data as showing discrimination in cases where that reinforces existing preconceptions, and then reject the same kind of data when it goes counter to those preconceptions?

It is much the same story when examining what happens to people who apply for mortgage loans. There has been much indignant outcry in the media when statistics have shown that black applicants for mortgage loans were turned down more often than white applicants. Newspapers across the country, as well as television commentators, have treated such statistics as proof of racial discrimination by white banks against black applicants for mortgage loans. Yet statistical data on Asian Americans have been conspicuous by their absence from these comparisons as well. If such data are included, it turns out that, in 2000, black applicants were turned down for prime mortgage loans twice as often as white applicants— and white applicants were turned down nearly twice as often as Asian American applicants.4

The question arises again whether we are going to accept statistical data as evidence of racial discrimination when it fits the preconceptions of the intelligentsia and reject it when it goes counter to those preconceptions. In the case of mortgage loans, there is other evidence against the conclusions reached almost universally in the media and in academia. Average credit scores are higher among whites than among blacks— and higher among Asian Americans than among whites.5 Taking into account the data for Asian Americans threatens to reduce a moral melodrama to a mundane matter of elementary economics in which lenders are more likely to lend to people who are more likely to pay them back.

Since many, if not most, of those financial officials who actually make the decision to lend, or not to lend, do so on the basis of paperwork passed on to them from others who do the face to face interviews with applicants, it is doubtful whether these decision-making officials even know the race of the applicants. But differences in credit scores and other qualifications virtually guarantee racial disparities in outcomes anyway. Again, it seems hardly likely that white-owned banks are discriminating against whites and in favor of Asian Americans. Moreover, black-owned banks turn down black mortgage loan applicants at an even higher rate than do white-owned banks,6 and it seems equally unlikely that this is due to racial discrimination.

It is much the same story in the public schools, where black students are disciplined for misbehavior more often than white students— who in turn are disciplined more often than Asian American students.7 Again, the question must be faced whether disparities in outcomes represent disparities in behavior or disparities in the way that others treat various races. Certainly the disparities themselves cannot be denied, however much different observers may attribute these disparities to very different causes. This extends far beyond questions of blacks and whites in the United States because, as we shall see, disparities of similar or greater magnitude are common in other countries around the world.

Uncritical use of statistics risks many pitfalls. The very definitions used with statistical data create traps for the unwary. For example, when the Ravenswood School District in California turned out to have the country’s highest rate of disciplining of students who are “Asian and Pacific Islanders,”8 that was taken by some as showing racial discrimination. However, the omnibus category “Asian and Pacific Islanders” includes many very different groups. People whose ancestors originated in China, India or Japan are very different in many ways from people who originated in Guam or Samoa. In most places in the United States, most of the “Asian and Pacific Islanders” are people from the mainland of Asia. But, in the Ravenswood School District, most of the students who are “Asian and Pacific Islanders” are the offspring of Pacific Islanders.9 Comparisons of outcomes in this school district with outcomes in other school districts across the country are comparisons of apples and oranges.

This small example is a microcosm of problems involved in attempting to understand racial and ethnic issues, whether these issues are expressed in numbers or in words, and whether they are expressed by the intelligentsia, the media or academia.


* A white Congressman once said of black Congressman Augustus Hawkins, “Gus Hawkins is whiter than I am.”

Chapter 2

Disparities and Their Causes

Any serious study of racial and ethnic groups, whether in a given society or in a wide variety of societies in countries around the world, repeatedly encounters the inescapable fact of large and numerous disparities among these groups, whether in income, education, crime rates, IQs or many other things. These differences cannot be dismissed as mere “perceptions” or “stereotypes,” nor can they be automatically attributed to some one given cause, such as genetics, as was often the primary cause cited in the early twentieth century, or to maltreatment by others, as was equally often cited in the late twentieth century.

The sources of these disparities are numerous and complex, and they must be confronted in their complexity, if we are seeking the truth, rather than trying to promote a vision or an agenda.


Sometimes minorities are on the short end of disparities (as in the United States, Britain and France), and sometimes it is a majority that lags behind (as in Malaysia, Indonesia or the Ottoman Empire). Sometimes the disparities are blamed on discrimination, sometimes on genes, but in any event the disparities are treated as oddities that need explaining, no matter how common such supposed oddities are in countries around the world or in how many centuries they have been common. Because intellectuals’ assumptions about these disparities are so deeply ingrained, so widely disseminated, and have such powerful ramifications on so many issues, it is worth taking a closer and longer look at the facts of the real world, now and in the past.

Where minorities have outperformed politically dominant majorities, it is especially difficult to make the case that discrimination is the cause.* A study of the Ottoman Empire, for example, found that “of the 40 private bankers listed in Istanbul in 1912 not one bore a Muslim name.” Nor was even one of the 34 stockbrokers in Istanbul a Turk. Of the capital assets of 284 industrial firms employing five or more workers, 50 percent were owned by Greeks and another 20 percent by Armenians.1 In the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire, the palace medical staff consisted of 41 Jews and 21 Muslims.2

The racial or ethnic minorities who have owned or directed more than half of whole industries in particular nations have included the Chinese in Malaysia,3 the Lebanese in West Africa,4 Greeks in the Ottoman Empire,5 Britons in Argentina,6 Belgians in Russia,7 Jews in Poland,8 and Spaniards in Chile9— among many others. As of 1921, members of the Tamil minority in Ceylon outnumbered members of the Sinhalese majority in that country’s medical profession.10 In America, there were eight times during the twentieth century when a baseball player stole 100 or more bases in a season; all eight times that player was black.11

Groups have differed greatly in innumerable endeavors in countries around the world. In 1908, Germans were the sole producers of the following products in Brazil’s state of São Paulo: metal furniture, trunks, stoves, paper, hats, neckties, leather, soap, glass, matches, beer, confections, and carriages.12 People of Japanese ancestry who settled in that same state produced more than two-thirds of the potatoes and more than 90 percent of the tomatoes.13 Exporters from the Lebanese minority in the African nation of Sierra Leone accounted for 85 percent of the exports of ginger in 1954 and 93 percent in 1955.14 In 1949, Lebanese truckers in Sierra Leone outnumbered African truckers and European truckers combined.15

In 1921, more than three-fifths of all the commerce in Poland was conducted by Jews, who were only 11 percent of the population.16 In 1948, members of the Indian minority owned roughly nine-tenths of all the cotton gins in Uganda.17 In colonial Ceylon, the textile, retailing, wholesaling, and import businesses were all largely in the hands of people of Indian ancestry, rather than in the hands of the Sinhalese majority.18

As early as 1887, more than twice as many Italians as Argentines had bank accounts in the Banco de la Provincia de Buenos Aires,19 even though most nineteenth-century Italian immigrants arrived in Argentina destitute and began working in the lowest, hardest, and most “menial” jobs. In the United States, knowledge of the frugality of Italian immigrants, and their reliability in repaying debts, even when they had low incomes, caused a bank to be set up to attract this clientele in San Francisco, under the name “Bank of Italy.” It became so successful that it spread out to the larger society, and eventually became the largest bank in the world under its new name, “Bank of America.”20 The frugality of Italians was not simply a “perception” or a “stereotype,” as A.P. Giannini well knew when he set up this bank. As far away as Australia, Italians “earned a reputation for scrupulous honesty in the repayment of their debts, and were frequently able to secure more extensive loans than Australians.”21

At one period of history or another, when it was not one specific racial or ethnic minority dominating an industry or occupation, it has often been foreigners in general, leaving the majority population of a country outnumbered, or even non-existent, in whole sectors of their own economy. Even after the middle of the twentieth century, most of the industrial enterprises in Chile were controlled by either immigrants or the children of immigrants.22 At various times and places, foreign minorities have predominated in particular industries or occupations over the majority populations of Peru,23 Switzerland,24 Malaysia,25 Argentina,26 Russia,27 much of the Balkans,28 the Middle East,29 and Southeast Asia.30 Indeed, it has been a worldwide phenomenon, found even in some economically advanced countries, as well as being common in less advanced countries.

In the nineteenth century, Scottish highlanders were not as prosperous as Scottish lowlanders, whether in Scotland itself or as immigrants living in Australia or the United States.31 In the twentieth century, Gaelic-speaking children in the Hebrides Islands off Scotland did not score as high on IQ tests as the English-speaking children there.32 Rates of alcoholism among Irish-Americans have at one time been some multiple of the rates of alcoholism among Italian Americans or Jewish Americans.33 In the days of the Soviet Union, the consumption of cognac in Estonia was more than seven times what it was in Uzbekistan.34 In Malaysia during the 1960s, students from the Chinese minority earned more than 400 degrees in engineering, while students from the Malay majority earned just four engineering degrees during that same decade.35

Such examples could be extended almost indefinitely,* and so could the reasons for the disparities. But a more fundamental question must be faced: Was there ever any realistic chance that the various races would have had the same skills, experience and general capabilities, even if they had the same genetic potential and faced no discrimination?


Different races, after all, developed in different parts of the world, in very different geographic settings, which presented very different opportunities and restrictions on their economic and cultural evolution over a period of centuries.

There is no way, for example, that the patterns of economic and social life which originated and evolved in Europe could have originated among the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, where the horses that were central to everything from farming to transportation to warfare in Europe simply did not exist anywhere in the Western Hemisphere when the European invaders arrived and began transplanting horses across the Atlantic to the New World. Take horses out of the history of Europe and a very different kind of economy and society would have had to evolve, in order to be viable. Not only horses were lacking in the Western Hemisphere, neither were there oxen, which were common in both Europe and Asia. There were, in short, no such heavy-duty beasts of burden in the Western Hemisphere as existed on the vast Eurasian land mass, where most of the human race has lived throughout recorded history. The way of life in these different regions of the world had no basis on which to be the same— which is to say, there was no way for the skills and experiences of the races in these regions to be the same.

The wheel has often been regarded as fundamental to economic and social advances but, for most of the history of the human race, the value of wheeled vehicles depended to a great extent on the presence of draft animals to pull those vehicles— and there were no wheeled vehicles in any of the economies of the Western Hemisphere when the Europeans arrived. The Mayans had invented wheels, but they were used on children’s toys,36 so the issue was not the intellectual capacity to invent the wheel but the circumstances that make wheels more valuable or less valuable. Clearly, the way of life among the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere could not have been the same as that on the Eurasian land mass, when there were neither wheeled vehicles nor draft animals in the Western Hemisphere when the Europeans and their animals arrived. Regardless of which race lived in Europe or in the Western Hemisphere, they would have faced very different opportunities or restrictions as regards their economic and cultural development before they encountered each other, and could hardly have been the same at that time.

Geographic differences between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa are even more numerous and more drastic than those between Europe and the Western Hemisphere.37 In addition to severe geographic limitations on the production of wealth, due to deficiencies of soil and unreliable rainfall patterns,38 sub-Saharan Africa has had severe geographic restrictions on communications among its own fragmented peoples, and of these peoples with the peoples of the outside world, due to a dearth of navigable waterways within sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a dearth of natural harbors, the difficulties of maintaining draft animals because of the disease-carrying tsetse fly, and the vast barrier of the Sahara desert, which is several times the size of any other desert in the world, and as large as the 48 contiguous states of the United States. With an expanse of sand that size standing between them and the outside world to the north, and with three oceans on the other sides of them, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa have long been among the most insulated from the rest of the human race.

Isolated peoples in many parts of the world have for centuries lagged behind others, whether the isolation has been caused by mountains, deserts, or islands far from the nearest mainland. Eminent French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out, “mountain life persistently lagged behind the plain.”39 The inhabitants of the Canary Islands were people of a Caucasian race who were living at a stone-age level when they were discovered by the Spaniards in the fifteenth century.40 On the other side of the world, the similarly isolated Australian aborigines similarly lagged far behind the progress of the outside world.41 Sub-Saharan Africans have been part of a worldwide pattern of isolated peoples lagging behind others in technology, organization and in other ways.

In addition to having many geographic barriers limiting their access to the peoples and cultures of other lands, sub-Saharan Africans also faced internal geographic barriers limiting their access to each other. The resulting internal cultural fragmentation is indicated by the fact that, while Africans are only about ten percent of the world’s population, they have one-third of the world’s languages.42

Eventually, the severe isolation of many sub-Saharan Africans was ended in the modern era, as that of other severely isolated peoples was ended, but that was after millennia in which these isolated peoples had developed whole ways of life very different from the ways of life that developed among those peoples of Europe and Asia who had far greater access to a far wider cultural universe. Moreover, cultures— whole ways of life— do not simply evaporate when conditions change, whether among Africans or others. Long-standing and deep-seated cultural differences can become cultural barriers, even after the geographic barriers that created cultural isolation have been overcome with the growth of modern transportation and communication. As distinguished cultural historian Oscar Handlin put it: “men are not blank tablets upon which the environment inscribes a culture which can readily be erased to make way for a new inscription.”43 As another noted historian put it: “We do not live in the past, but the past in us.”44

Even the geographic differences between Eastern Europe and Western Europe45 have left the peoples of Eastern Europe with a lower standard of living than that of Western Europeans for centuries, including in our own times a larger economic disparity between the people in these two regions of Europe than the per capita income disparity between blacks and whites in the United States.46 As Professor Angelo Codevilla of Boston University put it, “a European child will have a very different life depending on whether that baby was born east or west of a line that starts at the Baltics and stretches southward along Poland’s eastern border, down Slovakia’s western border and along the eastern border of Hungary, then continues down through the middle of Bosnia to the Adriatic Sea.”47 Both geography and history have for centuries presented very different opportunities to people born east and west of that line.48

In addition to the inherent geographic advantages that Western Europe has had over Eastern Europe— for example, more navigable waterways leading to the open seas, with Western European rivers and harbors not being frozen over as often or as long in winter as rivers and harbors in Eastern Europe, due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream on Western Europe— another major historic advantage growing out of geography is that Western Europe was more readily accessible to invasion by Roman conquerors. Despite the ruthless slaughters in those conquests and the subsequent brutal oppressions by the Roman overlords, among the lasting advantages which the Roman conquests brought to Western Europe were Roman letters, so that Western European languages had written versions, centuries before the languages of Eastern Europe did.


  • "Sowell brings an all-too-rare perspective to whatever he writes about -- that of a conservative black intellectual, especially valuable for this book's topic."—Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
  • "After reading Dr. Thomas Sowell's latest book, Intellectuals and Race, one cannot emerge with much respect for the reasoning powers of intellectuals, particularly academics, on matters of race. There's so much faulty logic and downright dishonesty."—New American
  • "I plunged into Thomas Sowell's latest book, Intellectuals and Race, immediately upon its arrival, but soon realized that I needed to slow down. Many writers express a few ideas with a great cataract of words. Sowell is the opposite. Every sentence contains at least one insight or fascinating statistic -- frequently more than one."—Mona Charen, Creator'sSyndicate

On Sale
Mar 12, 2013
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

Thomas Sowell

About the Author

Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. For more than half a century, his writings have appeared in both popular and scholarly publications, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his books have been translated into a dozen foreign languages. After a career as an economist in the government, academia and the corporate world, he has since 1980 been a scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution, devoting his efforts to research and writing, on subjects ranging from the history and influence of intellectuals to education and social policies in countries around the world. His website is

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