I read a tweet the other day from Andrew Neil which saddened me. It said “Mr Sowell was a great man. His death a great loss”.
Thankfully, after a quick check, I established that reports of Thomas Sowell’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Aged 87, he has merely retired from writing to focus on his hobby of photography.
I do not know what item of fake news prompted the usually reliable Mr Neil to tweet as he did but I am at least grateful to him for reminding me how much I admire Sowell and prompting me to say so whilst he is still alive.
Thomas Sowell is one of America’s foremost thinkers on economics, society and philosophy. Both a respected academic (most recently at Stanford University) and a prolific columnist, he has displayed throughout his career a remarkable breadth of knowledge and interests – writing over 40 books on subjects as diverse as the politics of race and the late development of children. The playwright, David Mamet, called him “America’s greatest contemporary philosopher”.
Sowell advocates conservative and classical liberal ideas. To do this in American universities is to go against the grain, but to do so as a black man is to be a virtual heretic.
It takes courage to stand against the crowd but Sowell has been particularly brave on the issue of race in America. He is possibly the most distinguished African American to argue against positive discrimination and the politics of identity. His key insight is that affirmative action harms not only society as a whole and the individuals who are discriminated against in the name of ‘fairness’ but also the very black people it purports to help.
For a good read about his ideas and work, see here.
I first came across Sowell’s writings on race a few years ago. His book “Intellectuals and Race” is one of the most engaging, thoughtful reads on this complex topic. It eviscerates the traditional racism of white supremacists whilst also taking apart the newer kind of racism of well-intentioned left-liberals. What both have in common, he argues, is a belief that black people in America cannot raise themselves up from poverty and are condemned by their culture and the oppression of “white society” to always need help. Whilst the older kind of racism is rightly denounced, he argues, the new kind of racism is widespread amongst intellectuals. Neither group ascribes agency to black people, and yet for Sowell, this is the vital requirement to overcoming hardship.
The book is filled with facts and original ideas, but it is not comfortable reading – Sowell is more interested in seeking the truth than in spewing out pieties. He is the mirror opposite of a virtue signaller. Controversially, he argues that state welfare has kept many working class black people in the US in a state of dependency, destroyed the black family unit and undermined their education. None of this is fashionable; yet still he says it.
Sowell’s life story is a testament to the integrity of his beliefs. He was born in 1930 in the Jim Crow south, grew up in Harlem, joined the Marines and then worked his way up to academic success. He is no mere ivory tower theoretician; he has observed black America more closely than most. He is, in the words he once used to describe his own teacher, Milton Friedman, “one of those rare thinkers who have both genius and common sense”.
I don’t agree with everything he writes (he was too kind about George Bush’s presidency, for instance, and his views on welfare support I feel are sometimes too dismissive) but nevertheless he is original and persuasive. For me, his greatest contribution has been to show that people of colour do not all feel the same way about the politics of race, and that we have the capacity (and responsibility) to look objectively at our own situation, just as much as any white intellectual does.
Mr Sowell, thanks for everything and I hope you enjoy your retirement.
Author: Munira Mirza