Thomas Sowell: Discrimination and Disparities


A revised and enlarged edition of Thomas Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities, first published last year, has been published. This is not a full review. My review of that first edition see “Poisoned by Welfare”, The Salisbury Review, vol. 37 no. 1, pp. 49-51, Autumn 2018. The main changes are the addition of two new chapters (nos. five and seven), though there are other changes throughout. This edition of 308pp compares to the 179pp of the first edition, although the second edition has marginally larger font. We should recap Sowell’s arguments.

Sowell describes how discrimination can be interpreted two ways. The first is the exercise of general prejudice; the other is as informed judgment. Sowell’s point is that these are variations of the same function: discerning differences. The question is merely the accuracy and detail of these assessments. He sorts discrimination into judgment at an individual level and at a group level. So a person can judge another person on their individual qualities, skills and personality or he/she can judge on broader group criteria: age, gender, place of residence, nationality, ethnicity and so forth. Obviously, the first level provides more detailed and accurate information about the subject but the cost (in terms of money and time) is much higher to assessing at a group level. Sometimes sorting individuals at a low-detail group level is the only viable method when time or money is short.

Sowell points out that disparities exist in all areas of geography and human geography. Some countries are rich in resources and others poor. Mountain regions have poor populations; lowland areas by navigable waterways have richer ones. Wealth and crime are also unevenly spread. Among people height, health conditions, physical attributes and so forth vary between populations and between individuals. A startling fact is that there is a measurable and constant pattern of (on average) first-born children being more intelligent than their younger siblings, with an average of declining intelligence for later-born children. Even within the same settings, social conditioning and genetic make-up in family members, uneven but predictable distributions form.

Sowell uses statistics on crime and income to show that culture rather than residual or active racism are the main contribution to the disparities that black Americans face. He shows that in certain circumstances that blacks do better than whites.

“The poverty rate of married blacks is not only lower than that of blacks as a whole, but in some years has also been lower than that of whites as a whole. In 2016, for example, the poverty rate for blacks was 22 percent, for whites was 11 percent, and for black married couples was 7.5 percent. Do racists care whether someone black is married or unmarried? If not, then why do married blacks escape poverty so much more often than other blacks, if racism is the main reason for black poverty? If the continuing effects of past evils such as slavery play a major causal role today, were the ancestors of today’s black married couples exempt from slavery and other injustices?”

He suggests a number of factors which contribute to blacks having lower income than whites, noting that at certain times and locations black Americans overall had higher income than white Americans. Sowell’s position is that cultural and actuarial factors influence the disparities noted in income differences by ethnicity. Incomes vary partly according to age, with young workers being more junior and lower skilled, thus lower paid than older workers. The median age of Japanese Americans is 51; the median age of Mexican Americans is 27. Therefore at least some of the disparity in median income between the groups is due to career progression. Sowell adduces from the notable successes of Asian-Americans and Indian-British transcend any supposed racism and that a culture of hard work, educational attainment and familial stability leave this group with decided advantages over other ethnic groups. Sowell provides little comfort to those seeking a genetic/racial explanation for disparities, just as he likewise undermines those who believe “structural racism” or “the legacy of slavery” have systematically disadvantaged groups.

In the new chapter 5, “The World of Words”, the author looks at the way words are distorted and redefined by elites (principally through education and the media) to strengthen the preferred cases or misrepresent detrimental actions in a positive light. Sowell has previously expressed his suspicion of elites imposing their visions upon the general population and preventing revealed preferences of individuals influencing the markets. In relation to explaining disparities and discrimination, language is used to disguise the truth. Those with an authoritarian outlook justify tightening their grip on control and directing power by presenting that as a matter of assisting the disadvantaged, all the while assuming they know what the causal factors for the disparities are.

Sowell points out that the famed “1%” is an income category which individuals move in and out of, not a lifelong descriptor of specific individuals. Couples and families have financial mobility, as do individuals who progress (and sometimes regress) in terms of financial income throughout their careers. “The 1%” is shorthand for the undeserving rich. This group is viewed as a “problem” and groups of the self-righteous discuss how they might punitively appropriate the goods of the 1%. “Privilege” is a description not derived from statistical standards but a vague term applied tactically as an argumentative device. Nowadays we are acquainted with the use of “violence” to mean the upset caused by an infraction or insult (actual or perceived). It seems like a neologism, so readers may be surprised to learn that this conflation of physical injury and metaphorical harm dates back at least as far as 1964.

The final chapter tackles “solutions” to the “problems” of disparities. As anyone familiar with Sowell’s work will be unsurprised to learn, Sowell places little trust in the efficacy of imposed systems derived without evidence. Such solutions often fail to produce the expected results, sometimes produce detrimental results and even unintended consequences that cause difficulties. (“Surrogate decision-makers often pay no price for being wrong, no matter how wrong or how catastrophic the consequences for those whose decisions they have pre-empted.”) So Sowell’s suggestions are to evaluate people according to productivity not moral merit and advocate for better education. He states that we do better to have process goals (free markets, transparent laws) rather than outcome goals (income equality, gender parity in employment). The latter approach smacks of an ideologue’s shaping of the world to the way he/she thinks it ought to be, as opposed to the liberal pragmatist who sees life as a matter of trade-offs and attempting to reduce interference in private choice.

As is usual for Sowell’s books, Discrimination and Disparities is written in lucid plain English, with thorough statistical grounding given in the footnotes. Sowell’s considerable work in this area while researching previous books serves him well. Using his knowledge of the international employment, wealth, productivity and legal discrimination give him perspective that American-centred commentators lack. The book provides a timely warning about our proclivity to interpret unknowns as evidence supporting our personal politically-orientated outlooks on society.


Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (revised and enlarged version), Basic Books, 2019, hardback, 308pp, $30, ISBN 978 1 5416 4563 9


© 2019 Alexander Adams

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