Thomas Sowell (born 1930) is noted for his conservative views on social and economic issues. An African American author and economist, Sowell opposes such programs as affirmative action, busing, racial quotas, minimum wage, and welfare. He has drawn fire from liberals and a number of African American leaders, while generating applause from fellow conservatives.
Sowell is an advocate of the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" philosophy, which encourages people to improve their positions not by government intervention, but by personal ambition and hard work. He believes that government initiatives to ensure a fair playing field for African Americans have actually hurt their chances for equality. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with his views, Sowell is respected as a top economist, having published extensively in economic journals and general periodicals. He also spent the better part of three decades teaching in prestigious academic institutions. Into the 1990s, his name was commonly seen in a weekly column for Forbes magazine and on his syndicated column appearing in newspapers nationwide. Sowell is the author of over 20 books and has edited or contributed to others. "The word 'genius' is thrown around so much that it's becoming meaningless," remarked renowned economist Milton Friedman in Forbes, "but nevertheless I think Tom Sowell is close to being one."
Sowell was born June 30, 1930, in Gastonia, North Carolina, and spent much of his youth in Charlotte, North Carolina. Being a very private person, not much is known about his family or early years, except that he moved to Harlem in New York City with his parents at around the age of eight or nine. His father worked in the construction industry. Sowell attended classes for gifted students and was ranked at the top of his class at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. He left school in tenth grade and worked for the next four years in a factory, as a delivery person, and as a Western Union messenger. These lean early years would heavily influence his politics later in life and provide him with arguments during debates with liberal leaders.
Sowell completed high school by attending night classes, then was drafted to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1951. He spent two years at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he worked as a photographer. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a majority African American institution, while working part-time as a photographer and a civil service clerk for the General Accounting Office. After three semesters, Sowell transferred to Harvard University. There, he wrote his senior thesis on the German political philosopher, Karl Marx. Sowell graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1958. A Marxist sympathizer as an undergraduate, Sowell gradually became more conservative as he pursued his master's degree at Columbia University. He continued his education at the University of Chicago, where he studied under economist and Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman, and George Stigler. Sowell obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1968.
Academic and Government Employment
Sowell began his illustrious professional career as a summer intern in 1960, then as an employee of the U.S. Department of Labor in 1960-61 as an economist. From there, he taught at Rutgers (1962-63) and Howard (1963-64) universities, later taking a post as an economic analyst with AT&T from 1964-65. Sowell taught from 1965-69 as an assistant professor of economics at Cornell and spent the summer of 1968 there as the director of the Summer Intensive Training Program in Economic Theory. After teaching from 1969-70 at Brandeis, Sowell went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as an associate professor of economics, where he was promoted to full professor in 1974. He also served as project director of the Urban Institute from 1972-74. Sowell stayed at UCLA until 1980 and also taught there from 1984-89. In 1980, he was named a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan took control of the presidency and ushered in a conservative political era that would last most of the decade. It seemed that Sowell's time had come. He organized a Black Alternatives Conference in San Francisco to publicize the conservative voice of African Americans. About 100 Republican business professionals and educators attended, advocating right-wing policies such as lowering the minimum wage, doing away with rent control, and reorganizing federal programs. After that event, Edwin Meese III, then the director of Reagan's transition team, announced that the new president would appoint African Americans to his cabinet and other high-level positions. Sowell was offered a cabinet post, but did not even entertain the notion. According to a Newsweekpiece from the time, "Such active participation in politics … would only damage his scholarly reputation." In February 1981, Sowell agreed to serve on the White House Economic Advisory Board, but resigned after one meeting. The distance between Washington, D.C. and his home in Palo Alto, California, was "too much of a strain," as People Weekly reported.
Wrote for Mass Media
Sowell continued working at the Hoover Institute, teaching at UCLA for part of the decade, and penning his controversial ideas. A prolific writer for much of his career, Sowell has churned out books nearly every year since 1971 and has contributed regularly to scholarly economic journals as well as periodicals, such as the New York Times Magazine and Spectator. His topics range from law to education in addition to economics and race relations. In 1984, Sowell began writing a newspaper column, believing that if George Will could make a point in 750 words, so could he. He was a regular columnist for the Scripps-Howard news service from 1984-90, then began writing a column for the weekly Forbes magazine as well as newspaper columns for the Creators Syndicate in 1991. He has been criticized by fellow economists who think his academic papers are not "formal" enough, but Forbes defended him by saying that his work was readable and not bogged down in algebraic formulas. A biography of Sowell on the web explained his desire to publish in the mass media: "Writing for the general public enables him to address the heart of issues without the smoke and mirrors that so often accompany academic writing."
Readers have also been taken aback by Sowell's authorship. His conservative opinions have been the cause of dissent. One of Sowell's often-targeted beliefs is that poverty among minority groups is less a result of racial and social discrimination than of a group's values, ethics, and attitudes. He contends that if discrimination is to blame for a group's lack of progress, then many of the Japanese, Chinese, and Jewish groups in America would never have reached the level of prosperity that they enjoy. As an example, he says that Chinese immigrants from a certain province have had more success in America than those from other areas. Those older immigrants from the Toishan district of the Kwantung Province are affluent, whereas newer immigrants from various other areas work in sweatshops and live in poverty. As he asserted in U.S. News & World Report, "The two have different cultures, and that accounts for the contrast in their situations. … The enormous difference between the groups cannot in any way be attributed to how the larger society treats Chinese people, because the average American employer cannot tell the two apart." He also cited statistics on West Indian blacks, who have higher incomes than whites in the United States, yet cannot be distinguished from other African Americans.
Sowell believes that government programs such as busing black children to white schools, welfare, affirmative action programs, and other social programs have hurt blacks by causing them to rely too heavily on government safety nets instead of using their own motivation to succeed. He also has said that government programs will harm African Americans by fueling racist sentiments of whites upset by busing, quotas, and other laws that Sowell feels discriminate against the majority. He claimed in U.S. News and World Report that the status of African Americans was rising prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that they were making strides in housing integration and career advancement. Thus the act did not really have the impact that people thought it did.
Sowell's 1990 book, Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, dealt specifically with the issue of affirmative action. In it, he vehemently opposed quotas in college admissions and jobs, using examples not just from American society, but from around the world. He argued that preferential treatment led to relaxed standards, which caused people to fail to reach their true potential. Quotas caused underprepared members of minority groups to suffer frustration and a higher drop-out rate, or may be a reason they were steered to "softer" fields of concentration instead of more practical pursuits at schools that fit their pace. Sowell also believed that quotas led to more interracial tension on campuses. Andrew Hacker in the New York Times Book Review related Sowell's claims that policies such as affirmative action make the "trendy middle classes" feel virtuous, as if they were somehow making up for slavery or for overrunning a native culture. Sowell disagreed with those who called for reparations to be paid by the government to African Americans for the slavery they endured, arguing that African Americans today should progress to thinking about the present, not the past.
Not surprisingly, many liberal African American leaders, including Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Hooks, as well as left-wing whites took offense with Sowell's arguments, saying, ironically, that he is the one promoting racism, and that his arguments are too simplistic. Economist Bernard Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School asserted in Newsweek, "We cannot separate the incredible gains that have been made [by blacks] from the strong role that the government has played." He added that the U.S. government is the largest single employer of middle-class African Americans in the nation. People Weekly reported that Carl T. Rowan charged that Sowell gave "aid and comfort to America's racists," but that "Sowell has dismissed Rowan as an 'idiot' whose 'dumb remarks' intimidate blacks holding differing views."
Sowell also expressed strong opinions in 1995, after publication of the controversial study, The Bell Curve. Emotions were highly charged when the book was released asserting that intelligence quotient (IQ) is genetic and that blacks scored lower on IQ tests than whites. Though it was derided by many as having a cultural bias, Sowell defended much of the study, detailing his arguments in a lengthy article in American Spectator. He did point out aspects that troubled him, but overall, he stated, "Contrary to much hysteria in the media, this is not a book about race, nor is it trying to prove that blacks are capable only of being hewers of wood and drawers of water."
With the repealing of affirmative action laws and the ensuing debates in the late 1990s, Sowell's works were more salient than ever. He continued to write a weekly column for Forbes, publish books, and make numerous appearances on the lecture circuit. Divorced from his first wife, Alma Jean Parr, he married again in the early 1980s, but remained secretive about his personal life; his name was not even posted on his office door at the Hoover Institute. He was reputed to be blunt and impatient, but humorous and outgoing among friends. Indeed, his wit often showed through in his writing. Known for his satire as well as his serious messages, Forbes once reprinted Sowell's "glossary of common political terms" as published in National Review, which included gems such as "Equal opportunity: Preferential treatment," "Stereotypes: Behavior patterns you don't want to think about," "Demonstration: A riot by people you agree with," "Mob violence: A riot by people you disagree with," "A proud people: Chauvinists you like," and "Bigots: Chauvinists you don't like."
Sowell's intent not to be swayed by voices of dissent among other African American leaders may be illustrated by one of his favorite quotations, as listed on his own home page and attributed to David Ricardo: "I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind."
Further Reading on Thomas Sowell
American Spectator, February 1, 1995, p. 32.
Forbes, August 24, 1987, p. 40; August 26, 1996.
Newsweek, March 9, 1981, p. 29.
New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1990.
People Weekly, December 28, 1981, p. 66.
U.S. News & World Report, October 12, 1981, p. 74.
Washington Times, September 18, 1995.
"Biography of Thomas Sowell," Conservative Current web site, http://www.townhall.com (April 28, 1998).
"Favorite Quotations," Thomas Sowell home page, http://www.tsowell.com (April 28, 1998).
"Online News Hour: A Gergen Dialogue with Thomas Sowell-July 11, 1996," PBS web site, http://www.pbs.org (April 28, 1998).