Race and Culture
A World View
by Thomas Sowell

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Basic Books: New York, 1994
331 pages

October 2010

Step back to learn

The innocuous subtitle of Race and Culture: A World View really conveys a key aspect of why Thomas Sowell's analytical survey is so valuable. Both "race" and "culture" have been emotionally charged terms for time out of mind, and in recent decades have built into a crescendo of intense feeling antagonistic to unbiased investigation, to dispassionate analysis, and hence to reasoned agreement on public policy. Assumptions about race and culture hardly can be spoken aloud any more, let alone thoughtfully discussed and debated.

Is there no way out of this emotional minefield we've built for ourselves? When discussion turns so readily into vituperation, what is to be done?

Well, there is a way out. Decades of bearing down with increasing myopia and intensity on these current issues has generated more heat than light, but there is an alternative: don't rush in for the argumentative kill. Step back to learn. Acquire a wide historical perspective, perceive our current and national issues within the history and geography of the world. With a searching and honest examination of the big picture, many of our current confusions become clearer. Cultural behaviors turn out to develop naturally by people coping with their various conditions, and when we see this, cultural variations are less easily attributable to "racial" natures and capacities.

History, truth, clarity

How does Thomas Sowell meet this task he has set? Driving to the truth, disregarding contemporary prejudices and political correctness; and sharing what he has found, clearly and straightforwardly. As we know, this is not as easy at it sounds.

He surveys the interrelationships of culture with migration and conquest; and of race with economics, politics, intelligence, slavery, and history. The range is from American black teenage employment (much better before 1950), to discrimination in Nigeria and Malaya, to intelligence testing, to the importance of navigable waterways for development. And so on to many under-appreciated currents of history, always keeping in mind that facts must come before conclusions or evaluations:

The fundamental problem with an ideologically defined vocabulary in discussions of racial or ethnic issues ... is that we forfeit our ability to examine such issues empirically, and allow important social questions to be obscured, or the conclusions to be preempted, by mere tendentious words. The painful history of racial and ethnic relations is a sobering reminder of the high stakes which make clarity imperative and obscurantism dangerous.
Millennia of slavery, around the world; and who stopped it

"Race and Slavery" is just one chapter topic in Race and Culture: A World View, but I want to devote particular attention to it. Slavery has been so ubiquitous, continuing to provide the back-story to current attitudes and debates, and yet it is so little understood in our times. Our national scholarship focusing on American history misses, by its very focus, the world-wide and multi-millennium contexts of slavery:

Although slavery in the United States was referred to as a "peculiar institution," slavery was in fact one of the oldest and most widespread institutions on Earth. Slavery existed in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus' ships appeared on the horizon, and it existed in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East for thousands of years. ... both the secular and religious moralists of societies around the world accepted human bondage, not only as a fact of life but as something requiring no special moral justification. Slavery was "peculiar" in the United States only because human bondage was inconsistent with the principles on which this nation was founded. Historically, however, it was those principles which were peculiar, not slavery.

Slavery is older than history. Sowell provides examples strewn across the continents and centuries, many of which I believe will be unfamiliar to modern Americans. The captive peoples may have been taken from beyond sea, or during raids against a neighboring tribe or city, Slavery in the antebellum American South was quite different than in the Ottoman Empire, which in turn differed from slave-holding in Malaya, and so on. A lot of what we may have assumed simply is not historical fact.

After discussing the treatment of African captive men, women, and children in Islamic societies, Sowell draws a surprising comparison:

Thus, despite the fact that even more vast millions of slaves were taken from Africa to the Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa over the centuries than to the Western Hemisphere, there is no such black population surviving in these Islamic nations today as the 60 million people of African ancestry living in the Western Hemisphere.

How did such a pervasive institution come to an end?

After lasting for thousands of years, slavery was destroyed over most of the planet in a period of about one century, and over virtually all of the planet within two centuries. The destruction of this ancient and world-wide institution was all the more remarkable because it was accomplished in the face of determined opposition and cunning evasion at every level, from the individual slaveholders to the heads of nations and empires. Moreover, the impetus for the destruction of slavery came not from any of the objective, material, or economic factors so often assumed to be dominant in history, but from a moral revulsion against slavery which began in the late eighteenth century in the country which was the largest slave-trading nation of its day, with highly profitable slave-plantation colonies — Great Britain.

Slavery was so deeply entrenched and seemingly impregnable when the anti-slavery political crusade began among evangelical Christians in eighteenth-century Britain that the most fervent crusaders among them hoped only to be able to stop the continued enslavement and international trading of human beings. Any thought that the very institution of slavery itself could be abolished was considered Utopian.

Yet the mobilization of public opinion in Britain against the slave trade produced such powerful and enduring political pressures that successive generations of British governments found themselves forced to push the anti-slavery effort further and further towards its logical conclusion — first to abolish the international slave trade, then to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, and finally to pressure, bribe, and coerce other nations into abolishing slavery as well.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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