Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
American History Is Complex: Its Critics Are Ignoring Its Extraordinary Achievements
American history is now under attack. Statues are being torn down, not only of Confederate generals, but also of the abolitionist John Brown, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, the commander of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant and a host of others. There is now talk of removing statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. America, we are told, was conceived in the “original sin” of slavery.
Slavery, of course, was a great sin. But it was hardly an American creation. It existed in Ancient Greece and Rome, in Africa, the Middle East, and throughout Europe. In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written, slavery was legal every place in the world. Many of the Founding Fathers recognized it as an evil and sought to eliminate it at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Men and nations are imperfect. If they are to be rejected because of their imperfections, all would be found wanting. Men are not perfect beings. In the Bible we are told that all men are sinners. We celebrate individuals for their achievements, not because they are without faults and shortcomings. If that were our standard, there would be no statues at all except, as one religious leader said, to Jesus Christ himself. Even with Jesus, some activists want his statue removed because he is sometimes portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes.
Those who are so eager to destroy our history do not seem to realize that history is as complex as the men and women who make it. Despite their failings, the Founding Fathers moved America ahead of the rest of world in freedom in the 18th century. Consider religious freedom. Throughout Europe, Catholics suffered persecution in Protestant countries, as did Protestants in Catholic countries. Jews were limited in their rights virtually everywhere. But in America, there was separation of church and state and religious freedom for all. As George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in America we give “to bigotry no sanction.”
What is interesting about the Founding Fathers is the fact that many of them wanted to eliminate slavery at the very beginning. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves.
When Jefferson was first elected to the Virginia legislature at the age of 25, his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery. Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” In his draft of a constitution for Virginia, he provided that all slaves would be emancipated in that state by 1800, and that any child born in Virginia after 1801 would be born free. This, however, was not adopted.
Jefferson resumed his attack on King George III in his draft of the Declaration of Independence:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, to incur miserable deaths in their transportation hither.”
This formulation was rejected at the instigation of Georgia and South Carolina.
In his autobiography, Jefferson declared, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of life than that these people are to be free.” In 1784, when an effort was unsuccessfully made to exclude slavery from the Northwest Territory, Jefferson was one of its leading supporters. Finally, with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, slavery was indeed excluded from these territories — a further step along the path to the final elimination of slavery, and a clear indication of the view of slavery which predominated among the Framers of the Constitution.
In Notes on The State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote:
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it, for man is an imitative animal.”
While many criticized the Founders for not eliminating the slave trade immediately, others understood that they had set in motion an opposition to slavery that would bear fruit in the future. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, for example, declared:
“I am sorry that it could be extended no farther, but so far as it operates, it presents us with the pleasing prospect that the rights of mankind will be acknowledged and established throughout the Union. If there were no other lovely feature in the Constitution than this one, it would diffuse a beauty over its whole countenance. Yet the lapse of a few years, and Congress will have power to exterminate slavery from within our borders.”
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut declared:
“Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country. Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it. And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts.”
James Madison pointed out that:
“The Southern states would not have entered into the Union without the temporary permission of that trade; and if they were excluded from the Union, the consequences might be dreadful to them and to us. . . . Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse. If those states were to disunite from the other states for indulging them in the temporary continuance of this traffic, they might solicit and obtain aid from foreign powers.”
Alexander Hamilton, on March 13, 1786, joined in sending a petition to the New York legislature urging the end of the slave trade “as a commerce so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which distinguish a free and enlightened people.” Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania said that if South Carolina and Georgia refused to ratify the Constitution unless it contained full protection of the slave interest, then the other states should form a union without them. He said of slavery, “It is a nefarious Institution. It is the curse of heaven on the states where it prevails.”
Those who criticize the Framers of the Constitution today forget that prior to the late 18th century, opposition to the idea of slavery was almost nonexistent. Yet in the American colonies, there were vigorous anti-slavery societies and in Philadelphia in 1787, the most prominent of the Framers wanted to eliminate slavery from the outset. They decided, however, that creating the Union had to take precedence and argued that the question of slavery would have to be finally determined at a later time.
When the Constitution was written, the Framers could look everywhere in the world for an example of a free society with limited government and freedom of religion and free speech — and find none to follow. No existing government in 1787 was designed to provide its people with freedom, nor had any in past history. The Framers set out to create something that had never been created before — an inherently perilous undertaking. That they succeeded is a remarkable achievement.
As the Framers were imperfect men, the Constitution was also imperfect, particularly when it came to slavery. But the Framers knew that changes would be needed. They provided a process to amend the Constitution and a Supreme Court to review the legislative decisions of Congress. This has been used to eliminate slavery and, later, segregation. It has provided for equal rights for women and for men and women no matter what their sexual orientation. Clearly, our current society needs further change and reform. We have the means to provide it.
When our country was formed, it was the freest country in the world at that time. Our teaching of history has declined to such a degree that many Americans do not understand that this is true. Professor Samuel Huntington points to the truly historic meaning of the Constitution:
“. . . this is a new event in the history of mankind. Heretofore most governments have been formed by tyrants, and imposed on mankind by force. Never before did a people, in time of peace and tranquility, meet together by their representatives and, with calm deliberation, frame for themselves a system of government.”
American history is complex, but those who are now engaged in denigrating it seem to know little about its uniqueness. It has survived for more than 200 years and is the oldest existing form of government. It has enabled Americans to live in freedom and has attracted to our shores men and women of every race and religion and ethnic group who sought liberty. This is the extraordinary achievement of the Founding Fathers. It is sad that so many Americans do not know this history and appreciate its uniqueness.
Slavery Was a Great Evil — But It’s Important to Get the History Right
Slavery, clearly, is one of mankind’s great evils. It is important for all of us to understand its history. Surprisingly, speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on May 12, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va) declared that the United States “created” slavery and “didn’t inherit slavery from anybody.” Though Senator Kaine seems not to know it, the real story is much more complicated.
In fact, from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. Rather than some American uniqueness in practicing slavery, the fact is that when the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal everyplace in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies there was strenuous objection to slavery and the most prominent Framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.
The history of slavery seems to be unknown to Senator Kaine, and many others. Slavery has existed since the beginning of recorded history. It played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people in the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, one that could befall anyone at any time. It has existed almost universally through history among people of every level of material culture. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the fourth millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
The poems of Homer supply evidence that slavery was an integral part of Ancient Greek society, possibly as early as 1200 B.C. Plato opposed enslavement of Greeks by Greeks, regarding bondservants as essentially inferior beings. His pupil Aristotle considered slaves as mere tools, lucky to have the guidance of their masters.
At the time of Pericles, Athens had 43,000 citizens, who alone were entitled to vote and discharge political functions, 28,500 metics, or resident aliens, and 115,000 slaves. A century and a half later, Demetrius of Phalerum took a census of the city and counted only 21,000 citizens, 10,000 metics and 400,000 slaves.
Aristotle argued that there were natural and artificial slaves and that it was necessary to keep the former in a state of bondage. He believed that servitude was beneficial to the natural slave because the man who was merely an instrument needed a directing brain. In Plato’s Republic, which depicted his ideal society, the population was distributed on the basis of ability among four classes: the guardians, who ruled the city; the warriors, who defended it; the merchants and artisans, who provided it with goods and services; and the slaves, who did the unskilled menial work.
None of the Greek schools of philosophy called for the emancipation of slaves. Perhaps the closest approach to the abolitionist position was that of such neo-Stoics as Dio Chrysostom and Seneca, who urged humane treatment of bondsmen. Stoicism regarded slavery as a mere accident of existence and argued that any man could free himself from slavery by committing suicide. The aim of life, the Stoics believed, was not external but internal freedom.
The respected British historian of classical slavery, Moses I. Finley, writes that, “The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression — most obviously Athens — were cities in which chattel slavery flourished.” At the time of its cultural peak, Athens may have had 115,000 slaves to 43,000 citizens. The same is true of Ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 107 B.C., 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market.
Race was not necessarily an element in slavery, even when different peoples were involved. The Romans enslaved other white people, and black Africans enslaved other black people. Racial differences became closely connected with slavery only when European colonial powers were expanding into world areas whose inhabitants were from a different race than the dominating group. Beyond this, our Judeo-Christian culture also accepted the legitimacy of slavery.
The Old Testament regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail. In Leviticus (xxv: 39-55), God instructs the Children of Israel to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever, but to employ poor Jews as servants only and to free them with their children on the year of Jubilee. By classical standards, the treatment of slaves called for in the Bible was humane. No bondman could be made to work on the Sabbath. Slaves could be beaten but if the slave died on the spot “the master must be punished” (Deuteronomy v: 14). But he shall not be punished if the slave survives for one day or two, “because he is worth money to his master.” It was assumed that the death was accidental, for no prudent man would destroy his own property. Mosaic law provided that if a master blinded his slave or knocked out one of his teeth the slave was to go free.
There is no departure from this approach to slavery in the New Testament. St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without equivocation. “Slaves give your entire obedience to your earthly masters.” He wrote from prison:
“. . . not merely with an outward show of service, to curry favor with men, but with single mindedness, out of reverence for the Lord. Whatever you are doing, put your whole heart into it, as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men, knowing that there is a Master who will give you and your heritage as a reward knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.”
St. Peter goes beyond this and orders slaves to obey even unjust orders, declaring that there is greater merit in submitting to punishment when one is innocent than when one is guilty of an offense.
Slavery was a continuous reality in Western life throughout the entire history that preceded the establishment of the United States. In England, 10 percent of the persons enumerated in the Domesday Book (A.D. 1086) were slaves, and these could be put to death with impunity by their owners. During the Viking age, Norse merchant sailors sold Russian slaves in Constantinople. Venice grew to prosperity and power partly as a slave-trading republic, which took its human cargo from the Byzantine Empire and sold some of the females for the harems of the Moslem world. The Italians organized joint stock companies and a highly organized slave trade. In the colony of Cyprus, they established plantations where imported bondsmen were employed in the cultivation of sugar cane. By 1300, there were black slaves in Cyprus.
Portugal imported large numbers of black slaves to work in the southern provinces and do menial labor in the cities from 1444 on. By the middle of the 16th century, Lisbon had more blacks than whites. In 1515, the Portuguese king ordered that they be denied Christian burial and thrown into a “common ditch,” called the “Poco for Negroes.”
Throughout the Middle Ages, black Africans practiced slavery as a form of prestige and as a source of income. They sold slaves to other Africans and to Moslem traders, who also bought slaves in Europe and Asia. The beginning of European colonial expansion in the 15th century brought a vast increase in slavery. Colonists in the New World enslaved Indians to work their lands and mines, and when the Indians were exhausted the colonists turned to black Africans.
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. As they looked back through history, the Framers saw slavery as an accepted institution. It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade. In 1807, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. Slavery was abolished in British colonies between 1834 and 1840. France freed the slaves in its colonies in 1848. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the colonies of that day wanted to end it and pressed vigorously to do so. George Mason of Virginia, for example, made an eloquent plea to end the slave trade at the Constitutional Convention. He declared, “This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants.”
What was Senator Kaine thinking when he said that America “created” slavery? Any history book will show him that the truth is quite different. America participated in the evil of slavery, but so did the rest of the world. Man’s inhumanity to man has known no bounds. Hopefully, the future will learn lessons from the past, but history’s lessons cannot be learned if we are not honest about that history.
Police Reform Should Be A Compelling Issue for Both Conservatives and Liberals
The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who had a long list of complaints against him for prior bad behavior, preceded by a steady stream of killings of unarmed black men and women in various parts of the country, has properly focused attention on the need for reform of our police departments. This is something that both conservatives and liberals should find compelling. Conservatives, in particular, frequently express concern about the abuse of government power. What is a greater abuse of power than for police officers, representatives of government, to take innocent lives? In Louisville, in possession of a no-knock warrant, police broke down the door of Breonna Taylor’s apartment and killed her. She had not been charged with any crime.
Police in the U.S., it is pointed out, rely much more on the use of guns and violent force than do other Western nations. The average police officer in Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Britain, Ireland and some other European countries is not armed. Overall, the absence of firearms appears to lessen the level of tension between officers and civilians. Professor Paul Hirschfield of Rutgers University notes that while police can be armed in most European countries, they have nowhere near the level of police killings. Hirschfield, who studies why American police officers kill more people than their European counterparts, found that police shootings in the U.S. in 2014 were 18 times more lethal than in Denmark and 100 times more deadly than in Finland.
The legal framework in the U.S. is different from that in Europe. The European Convention on Human Rights allows police to use deadly force that is “absolutely necessary.” In contrast, police in the U.S. are permitted to do so if they have “a reasonable belief” that their lives are in danger. Rules differ in different European countries. In Spain, for example, police officers must first fire a warning shot and shoot at a non-vital part of the body before they shoot to kill.
All of the available evidence indicates that black men and women are the victims of police misconduct far more frequently than other Americans. During traffic stops producing no arrests in a 13-month period in 2013-14, police in Oakland, California, handcuffed 1,466 African Americans but only 72 whites, according to Stanford University psychologists. While 72 percent of the officers had handcuffed a black who wasn’t arrested, 74 percent had never done so to a white. Handcuffing blacks was “a script for what is supposed to happen,” the study concluded.
A 2019 study of 100 million traffic stops nationwide found blacks more likely than whites to be stopped but less so after dark when officers couldn’t see a driver’s race. Blacks who were pulled over were more likely than whites to be searched.
We could fill pages with studies that show the different treatment blacks receive from the police than races. A 2016 examination of files and mug shots determined that “the whiter one appears, the more the suspect will be protected from police force.” Off-duty black officers trying to stop crimes are more at risk of being shot by fellow officers than their white counterparts. Comprising 10 of the 14 killed between 1995 and 2010, according to a nationwide study commissioned by the New York Governor’s office, “Inherent subconscious racial bias plays a role in ‘shouldn’t shoot’ decisions made by officers of all races and ethnicities,” the study declared.
No matter how high their status in society may be, black men and women remain the subject of police attention. Consider Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who went to the Senate floor recently and described being repeatedly stopped by police officers over the course of his life — including seven times in one year — “the vast majority of the time for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.”
Senator Scott, who is now working on legislation for police reform, says:
“. . . while I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the humiliation which comes with feeling that you are being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself.”
While radicals speak of “defunding the police,” or of eliminating police departments entirely — a position that sounds very much like anarchy — there are indeed many reforms that would make our police departments more fair. One of these I would change is “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits, by lowering the bar for plaintiffs to sue officers for alleged civil rights violations. Another section of a law now being considered in Congress would change federal law so that victims of excessive force or other violations need only show that officers “recklessly” deprived them of their rights. The current statute requires victims to show that officers’ actions were “willful.” The bill also seeks to ban chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level. To keep “problematic” officers from bouncing from one law enforcement agency to another, this legislation would create a “national police misconduct registry” to compile complaints and discipline records.
The police play an essential role in society. Human nature being what it is, it is a legitimate function of government — perhaps its most legitimate — to protect all citizens from those who would attack their lives or property. But the police themselves must act within the rule of law, and, unfortunately, some do not. The reforms now being considered would be an important step in the right direction.
My own attitude toward the police has been informed by the experience of my son Burke, who was a police officer for six years. Through him, I met many police officers, black and white. They faced danger each time they put on their uniforms. I was always relieved when Burke returned home from his shift. For citizens, it is comforting to know that dialing 911 will bring rapid assistance. To think society could function without the police is an illusion.
Wanting to make the police more accountable is necessary, as serious shortcomings have been revealed. Many advocate community policing, in which police officers become real parts of the community. My son was involved in the production of the widely praised documentary film “Charm City,” about police-community relations in Baltimore. It is his view that police should use non-lethal, stun gun-like devices far more often than guns. We should use this moment for serious change, which should be embraced by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. The safety and stability of our society depends upon it.
Thomas Sowell at 90: A Prophet in His Own Time
In the midst of this time of racial strife and turmoil, Thomas Sowell, the respected black economist who has perhaps written the most thoughtful analyses of our racial history — and of relations between different racial and ethnic groups around the world — reaches the age of 90.
It has been my good fortune to know Thomas Sowell for many years. I have fond memories of a night when my good friend and colleague Jay Parker, an early leader of black conservatives, and I were returning from a trip to Japan. We spent a night in San Francisco and called Thomas Sowell. He came to our hotel and drove us to Stanford University, where he was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He gave us a tour of his office and we then went to dinner. I put a tape recorder on the table and, during several hours, conducted a lengthy interview. It later appeared in Human Events, taking up four pages.
Sowell was born in the segregated South and grew up in Harlem. His childhood encounters with white people were so limited, he has written, that he did not know blond was a hair color. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and graduated from Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has written more than 30 books and is the recipient of a National Humanities Medal for innovative scholarship. In his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, he writes that for most of the time he was earning his degrees, he considered himself a Marxist. However, studying the effects of a variety of government interventions in the marketplace led him to conclude that free competitive markets were the best path for betterment and prosperity, especially for the least well-off in society.
When it comes to slavery, Sowell argued that it can hardly be considered a uniquely American evil, or “original sin.” He notes that from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. Slavery played an important part in ancient civilizations. It has existed almost universally through history — among nomadic pastoralists in Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the fourth millennium B.C. The poems of Homer supply evidence that slavery was an integral part of Ancient Greek society, possibly as early as 1200 B.C. Our Judeo-Christian tradition was also one that accepted the legitimacy of slavery. In a number of places in the Bible, St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters “with full hearts and without equivocation.”
When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal every place in the world. What was unique, in Sowell’s view, was that there was a strenuous effort to end slavery and that the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society.
In fact, one of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal:
“This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it. . . . every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. Finally, the Civil War resolved this question.
If we were to add together most of what has been written about the racial question, a thoughtful observer would be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent and honest presentation than that provided by Sowell in his book Race and Economics (1975). He writes that, “Race makes a difference in economic transactions, as in all other areas of life.” But he denies that the black experience in America is radically different from that of the Irish, Italians, Germans, Russian Jews, and Japanese. He believes that those who date the black arrival in the U.S. to the colonial period and then advance the view that later groups have advanced beyond them — race having been the factor that held them back — are mistaken.
The key dates, in Sowell’s view, “. . . are not the time of arrival in America, but (1) the time of being freed from slavery, and (2) the time of movement from the rural South into a modern, industrial and commercial economy.” Blacks had to “undergo two major transformations within two or three generations.” They had first to adjust to freedom and individual responsibility for feeding, clothing, and housing themselves. This had to be done in an economy and society devastated by war. The second hurdle was adaptation to urban living — an experience that “had proved shattering to European immigrants from similar rural backgrounds before them.” Most of today’s black urban population has been in the city for only several generations, and many of the poorest and most problem-ridden less than that.
The experience of the Irish immigrants of the 19th century and the black urban dweller of the 20th is, Sowell points out, very similar. In 1888, William Dean Howells noted that: “The settlement of an Irish family in one of our suburban neighborhoods strikes a mortal pang in the old residents.” Henry George applied the phrase “human garbage” to the immigrants of the 1880s, and H. G. Wells, at the turn of the century, doubted if immigrants in the American slums could ever be usefully absorbed into society.
Of the 19th century immigrant groups, the Russian and East European Jews advanced most quickly. The reason dated back to their distant past, as did the corresponding failure to advance more rapidly of the Irish, Italians, Poles and blacks. Sowell writes:
“In one important respect, medieval Jews were very fortunate in the particular form of occupational discrimination practiced against them. They were forbidden to engage in those occupations that were central to feudalism — those involving the land — and were therefore forced into urban, commercial, and financial occupations, which of course would later turn out to be central to the modern capitalist economy. While the intention behind such prohibitions were repressive, the consequence was that Jews were rather better prepared for the modern world.”
The most successful non-white immigrant group was the Japanese. They met discrimination, were unable to own land in many places, and, during the Second World War II, were interned. Yet, their economic advance continued. Neither they nor the Jews demanded government aid or assistance — or civil rights legislation. They simply educated themselves, acquired the skills necessary to succeed, and made dramatic economic progress.
It is Sowell’s conclusion that, “political power is not necessary for economic advance.” The Irish were the most politically successful minority. Yet, the bulk of them were still predominantly in unskilled and manual occupations in the last decade of the 19th century. Sowell adds that emphasis on promoting economic advancement has produced “far more progress than attempts to redress past wrongs, even where these historic wrongs have been obvious, massive and indisputable.”
Sowell asserts that liberal programs — minimum wage laws, rent control, school busing — do not assist black Americans to advance economically. Welfare, in particular, has made many of them wards of the state and has deadened the incentive needed to progress. He also argues that most negative situations faced by blacks today were faced at an earlier time by other immigrant groups. The answer to progress for black Americans, he believes, is to consider the qualities upon which other groups’ successes were based.
In Discrimination and Disparities, Sowell concludes:
“Nothing that we do today can undo the many evils and catastrophes of the past, but we can at least learn from them, and not repeat the mistakes of the past, many of which began with lofty-sounding goals. . . . Apologies in America today for slavery in the past have no meaning, much less do any good for either blacks or whites today. What can it mean for A to apologize for what B did, even among contemporaries, much less across the vast chasm between the living and the dead? The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and the future — both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead, who are far beyond our power to help or punish or avenge. . . . Galling as these restrictive facts may be, that does not stop them from being facts beyond our control. Pretending to have powers that we do not in fact have risks creating endless evils in the present, while claiming to deal with the evils of the past. . . . To admit that we can do nothing about what happened among the dead is not to give up the struggle for a better world, but to concentrate our efforts where they have at least some hope for making things better for the living.”
In a very thoughtful article commemorating Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday, Professor Richard B. Ebeling of The Citadel writes:
“Now, at the age of 90, Thomas Sowell continues to offer us understanding and insight into the attitudes and institutions that can bring all people greater peace and prosperity, as well as human liberty. This includes an appreciation of how problems of race and race relations can have their improvement in a setting of the individualist ideas upon which the United States was founded, but which have not always been fully practiced and from which the country is dangerously drifting even farther away.”
Thomas Sowell has always believed in a genuinely colorblind society. As he celebrates his 90th birthday our society, sadly, still has not confronted all of its lingering racial problems. We have made extraordinary progress since Sowell was born in the segregated South. Who would have imagined at that time that we would live to see a black president, two black Secretaries of State, black Supreme Court justices, and African Americans excelling in every area in society? Still, serious problems remain, as the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and untold examples of police brutality indicate. Yet, many of our troubled cities now have black mayors and police chiefs who are dealing with these problems. Throughout his life, Thomas Sowell has helped American society understand its racial dilemmas and put them in a proper historical perspective. American society has been enriched by his presence. Happy birthday, Thomas Sowell! *