Discrimination and Thomas Sowell

Ethnic America

by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 353 pp., $9.50 (paper)

Markets and Minorities

by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 141 pp., $6.00 (paper)

Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell; drawing by David Levine

The 1980 elections marked the end of an era in American race relations. Between 1964 and 1980 federal officials had argued about the moral legitimacy and practical benefits of particular strategies for helping blacks catch up with whites economically, but none had questioned the principle that the government should actively promote this goal. This consensus about long-term goals had led to three kinds of federal activity. First, a lot of money was spent on education and job training, and spent in such a way as to give blacks a substantial fraction of the benefits. Second, the federal government used its power to get private employers to assign blacks to jobs traditionally reserved for whites. Third, the government increased both cash and other benefits for families that were unable to take advantage of the new job opportunities, especially families without a male breadwinner.

Some parts of this implicit social contract between blacks and whites were unpopular from the very start. Even in the early 1960s many whites felt that Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was the major source of income for many families without a male breadwinner, encouraged both promiscuity and idleness. As more mothers entered the labor force over the next two decades, the idea that the government should pay women to stay home and take care of their children became less and less popular. The fact that an increasing percentage of these women were black did nothing to enhance the program’s popularity.

Other elements of the implicit social contract were initially popular but lost support as time went on. Early federal pressure on private employers to eliminate discrimination against blacks was widely accepted. Later, pressure to discriminate against whites in order to offset the effects of past discrimination against blacks was extremely unpopular. Education and job training also started out with broad support, but much of this support was predicated on unrealistic expectations about what such efforts could achieve, especially in slack labor markets. As this became obvious, enthusiasm waned.

The Reagan administration has abandoned the notion that the federal government should try to make black incomes equal to white incomes and has won congressional support for cutting back all the major federal programs designed to accomplish this goal. Spending on education and job training has been cut, along with many other government services. Since government has been a major source of new middle-class jobs for blacks over the past two decades, these cutbacks have reduced job opportunities for blacks more than for whites. Federal pressure on private employers to hire more blacks has also dropped sharply. Eligibility for AFDC, food stamps, and Medicaid has been narrowed, making life much harder for families without breadwinners. Perhaps most important of all, the goal of full employment, which has always been crucial for narrowing the distance between “haves” and “have-nots” in America, has been assigned its lowest priority since…

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