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Political Editors / June 2, 2021

In Brief: The Soul of Black Conservatism

Thomas Sowell has spent a lifetime challenging the orthodoxy on race, economics, and more.

Jason Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist, has literally written the book on economic powerhouse Thomas Sowell. It’s titled Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell. Riley published an adapted excerpt in the Journal, which we in turn will excerpt. He begins with the needed perspective Sowell brings to the table:

Economist Thomas Sowell has grown accustomed to a certain type of media query, usually from white interviewers. They want to know how, as a black conservative, he has dealt with criticism from fellow blacks. Charlie Rose once asked: “How was it, though, for you … to be an African-American man respected by a cross-section of your peers and yet be so against the grain of fellow African-Americans?”

Mr. Sowell, 90, usually responds by challenging the premise. “I don’t know if we can say [that I go] ‘against the grain of fellow African-Americans,’ ” he told Mr. Rose. “You mean fellow African-American intellectuals. But I don’t think African-American intellectuals are any more typical of African-Americans than white intellectuals are of whites.”

In another interview, Mr. Sowell told C-Span’s Brian Lamb that black strangers regularly stop him in public and compliment his views: “When I checked out of my hotel this morning, the black security guard came over and said, ‘Are you Sowell?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ and he shook my hand warmly and we walked — he walked me the length of the corridor and talked about this and about that. … So, it’s not Sowell versus blacks. It’s the black intellectuals.”

There is a long history of conflating the interests of black Americans with those of black organizations, black journalists, black academics and other elites. The media lazily continues to turn to these groups, from the NAACP to Black Lives Matter, as if they speak for all black people.

Sowell’s work has been most prominently in academia, but his cultural influence, including through a longtime syndicated column from which he retired several years ago, is hard to overstate. Riley’s summary continues:

In December 1980, Mr. Sowell headlined the “Black Alternatives” conference in San Francisco. Its goal was to showcase the variety of perspectives among black politicians, intellectuals and civil-rights activists. “The people who were invited,” he began his keynote address, “are people who are seeking alternatives, people who have challenged the conventional wisdom on one or more issues, people who have thought for themselves instead of marching in step and chanting familiar refrains. … We have come through a historic phase of struggle for basic civil rights — a very necessary struggle, but not sufficient. The very success of that struggle has created new priorities and new urgencies. There are economic realities to confront and self-development to achieve, in the schools, at work, in our communities.”

Liberal elites expected whites to solve the problems of blacks. They still do. Newer movements like Black Lives Matter, and younger public intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, are far more interested in white behavior than in black behavior. In his speech, Mr. Sowell took a different approach. “The sins of others are always fascinating to human beings, but they are not always the best way to self-development or self-advancement,” he said. “The moral regeneration of white people might be an interesting project, but I am not sure we have quite that much time to spare. Those who have fought on this front are very much like the generals who like to refight the last war instead of preparing for the next struggle.”

Unfortunately, the narrative has taken hold that blacks are monolithic in their leftism. But black conservatives like Sowell fought on:

Black conservatism is often equated with an emphasis on self-help in the mold of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Mr. Sowell has shown in his writings that groups that confront and address internal problems are best able to rise socially and economically. “If the history of American ethnic groups shows anything, it is how large a role has been played by attitudes of self-reliance,” he wrote in “Race and Economics” (1975). “The success of the antebellum ‘free persons of color’ compared to the later black immigrants to the North, the advancement of the Italian-Americans beyond the Irish-Americans who had many other advantages, the resilience of the Japanese-Americans despite numerous campaigns of persecution, all emphasize the importance of this factor, however mundane and unfashionable it may be.”

Regardless, Sowell’s accomplishments mean he stands among the greats:

Mr. Sowell … has a distinguished body of work in social theory and economic history that is separate from his scholarship on race, culture and inequality. The sheer volume of Mr. Sowell’s writings is surpassed by few contemporaries, black or nonblack. The breadth and depth of his erudition makes the label “black conservative,” however the term is defined, too limiting. His scholarship will be studied and grappled with long after he’s gone.

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