Thomas Sowell, age 93, is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. With his usual fierceness and feistiness intact, Dr. Sowell returns to Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson to discuss his latest book (he’s published over 40 titles over his career), Social Justice Fallacies. In this wide-ranging interview, Dr. Sowell discusses the consequences of our society’s embarking on a quest for equality at the expense of merit. Even if every group in society is given an equal chance, he explains, these groups will end up with disparate levels of income or education. Dr. Sowell also criticizes the concept of systemic racism; his research reveals it doesn’t appear to apply to blacks (watch the interview to see why that word isn’t capitalized here) who are married. The interview concludes with Dr. Sowell reading a moving passage from his book.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Peter Robinson: Two events in the life of today's guest, he just turned 93 and he just published his latest book. Thomas Sowell on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. After growing up in Harlem, Thomas Sowell served in the United States Marine Corps, then received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a master's degree from Columbia, and a doctorate from the University of Chicago. After teaching at universities that included Cornell, Brandeis and UCLA, Dr. Sowell became a Fellow at the Hoover Institution in 1977. Thomas Sowell is the author of some 40 books, including his newest volume, "Social Justice Fallacies". And this past spring, he turned 93. Tom, welcome back to Uncommon Knowledge.
Thomas Sowell: Oh, good being here.
Peter Robinson: You know, I can't help thinking reading your background. If only you'd been a little bit more industrious, you might have been able to make a name for yourself. Social justice, Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 quote, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” And you write, Dr. King's message was equal opportunity for individuals regardless of race. In the years that followed, the goal changed to equal outcomes for groups. What now rose to dominance was the social justice agenda. If the social justice, those backing the social justice agenda, could have everything they wanted, what would the country look like?
Thomas Sowell: We'd be killing each other.
Peter Robinson: All right, can you give me intermediate steps? In other words, what is the social justice agenda? What do they want?
Thomas Sowell: They want everybody to have equal outcomes or as close as they can get to it. Unfortunately, you don't have the preconditions for that, even in the same family. One of the examples I use in the book is among five-child families, the National Merit finalist is the firstborn just over half the time. That is, more often than the other four siblings combined. The fifth born is 6% of the time. And so it was even where you have almost ideal conditions. They're born to the same parents, raised under the same roof and they're not the same.
Peter Robinson: Because all kinds of things matter, including birth order.
Thomas Sowell: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
Peter Robinson: All right, you take on various fallacies here. Let's take on a couple of them. The equal chances fallacy, even in a society... I'm quoting you, "Social Justice Fallacies". Even in a society with equal opportunity, people from different backgrounds do not necessarily even want to do the same things. In American sports, blacks are very overrepresented in professional basketball, whites in professional tennis and Hispanics in major league baseball. Why is that telling?
Thomas Sowell: Because the implicit assumption and that sometimes explicit assumption is that in a world where everything was fair, where everyone was treated fairly, you would have, things would be representative of the population, the demographics of the whole in all these various activities. Imagine if a black kid born in Harlem and he's born with a body identical to that of Rudolph Nureyev, the great ballet dancer, the odds are 1,000 to 1 that he'll become a ballet dancer, much less another Rudolph Nureyev. I mean, he would be looked at strangely by all his friends in the neighborhood if he even wanted to do that.
Peter Robinson: What you mean-
Thomas Sowell: Chances are he wouldn't even think about it.
Peter Robinson: Right, right, right. So you mean to say that when you tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers- You tried out for the pitching position in the Brooklyn Dodgers and they didn't hire you, you were not being discriminated against?
Thomas Sowell: Actually, I was trying out for first base and the real reason I messed up was that my position was center field. But in order to be a good center fielder, I need hours and hours of practice and it was a very bad spring. I got very little practice. And so I figured at least I'm gonna go out and make an idiot of myself in center field, so I made an idiot of myself at first base.
Peter Robinson: Chess pieces fallacy, the chess pieces fallacy, explain that one.
Thomas Sowell: Well, Adam Smith had a very low opinion of abstract theorists who imagine that they can control a whole society with the ease with which one puts chess pieces where you want them on a chess board. And so there's this notion of this inert mass of people down there and then the wonderfully brilliant people at the top who ought to be telling them what to do. And there's no thought that, first of all, those at the top don't even know the people's individual conditions who are very different from themselves. And when they try to help, they can make things disastrous.
Peter Robinson: You discuss a theory of justice, this is under knowledge fallacy.
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: A theory of justice, which is in certain circles... Certain circles, every university in the country, the philosophy department, political science, you'll get it in sociology. This is the big book on social justice written by John Rawls, philosopher at Harvard. I'm quoting you, Tom. Rawls refers to things that society should arrange. You quote him, arrange, that's the word he uses. And then Tom Sowell says, interior decorators arrange, governments compel. It is not a subtle distinction, explain that.
Thomas Sowell: Well, if you're going to try to get some kind of result, you have to specify through what kinds of mechanism you expect to get that result. And different mechanisms, whether it's the governments, the market, Red Cross, whatever, they have their own individual things that they're good at and not so good at. And so you can't get the social justice result that you want unless you have the kind of institution that's likely to produce that result. Politics is not that kind of institution.
Peter Robinson: And yet they all implicitly rely on government.
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Redistribution of wealth, using legal regimes to adjust the proportions of various groups that get certain jobs. They all rely on government. And what's distinctive about government is it's the one institution that can send you to jail.
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: All right, and the point is that's dangerous. We should not want more government, more hands in the power of the politicians.
Thomas Sowell: Yeah, one of the real problems is that you have people making decisions for which they pay no price when they're wrong, no matter how high a price other people pay. And right now, the homicide rates are beyond anything that were around, let's say, prior to 1960. And I mention 1960 in this case because that's when the Supreme Court remade the criminal law. They discovered rights in the Constitution that no one had noticed for over a century and they were impervious to evidence.
Peter Robinson: So contrast your neighborhood in Harlem when you were an eight and nine and 10-year-old boy with what we see in neighborhoods in Chicago today, say.
Thomas Sowell: Oh my gosh, people are astonished when I tell them I grew up in Harlem, I can't remember ever hearing a gunshot. And then, I've checked with my relatives who grew up in similar neighborhoods in Washington and down in North Carolina, they never heard a gunshot when they were growing up. I remember going back to Harlem some years ago to do some research at a high school. And I looked out the window and there's this park there near the high school. And I mentioned in passing that when I lived in Harlem as a kid, I would take my dog for a walk in that park. And looks of horror came over the students' faces. People have no idea how much has retrogressed over the years in the black community and how much of what progress has been made has not been made by politicians or by charismatic leaders. One of the things that drives me crazy are people who cite the trends over time without deciding where they're gonna start the time period. For example, this guy said all sorts of wonderful things happened in the 1960s and beyond, and especially for the minorities and the poor and so forth. So what I did, I said no, well, you can't... If you start the data in 1960, we don't know how much was a result of that and how much was a result of other things. That also applies in other things. So for example, one simple one, many people say... Ralph Nader wrote this book in 1965 and asked about the automobile safety and so on. As a result, there were laws by the government and the death rates went down after that, which is true in itself. But the death rate went down at a far higher rate prior to his writing the book. And this was the continuation of a trend that went back another 20 or 30 years.
Peter Robinson: Because the market, because car manufacturers when it came right down to it had very little interest in getting people killed driving their vehicles-
Thomas Sowell: Yes, if you kill off your customers, your chances are you won't sell as many cars.
Peter Robinson: The big fallacy, at least, I take this is in many ways the heart of the book, racial fallacies. Now, in this section, in this chapter on racial fallacies, you begin... Almost all of this book is addressed to the current moment, but in racial fallacies, you start by going back about 100 years to lay out the Progressive position in the 1910s and '20s and for some years afterward. I'm quoting you, in addressing the massive increase in immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, this begins a massive increase in immigration begins toward the end of the 19th century and carries on through the 1920s. In addressing the massive increase in immigration, Progressives claimed that these new immigrants were inherently genetically and therefore permanently inferior. So your argument is that a century or so ago, Progressives believed roughly the same about Polish and Italian immigrants that whites in the South had long believed about blacks.
Thomas Sowell: Oh yes.
Peter Robinson: All right, "Social Justice Fallacies", I'm gonna read a quotation, then I'd like you to take us through this material. With the passing years, more and more evidence undermined the conclusion of the genetic determinists. Jews, who had scored low on the 1917 Army mental test, began to score above the national average on various tests as they became a more English-speaking group. A study showed that black orphans, black orphans raised by white families, had significantly higher average IQs than other black children. So in the century since this, you call them genetic determinists, which is one way of putting it, they were racists or they believed that some races were permanently inferior.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, and should be eliminated.
Peter Robinson: And we've learned that's total nonsense. But even more than that, we've learned that IQ is malleable. Is that correct?
Thomas Sowell: I'm not sure what you mean by malleable.
Peter Robinson: Well, that is to say that this ranking of-
Thomas Sowell: Oh, the ranking changes radically-
Peter Robinson: Jews are stupid in 1917 because they score badly on tests-
Thomas Sowell: Yeah, on tests written in English.
Peter Robinson: Tests written in English, okay.
Thomas Sowell: And people who spoke English did better on those tests.
Peter Robinson: Or that blacks have a certain fixed IQ ranking and then you have black orphans raised by white families, in other words, a different cultural-
Thomas Sowell: Yeah, but even before that study, that study wasn't done until 1976, but even as of the time of World War I, the data show that black soldiers scored below white soldiers. And this is one of the reasons. You need people with contrary opinions to be able to be free to attack things. The people who believed that this was genetically determined, they said, that's it, that's the answer and they moved on. Some other people said let's look at it more closely. They discovered that black soldiers from New York, it was New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and one or two other states scored higher than white soldiers from Mississippi, Alabama, et cetera, et cetera. And as I mentioned in the book, people's genes do not change when they cross a state line. The problem is when you have people who are crusading for some idea, whatever the idea is and they find some data that fits what they believe, that's the end of the story as far as they're concerned, which is fine if there are other people with contrary ideas who will look closer for something that goes the other way.
Peter Robinson: And then get listened to.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, yes.
Peter Robinson: By the way, you describe in the book, the Flynn effect discovered by your friend, the late James Flynn. Can you describe that, that's fascinating.
Thomas Sowell: Well, the idea of genetic determinism is that you had to rid the country of these inferior races because otherwise the national IQ would go down over time because the poorer people had more children than the richer people. And so that went on for... Here again, the IQ data there that the genetic determinists were relying on looked like it supported what they said. But Jim Flynn decided that... Well, first of all, you have to understand how an IQ score is arrived at. Whatever number of questions answered correctly is the average at a given time, is given the number 100 because when you do these tests, especially with children, if a six-year-old child scores the same as a 12-year-old child, that means the six-year-old child is either much brighter than usual or the 12-year-old child is a lot less than usual. And so you compare all the six-year-old children and whatever the six-year-old children, how many questions they answer correctly, that becomes 100 and then similarly for all the other ages. So you can do that. And at adulthood at some point, you simply say adult and non-adult, all right. Now, that sounds very innocent in itself, but what happens when people start answering more questions correctly than before? The next generation answers more questions. Now, the number of questions answered by the second generation becomes 100. And so over time, as more and more people, black, white and whatever are answering more and more questions correctly, then the tests are re-normed. So having an IQ of 100 in 1925 is not the same thing as having an IQ of 100 in 1935 or 1950.
Peter Robinson: And this is exactly what was going on. People of all different kinds were smarter crudely. Is that fair?
Thomas Sowell: Well, once Jim Flynn decided to go back to the raw data, not just take the IQs. How many questions was this? And he discovers that the number of questions being answered correctly was increasing by large amounts, roughly one statistical deviation from one generation to the next.
Peter Robinson: Which is big.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, and so the number of questions that the blacks were answering, let's say around 2,000 and having an IQ of 85 would've been an IQ of 104 back in 1947. And so all this information was being ignored because people took the IQ test as if that was the fixed number of questions answered correctly.
Peter Robinson: And so you take the lid off that when the Flynn effect...
Thomas Sowell: Shows that the opposite was happening, that instead of the national IQ going down, it was going up.
Peter Robinson: It was going up. And so we have this fascinating discovery that somehow or other the conditions of modern life that requires more abstract thinking, somehow it's bringing in-
Thomas Sowell: The whole group is just rising.
Peter Robinson: The whole group is rising, all right. All right, from the Progressive position a century ago to the Progressive position today, racial assertions have ranged from the genetic determinism that we just discussed, which proclaimed that race is everything as an explanation of group differences to the opposite view that racism is the primary explanation of group differences. How did this happen?
Thomas Sowell: Well, it happened because a lot of people arrived at the same conclusion and they had high IQs and PhDs, and that was the end of the story as far as many people were concerned. I mean, a high IQ and low information is a very dangerous combination.
Peter Robinson: Sorry, but you once told me... I'm talking to a Harvard man of course, I'm very conscious of this and you once told me, "Peter, the main advantage of earning a Harvard degree is "that you never again in all your life have "to be intimidated by anyone who has a Harvard degree." Listen, Tom, as I read this book, for the most part, it's objective, it's objective throughout, it's calm, it's analytical, but when you take on this modern Progressive position that racism accounts for anything, there are passages in which you're angry. I felt that there are passages in which there's emotion that is very close to this. So let me just read a little bit to you.
Thomas Sowell: Okay.
Peter Robinson: Median black family income has been lower than median white family income for generations, but the median per capita income of Asian groups is more than 15,000 a year higher than the median per capita income of white Americans. Is this the white supremacy we're so often warned about? For more than a quarter of a century, in no year has the annual poverty rate of black married-couple families, married-couple families been as high as 10%. And in no year has the poverty rate of Americans as a whole been as low as 10%. If black poverty is caused by systemic racism, do racists make an exception for blacks who are married? I guess you're allowed to be angry.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, yes.
Peter Robinson: So do you have the feeling, when you're addressing this notion that racism accounts for everything, do you have the feeling that the arguments are subtle, it's persuasive, and you can forgive someone for buying that argument? Or do you have the feeling that it's willful, that the case is so clearly mistaken that there's a willfulness about it?
Thomas Sowell: No, I don't, I think that people don't look for certain evidence and therefore they don't find it. And so on the basis of what they know at a given time, this may be very plausible. The problem is that you really need are other people with a different orientation who are skeptical and who will then look for things and find things that are very different from that. One of the things that I found interesting was the fact that there are various counties in the United States which are among the poorest counties in the country. And six of those counties have a population that ranges from 90% white to 100% white.
Peter Robinson: Appalachian counties, Kentucky and Ohio as I recall.
Thomas Sowell: Yeah, but mainly it's the hillbilly communities. And of course there's that great book that was written, "The Hillbilly Elegy". It was on the bestseller list for more than a year consecutively.
Peter Robinson: JD Vance now Senator Vance.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, and there, these are people who have faced zero racism.
Peter Robinson: They are white after all.
Thomas Sowell: And they are white and zero racism, and also back in the '30s when they did IQ studies, their IQs were not only at the same level as those of blacks, they had the same pattern, namely that the young people whether they were black or hillbilly would have an IQ very close to the national average at age six, but by the time they were teenagers, it just kept going down and down and down 'cause it's relative to the other people of that age group. And they simply were falling behind. So it was clearly not biological, it was social. But despite that, these hillbilly counties had incomes that were not only lower than the national average, they were lower than the average of black incomes for a period of half a century. It may have been longer than that because I only went through half a century. But in every study that was done over that half century, they scored lower, their family incomes were lower than the family incomes of blacks. So obviously, there must be other things that cause people to be poor other than racism.
Peter Robinson: All right, people in low-income American hillbilly counties already face zero racism because they're virtually all white.
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Yet, they have lower incomes than blacks, just as you were saying. In other words, some behavior patterns seem to pay off. Now, this book is dedicated to fallacies, to showing errors in premises and errors in analysis. It's not dedicated to an alternative explanation. Nevertheless, you've got this argument lurking in here that it's the way people live, it's the way cultural patterns-
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: So what are the patterns that pay off?
Thomas Sowell: Well, oh my heavens, that's a much larger book than this.
Peter Robinson: Well, you've got time on your hands.
Thomas Sowell: In terms of fallacies for our public policy, what does not pay off is having charismatic leaders depending upon government to do things because if you look what has happened to blacks before and after there was a massive government effort on their behalf. The poverty rate among blacks if you start in 1940 instead of 1960, 'cause 1960 is the magic number for people who are saying the government did all these wonderful things and blacks advanced because of it. In 1940, the black poverty rate was 87%. By 1960, it was down to 47%.
Peter Robinson: That's dramatic
Thomas Sowell: Well, from 1960 to 1970, it went down to 30%. And in 1970, affirmative action was now in place. It went down to 29%. So in the 20 years prior to the 1960s, the black poverty rate went down by 40 points and in the 20 years after 1960, it went down by 18 points. But again, you have the same thing you had with what was the Ralph Nader effect, you see.
Peter Robinson: You start in 1960, you miss this.
Thomas Sowell: You miss all of that.
Peter Robinson: So you've got in this book, this is a point you make again and again in the section on racial fallacies that I started thinking of it. I don't think you used these terms, but this is not an original thought with me. I started thinking of it as a hidden century of black progress from Emancipation with the end of the Civil War through to 1965, let's say, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, '65. Through the mid-'60s, you've got a century and you argue black educational attainment rises.
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Black poverty rate drops dramatically.
Thomas Sowell: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: And these are people who started with no property, overwhelmingly illiterate. This is from the moment...
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Year zero is 1865 for African Americans. And the claim and the other point that you make at a number of places is that the black family is overwhelmingly intact. Right up to 1960, most black... Go ahead, explain that.
Thomas Sowell: Not only do people take credit for things that were not their doing, they overlook the negative things that came in after the 1960s as a result of policy. In 1940, 17% of black children were raised in single-parent homes.
Peter Robinson: 17%.
Thomas Sowell: 17. I forget the exact date in the 20th century, but after these wonderful reforms were put in, that quadrupled to 68% of black children were being raised in single-parent homes. Now, there's a whole literature on all the bad things that happen to kids who are raised by single parents. Whether they are black or white, American or British, the studies show the same things. One study said that fatherlessness has a bigger effect than even race and poverty. And certainly as I think back into my own life, I realized how fortunate I was because even though my biological father died before I was born and I was adopted, I was adopted into a family where I was the only child in a family of four adults and these were not people who were out having an active social life someplace. The life was there in the home.
Peter Robinson: They gave you their time.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, yes, and I remember years later when I became a parent and like other new parents, I wanted to know when a kid was supposed to do this, when he's supposed to do that. And I said how old was I when I started to walk? And the lone surviving member of the family that raised me said, "Tommy, nobody knows when you could walk. "Somebody was always carrying you."
Peter Robinson: So you had four adults doting on you.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, yes, yes. And part of the rise of blacks before was because of things that were done by blacks. Example I think of a lot was a kid who grew up in Harlem at the same time I did. We were in the same school, lived two blocks from me and we met many years later by accident on a street in San Francisco and we talked about the old times. And one of the things he mentioned to me 'cause he had gone on, he was making more money than I was and he had become wealthy and he lived overseas with servants and he came back and moved out to the wine country and all that stuff. But one of the things that struck me, he said that he could remember times when he was growing up when his father would sit at the dinner table watching the children eat and not eat anything himself. Now, that's what-
Peter Robinson: And now the father isn't even there.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, that's right, that's right. So those kinds of things are what do it.
Peter Robinson: Right, "Social Justice Fallacies", the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major factor in ending the denial of basic Constitutional rights to blacks in the South, but there is no point trying to make that the main source of the black rise out of poverty. Nor can the left act as if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was solely their work. A higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Act." So you're saying something here which is...
Thomas Sowell: Sacrilege.
Peter Robinson: It is, it's shocking, it's heretical. Well, you're saying the Civil Rights Act ensured equality before the law. That was overdue, it was necessary, it was just. That's an accomplishment in American history, but at about the same time, we get the creation of a vast expansion of the welfare state and it does people harm. It harms the African American family, it leads to fatherlessness... Have I got your argument right?
Thomas Sowell: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Peter Robinson: And you wanna stand by that.
Thomas Sowell: Yeah, and the other thing too, the Civil Rights Act was not what got blacks into professional occupations. In the decade prior to 1964, the number of blacks in professional occupations doubled. So this is not a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Peter Robinson: All right, Tom, a few closing questions here. First of all, may I read to you, this is a note to readers from The New York Times in 2020?
Thomas Sowell: All right.
Peter Robinson: The nationwide protests over racism and police violence have prompted a renewed focus on a longstanding debate whether to capitalize the term 'Black.' We here at The New York Times have talked to more than 100 staff members. The feedback has been thoughtful and nuanced. Thoughtful and nuanced, mind you. And we've decided to start using upper case 'Black' to describe people and cultures of African origin." The New York Times capitalizes black, but you don't. Tom Sowell, how dare you engage in this act of defiance.
Thomas Sowell: It is amazing the things that people can focus on. It may seem to be a big issue to The New York Times. I suspect to the people who are being murdered in these big cities like New York and Chicago may have a somewhat different view of the importance of what is capitalized and not capitalized.
Peter Robinson: Tom, let me read a few single sentences from "Social Justice Fallacies". I'll read a sentence, you tell us what you meant. “Stupid people can create problems, but it often takes brilliant people to create a real catastrophe.”
Thomas Sowell: That is, oh my gosh, think of the catastrophes of the 20th century. You mention genetic determinism, they drew the conclusion from their reasoning that you had to put an end to certain races. They had what they call eugenics but what was later called genocide. And so that idea originated with the Progressives. And there was a Progressive who wrote a book with that theme which was translated into German and Hitler called it his bible. And so this holocaust-
Peter Robinson: You draw a line from the Progressive eugenicists to Adolph Hitler.
Thomas Sowell: He drew the line, he drew the line and wrote a fan mail letter to the author of that book, saying that that book was his bible. And we see what that led to. During the 1920s in reaction to World War I which was so bad, the idea rose among the intellectual elites that the way to prevent war was to stop arming, you see. So disarmament was the way to avoid a war. No evidence made the slightest impression on them and they blended the West into a war that probably would never have happened because the totalitarian dictatorships that started that war were well aware that the United States, Britain and France had an industrial capacity greater than theirs. And you wouldn't ordinarily attack countries that have greater industrial capacity than yours unless you thought that they were gutless and were foolish enough not to remain armed. And for three years of that war, their Axis Powers won every single battle. The Western democracies lost in Europe and Asia wherever they fought. In 1942, Winston Churchill made a speech and said, "We have a new experience, we have victory." And when they won that victory at Alamein in Northern Africa, that was the first battle won by the Western democracies in a war that was already three years old. And from that point on, especially when the United States came in and the American productive capacity was mobilized, then it turned around. Today, people who are trying to say we need to disarm in order to have peace don't understand that in a nuclear age, you're not gonna get three years to figure out what's going on. You're either gonna be ready on the first day of that war or you're gonna lose it.
Peter Robinson: “In politics, the goal is not truth, but votes.”
Thomas Sowell: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: And why does that matter?
Thomas Sowell: Oh, it matters because if you can get people to believe that their problems are all due to racists, you will get their votes. But if you look at a lot of data on different things, you'll discover that's not the case. It's very doubtful if all the racists in the country today have half the negative effect on blacks as the teachers unions have because the teachers unions keep the schools lousy in areas where the people who send their kids to school do not have the option to send them to a private school if the schools are bad.
Peter Robinson: You make the point that in Harlem, there are charter schools that want space in public schools. And there are tests... Well, go ahead, you know what I'm referring to?
Thomas Sowell: Yes, yes, yes. In fact, there's a school... I thought the way to figure out the difference between the public school and a charter school, regular public schools and the charter schools is to compare them in the same, when both schools are located in the same buildings, so you have comparability. It's the same group.
Peter Robinson: Same neighborhood, same building.
Thomas Sowell: Yes, everything and when you do that, what I found was that the charter schools kids in these low-income black neighborhoods passed the math tests at a rate more than six times as high as that of the public school located in the very same building.
Peter Robinson: And the main difference between the charter school and the public school-
Thomas Sowell: Is the public school is run by the teachers unions, the charter schools do not have unions at all in most cases. One of the most extreme examples was a school that I went to when I was in Harlem. In that particular school, only 7% of the regular public school kids passed the math test. In the charter school, 100% passed it. They have different levels. Proficiently means you've passed and there's a level above that when you've done more than what is necessary for that. In that particular school, only 2% of the charter school kids scored as low as proficient. The other 98% were in the top bracket above proficient.
Peter Robinson: Last question here, last quotation, Tom. “One of many things that no individual, no institution and no society has any control over is the past.”
Thomas Sowell: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Why does that matter?
Thomas Sowell: Because when we talk about groups and we talk about their environment, we usually mean their tangible current surroundings. But of course, all the groups have had different pasts. When the Irish, the Jews and the Italian immigrants were coming to America, it was common for Italian and Jewish neighborhoods in New York's Lower East Side to be represented by Irish politicians. Why is that? Because if you look at what happened before they ever got to America, you can see that the Irish had reasons to organize in a political kind of way, the Jews and the Italians did not. Their circumstances, it wouldn't have made any difference. And now when they get to New York, they may be living in the same neighborhoods and so forth and the tangible surroundings are the same, but the whole past of the three groups is very different. And even when the Italians and the Jews rise to prosperity, it's in different industries, it's in different occupations.
Peter Robinson: And the past means that we should never expect groups to end up evenly distributed across-
Thomas Sowell: The past, but even such a thing as age. People don't realize some American ethnic groups are a decade older than others and some are more than two decades older than others. So the difference between blacks and the white is not the largest difference in the country. The Japanese Americans are higher than Mexican Americans by even larger amounts. Japanese Americans have a median age of 52. Mexican Americans have it somewhere in the 20s. 52-year-old people make more money than 20-year-old people.
Peter Robinson: Tom, would you close our discussion by reading a passage from "Social Justice Fallacies"?
Thomas Sowell: Well, I still agree with it. “Do we want the mixture of students who are going to be trained to do advanced medical research to be representative of the demographic makeup of the population as a whole or do we want students with the highest probability of finding cures for cancer and Alzheimer's? Do you want airline pilots chosen for demographic representation of various groups or would you prefer to fly with pilots who were chosen for their mastery of all the complex things that increase your chances of arriving safely at your destination? Consequences matter or should matter more than some attractive or fashionable theory. More fundamentally, do we want a society in which some babies are born into the world as heirs of prepackaged grievances against other babies born on the same day, blighting both their lives or do we want to at least leave them the option to work things out better in their lives than we have in ours?”
Peter Robinson: Thomas Sowell, author of some 40 books, including "Social Justice Fallacies", thank you.
Thomas Sowell: Thank you.
Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.