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How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying

Race and Culture: A World View

by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 331 pp., $25.00

1.

The town of Kumasi, where I grew up, is the capital of Ghana’s Asante region, and its main commercial thoroughfare is called Kingsway Street. In the 1950s, if you wandered down it toward the railway yards at the center of town, the stores you passed sold processed foods, cloth, and household goods: and while there were always many Ghanaians, especially women, in the cloth trade, the other stores were largely owned by expatriates. First came Baboo’s Bazaar, which sold imported foods and was run by the eponymous Mr. Baboo—a charming and courteous Indian—with the help of his growing family. Mr. Baboo was active in the Rotary and could always be counted on to make a contribution to the various charitable projects that are among the diversions of Kumasi’s middle class. (I remember Mr. Baboo mostly because he always had a good stock of sweets and because he was always smiling.)

I can’t reconstruct the tour down the rest of the street, for not every store had sweets to anchor my memories. But I remember that we got rice from Irani Brothers; and that we often stopped in on various Lebanese and Syrian families, Muslim and Maronite, and even a philosophical Druze, named Mr. Hanni, who sold imported cloth, and who was always ready, as I grew older, for a conversation about the troubles of his native Lebanon.

This hodgepodge of Middle Eastern and Indian business families seemed as natural a part of our lives as the Muslims who visited the house to offer brass and wooden antiquities collected from around the region. It seemed, in fact, so natural that I don’t remember ever having wondered how it came about that these people had settled among us of their own free will to pursue their businesses so far from home.

The predilection for trade—whether among the Hausa petty traders, or among Indian or Levantine shop-keepers—is by no means something that had to come to Asante from outside. Asante women have always dominated the trade in food and cloth in the Central Market in Kumasi. These “market mammies,” often illiterate, keep thousands of dollars worth of business in their heads and have fed and clothed the city while governments have railed against them for refusing to sell their wares at the (preposterously low) official “control prices” of the Sixties and Seventies. But in our town, as in almost any multi-ethnic community, there was business specialization among nationalities; and the dominant role of these expatriates was as middlemen—people who bought goods from producers and wholesalers and sold them to consumers.

There were other “strangers” among us, too: in the barracks in the middle of town you could find many Northerners among the “other ranks,” privates and NCOs. If you go now to the military museum in Kumasi, the photographs of the heroes of the Gold Coast regiments that fought for the British Empire in Burma in the Second World War are mostly of NCOs with recognizably Northern names, and faces etched in a distinctive pattern of scars.

And then there was the occasional European—the Greek architect, the Irish doctor, the Scots engineer, some English barristers and judges, and a wildly international assortment of professors at the university, many of whom, unlike the colonial officials, remained after independence.

In a country with a few dozen languages and a wide range of native cultures and traditions, the foreigners—from Europe and the Middle East and Asia, from Nigeria and Upper Volta and Ivory Coast and Togo—only added to an already large range of human diversity. But what is striking, once your attention is drawn to it, is the vast differences in economic and social position of these various cultural groups.

Thomas Sowell’s new book offers a global survey—a “world view,” in the title’s donnish pun—of the ways in which such economic and social differences are determined by cultural differences. Sowell tells us in his preface:

The purpose of this book is not to offer some grand theory explaining cultural differences. Its goal is to demonstrate the reality, persistence, and consequences of cultural differences—contrary to many of today’s grand theories, based on the supposedly dominant role of “objective conditions,” “economic forces,” or “social structures.”

This book deliberately offers little in the way of direct policy prescription, for its underlying premise is that what is most needed is an understanding of existing realities.

This passage is unduly modest. There is a grand—or at any rate a grand-ish—theory here; and its consequences for policy are plain enough, even if they are not stated outright. But both Sowell’s theory and his policy prescription first require some explanation.

One issue, however, needs to be dealt with at once. This book is not about race. True, Sowell insists on using the word “race” in his title, his preface, and off and on throughout the book, to refer to what everybody (including Sowell himself) now normally calls an ethnic group. The only advantage, so far as I can see, is that the book gets a splendidly resonant nineteenth-century title: Race and Culture. The trouble is that in the late twentieth century the title is thoroughly misleading.

Sowell worries that “the word ‘race’ in the title of this book [may] lead to misunderstanding, or to quibbling…” And then, quoting himself in his earlier book Race and Economics (1975), he says that he is using the term

in the broad social sense in which it is applied in everyday life to designate ethnic groups of various sorts—by race, religion or nationality.

Permit me to quibble: fastidiousness about language is as much a shibboleth of my own tribe, philosophers, as a genial indifference to it is a totem of the hard-nosed economist. The last time the word “race” was used in English in “everyday life” to refer to people by “religion or nationality” was when my mother was a girl. Nobody now speaks seriously of the Catholic “race” or the French “race.” The word is used almost exclusively to refer to the purported major biological divisions of humanity.

During the twenty or so years since Race and Economics was written, many telling arguments have been made against using the term “race” to mean ethnicity. Consider two of the principal arguments. First, the human differences that matter for social life aren’t biological, and that is exactly what calling them “races” has usually implied since the development of race science in the nineteenth century. Second, the groups that are of sociological interest, the groups that have cultures, not only are not biologically homogeneous, they are not even of the right scale to be the races that the race scientists were after. It is not Asians, not even South Asians, but, for example, Gujaratis that have discrete cultural significance; it is not Negroes, not even Nigerians, but Ibos who have a distinct culture.

That Sowell ignores the force of both these arguments is particularly odd, since he fundamentally agrees with them. On the first, he provides a global survey of differences in performance on various tests that purport to measure intellectual aptitude or achievement. One conclusion, which he argues persuasively, is that there is not much reason to think most of the measured differences in “intelligence” or “aptitude” between ethnic groups in various societies are genetic. (The same point has recently been made by critics of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. But it is nice to have a bona fide conservative intellectual pronounce on the issue so firmly.)

On the second point, Sowell observes that when we are looking to culture to explain the success of certain groups, by which he means mainly economic success,1 we should be sure to make fine enough distinctions.

People of Scottish ancestry have long been among the more prosperous groups in the United States, but people of the same ancestry in the Appalachian region have also constituted one of the most enduring pockets of poverty among white Americans. As long as our view is confined to American society, it may be plausible to believe that “objective conditions” in Appalachia, or the way people are “treated” there, accounts [sic] for the anomaly….

Yet, if the history of the Scots is viewed internationally, then it becomes clear that the subgroup which settled in Appalachia differed culturally from other Scots before either boarded the ships to cross the Atlantic.

He goes on to say that Appalachian citizens of Scottish descent derive from the more backward culture of those Scots who had settled in Northern Ireland before they came to America.

Not only does Sowell believe that the culture of certain groups is central to explaining why some of them succeed economically, he believes that cultural patterns are extremely resilient, surviving transfer from one environment—say, Gujarat in India—to another—say, Fiji or Kenya, both being places where Gujarati businesses have been successful. I’ll refer to his claim that cultural patterns tend to persist through migration as the “persistence thesis.”

No one could disagree with the claim that some cultural traits persist, and everyone will agree that not all of them do. But the real point of Sowell’s view emerges when he refers to the “persistence…of cultural differences—contrary to many of today’s grand theories…” (italics mine). The principal claim of his persistence thesis, then, is that cultural traits are more likely to survive through migration than most contemporary theories of social science would allow. As Sowell says: “Perhaps the best way to focus on the central theme of this book is by contrast with prevailing ‘social science…’ ” In assessing his book Sowell wants us to be aware of the ways that “today’s grand theories” neglect the importance, and the persistence, of culture.

Sowell makes a second important claim: that in shaping a minority’s prospects, the attitudes of people of other groups, and especially discriminatory attitudes, have a far smaller impact than is normally assumed. Here again he is implicitly referring to what he takes to be the prevailing view in social science today. Contrary to that view, Sowell argues that “internal, cultural patterns” transcend “the beliefs, biases, and decisions of others,” and provide the main explanation for a group’s economic success. Because the basic idea here is that it is the endogenous traits of the group rather than exogenous social forces that account for relative economic success, I shall call this second proposition the “endogeny thesis.” Together the two claims form Sowell’s grand-ish theory.

2.

Like most assertions about human social life in general, Sowell’s claims are about what tends to be so; they are not statements of exceptionless social laws. Rejecting them requires more than merely finding a number of counterexamples. But, so much granted, does the evidence he uses show what he says it does?

Here the book’s major weakness becomes evident. Despite nearly nine hundred footnotes, Sowell is extremely vague in defining who exactly holds the views that he ascribes to “social science,” and, as a result, about exactly which views he rejects. His central claims, which we are meant to understand as setting right an imbalance in the views of the social scientists he opposes, therefore remain obscure. We are left to ask: How long must a pattern persist to be an instance of his thesis? How stable must cultures be to conform to it?

  1. 1

    Sowell’s focus on material success and on the aspects of culture that create it is not, he is at pains to insist, mere philistinism. The “material resources from which physical survival itself must come are also requirements for music, art, literature, philosophy and other forms of higher culture” (p. xii). Higher culture, then, is the fruit of prosperity; and prosperity is the fruit of the right kind of general culture. This is not, I think, very convincing. In a world where music, video, and software, all of them heavily dependent on forms of higher culture, have become major commodities, it is not at all obvious that higher culture itself may not be a source of prosperity.

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