Race and Culture: A World View

March 1 st 1995

Basic Books, 1994, 331 pp., $19.50

Anti-black racism has been a presence in American life since the days of slavery, and it continues. Today, redress for these past wrongs is being sought through "affirmative action."

Women charge men with discrimination, in every aspect of life, from the beginning of time. Now, they seek to set right these past wrongs through state imposition of pay and employment equity measures.

Native people accuse the white man of having broken treaty promises and of having enacted a consciously racist, soul-destroying, dependency-producing paternalism. They look to reverse the consequences of their conquered nation status by balkanizing an existing sovereign state through the establishment of another sovereign nation within its borders.

In all of these "movements," two common elements can be discerned. First, each attempts to redress today the wrongs of the past, even if this may require doing a grave injustice to those who are innocent of those past transgressions. Second, each relies heavily on presenting a rediscovery or reinterpretation of the historical record to support their contentions.

In Race and Culture, Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, takes issue with those who would play "historical revisionism" in order to achieve their political and social ends. He reveals their factual errors, selective memories, and interpretive screens. Sowell has written this readable, scholarly work to protect the integrity of history. But his intention is not merely to debunk someone's pet theory, although he does that often and well. He is also attempting to persuade us to take the long, and essentially hopeful view, of history—the view that recognizes that, given time, injustice is often righted and that no group is permanently on the bottom. Such a view would be more willing to work patiently for change, rather than forcing change and perpetrating even more wrongs.

Cultural differences

A simple, yet profound, contribution of this book is a heightened appreciation for human, cultural, economic, and resource limitations. In large measure we have to work within the constraints of what we've got. Some cultures do better at it than others, making them more successful. Sowell demonstrates that those societies that emphasize and attempt to develop in their members personal traits that favour hard work, putting aside for tomorrow, etc., are more likely to do well socially and economically in the world than those that do not emphasize these traits. For instance, after comparing several countries, he says: "It was not simply that people from different parts of Europe were richer or poorer. They differed more fundamentally in the extent to which they had the kinds of skills, experience, work habits, and general aptitude which developed in modern industrial and commercial societies, and which would be in demand in other modern industrial and commercial societies." In other words, it is not the case that the only difference between rich nations and poor is that the rich ones have more money! Nor is it the case that the rich ones are simply exploiting the poor to the tatter's detriment.

Clearly, Sowell is not a multicultural relativist who maintains that all cultures are essentially the same. On the contrary, he demonstrates that certain cultural achievements are, from any perspective, superior to others. For instance, Arabic numerals outclass Roman numerals by any yardstick. And the invention of the "zero" is also in an exalted category of achievement not equalled by many other cultures. There are differences in cultural achievement that cannot be denied.

There are two criticisms necessary, however. Although Sowell has a refreshingly unsentimental view of history, he does not give sufficient attention to the moral requirements that history presents to us (for example, slavery). We cannot always be content to wait. Secondly, Sowell does not recognize that history is not deterministic but falls solidly within God's providential concern. It is through history that He works out His plans for the human race. History does not operate on its own. God has something to teach us through it. On that point, at least, Sowell would agree.

In sum, this is a first-rate book, especially for those who are fascinated with the worldwide economic and social development of man and his societies. It is a needed and intelligent counterpoint to those who like to argue that human and societal differences, if even acknowledged, are simply about exploitation, racism, slavery, and conquest.


W. J. Douglas Ball is the secretary of the national board of the Christian Labour Association of Canada.