Explaining Different Racial Groups and Different Achievements

The blatant and undeniable fact that different racial, ethnic and other groups have had radically different economic and intellectual achievements for centuries, in countries around the world, has led to widely varying theories and widely varying political and other reactions.

A hundred years ago, during the Progressive era in the United States, the dominant explanation was that different genes made different races either more capable or less capable. Similar views prevailed on the other side of the Atlantic, among people on both the left and the right, many of whom urged eugenics, in order to prevent “inferior” groups from reproducing.

The problem with this explanation was that it ignored the great changes in the relative positions of races over the centuries. In medieval times, Europeans could not match the achievements of the Chinese, but in later centuries their relative positions reversed— and there was no evidence of any fundamental change in the genes of either the Chinese or the Europeans.

Much was made of the fact that, within Europe, “Nordics” were prospering more so than the peoples of Mediterranean Europe. But, a thousand years earlier, the reverse was true. A 10th century Muslim scholar pointed out that the farther north you go in Europe, the more pale the people become and the “farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross, and brutish they are.”

However much such words might be dismissed or condemned today, there is no reason to say that these words were untrue as of the time they were said. So many things that have been said about race may have had some basis as of a given time, even if the sweeping conclusion that these are immutable traits does not stand the test of time.

Today’s racial dogmas are no more realistic, when they try to dismiss or downplay behavioral and performance differences among racial and ethnic groups, blaming different outcomes on the misdeeds of others. Nothing is easier to find than sins among human beings.

But the fatal misstep is to assume that those sins must be the reason for the differences we see.

The more fundamental question that almost never gets asked is whether there was ever any realistic basis for expecting different racial, ethnic or other groups to all have the same skills and orientations, even if they all had the same genetic potential and there were no injustices.

Those who see differences among groups as being due to environment, rather than heredity, too often think of environment as the current immediate surroundings. But a major part of any group’s environment is the culture that they have inherited from the past.

One of a number of factors that has made Western Europeans more prosperous than Eastern Europeans is that Western Europe was conquered by the Romans, so that Western European languages acquired Roman letters, centuries before the languages of Eastern Europe had written versions.

Being conquered by the Romans was one of those historic happenstances with enduring consequences. For those who were conquered, it could be a traumatic experience, for the Romans could be both brutal and oppressive.

Their abuses in Britain caused a massive uprising of the Britons, who were slaughtered by the thousands. Nevertheless, even such a British patriot as Winston Churchill said, “We owe London to Rome.”

The enduring cultural advantages that the peoples of Western Europe acquired as a result of being conquered by Rome in no way justifies the Romans morally. But the fact is that the advantages that Roman civilization brought to Western Europe allowed Western Europeans to advance earlier and faster in a wide range of endeavors.

In a similar way, the fact that people of African ancestry in the United States have a far higher standard of living than the people of African ancestry still living in sub-Saharan Africa, is due to injustices and abuses inflicted on black Americans’ ancestors.

Causation and morality are two different things, however much they get confused today by politicians and the media.

  • Sanjay

    Brilliant as always by Thomas Sowell.

    Culture of a group has an identity of it's own and influences behaviors more than anything else. As a marwari who lived amongst Bengalis in Kolkata, India, we saw the differences every day since our teens.

    No genetic differences exist between the two groups but our communities' cultures were vastly different and our achievements in life too were different, leading to jealousies and political problems.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/FBastiat FBastiat

    The lunacy of "demographic equality":

    http://www.abcdunlimited.com/ideas/diversity.html

  • Crossbow87

    Doesn't a further application of this argument lead to a critique of Islam as compared to Western cultures? I think it does…I'm so grateful to have been born into Western society.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/GaryRumain Gary Rumain

      If Charles Martel had failed at Tours, or the Polish king at Vienna in 1683, you very well may not have.

  • Jacob Prichani

    You are sick man Sowell. Leave Africa out of this! Naive if you measure standards of living purely on material basis. In any case the total number of Africans in Africa with higher standard of living is graeter than the total numebr of African-Americans, rich or poor. What century are you living in!

  • Eddie

    What was the role of Islam in the African slave trade and American slavery? Current day slavery is practiced in Sudan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, so solely blaming europeans for slavery is being disingenuous.

  • Grace56

    Thomas Sowell leaves out too much. The average American Negro has an IQ of 85. That on top of the liberal crusade to destroy the black family, the illegitimacy rate among American blacks is now over 72 percent, it is no wonder there is so much black crime. Blacks today are taught to fell morally superior just because they are black and and to hate the white person.

    Quite frankly blacks were far better off before civil rights when their families were intact and they didn’t get special treatment.

  • USMCSniper

    According to The Bell Curve, Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard J. Herrnstein, Ph.D. Psychology, Harvard University,and Charles Murray, Ph.D. Political Science, M.I.T., black IQ scores areso far below white IQ scores in their distribution as to preclude usefulAffirmative Action Programs. The reason? Only 29,000 African Americans have IQ levels above 130 points, the minimal level found suitable for many executives in business. With 15+ million businesses in America, this leaves fewer than1 theoretically qualified African American for each 500 businesses to serve as executives; however, more than 20,000 of these 29,000 African Americansare under 21 years of age and one-half of those precious few 9,000 African Americans who are presently above 21 years of age will never earn a universityundergraduate degree. That leaves just 4,500 African Americans over 130I Q points with a university degree to share among 15+ million companies.this is why Affirmative Action has aided white women and asians in achieving high promotions more than it has African Americans.

    • Myob

      How many get a law degree in prison?

  • Shefali

    Thomas Sowell is brilliant. He makes difficult concepts easy to understand, which to me is the true sign of genius. The reality is that blacks can achieve just as much as whites, I believe, given a strong family structure, same access to opportunities, etc. The social welfare state and affirmative action actually hurt black achievement by undercutting many of the factors that help make people successful.

    For people who cite the IQ differences in black Americans – there are actually some environmental factors at work. For example, diet. Children who are fed inadequate diets suffer intellectual consequences no matter how good their original genetic make-up. Also, there has been some research done which is ground-breaking that shows the malleability of genetic data. Plus there is also the "rational" argument that, among American blacks, slaves who were smarter or showed more initiative might have been more likely to be killed. Among blacks from rich families in sub-Saharan Africa, there is a much higher IQ which I think shows how poor diet might contribute to poor IQ.

    Don't get me wrong – I'm not trying to attack The Bell Curve or any other book, but rather I am pointing out why many of its conclusions are not necessarily valid. Many other groups who were denigrated as "sub-normal" genetically have since gone on to statistically surpass the average. If black leaders helped their communities to, for example, form stable families, work hard, take advantage of educational opportunities, etc., then I don't see why blacks couldn't also be such a group.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/GaryRumain Gary Rumain

      Did the smarter American blacks become what Malcolm X termed house niggers?

    • ajnn

      It seems that encouraging intact families is the right thing to do from every perspective for every group.

      In the past, the tax code was a contributor to marriage and family. What tools do we have these days?