To watch the video, click here.


Peter Robinson: PaullyJ57, "Thomas will brings tears to my eyes. He is simply brilliant." David Snow, "Thomas Sowell is the kind of man I aspire to be." Those are just a couple of tweets from the thousands that I have received tweets comments in response to interviews with Thomas Sowell over the years. To explain the great man Jason Riley, author of the new book Maverick. A biography of Thomas Sowell. Jason Riley on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Jason Riley grew up in Buffalo, New York earning a Bachelor's Degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and then getting his start in journalism at the Buffalo News. This upstate New York boy solutes that upstate New York boy, Jason. In 1994, Mr. Riley joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal as a copy reader. Today Mr. Riley is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a member of the Journal's Editorial Board. Not many people have made that kind of climb at the Wall Street Journal. A fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Mr. Riley is the author of a number of books. 'Please Stop Helping Us'. How liberals make it harder for blacks to succeed published in 2014 is one of those books and 'False Black Power' published in 2017 is another. Earlier this year, Mr. Riley narrated a new documentary, Thomas Sowell Common Sense in a Senseless World. Jason Riley's newest book published just this month. Maverick, a biography of Thomas Sowell. Jason, welcome.

Jason Riley: Thank you for having me, Peter.

Peter Robinson: First question, Thomas Sowell, economist, educator, author, fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Now in his nineties and still writing. Let's begin with a handful of the thousands of tweets and YouTube comments that have been posted in response to interviews with Tom Sowell on this program, Uncommon Knowledge. Chris Quintin, "even through the chaos of medical school your interviews with him, his books on audible and his many writings have allowed me to stay sane." SJ777, "Thomas Sowell played a massive role in turning my life around, I'm Swedish. So the indoctrination of self-pity was deeply rooted. Today I'm working toward a future. I feel excited about thank you, Dr. Sowell." David Snow, "Thomas Sowell is the man, kind of man I aspire to be." Chad Call, "I would like to know what experiences he had as a child. I hope to raise my children to be as near this fan's quality of intellect as possible." Jason, he's not just an economist or an educator or an author. There is Tom is in a category that I'm going to ask you to define. How is it that this man means so much to so many people?

Jason Riley: I guess the word I would use to describe him is iconic in some sense. And he's a humble man. He's not someone who set out to become an icon. And I think in one sense, it's a little disappointing that why he has become iconic because I think he's become iconic for being an honest intellectual, Peter, and that should make you iconic. Simply being a straight shooter. Simply doing your homework, following the facts where they lead even when they lead to unpopular conclusions or politically incorrect conclusions shouldn't make you iconic. But that is how Tom has become iconic simply by being an honest intellectual who follows the facts and is more interested in telling the truth than in being popular. And unfortunately, among intellectuals today that makes you a standout.

Peter Robinson: Jason, your book, 'Maverick'. How did you first conceive of this book? I'm going to guess that you've been reading Tom for a long time that you're one of the many people to whom he means a great deal, but how did the book come about?

Jason Riley: It came about by me bothering Thomas Sowell quite a bit. He didn't have a biographer. I was surprised at that. And he didn't particularly want one. So I started back, I would say, in the mid to late two thousands trying to get him to agree to some long interviews for a book. And I eventually got some of his friends like Shelby Steele and the late Walter Williams to help me out in persuading Tom, as you know he's not someone who changes his mind very often. But as you said, he's in his nineties now. So maybe I just warmed down. He finally agreed to cooperate with.

Peter Robinson: Let's I just want to say I loved the book and I have to confess I do a lot of interviews about books and there's always a temptation to skim. And I just settled in and read your book and enjoy every word. But what you're saying is that this book is the product of some, what two decades of gestation and thinking about it and pestering the man himself, is that right?

Jason Riley: Well, I've been a fan of his since I discovered him in the early nineties when I was in college. And someone said to me during a discussion down at the school newspaper where I worked, "Jason, you sound like Tom Sowell." And I said, "who's that?" And the person wrote down the name of one of Tom's books on the sheet of paper. I went to the library that evening checked it out and read the book in one sitting and then went back the next day and checked out the library's entire collection of Thomas Sowell works. And I've been hooked ever since he's had a huge, huge impact on my journalism. I got to meet him for the first time in the mid nineties when I was on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. And he would come through New York on various book tours and meet with editorial boards. And so that's how I initially met him. And then in the mid two thousands, I went out to Hoover at Stanford University and for a long, longer interview with him that I wrote up for the newspaper. And that's when we sort of struck up an acquaintance that has endured over the years. So I've been thinking and reading Thomas Sowell for decades and very much wanted to do this just as I wanted to do the video that you mentioned earlier the documentary film that I made. The filmmakers came to me when they found out about the biography and asked me if I wanted to narrate a film about Tom's life. And I said, "absolutely," and jumped at the opportunity. So this is something I've wanted to do for a long, long time.

Peter Robinson: Jason, can I just, when you first met Tom, and as you got to know him longer conversations. You're a journalist. So you've encountered all kinds of people and you've read all kinds of books and columns and so forth. Some people are better on paper than they are in person so to speak. What, if this is Tom on paper and this is Tom in person. Are they, is there an identity there? Or is there what do you pick up about him? What did you pick up about him when you met the man that you didn't know from reading?

Jason Riley: His is quite similar, I would think to the person you're reading. He's a straight shooter. He's very funny and he's is very engaging. And I think that that comes across not only on paper but in the interviews. You've done, you've probably done more interviews with them than anyone, Peter. And I should add you you're one of the reasons I think that people have the reaction to Tom, that you were just referencing in those posts. And one of the great things. I've watched a lot of interviews with Tom, in preparation for the book and I especially enjoy the Uncommon Knowledge ones. You and mostly it was because you allowed him to speak and you...

Peter Robinson: Jason, that's because

Jason Riley: ...take for granted. But there are so many interviews with Tom, where it's almost as if he can't get in a word. And as you know, if you just ask Tom a short question and sit back and listen you will be fascinated because he is brilliant. And that's what you allowed him to do. And I think in doing that the humanity comes across, the intelligence comes across and I think that's what people were reacting to in those remarks.

Peter Robinson: Thank you very much. But the reason I let him talk is because he scares me. That is a, you don't wanna be stupid in front of Tom because I.

Jason Riley: That does come across. Yes, that does come across. If you've read him. And if you are familiar with his writings he is a very intellectually intimidating, but it's not something, he carries it well, I will say. And he's not someone who's looking out to put you down and put you in your place or point at or pointed out. But he's a brilliant, brilliant man, but also someone who was very, very generous with us with his time.

Peter Robinson: Jason, where he came from a little bit about Tom Sowell, the man and his, in particular, his youth, his formation how Tom's Sowell became Tom's Sowell. Could we begin. Just take a moment to look at this brief clip.

Jason Riley: I used to sleep out on a fire escape at Harlem at midnight. I used to, if I was awake at midnight, I would go walking out to the nearest newsstand to get the morning paper to find out what the baseball scores were. I'm sure people don't do that today.

Peter Robinson: Harlem felt safe.

Jason Riley: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And what about the schools?

Jason Riley: The schools were a lot better. People expected me to meet the same standards that kids on park avenue met. Now that was undoubtedly unjust, but I'll as between that and injustice and spending the rest of your life paying back for a poor education to begin with I'll go with that injustice.

Peter Robinson: So there he is talking about Harlem. Get us from North Carolina, where he's born to Harlem. How did he join that migration of African-Americans from the south to Northern cities?

Jason Riley: Well, he was born in rural North Carolina outside of Charlotte. During the great depression. So we're talking about a very core family at a time when the country is going through an economic crisis and of course this is a Jim Crow, South. So you can see what he had stacked against him. On top of that, he was orphaned at a young age. His father died before he was born and his mother died in childbirth to a younger sibling. So Tom didn't never knew his parents. He was taken in by a great aunt, one of his grandmother's sisters and her two adult children, one of whom was married. And so Tom moved with that family and they moved North to New York City to Harlem. Well, first they moved to Charlotte for a brief period and then they moved to Harlem where we're Tom was raised. And it's interesting that Tom talks quite a bit and his own personal writings about being raised by essentially four adults as if you were an only child. And what impact that had on his childhood and his formative years he has said that probably made more of a difference in his life than anything else that ever happened to him. And what he's talking about is this being in connection with his research on the birth order of children and how say the first born has an advantage and an only child has even more of an advantage than a first born. And so the fact that he was essentially an only child being raised by four adults he thinks had a huge impact on his life.

Peter Robinson: So he, you, right. I'm gonna quote Maverick. "Sowell was admitted to one of New York's most competitive high schools but dropped out at age 16. He left home a year later for a full decade Sowell received his education from the school of hard knocks as he put it. He didn't get around to earning a college degree until he was already in his late twenties and had served in the Marines." So it becomes very clear that he's a good student. He gets admitted to which high school was it, Jason, do you recall?

Jason Riley: It was Stuyvesant

Peter Robinson: Stuyvesant.

Jason Riley: It's still one of the top high school.

Peter Robinson: It's still the high school to get into in New York.

Jason Riley: In New York.

Peter Robinson: And he drops out at 16. Tell us, about that decade when he's knocking around.

Jason Riley: Well, he was working as a messenger for Western Union. That was one of his jobs. He worked in the machine shop. He was, I guess what they call it a trying to find himself. But it was tough going. And I think what really straighten him out was getting drafted into the Marines during Korean War. He did two years in the Marines and I think it helped him get his life together and he's spoken about those years. He learned a lot about photography, which would be, and he would become a lifetime thorough hobbyist and an excellent, excellent photographer. And I think he just learned some personal discipline in the Marines as well that stayed with him after he left. And then of course the result there was that he was able to afford to go to college on the GI Bill. And so when he got out of the Marines, he enrolled in night school at Howard University the Historically Black College in Washington, DC. And then after..

Peter Robinson: What year?

Jason Riley: ...a year there he transferred.

Peter Robinson: So he's in Washington DC, what years is he there?

Jason Riley: These are the mid fifties.

Peter Robinson: Mid fifties. So it is important. I mean, before we get to the Tom Sowell we know and who shows up in these film clips and who takes up the bulk of your book? The early part of the book talking about the early part of Tom's life is fascinating. And what comes across is he had a hard life.

Jason Riley: Oh yes.

Peter Robinson: He was orphaned and raised by people who were, they were family but they were not his parents. Then this decade of when he's just knocking around. And he goes to Washington DC when Jim Crow was in effect. We're talking about an African-American intellectual who is still with us who couldn't use that water fountain or couldn't go into that restaurant. He experienced this, is that correct?

Jason Riley: He's written about that, particularly in DC. He was still segregated at the time. And he used to like to take pictures and he would walk around parts of the city taking photographs. And there were places where he could go into the restaurant to eat but he had to stand while others could sit. And he said, "I'd rather go hungry than suffer that indignity." And he wouldn't even go into the restaurant in the first place, even in the Marines he talks about places that he would be traveling in the country in the United States where he wasn't allowed to eat in certain restaurants and so forth. So yeah, this is what blacks of his era had to endure and they did. And it's all the more remarkable where Tom ended up that he came out of such these kinds of experiences. I always remind people of this, Peter, because people look at me as a black conservative and they go, "oh, Jason, you're like Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas and you what you had to put up with." And I said, "you guys have no idea what someone who is 90 years old and black and came out of the junk cross out had to put up with." There is, I should not even be mentioned in the same sentence with someone who had to put up with Thomas Sowell or Clarence Thomas had to put up with growing up in the conditions that they did. But yes, these are guys that went through hell frankly.

Peter Robinson: So let's say he. So he goes through hell as a Black American, and then this amazing string. Howard University for a year. Harvard University where he gets his BA degree. Columbia, and then the University of Chicago, where he ends up getting a doctorate. What happens here, suddenly he, it's not as as his mind turns on because we know that he was recognized as a very bright kid, even when he was in the school system in New York, but what happens that produces this intellectual blaze, sorry.

Jason Riley: He was a bright kid and he was curious kid and education made them all the more curious. He ended up studying economics simply because he was good at math. And it was a natural fit. So that steered him toward economics. And then he saw economics as a way of explaining the world around him and the other transformation that's going on here that we haven't talked about is that Tom was a man of the left in his youth and not just slightly left of center, Peter. He was a Marxist and he was a Marxist who read and studied Marx quite closely from a young age even when he was not in school. He is someone who picked up on Marx and became a committed Marxist. And so all through his college years even when he studying under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, Thomas Sowell is still a Marxist. And that's worth remembering

Peter Robinson: That's where the, here's another brief. Another very brief clip. Jason, if you don't mind.

[Video clip starts] Thomas Sowell: I mean, I was still a Marxist to have to take him Milton Friedman's course, but I, one summer in the government was enough to let me say, "Now this government is really not the answer." I mean that is.

Peter Robinson: Milton Friedman didn't cure you, but the federal government did.

Thomas Sowell: In fact the federal government did that. The federal government doesn't do anything. [Video clip ends]

Peter Robinson: So how did the federal, how did a year in the federal cure him of Marxism?

Jason Riley: Well the attraction to Marx for Tom and frankly for many blacks of that era was that Marx seemed to explain the world that they lived in. Tom, when he was, this is after he had dropped out of high school and was working as a messenger in New York City. He talks about his job being in Downtown Manhattan and how we would take a bus home, which is a Harlem in Northern Manhattan. And he would talk about the changing landscape on the bus how we'd go through these nice neighborhoods and then he'd get to the tenements where he got off and everything was so different. And he wanted to know what explain this world, what just happened? Why is this so poor? Why did I, what I went through just on that bus? Why was that's a luxurious. And Marx explain that to him. He, the power structures, the capitalists and the proletariat and the exploitation, and it made so much sense to Tom. And I think that was the attraction to Marxism as he studied economics further though on his own. And then again, as he went and saw some of these ideas put in practice in government, he realized that the government had its own agenda. And that many of the policies that the government promoted did not necessarily help the people it was intended to help, even if it helped the government perpetuate whatever program it wanted to perpetuate. In this case, it was a minimum wage laws and how, what effects those were having unemployment rates and Tom realized that they were having a negative effect, unemployment rates yet his colleagues in the government office where he worked didn't seem to care much about that.

Peter Robinson: So as you conveyed in Maverick by the time Tom Sowell starts writing, will come in a moment in his career in teaching. But by the time he starts writing. This is a man who has traveled from the poverty of the deep south to the urban north to Manhattan. And it is a man who has, who's been in the Marine Corps. He served as a Western Union Telegram delivery boy. He tried out as a pitcher for the Dodgers as I recall at one point. And then you also get this intellectual journey from hard left to the liberal. I don't know, he's not conservative, how he would call himself libertarian. What would he call himself, Jason? What's the right.

Jason Riley: I think he's, I think.

Peter Robinson: Classical liberal

Jason Riley: Probably self identifies as a free-market conservative.

Peter Robinson: Okay, free-market conservative

Jason Riley: And probably, but it's not all that unusual that, that journey from the left to the right or the left to the center among a lot of conservatives and Sowell pointed this out, Milton Friedman started on the left. Clarence Thomas started on the left. Walter Williams, Shelby Steele started on the left in the extreme left, in many cases. Thomas was a Black Panther, Walter Williams sympathize as much more with Malcolm X than he did with Martin Luther king. So that journey isn't all that uncommon among conservatives and many have started out on the political left.

Peter Robinson: Okay, all right. In any event we have a man who's been places and done things and traveled in his mind and as well as geographically. Okay, so he's written so many books. You do justice to more than I can begin to ask you about in a brief video conversation like this but let's take a couple. The classic book, Conflict of Visions. I'm quoting you in Maverick. our debate and you're talking about this one book, 'Conflict of Visions'. "our debates result mainly from two conflicting conceptions of society and how the world works. On one side, you have a constraint or tragic vision which sees mankind as hopelessly flawed. The opposite vision is unconstrained or utopian and it rejects the idea of inherent limits on what can be achieved." Can you explain that a little bit? Constrained versus unconstrained and how is it that Tom uses this one book to explain everything in some case?

Jason Riley: The constrained vision is also sometimes called the tragic vision and the unconstrained vision it's also sometimes called the utopian vision by Tom. And they're just, they're ways of looking at the world and Tom falls on the constraint side. But in that book, what he is trying to explain is that A these debates go back a long way. He traces them all the way back to people like Godwin and in the 17 hundreds and down through roles. And then into the social justice debates that we're having today with people like Ibram Kendi, and Ta-Nehisi Coates and so forth. It's all the piece. And it comes out of your view of human nature and whether there are limitations to the perfectability of mankind, so to speak. And so the constraint vision says, "listen we may wanna eliminate poverty and racism and war but that's not likely to happen. So what we really need to focus on is building institutions and maintaining institutions that help us deal with the fact that we're never going to eliminate these things." So yes, we need a defense department. Yes, we need a rule of law for when people think they've been wronged by someone for whatever reason, including the color of their skin and so forth. And so that is what it's about. It's about building institutions to help us deal with problems. We will never, ever entirely eliminate, whereas on the unconstrained or the utopian view is that now we can come very, very close to perfecting that we just have very smart people in the right places, putting in place the right policies. We can make these problems. We can solve these problems. And not only can we solve them there are no trade-offs to doing it. It's a win situation for everyone. And then that is what sold first was the more utopian point of view, but it's where this sort of social justice left mindset comes from. And he traces the traditions of that thought process.

Peter Robinson: So you quote, of course, there's a great deal to be said about this one book, which I consider a classic. I know you'll do as well. You quote one quip by Tom that in a certain sense sums up not only that book, but I'm going to suggest it sums up his whole approach to public affairs. And this is Tom himself. You're quoting him in Maverick. "The first rule of economics is scarcity. The first rule of politics is to ignore the first rule of economics." In other words, economics is about reality and reality is disappointing. We always want more than we can get. And politics is about delusions. And Tom is always going to try to draw us back to reality, reality. What's real. What can we actually do? Is that fair?

Jason Riley: Yes, and also about reminding us that incentives matter and that people, politicians have their own agenda. And we can't forget that intellectuals have their own agenda. And we can't, we have to always keep that in mind that people respond to incentives. People are motivated by certain things. And we should keep that in mind when we listen to what they are telling us. And so a policy that may serve the interest of a politician quite well may not do much good at all for the people he claims to be representing in office. And Sowell has been masterful and pointing out that these two things are often in conflict. And yet the political class does a very good job of obscuring that sort of thing. What are the examples I remember more recently from a conversation you had with Tom was about teachers unions and teacher pay. And he made the point that teachers who the union is supposed to represent would love a pay raise and it would be in their interest to get one. But for the teacher's union, a pay raise is not necessarily what a union is most interested in. A union wants more teachers hired so that more of them can pay dues.

[Video clip starts] Thomas Sowell: Teachers you use are not created by bitation. There are people who create unions. And in fact, the issues of the teacher's union can be opposite of the teachers. For example, if there's a large increase of money into the school system, and they're always saying is underfunded no matter how many billions of dollars go down at bottom man's pit. When the money is out there and available you could use that money to raise teacher salaries. That would be good for the teachers, it would be bad for the teacher's union. The teacher's unions, again, get more dues if instead of raising the teacher's salaries you create more jobs, more teachers aid, more counselors, nurses more this, more that more bureaucrats and the system because all of those people will be paying union dues. Whereas if you simply have a higher pay teachers, you don't get any increasing and union due. [Video clip ends]

Jason Riley: And so even there where you would think, of course, the teachers in the unions must have the same shared interests. No, it's not necessarily the case. And Thomas spent a career pointing out those differences.

Peter Robinson: There's another chapter from his early life that I just found fascinating. I was only dimly aware of this, I confess. And you recounted in some detail quoting you now. "Sowell took an idiosyncratic approach to the nature versus nurture debate over race and intelligence." And this all goes back to Jensen at Cal Berkeley. Could you explain, I mean, this subject is untouchable today but it was untouchable then and Tom touched it. He waited, right? Could you explain the background? What's the debate?

Jason Riley: The debate is over the extent to which genetics plays a role in intelligence. And it's an old debate. And one of the things that Tom has pointed out is that the argument that intelligence that genetics, I say, I should say plays a large role. And intelligence has undermined by a number of factors. And one is that the difference in intelligence scores or IQ scores between the races is smaller than the amount that a group, a single group can rise in terms of their score within a generation or two. And which of course undermines the fact that genetics is driving this because genetics doesn't work that quickly in a generation or two. And so Jensen was someone who had promoted this. He was a psychologist at Berkeley, I believe, and wrote this piece in the late sixties saying that, "programs like headstart are unlikely to do much for minority children because this is really genetic genetic stuff. And we can't do much about that." And of course, cause quite a stir back then. And Tom pushed back at a lot of Jensen's research with his own research. He collected a number of intelligence scores on tests Folgers on World War One, different ethnic groups. At one point, I think he had collected more than 70,000 intelligence test scores and he sorted through them any saw these patterns. And that's why he took a position that was quite contrary to Jensen's.

Peter Robinson: Right, let me quote you in Maverick. "Sowell's research wound up unveiling a number of reasons to doubt Jensen's findings." Jensen's findings essentially are that African-Americans have, are genetically inferior. I mean, it was a racist, it was a straightforward racist finding, right? That's a fair enough statement. Isn't that right? Or.

Jason Riley: Well, I would, I think it's fair to characterize it. I mean, he I think Jensen allowed that things could improve over time but as they were at that time, yes he said that genetically black source, the reason that blacks were scoring lower on these tasks was genetically based primarily.

Peter Robinson: So to continue to quote you in Maverick. "There were white groups in the United States and elsewhere with IQ scores similar to those of blacks that were black schools with where student IQ has exceeded the national average. Black women it turned out were significantly overrepresented among people with high IQs and black orphans raised by white families had an average IQ of 106. When the average score of whites was a hundred." So Arthur Jensen, this professional psychologist puts out a finding. broadly speaking nobody else in the academic world wanted to touch it. They just wanted to ignore it. Tom says in effect, "no, we can't have a can't let something just float out there. Let's find." And then he discovers actually, no IQ is malleable. What I find striking is it was courageous to take it on. He was just, this wasn't even his field and he makes significant contributions here, right?

Jason Riley: Well, there are a couple of things going on here. They not only wanted to reject Jensen. They, what other people wanted to do is simply call Jensen names and live it at that. Tom said, Jensen is a serious scholar. And he was a serious scholar. And Tom said, "we should take Jensen at his word," that he's not producing the scholarship out of bias. But because that is what the data tells him. We should take him at his word. And if we think he's wrong we should find data that shows he's wrong. So that is what Tom was willing to do. And you have to contrast that with how others particularly on the black left at the time, Tom, thinks they were afraid of what they might find. If they tried to take on Jensen. And Tom said, "I wasn't afraid." He said, frankly, he said, "if you wanna help black people if you want to help any group you have to know where they are to help them move forward. You can't pretend they're not where they are or just wallow in ignorance over where they are because wherever they wanna go wherever you want them to go they need to get there from where they are. So we need to know where they are." So, and this debate is still going on today with the calls to eliminate SAT test and so forth. It's an assumption that these tests are racist or that the people in favor of these tests are racist. And therefore, if we get rid of the test we will get rid of the disparities. And "no" Tom says, you will not get rid of the disparities by getting rid of the test. You will simply obscure who are these kids are. And that will not help them get ahead. But really what Tom getting at was out a larger point about intellectualism and expert and how things have changed over the generations. And in other words, Jensen, what was coming out of a a view or a tradition of thinking among intellectuals that dates really to the progressive as 100 years ago, who saw disparities, racial disparities and everything from education to income and so forth and said, it must be genetically based. This is where we get the eugenics movement. It's genetics, racial disparity is caused by genetic differences. Now, here we are a hundred years later. And intellectuals the progressive's are telling us, "no, it's not genetics it's discrimination." Racial disparities are of the source of them is discrimination, racism, bias, prejudice, full stop. We cannot talk about anything else. And Tom says, the problem with both of these approaches is that it's taking a factor and making it the factor without having the evidence to do so. And that was ultimately his critique of Jensen just as it is as critique of the progressive's today.

Peter Robinson: Got it. So what's happening now. He's writing these books of course and doing this work, but he's also teaching after his, he gets his doctorate from Chicago. He teaches at a number of institutions, I guess most notably Cornell and UCLA. And then in 1980, he says, "no, I'm done teaching." And he comes to the Hoover Institution where he remains to this day. Count, just what's going on there. He wanted to be a teacher.

Jason Riley: He did.

Peter Robinson: He quote letters from him to his friends saying how much he wants to be a teacher, how much he aspires to this kind of life. He even, there's a letter as I recall you'll correct me if I get this wrong, but there's a one letter you quote in which he so loves teaching that he praises it over research really?

Jason Riley: Oh yeah.

Peter Robinson: He probably rather be in a classroom with kids than often the library doing his own research which it was so striking to me because you very seldom hear that from professional academics.

Jason Riley: He did his first love was teaching. And not only that, he wanted to teach at a black college. He was very interested in teaching at a black college even when he was in graduate school at Columbia. He and a black friend talked about when they get out of school how they're gonna go to a black school and then help these schools out. I mean, he thought that is where the need was at the time, particularly in the South most blacks who went to college went to all black colleges. And so he wanted to go where the kids are where the black kids that he wanted to educate were. And there's an incident where he gets up he goes to Howard University and does wind up teaching there. And it becomes very dispirited with the atmosphere at the school. There's rampant cheating going on. The administrators are doing a poor job. He doesn't like the way the place is run. There's a lot of interference in his teaching. They think he's being too hard on the kids. He thinks they're being too easy on the kids and so forth. So just on an after running and he doesn't even wanna complete the semester. And he calls Milton Friedman has his mentor in Chicago. And says, "would it be unprofessional for me to leave before the semester is over?" And they convince him that we should stick it out for the semester, but he eventually leaves. And then he goes on to these other schools. And while the problems are somewhat different at different schools, he does have a lot of run-ins with administrators and other faculty there where they want to interfere with him with a style of teacher teaching, or they feel he's grading too harder or so forth. But what's really going on here is this the sixties. And academia is really changing. The Civil Rights Movement is going on the Women's Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, the AntiWar Movement is going on. College, higher education is changing very quickly. A lot of these movements have huge platforms in the academy now. And Tom was of a different era. He was trying to teach the way he had been taught. And that was coming into conflict with the direction that academia was heading. And so I think ultimately this comes to a head at Cornell in the late sixties when he's there for the big student riots that were there on campus and the takeover of school buildings by armed students. And I think by the time he was done at Cornell in the late sixties, he was really had one foot out the door of teaching. I think he said, "this is not for me." He carried on for another decade at various institutions, but he did step up during the seventies his public intellectualism. He started doing more public speaking. He started writing more. And for more general audiences as well, newspapers and magazines and places like that. And so I think throughout the seventies he was gradually moving out of teaching. He eventually gets his tenure at UCLA and is on there for a while. And then he leaves in 1988 to Hoover.

Peter Robinson: To the Hoover Institution. And you say that for the Hoover Institution, where there is no teaching, some people at the Hoover Institution get joined appointments with Stanford and teach in various departments at Stanford. Tom did not. He devoted himself to writing books. And you describe the Hoover Institution. The word you use is for him it was heaven.

Jason Riley: Oh yeah, no office hours.

Peter Robinson: You just told, you just described the story. He had tenure at UCLA in a typical academic career, tenure at a major institution such as UCLA that's heaven. So what's going on here, Jason? Why is it that being just left alone at the Hoover Institution is heaven for him from the time he's what, he's in his fifth, he's close to 50, I guess, at this stage?

Jason Riley: In 1980, when he joined Hoover is 50. Tom didn't wanna deal with the campus politics. And I don't just mean that in terms of...

Peter Robinson: He just wanted out.

Jason Riley: ... various movements just the faculty lounge politics. That isn't what he wanted to do. He wanted to teach. And he really preferred to teach at a smaller university. But Tom through the sixties and seventies Tom had established himself as really a first rate scholar. He could have had tenure anywhere. He could have had tenure at Cornell. He turned down Ivy League posts. That wasn't the issue that wasn't the goal for him. Tom wanted to reach students and education had been such a path for him to get where he had gone in life. He just really wanted to share what he had learned with others in the classroom in that setting. He wanted to do it more than you want to do research and all the rest, but he was not willing to compromise his principles to do that when it came to things like grading or interference from administrators and his teaching style. And so if you don't play nice with others and that sort of way it's hard to make it in the academy. And then what Hoover offered Tom was the ability to write and to research and no teaching duties, no classroom hours and so forth. And so I think he's been quite happy to. I do think Peter, I'll say this and I get into it a little bit in the book there's a trade off here as with everything as Tom would tell you himself. There are academics out there you're Milton Friedman's or you're Richard Epstein's come to mind who stuck it out and teach. And as a result that had thousands of graduate students that have studied under them and gone out there and set similar things. and then some of the things with their lives. Had Tom stuck it out and teaching maybe we'd have a small army of Tom Sowell out there in the world today. And that would be a good thing. So there are trade-offs and there are some people who think they wish he had stuck it out in academia, but if he sticks it out in academia I think he becomes probably a lot less productive in terms of the books that he's written and the columns that are .

Peter Robinson: I remember doing an interview with Tom. I think he was 87 years old, 86 or 87. And I read to him a list of a dozen titles, a dozen. And I said, "Tom, do you know what these have in common?" And he said, "well, they're books by me, but no what do they have in common?" And I said "those are all books you've published since turning 80." The productivity is staggering. We don't have time to go through all the books but you spend a lot of time on the trilogy of books that he wrote on culture. Let' discuss this. This is in some ways his major achievement during the Hoover Institution years. He publishes these three books during the nineties Race and Culture in 1994, Migrations and Culture is 97 and Conquests and Culture is 99. Maverick, I'm quoting your book, Jason. "Most analysis of social and economic intergroup differences focus on the immediate surroundings in which people live. Sowell concluded that it isn't the immediate environment per se but cultural values and human capital, skills, work habits, saving propensities, attitudes toward education and entrepreneurship develop sometimes over long periods of time that are the more dominant factors in explaining disparities." All right, explain that immediate surrounding the immediate environment versus the larger questions of time and culture that is to say as built up over time. What help expand on that if you will?

Jason Riley: Well, one of the ways Tom has talked about this as the sort of Petri dish you had on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the first half of the 20th century where you had immigrants coming from everywhere from Russia, Jewish students, you had Italians and Irish and you put all these kids in the same class in front of the same teacher and you were getting wildly different outcomes. And people were saying, "shouldn't they we have equal outcomes if all these kids are sitting in the same?" They're the same age. They're sitting in front of the same teacher for the same hours every day. And Tom said, "well, they're in the same environment if the environment you're talking about is their immediate surroundings" He says, but when the, in Italy where those children of Italian immigrants came, he says, "when they put in compulsory school laws in Italy school houses burned because the parents did not want their kids in school. They wanted them to start working as soon as possible. That was more important to them." And then he says, "but if you look at Czarist Russia where most of the greater population was illiterate even there most Jews had books in their homes which gives you a sense of their value of education. So you take that Jewish kid from that tradition and that culture, you can take that Italian kid from this other tradition culture and you put them in the same classroom. No, you should not expect the same outcomes or that they're gonna be getting the same results as a result of being in proximity to one another." And so what Tom is talking about is as again, the primacy of culture and human capital and he takes it further, Tom says that and he's documented this in cases, not only here within the United States, but globally as he so often does with his international comparisons. He said, he's talked about how those groups those minority racial and ethnic groups who do have that human capital can withstand all kinds of bad treatment from the surrounding majority population. That, that human capital is far more important to them than having people who look like them in political office with political power. It's more important than any special program you can set up for these people, government program that you can set up with these people. If you have this human capital, it can overcome all kinds of adversity that a group may face. And that is why he put he places so much emphasis on it. And it's of a piece with his wanting to be an educator and again the value of an education and in a group rising from poverty prosperity. And so for example, he would, you look at a group like the Japanese Americans who came here and out in California were where you are. They couldn't own land for a period of time when they first arrived. They were interned during World War II unjustly, yet Japanese Americans outperform white Americans academically and economically and have for decades, despite the fact that they had been treated this way. And then there you have groups like Back Americans outperforming Mexican Americans or Puerto Rican Americans, even though no one would argue that Mexicans or Puerto Rican's have face more discrimination than black people have in America. So again, Sowell says that this whole idea that you can point to discrimination as the reason we have any quality is undermined by the case of groups that have cultural capital, human capital being discriminated against and rising now withstanding that discrimination.

Peter Robinson: This leads into the first problem in the trilogy is understanding these intergroup differences and recognize the importance of the wider culture. Again, I'm quoting you in Maverick for second order problem that the trilogy addresses. "The second order problem was the attempt by public policy makers to help lagging groups." Another brief clip if you would, Jason.

[Video clip starts] Peter Robinson: These are people who are so low they don't even count in the caste system.

Thomas Sowell: No, that's right. True to the treated abominably. And so it's understandable people would want to do something to make things better for them. What actually happened however, is that extremely if you want untouchables actually able to make use of any of these preferences and quotas.

Peter Robinson: The preferences in quarters are for hiring or education, or what form do they take?

Thomas Sowell: Both there are actually for hiring, for education for seats in parliament, but of course for all those things you have to have various complimentary resources. So it doesn't do you any good if you're somebody out in a little village where you're struggling to make ends meet that there's a place reserved for you at the medical school and you're, you'll be lucky if you can make it to high school. [Video clip ends]

Peter Robinson: He was talking there about India and affirmative action programs for the untouchable cast and how they just didn't work. But I have questions about that but here's the first question. Talk from them about the scholarship, the sheer addition that implies that he studied affirmative action in India for goodness sake.

Jason Riley: He wrote a book, the Power of Action Around the World and it's an empirical study of this. And the same with welfare programs. He's studied them here in America. He studied them in Britain. He studied them and that's why he is become so condensed that what hasn't worked here hasn't worked anywhere. So I'm not shocked that we spent trillions of dollars on redistribution policies in the US since the 1960s. And yet we still have these gaps because that's been tried in other places at other times, and it hasn't worked in those other places and those other times as well. So he is brilliant at thinking outside of America when it comes to addressing these problems. And I think too many others don't do that. They don't bring that sort of international perspective to these to their work that Tom does. And that's one of the things, one of the ways I think he's really distinguished himself. You mentioned any of that. He studied affirmative action programs throughout Southeast Asia. And for instance, how the ethnic Chinese have been discriminated against and yet had have risen a nation after nation Singapore and so far Malaysia above the native population despite the fact that they've been locked out of certain industries, locked out of certain types of schooling and so forth. It hasn't mattered.

Peter Robinson: Right, Tom's latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies which he published as he turned 90 years old. The book is a study of what does work which of course is education. And in particular, he studies charter schools in New York city in Harlem, where he himself grew up and the good results that these schools are producing. Not just good in some ways astonishing results where the kids are largely black and Hispanic and their scores compare favorably with those of white kids out in the fancy suburbs. Okay, and then you get teachers unions and Mayor De Blasio attempting to force these schools. Here's another clip, Jason. And by the way, we recorded this interview with Tom on his 90th birthday, Tom, would you read the closing passage from Charter Schools and Their Enemies?

Jason Riley: This is especially important when considering children from a cultural background lacking the advantages that are common among children born into more fortunate circumstances. Children who have not received at home the educational behavioral, the other foundation, the making the most of their natural ability must get those things in school. These are the plain and the harsh realities of circumstances. The stakes are huge, not only for children whose education can be one clear ticket for a better chat middle life but also for a whole society that needs more productive members fulfilling themselves while contributing their talents to the progress of the community at large. Children who emerge from their education with a mastery of mathematics, the English language and other fun fundamentals are ready to be those kinds of people, regardless of what color or class they come from. No narrow vested interests of adults, whether financial, political or ideological should be allowed to block that.

Peter Robinson: Is that what his work comes down to? Education.

Jason Riley: I really think it does. I've said if that, I hope he writes another book of Peter, but if that does happen to be his swan song I think it will be a very fitting one. He's written extensively about education particularly about black education over pioneering work that he did about black high schools, black grade schools, the work that he started writing about back in the seventies, and this was that's this book would be quite a swan song. And I put it in the context though, Peter, of what the left has is doing to these poor communities. You think about it. They want to defund the policing of these communities. They wanna take away the highest performing schools in these communities, these charter schools. Their policies their welfare state policies have already destroyed the black family. If you take away safe neighborhoods, good schools and intact families, what do these people have left Peter? And this is system systematically what is happening. And I think Tom is absolutely right. You, if these kids don't have a decent education what hope do they have? And he gets that. He's gotten that for a long, long time. And he spent a lifetime, a professional lifetime trying to explain it to others. And one of the things I've always been fascinated with is how late a start he got and how productive he's been. As you mentioned, he didn't graduate from Harvard get his undergraduate to undergraduate degree until he was 28 years old. He didn't publish his first book until he was 40. Think about that.

Peter Robinson: By the way, Tom once said, I can't remember whether we captured this on camera or whether it was equip off camera but we were talking about his education at Harvard. And he said, "well, the principle benefit of a Harvard degree is that you never again in all your life have to be intimidated by anybody who has a Harvard degree." Jason, I'm going to quote you again in Maverick. His books on racial issues. We haven't talked about these and honestly, in a certain sense I'm leery about talking about them, because one of the things you do in your book is situate him, It's his magnificent capacious mind who ranges across economics and history and culture and even gets into disputes on genetics. And you refuse to permit him to be viewed as a black conservative. You refuse to permit this remarkable mind and this huge body of work to be reduced to just that. On the other hand, there is that in the work. So to discuss it at least, civil rights rhetoric or reality, black rednecks and white liberals discrimination and disparities there are a number of books, important books on race in America, Maverick quote, your book. "Sowell books on racial issues were written out of a personal sense of duty." And here you quote Tom himself, "because there were things I thought needed saying and I knew that other people were reluctant to say them." And what were the things that needed saying, education?

Jason Riley: What needed saying I think was the civil rights leadership as Tom would put it was barking up the wrong tree that their pivot away from equal opportunity toward equal results was the wrong way to go. And the opportunity cost involved here. Tom would say I've been tragic. A because equal results are part of that utopian vision of the world that are unrealistic. The left has this view is that the natural state of things are equal outcomes or proportionate outcomes. There's something approaching proportionate outcomes and income or representation in certain professions or employment and so forth. Whereas people who have actually studied societies around the world have been confined no evidence that this is the natural state of things. And yet you have this whole civil rights division, premised on the notion that where we don't see proportionate outcomes, something is wrong. Something is a mess, and it is discrimination. And that will be our focus. And Tom says that, that was just the wrong focus. And so since the 1960s, the left has spent a lot of time trying to elect black officials, put blacks into office thinking if we have the political power all the rest will take care of itself. And Tom has says, no, that is something, again has international perspectives that has generally not worked for other groups and the ones who have tried it have risen to prosperity the slowest. So it can work but it's a very inefficient way to go and it's not the way the black leadership should be going. So it was those types of things that need what also needed to be said to Tom is that is how harmful many of these policies aimed to help blacks have been. Policies like affirmative action. And you have the situation in California with admissions into the university system. So this history of back in 1996, University of California, race-based admissions were banned. And after that ban went into place, black graduation rates actually went up and not by a little bit. Hispanic graduation rates actually went up. So a policy that had been put in place to help grow to swell the ranks of the black middle class had in practice resulted in fewer black doctors and lawyers and engineers and so forth than we would have had in the absence of a policy. So the point is that these policies are not just been wrong. They've in some cases been detrimental to the interest of blacks. And that is what needed to be said. And that is what too few others were willing to say out loud.

Peter Robinson: Jason, Tom writes a lot about this and you do too. And it is what, I don't know if there's a term for it but it's, to me it's like a last century of American history, where from the end of the civil war from the end of slavery to a century later, that is to say right up until the moment the civil rights legislation goes through. African-Americans make progress of all kinds. Now, of course, they're starting at a very low disadvantage rate, but families remain cohesive and intact, the black education, the huge attainments in education, large attainments in income. And then the civil rights legislation is enacted. And here you quote, actually, this is, let me quote you. This is not quoting Tom. This is your characterization of an argument. Maverick, "even as blacks were increasing their political clout in the seventies and 1980s." This is as a result of, or at least subsequent to the civil rights legislation of the mid sixties. "Even as blacks were increasing their political clout, black welfare dependency was rising as was black crime, black teen unemployment and birth to two black women. None of this surprised Sowell." And that is because he knew the history.

Jason Riley: Right, he knew the history so much as he said. So much of what is described by the left today as a legacy of slavery or a legacy of Jim Crow is in reality a legacy of the great society. If you look at the trend lines of that's so obvious and whether you're looking at income trend lines, single parenting, crime, educational attainment, you saw accelerated you saw growth in the, and movement, I should say in the right direction at a much, much faster pace in the first half of the 20th century than you did beginning after the great society programs of the 1960s were enacted. And you mentioned the political clout that the blacks were gaining in starting in the 1970s and so forth. Tom's point is that political claut didn't, couldn't help us return to those trends that we saw in the first half of the 20th century. And that's the point. It's not to say that blacks shouldn't engage politically or that we didn't need to pass the voting rights act or civil rights act. Tom supported all that. His claim was that this isn't gonna to do it. This isn't gonna be the silver bullet. This is not gonna be the key to black advancement. It's not gonna do what proponents think it's gonna do.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Jason Riley: And that has been Tom's point and tragically has been proven right about all of this. And he was saying it back at the time back in the 1960s, when this legislation was first being considered.

Peter Robinson: Tom, on the present moment reparations hearing again, one last time let's look at a brief clip. Longish quotation, but it sets something up. But from Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article in the Atlantic entitled the Case for Reparations. "White supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it. And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices. What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal." And Tom Sowell makes what of that?

Jason Riley: I will explain it. That tells me not me. I've made the right decision not to read it Atlantic for decades. Slavery is a very big subject. I have in my home an entire bookcase of nothing things and books about slavery and various parts of the world and various times of history. And the sad fact is that slavery has been a universal institution for thousands of years as far back as you can trace human history. And what we're looking at is if slavery is something that happened to one race of people in one country, when in fact the spread of it was around the world. In 1776, which is when Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nation as well as when the United States got started. He said that Western Europe is the only place in the world where there is no slavery. And even in Western, even the Western Europeans had vast numbers of slaves in the Western hemisphere. But not in Western Europe itself. And so if you're gonna have reparations for slavery is gonna be the greatest of wealth back and forth, and between and cross hauling as they say in the railroads, because the number of whites, for example, who were enslaved in North Africa by the Barbary pirates exceeded the number of Africans enslaved in the United States and in the American colonies before that put together. I know, but nobody is going to North Africa to ask for reparations because nobody is gonna to be fool enough to give it to them. If we have intellectuals who can imagine a different history from the rest of the world, even though it's so similar to the rest of the world.

Peter Robinson: Maverick, your book. "Thomas Sowell has not gained iconic status by going against the grain of most blacks. He's done so by taking on the thinking of most black intellectuals. Explain that, Jason.

Jason Riley: Tom is often asked in interviews what it feels like to go against the grain of other blacks in his thinking about things. And he always stops and corrects the interviewer and says, "I'm not going against the grain of other blacks. I'm going against the grain of other black intellectuals. And there's a difference." He says, these black intellectuals don't represent black people anymore than white intellectuals represented white people. There are these intellectuals are acting in their own self-interests and he shouldn't conflate the two. And I guess in today's parlance we would say that Sowell has been canceled. And this is something that the left, the black left in particular did to him a long time ago or they wanted to make him someone that you do not take seriously. Someone whose opinion does not matter. And because the left controls largely the intellectual circles be it in academia, be it in the foundation world, be it in the committees that give out awards and prizes to scholars. They have effectively canceled Thomas Sowell. And I don't think he's deserved his do for his scholarship. And it's why we, more people know who Ta-Nehisi Coates is or Ibram Kendi is, or Henry Louis Gates or Cornell West then know who Thomas Sowell is. Even though Tom scholarship is not only far broader but far deeper and more rigorous and its analysis and its methodology than those guys he's working circles around them. And the reason I think is that the left has effectively canceled Tom and it's too bad. I'm it's one of the reasons to both write the book and narrate the documentary. I think more people should know about Tom and his work.

Peter Robinson: Jason, two final questions here. Here's the first. You quote a letter that Tom wrote to his best friend, Walter Williams, whom we lost just last year. And Tom says that as you note elsewhere in Maverick, there was a time when they decided that they'd never traveled on the same airplane because of the plane went down the black conservative movement would be wiped out. So Tom writes this. "Today we know that there are lots of other blacks writing and many of them are sufficiently younger that we know there will be good people carrying on the fight after we are gone." All right, this brings me to you. It's impossible not to think. When you start asking about legacy, you think, Jason. How does this does this series, seriously because he means so much to you. You agree with him on the fundamentals. There's so many ways in which when you write a column in the Wall Street Journal I feel this at least when I'm reading it, correct me if I'm mischaracterize it, but through your carrying on of course your work is always original and fresh to you, but you're working in a tradition and Tom is Tom stands on that tradition. All right. On the other hand, he's canceled. We have the black lives matters movement and riots and a kind of woke revolution that's taken place in the last year. How do you feel, are you trying to engage in a dignified defense of a lost cause? Or do you see an opening here for progress in your generation?

Jason Riley: I'm a little pessimistic Peter, to be honest. I mean, it may be, I didn't know if it would, if it's actually possible, but I might be more pessimistic than Tom Sowell about something.

Peter Robinson: That's not easy to do but keep talking.

Jason Riley: I'm not sure that I share the optimism he expressed in that letter. Though that letter comes from the early two thousands. So it predates a little bit of what we've been seeing.

Peter Robinson: What we've just been through.

Jason Riley: Most recently with the rise of Black Lives Matter and so forth. If we could use a sports analogy, I don't know that black conservatism has the firm team that the other side has. It seems to me that when you're a Cornell West are gone there's gonna be a whole army of Ta-Nehisi Coates is in Hebrew, Max Kennedy's along behind them. I don't see a whole army of Tom Sowell out there. I see more than I used to. But I think right now the progressive left including the black progressive left is ascendant. You see it in critical race theory dominating conversations outside of academia getting into our workplace diversity training and now into our elementary schools. This horrifies me. It really does. I'm gonna continue doing what I do as a journalist. And if you read Thomas Sowell, inklings of Thomas Sowell in my writing, that is definitely by design. That is absolutely the case. He has been a huge influence on my thinking. And I have consciously try to carry on in that tradition. And so like I said, I see more than I used to in terms of the type of scholarship that Tom pioneered. But wish I saw more.

Peter Robinson: All right. Last question. The playwright Clare Boothe Luce used to say, "it doesn't matter how significant a figure is history we'll give him one sentence." Churchill defeated Hitler. Lincoln saved the union. What one sentence should history give to Tom Sowell?

Jason Riley: Maverick Intellectual.

Peter Robinson: Very nice. Jason Riley, the author of Maverick, a biography of Thomas Sowell. Thank you, Jason.

Jason Riley: Thank you, Peter enjoy.

Peter Robinson: And now go take care, I see that little yellow hand has been over your shoulder. There's a child in your family who may be wondering where daddy is right about now. But thanks, Jason.

Jason Riley: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.

overlay image