Thomas Sowell on race


I read an article today that has forced me to adjust, though not radically change, my views on racial achievement in school. In the article Thomas Sowell attributes low school achievement largely to a sense of victimhood rather than to the two commonly espoused explanations of genetics and social disadvantage.

While in America black children do worse than whites, apparently in England white children from low income families are now doing worse than the children of low income immigrant families. The only thing that black Americans and white underclass Brits have in common is a sense of victimhood. In America black people have been told since the 1960s that if they fail it is because of white oppression, while in Britain white working class people have been told for even longer that they are victims of an unfair class system. The newly arrived immigrants to Britain haven’t yet had time to stew in the juice of socialist inspired class resentment.

Thomas Sowell’s explanation doesn’t suggest that the previous explanations were wrong and that genes and social disadvantage count for nothing. It just means they were incomplete. After all, genes remain a good predictor of IQ scores and having obstacles placed in the way of your academic progress of course doesn’t help. However, today these alleged obstacles to academic excellence are largely a figment of the Left’s imagination. And pointing out that one race or one class does better academically than another is not evidence of  ‘privilege’. The children of one race or class might actually be cleverer or more motivated. Where is the unfair privilege in this?

I tend more to the genetic explanation of academic achievement though I have often wondered why, if genes are such a big factor in academic achievement, people from the Indian subcontinent do so much better than black Americans in school. After all, their IQ scores are quite similar. I think there are two reasons. One is that genes code for more than just intelligence. For example, they also code for levels of testosterone, and the higher levels of testosterone in black people must surely account for both black people’s sporting prowess and their higher levels of aggression and inability to sit still and learn. The second reason is the rather obvious one that blacks and Indians have very different cultures and this also affects academic outcome. Even if you believe that genes play a crucial role in intelligence and achievement this doesn’t mean that they are the only factor involved. Of course genes need an environment in which to express themselves.

I think most sensible people agree that both genes and social environment play a role in how we do academically, though they disagree on the relative importance of each. But Thomas Sowell’s point is that a sense of victimhood can also have an influence on how well you do at school.

This sounds right to me and I hope it is. Then improving academic achievement would become a simple case of ditching the Left’s obsession with punishing ‘privilege’ and using ‘disadvantage’, either real or imagined, as an excuse for failure. Instead the best policy for all concerned, including the so-called disadvantaged ones, would be to encourage everyone to simply make the best of the hands they have been dealt by fate and to stop resentfully looking around for excuses as to why one person did better at school than another.


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