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Cultural Capital, Not Race

Black Liberty Matters

Economist Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution has published many perceptive pieces on race, culture, and minorities. Photo: Free to Choose Network.

The United States is not a racist country, and systemic racial discrimination does not explain why African-Americans do worse on many criteria than other groups....

The notorious video of a white policeman slowly killing an African-American, George Floyd, on a Minneapolis street on a night in May 2020 is still haunting us. It was deeply disturbing. This is something which should not have happened. Nobody deserves such brutal treatment. It does not matter that Floyd had been convicted of eight crimes, serving four years in prison, and that he was arrested for trying to pass on a counterfeit dollar bill, and that he was under the influence of methamphetamine and other drugs. His killing was unjustified and unjustifiable. But so was the violence committed afterwards in many American cities under the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’. Its victims were not only those who were killed or injured in riots, but also many decent, hard-working people of every colour who lost their lifetime savings when their shops or other small businesses went up in smoke.

Slavery: the Worst Kind of Discrimination

It is certainly true that in the past African-Americans in the United States were victims of racial discrimination. The worst kind of discrimination was slavery itself: some people were free while others were enslaved. The original meaning of being a free man was that of not being a slave. I think that this captures the essence of freedom: it is at the same time self-ownership and citizenship. It means that nobody else owns you, and that you are recognised as a full member of the community. It is this recognition which has in many cases been denied to African-Americans, even after emancipation.

Nonetheless, as African-American economist Thomas Sowell has repeatedly stressed, slavery is not inherently a tool for white people to oppress and exploit black people. Slavery was pervasive in the Ancient World and in non-Western cultures. The Greeks and Romans usually  enslaved prisoners of war. The total number of white slaves in North Africa under the Ottoman Empire probably exceeded the total number of black slaves in the United States. Slavery has actually lingered on in much of the Arab world until recently. Almost everybody took slavery for granted until the abolitionist movement arose in the United Kingdom in late eighteenth century. Surprisingly, the idealists prevailed. From 1809 onwards, the Royal Navy tried to prevent the slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa.       

One reason why discrimination continued in the United States after emancipation in the 1860s was the violent manner in which American slaves were freed, in a civil war which cost almost 700 thousand lives, more than any other war fought by the United States. The American South was defeated and occupied by the North, causing grievances among white Southerners who subsequently sought to take revenge on the newly-freed Blacks by restricting their liberties. Compare this to emancipation in the British Empire and in Brazil. In 1834, slavery was abolished in all British dominions, and slave owners were compensated for their losses. In Brazil, slavery was abandoned in steps so that in 1888 when it was finally abolished formally only one-fourth of the African-Brazilian population was still enslaved. In the former British dominions racial prejudice has been sporadic rather than systemic, unlike the American South after the Civil War. In Brazil people of every colour mix freely and racism has long been frowned upon.

Cultural Capital, not Race, Explains Disparities

In the late 1950s, Chicago economist Gary Becker pointed out that discrimination is costly for the perpetrator no less than the victim. If you as a businessman do not hire the best applicant for a job because of your prejudices, then you create a profit opportunity for your competitor. The free market is more interested in the quality of the bread than in the colour of the baker’s skin. Even when bigotry was more common than now, it was simply too costly in the most competitive sectors of the American economy, such as entertainment and sports, and therefore opportunities presented themselves to gifted African-Americans. In an unfettered economy, discrimination against the able should be expected to be self-defeating in the long run. This can be observed by the example of two groups who in early twentieth century suffered serious discrimination in the United States, American Jews and Japanese-Americans. The entire latter group was even interned during the Second World War. Both groups have done very well since then.

Why have African-Americans not done as well on average as a group, despite many impressive individual achievements? The most plausible explanations have nothing to do with race. I and other white Europeans are not racially inferior to the Jews or the Japanese, I should think, even if on average we do not do as well economically or on IQ (intelligence quotient) tests. (Jewish household earn almost double the median income in the United States; the Japanese, both in Japan and elsewhere, score higher on IQ tests than do white people.) The concept of race itself is quite problematic. Modern science tells us that genetic differences between people are mainly according to their places of origin rather than to the colour of their skin.

The most persuasive explanation of the disparities between various ethnic and religious groups lies not in systemic discrimination, but rather in different amounts of what could be called cultural capital: the attitudes, preferences, traditions and conventions of different groups. One reason why Jews do well when they get a chance, as in the United States in late nineteenth and early twentieth century, is that they are born into a culture which values education and respects old-fashioned virtues like assiduity, punctuality, frugality, prudence, and reliability. Perhaps they score high on scholastic aptitude tests used in the United States because they have had a thousand years to prepare. The Japanese share respect for these virtues with Jews and they are also well-known for their self-discipline. Again, in both groups family ties tend to be strong.

The State Against Blacks

There is little doubt that slavery as an institution discouraged the accumulation of cultural capital among African-Americans in the United States. But Sowell suggests an intriguing further explanation for the disparities between African-Americans and many other ethnic groups. It is that the culture to which they were exposed in the South was derived from marginal and turbulent places on the British isles. ‘The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work,’ Sowell writes, ‘proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.’

In a competitive economy, African-Americans would gradually have overcome their initial obstacles, including racial discrimination, and accumulated cultural capital. They would have advanced on their own. Indeed, as Sowell points out, in the first half of the twentieth century there were many examples of successful African-American communities. But the rapid growth of government in the United States in the second half of the century slowed down this process. Often ambitious programmes designed to help disadvantaged groups had the opposite effect. One example was the minimum wage which priced unskilled young African-Americans out of the labour market. Another example was the provision of welfare benefits to improvident people which acted as a reward for sloth and carelessness, demonstrated in decisions to have children without the will or the means to look after them properly. But what was perhaps worst was the breakdown of public education, not least as the result of attempts by teachers’ unions to protect their members against parental choice.

Another African-American economist, Walter Williams, has written a book with the telling title The State Against Blacks. His argument is that even if discrimination and bigotry may partially explain the condition of many Blacks in the United States, the most important factor is a myriad of laws and regulations impeding progress and self-improvement. What the state has been doing for Blacks is less significant than what it has been doing to them.

The Injustice of ‘Affirmative Action’

Of course the institution of slavery was unjust: more than that, it was evil. But it seems to me deeply misconceived to try and rectify one injustice by another, for example by ‘positive discrimination’ against white people or Asian-Americans, or to use the euphemism, by ‘affirmative action’. As Martin Luther King said so eloquently, people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the colour of their skin. There is a story which, for a while, the American Left liked to tell. In a 1995 article in the New York Times Nicholas Lemann glowingly described the career of Dr. Patrick Chavis, a popular obstetrician-gynecologist in California who was, as Lemann pointed out, a beneficiary of a racial preference scheme. Chavis and four other African-Americans had in 1973 been admitted to the University of California Medical School at Davis. ‘They got in because they were black, and therefore took the places of five white applicants with better grades and test scores,’ Lemann noted. One of the applicants rejected was a white man, Allan Bakke, who subsequently sued the school for discriminating against him on the basis of his race. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which decided that race could be a factor in an admission process, but not the only factor. The University was ordered to admit Bakke. In his article, Lemann contrasted the two doctors. Bakke ‘does not appear to have set the world on fire as a doctor’, he condescendingly wrote whereas Chavis had a huge practice. Lemann conceded that complaints had been made about Chavis, but he did not challenge his assertion that they were based on racial discrimination.

This story of success turned however out to be a story of failure. Only two years after Lemann published his piece, Chavis had his license suspended, and later revoked, by the Medical Board of California after the doctor had been found grossly negligent in his care of seven liposuction patients, one of whom bled to death after he abandoned her bedside. Most of his patients (and victims) were African-American like himself. In 2002, Chavis was shot and killed by unknown assailants in a Los Angeles suburb, apparently during a robbery. Lemann, the author of the New York Times article, however went on to become Professor at the Faculty of Journalism at Columbia University. Hopefully he made it clear to his students that the issue was not only about Allan Bakke or Patrick Chavis, or more generally about race discrimination in the United States, but also, and most importantly, about the ‘Third Man’, the ailing patient who has to take certificates from medical schools on trust. It should be emphasised that this Third Man often is black. He, or she, requires the same protection by the police from thugs as do white people; these people have to cross bridges which should be built by competent engineers; and they will need help and advice from qualified doctors.      

It is not systemic racism which is primarily to blame for the many problems among African-Americans in the United States which the tragic case of George Floyd illustrates. It is rather the toxic combination of the ‘redneck’ culture the African-Americans inherited from the whites of the South, according to Sowell, and the dependency culture created by the modern welfare state, seeking to turn all members of minorities into doleful victims instead of encoraging them to advance on their own. In Sowell’s apt words, we see ‘non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles’. But what African-Americans really need is liberty under the law, not riots instigated by radicals hungry for power. Behind the innocuous and non-controversial phrase that ‘Black Lives Matter’ a sinister movement is lurking, hostile to Western values and aspirations, not least the gradual betterment of the human condition by individual effort. This movement is also trying to turn social media into platforms for the perpetually indignant and to silence all its critics in academia.

Slavery in Icelandic History

I should perhaps add that the sagas and chronicles of my tiny country, a remote outpost in the North Atlantic, illustrate three of Sowell’s points: that slavery would hardly survive on its own; that former slaves have to become financially independent; and that slavery is not a relationship between white and black, but between a conqueror and his captives.        

Iceland was settled in the period from 874 to 930, and the early settlers from Western Norway brought with them slaves, mostly captured in Viking raids on the British Isles. But in the course of less than three hundred years, at the end of the twelfth century, slavery had disappeared in Iceland, although it had not been explicitly prohibited. A plausible economic explanation of this is that at the outset of Icelandic history, land was plentiful whereas labour was scarce and therefore carrying a high price. In this situation, slavery may have seemed profitable for the slave owners. But when more or less all arable land had been settled while labour had become plentiful as a result of population growth, the cost of maintaining slaves may have exceeded the cost of paying wages to farmhands. Therefore slavery faded away.

In the second place, the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) described a possible way out of slavery in his account of the struggle between Norwegian kings and the independent farmers they tried to subdue. One of those farmers, Erling Skjalgsson (974–1028), kept around thirty slaves. As I have pointed out, Snorri writes: ‘He assigned day work to his slaves and gave them time after it and permission for each man who wanted to work for himself in the evening or at night, he gave them arable land to sow their own corn and to use the produce to enrich themselves. He set a price and redemption value on each of them. Many freed themselves in the first or second year, and all those that were any good freed themselves in three years. With the money thus gained Erling would buy himself other slaves, and some of his freedmen he put into herring fishing and some into other profitable occupations. Some cleared woodland and set up dwellings there. He enabled all of them to get on in some way.’ Crucially, as Snorri comments, the slaves could ‘get on in some way’. Conditions were created under which they could advance on their own.

Thirdly, the Icelanders were victims of slave raids themselves, some seven hundred years after their forefathers had participated in such raids. In 1627, pirates from two cities in Northwest Africa, Salé and Algiers, suddenly appeared in Iceland which by then was a Danish dependency. The pirates killed around 50 people and captured around 400 people whom they sold in African slave markets. Eventually, around 50 of those Icelanders could return home after ransom had been paid, both by various Icelanders individually and from collections in Denmark. An Icelandic clergyman who was set free to raise money for the ransom wrote a remarkable book describing the raids, life as a slave in Algiers and his arduous trip through Europe to Copenhagen.

Freedom: Self-Ownership and Citizenship

Thus, slavery is not inherently an institution through which white oppresses black. It is a denial of two hard-won principles of Western civilisation which taken together, I suggest, constitute freedom, the ownership by individuals themselves of their talents, abilities and skills and their mutual recognition as citizens. The liberty of Blacks matters. The liberty of all matters.

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