Posted on August 10, 2018

Thomas Sowell’s ‘Discrimination and Disparities’ Is the Book About Racism That America Needs

David Marcus, The Federalist, August 9, 2018

Sometimes the slim volumes are the most deadly. Such is the case with Thomas Sowell’s “Discrimination and Disparities,” which in fewer than 200 pages lays bare the grave faults and assumptions of people on both sides of the political divide about outcomes for racial groups. {snip}

Sowell takes aim at two typical explanations for differences in the success of racial groups. One, most associated with the Left, is that discrimination by racial groups in power is the primary force creating bad outcomes for the groups out of power. The other, most associated with the Right, is that racial groups have inherent abilities or disabilities based on factors such as IQ distribution that lead to unequal outcomes.


In a theme Sowell opens with and refers to throughout, he discusses how in any area or endeavor, success is the result of meeting multiple and myriad prerequisites. Lacking even one of these, even if others are in abundance, can prevent success.

This locates the causes of success closer to the individual than to the group. It also shows that there really is no reason we should assume that under equal situations racial groups will see equal outcomes, because there are no equal situations and cannot be.


Sowell certainly does not suggest that discrimination doesn’t exist, but he does break it down into two essential categories. The first is discrimination that is based on evidence and can be positive, such as “a person of discriminating taste.” The second is discrimination based on animosity towards a group. Importantly, Sowell divides the first form into two groups. The first takes no notice of race; the second takes race into account, but only based on accurate information.

Sowell is essentially rejecting the progressive premise that there is no difference between racism based in hatred and racism based in accepting racist systems and disparate outcomes. As it turns out, attempts to address evidence-based discrimination that seek to eliminate the discrimination itself can have bad outcomes, especially for those who are members of groups with more negative outcomes.

One example of this he gives is that progressives widely see criminal background checks for employment as racist. But in reality, employers that use background checks employ black workers at a higher rate. This is because without the checks blacks with clean records suffer from the fact that they belong to a group with a higher crime rate. Ideally, one could argue that employers shouldn’t take group tendencies into account, but until that happens, background checks are a solution that actually works.

In area after area in American life where we see disparate outcomes among racial groups, such as higher education, housing, and income, Sowell calmly shows how well-intentioned approaches too focused on discrimination do more harm than approaches that address the total underlying causes for disparity, specifically what prerequisites may be lacking.

With more than 30 pages of endnotes, Sowell’s book is brimming with empirical data and very light on invective. At times, Sowell’s arguments regarding how, for example, the free market undermined racist laws under Jim Crow and South African apartheid seem cold, far too calm for the subject matter. We have grown accustomed to such arguments being prefaced by some kind of expression that telegraphs, “Before I start talking about this evil thing in history, I just want to say how evil it was.” Sowell has no time for this. He seems to be saying, Of course Jim Crow was evil, but what can we learn from it?

Progressives are midwifing a new functional definition of racism. It no longer matches Sowell’s second form of discrimination, as based in animus towards a racial group. Instead it focuses on power dynamics, and makes racism against the dominant group all but impossible. {snip}

In this change, progressives’ anti-racist efforts have slipped deeply in Marxist territory. This is no longer a fight for equal opportunity, it’s a fight for equal outcomes, where nobody is ultimately responsible for his success or failure because, as a hot-shot new socialist superstar tells us, our ZIP code is our destiny. What Sowell shows instead is that targeted programs like charter schools, which have had tremendous outcomes, can help lift communities. But since these charter schools reinforce, rather than break down disparity in outcome between individual students, many on the Left reject them regardless of their clear benefits to racial minorities.