A Personal Odyssey

Monday, April 30, 2001

In some ways, my life was much like that of many other blacks growing up in New York during the 1930s and 1940s. In other ways, it was quite different. It was still more different from the lives of blacks growing up in urban ghettoes during a later era. My life has been an even more radical contrast with the lives of many other black intellectuals, activists and political "leaders" and "spokesmen."

Perhaps most important, I grew up with no fear of whites, either physically or intellectually. Had I remained in the South, such fear might have become necessary for survival in adulthood, assuming that I would have survived. But fear is all too often the enemy of rational thought. Many blacks during the 1960s (and later) were inordinately impressed with strident loudmouths whose chief claim to fame was that they "stood up to the white man." As someone who first decked a white guy at age 12, and who last did it at age 35, I was never really impressed by such credentials—and certainly did not regard them as a substitute for knowing what you were talking about.

With all the vicissitudes of my life, and the long years of living close to despair, nevertheless in retrospect I can see that I was lucky in many ways—not only in escaping permanent harm in many dicey situations, but also in more general ways, both genetically and environmentally. It was clear from meeting my brothers and my sister in adulthood that much of my ability was simply inherited. This was true not only of the general level of ability but also of the particular type of ability—namely, analytical reasoning of the sort found in mathematics, science, chess, and economics—as distinguished from the kind of ability required in poetry or politics, where my achievements have been virtually non-existent.

I have had a lasting respect for the common sense of ordinary people, a factor routinely ignored by the intellectuals among whom I would later make my career.

My brother Charles, though valedictorian of his high school class, never had an opportunity to go on to college. Yet he trained himself in electronics sufficiently well to build his own ham radio transmitter and his own stereo systems. Later, after some small formal training in electronics, he became sufficiently knowledgeable about electronic mail-sorting equipment to be made a supervisor in that department in the Washington post office and to be sent around the country by the postal authorities to advise local post offices on the installation and operation of the new system. Of Charles’ two sons, one became a mathematics teacher and the other received a Ph.D. in mathematical economics at Princeton.

One of Mary Frances’ teenage granddaughters was tested for a program for mathematically precocious children at Johns Hopkins University and also received a summer scholarship, while in high school, for a special program in computer science at Brandeis University. My brother Lonnie became an engineer whose research advanced the development of both rocket and aircraft engines. His sons went on to become engineers as well.

My own children have tested consistently higher for mathematical ability than for verbal ability. My son was on his high school chess team that competed for a national championship and he graduated from college with a degree in statistics, with a specialty in computer science.

Mathematics was always my best subject throughout my school years. Unfortunately, a whole decade away from math eroded my skills and denied me the foundation needed to develop much further in this field, so environment obviously had its influence as well. Nevertheless, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman said to me: "Although you don’t have that much mathematics, you have a mathematical kind of mind."

I didn’t learn chess until I was in my thirties, which is much too late to develop your full potential. I could beat other duffers who played an occasional game at lunchtime, but not many tournament players. Checkers was a different story because I played checkers as a child. When I first met my brother Lonnie, when we were both young men, we spent the evening playing checkers—each being astonished whenever the other won a game. At that time, I usually had only victories and draws. Judging from his reactions, apparently his experience was similar.

Some remarkable similarities in personality traits also showed up between me and my siblings, even though we were raised in separate households hundreds of miles apart. The most common characteristic was that most of us were loners. This was brought home to me when I passed through Washington on my way out to California in 1969. We stopped at the home of Charles’ former wife, and waited there for him to come over and join us. Meanwhile, my son went outside to play with kids in the neighborhood. When Charles arrived, I said:

"Let me take you outside to meet my son."

"I’ve already met him," Charles said. "We’ve had a long conversation."

"How did you know who he was?" I asked.

Charles smiled indulgently.

"Tommy," he said, "when I see a dozen kids, all doing the same thing, and in the midst of them is one kid who is doing something entirely different, I don’t have to guess which one is our mother’s grandson."

Charles himself was a prime example of a similar pattern of marching to his own drummer. During one of the ghetto riots of the 1960s, Charles was out in the midst of the rioters, asking them such questions as: "After you burn down this man’s store, where are you going to shop?"

It never occurred to Charles that a riot is not the place for a Socratic dialogue. Apparently there is no gene for politic behavior in our family.

Although marching to your own drummer has its down side, both personally and professionally, it also made me no stranger to controversy, decades before my controversies became public. Without already being pre-hardened against vilification, my research and writings on racial issues would not have been possible.

Although the environment in which I grew up was very deficient in the kinds of things measured by sociologists and economists, it nevertheless provided some of the key ingredients for advancement. I was, for much of my formative period, an only child in contact with four adults who took an interest in me, even if they were not all under the same roof all the time. Contrast that with being one of several children being raised by a single woman—or, worse yet, a teenage girl. The amount of adult time per child was many times greater in my case.

With all that I went through, it now seems in retrospect almost as if someone had decided that there should be a man with all the outward indications of disadvantage, who nevertheless had the key inner advantages needed to advance.

Although none of these adults had much education, and certainly no knowledge as to what was good or bad education, the adults who raised me cared enough about my development to see to it that I met another boy who could be a guide to me. Meeting him was another remarkable—and crucial—piece of good fortune.

The luck of passing through particular places at particular times was also on my side. Some of my happiest times were spent in the South, though I was very fortunate to leave before I would have fallen irretrievably far behind in the inferior schools provided for Southern blacks—and before I would have had to confront the corrosive racism faced by black adults. In New York, I passed through the public schools at a time when they were better than they had been for the European immigrant children of a generation earlier and far better than they would be for black children of a later era.

Once, when my niece in New York was lamenting that she had not done more with her educational opportunities, she said: "I went to the same school you went to, Uncle Tommy."

"No," I said. "You went to the same building I went to, but it was no longer the same school."

The family in which she was raised was also no longer the same family that it was when I was growing up. Her parents were no longer a carefree young married couple, with time and money to spare, and an upbeat outlook on the new world of New York. They were now care-worn parents, preoccupied with trying to cope with multiple hardships, punctuated by tragedy. Although my niece came ultimately to live in the same apartment in which I had grown up a decade before her, the life in that apartment was now even more bitter than that which had sent me out into the world at 17.

My early struggle to make a new life for myself under precarious economic conditions put me in daily contact with people who were neither well-educated nor particularly genteel, but who had practical wisdom far beyond what I had—and I knew it. It gave me a lasting respect for the common sense of ordinary people, a factor routinely ignored by the intellectuals among whom I would later make my career. This was a blind spot in much of their social analysis which I did not have to contend with.

With all that I went through, it now seems in retrospect almost as if someone had decided that there should be a man with all the outward indications of disadvantage, who nevertheless had the key inner advantages needed to advance.

The timing of that advance was also fortuitous. My academic career began two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and I received tenure a year before federal "goals and timetables" were mandated under affirmative action policies. The books that made the key differences in my career—Say’s Law, whose manuscript was crucial to my receiving tenure at U.C.L.A., and Knowledge and Decisions, which brought an offer of appointment as Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution—were both books on non-racial themes. Altogether, these facts spared me the hang-ups afflicting many other black intellectuals, who were haunted by the idea that they owed their careers to affirmative action or to the fact that writings on race had become fashionable. I knew that I could write for a whole decade without writing a single book or article on race—because, in fact, I had done that during the 1960s.

Timing was on my side in another way. I happened to come along right after the worst of the old discrimination was no longer there to impede me and just before racial quotas made the achievements of blacks look suspect. That kind of luck cannot be planned.

Although the environment in which I grew up was very deficient in the kinds of things measured by sociologists and economists, it nevertheless provided some of the key ingredients for advancement.

Crucial pieces of good fortune like these would have made it ridiculous for me to have offered other blacks the kind of advice which the media so often accused me of offering—to follow in my footsteps and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The addiction of the intelligentsia to catchwords like "bootstraps" has made it all but impossible to have even a rational discussion of many issues. As for following in my footsteps, many of the paths I took had since been destroyed by misguided social policy, so that the same quality of education was no longer available to most ghetto youngsters, though there was never a time in history when education was more important.

Most of my writings on public policy issues in general, and on racial issues in particular, were directed toward the public or toward policy-makers, and tried to show where one policy would be better than another. These writings were not advice directed toward less fortunate people as to how they could cope with their misfortunes. I am not Dear Abby. My hope was obviously that better policies would reduce those misfortunes. Nevertheless, clever media interviewers insisted on asking me such questions as: "But what do you say to the welfare mother or to the ghetto youth?"

I cannot imagine what would have led anybody to think that I was writing handbooks for welfare mothers or ghetto youths, or that either would be reading them, if I were. Even worse were suggestions that I thought that too many benefits were being given to minorities, whether by the government or by other institutions. Yet, from the very beginning, I have argued that many of these "benefits" were not in fact beneficial, except to a relative handful of middle-class people who ran the programs or who were otherwise in some special advantageous position. Whether or not I was correct in my analysis or conclusions, that was the issue raised—and the issue evaded by red herrings about "bootstraps" and the like.

By and large, my books on racial controversies attracted more media attention and had larger sales than my books on economics, politics, or the history of ideas. However, the books on racial issues were not written as an intellectual outlet, but because there were things I thought needed saying and I knew that other people were reluctant to say them. More than one colleague has suggested to me that I would be better off to stop writing about race and to return to the things in which I did my best professional work—books on economics like Knowledge and Decisions or books on ideas like A Conflict of Visions and The Quest for Cosmic Justice.

What, if anything, will endure from what I have written is of course something that I will never know. Nor is what I have said and done enhanced or reduced by my personal life, however fashionable amateur psychology has become. What has been done stands or falls on its own merits or applicability.

The whole point of looking back on my life, aside from the pleasure of sharing reminiscences, is to hope that others will find something useful for their own lives. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best:

If I could think that I had sent a spark to those who come after I should be ready to say Goodbye.