Going Over the Great Divide

Fred Barnes, “Going Over the Great Divide,” The New York Times, January 25, 1987.


Thomas Sowell wrote in ”Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?” (1984) that two assumptions of the civil rights movement had persisted for decades despite their failure to stand up as general principles. The first is that racial discrimination causes poverty, an assumption Mr. Sowell said has been disproved by the example of Japanese-Americans, overseas Chinese and Jews. The second fallacy is that statistical disparities in incomes, jobs, education and so forth are the result of discrimination. Mr. Sowell noted that statistical disparities are commonplace in life and rarely caused by bias (for example, he pointed out that blacks in major-league baseball hit home runs with twice the frequency of Hispanic players).

But why the remarkable durability of these assumptions? In ”A Conflict of Visions” Mr. Sowell has an answer, and it’s a pretty cogent one. The two premises stem from a vision, a picture of how the world works that civil rights advocates share. We all have visions, Mr. Sowell says, and they are not dependent on empirical validation or logic. A vision exists before reasoning begins. It is ”a sense of causation,” a sort of grand hunch or gut feeling on which social theories and political ideologies are built. And being prerational and not articulated, it is very, very hard to dislodge.

The New York Times