Invisible men

Black intellectuals who refuse to subscribe to the liberal consensus on race have been belittled, insulted and ignored by a predominantly white left wing elite

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

William F. Buckley once said that Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams should never be on the same flight because if the plane went down it would mean the death of America’s only black conservatives. Somehow the right summing up these two brilliant, maverick intellectuals as conservative seemed to sell them short, while their rational stance on race pitted them against a left that expected like-minded views from black Americans on this topic. Even in his dotage Sowell is subjected to this, as when one of his books was reviewed by an academic from the London School of Economics who assumed the author was “a rich white man”. 

Sowell has referred to the predominantly white intellectual elite of the left — those quick to classify the minds of minorities — as “the anointed”. He, Williams and the fellow travellers inspired and influenced by these men’s output over the years, have been called other names along the way. In the eyes of say, President Biden, these figures aren’t officially black because they don’t vote Democrat, while others had names for them that should have been consigned to history — Uncle Tom, “coon”, “house negro” — like those ancient racial slurs once favoured by Klansmen.

One of Thomas Sowell’s books was reviewed by an academic from the London School of Economics, who assumed he was a “rich white man”

When it transpired that the percentage of Latino and black Americans voting for Donald Trump, or at least voting Republican, had risen in the recent election, another term was coined. It will doubtless become as common and as catchy as “white privilege” or “white fragility”, terms peddled by academic grifters in the elusive pursuit of an original thought and the research fellowship to fund it. This too will prove to be acceptable in polite society despite its intention to cause offence. 

Those non-whites that fail to exist within the limitations placed on them by the left are suffering from “multiracial whiteness”. It’s a term that manages to simultaneously diminish their ethnicity and devalue their views. It’s an academic’s way of calling someone a “coconut”. These so-called honorary whites were the subject of Larry Elder’s superb documentary Uncle Tom, released in 2020. Elder is a long-term supporter of the books, politics and philosophy of Sowell and Williams, is a US radio host and attorney who has been subjected to similar attacks over the years. 

For some, any progress made will never compensate for the grievances of the past

Elder himself is among a line-up of interviewees that includes Candace Owens, businessmen, tradesmen, musicians, politicians and members of the military. All refute the orthodox view that racial disparities are entirely due to systemic racism, something that Sowell first noted decades ago, kicking off with a takedown of affirmative action. It may tick the boxes as government policy, but it doesn’t work in practice.

“If you believe that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards,” Sowell has said, “that would have gotten you labelled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago, and a racist today.” 

One contributor in the film asks why it is that he, and young black men like him, grew up knowing the names of rappers and athletes but not those of Walter Williams or Thomas Sowell. On Sowell’s ninetieth birthday last summer, Coleman Hughes wrote: “Measured by his contributions to economics, political theory, and intellectual history, Thomas Sowell ranks among the towering intellects of our time.”

Both Sowell and Williams overcame hardships and barriers en route to becoming economists, authors, and academics using lived experience and forensic research to produce insightful commentary on a subject central to the American psyche. They came from poor, working-class neighbourhoods. Williams grew up in Philadelphia, raised by his mother. Sowell was born in the South and moved to Harlem in the 1930s. His father died before he was born; his mother died in childbirth a few years later. 

They were raised in the era of Jim Crow; they witnessed the injustice that brought about the civil rights movement and welcomed many of the changes that sprang from it. In recent years they watched as a younger generation that had benefitted from the developments of that struggle — as well as more suspect legislation implemented to accommodate diversity — cast themselves as victims.

For some, any progress made will never compensate for the grievances of the past. No matter how extensive the concessions or how evident the preferential treatment it will never be enough. Just ask the journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children.”

Arguably figures such as Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have never been given their due because of their views. Although not silenced by the mainstream media, they were certainly sidelined by it. Recently, as the internet brought together figures such as Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and Eric Weinstein under the collective title of the “intellectual dark web”, it inadvertently provided a platform for black intellectual outliers like Sowell, Williams, Glenn Loury and Shelby Steele. The academia in which these figures have existed since the 1960s and 1970s has in that time nurtured views on race that have now found a way into the mainstream, while these outliers were among a minority that opposed them. 

In so doing, some alienated the survivors from the front line of that original civil rights season. At a speaking engagement in 1984 Glenn Loury told an audience the civil rights movement was over, a move that brought the widow of Martin Luther King, seated in the audience, to tears. Loury, an economist and academic, raised on the south side of Chicago in the early postwar years, argued that the poor performance of black students, the high rate of black-on-black crime, the numbers of absent fathers in black families could not be attributed to racism, points he addressed in an essay for the New Republic entitled “A New American Dilemma”.

Thomas Sowell is the eminence grise of this group of intellectuals, the eldest, and the first to articulate the uncomfortable opinions these academics share on the plight of poor black Americans and the possible reasons for it. In Rednecks & White Liberals (2005), he writes:

External explanations of black-white differences — discrimination or poverty, for example — seem to many to be more amenable to public policy than internal explanations such as culture. 

Those with this point of view tend to resist cultural explanations but there is yet another reason why some resist understanding the counterproductive effects of an anachronistic culture: alternative explanations of economic and social lags provide a more satisfying ability to blame all such lags on the sins of others, such as racism or discrimination.

The works of Sowell are now reaching a wider readership because of the internet despite him not having a social media profile. A millennial runs an unofficial Thomas Sowell Twitter account, pasting past quotes and highlighting his recent writings. It has more than 600,000 followers. A documentary has finally been made about him and his work: Common Sense in a Senseless World was released recently.

As Buckley implied, Sowell and Williams were men who stood alone for a long time, brothers in arms as well as long-term friends. So much of what they fought and argued against on race has now become the orthodoxy and led America to its current impasse. Much of the responsibility for this divisive outcome lay with liberal academics, and those that Williams referred to as “the race hustlers and poverty pimps” who have built a living on the back of the grievances of black Americans. The mau-mauing of the flak-catchers continues unabated decades after Tom Wolfe wrote his essay.

Champion of liberty: Walter Williams

At the end of Suffer No Fools, a 2015 documentary on the life and work of Williams, Sowell is asked what he thinks his friend’s legacy will be. He says he should be remembered as an honest academic; a rare thing in a profession in which it’s harder to be honest than any other profession save for politics. Despite his beliefs, and the years of research and experience that informed them, Williams says in the film that it’s “academic dishonesty” to use the classroom to “proselytise” students. 

Yet this is exactly what was happening around him for decades, as those academics that got wealthy on the back of the lucrative equalities industry became influential in other institutions. It’s a path that has led to the cul-de-sac that is Critical Race Theory and the dead end that is Black Lives Matter. 

For the latter and its ardent supporters, it’s as though 1865 — never mind 1965 — never happened. The one significant historical date is the year central to the discredited 1619 Project. “We do not have a choice whether or not to discuss history,” Sowell says. “History has always been invoked in contemporary controversies. The only choice is between discussing what actually happened in the past and discussing notions projected into the past for present purposes.”

Loury has said that those who “preach despair to our children” are desecrating the memory of the founders of the civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter is a departure from that movement, being without its struggles and the solutions needed to address them. In his 2006 book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Shelby Steele states, “Anger in the oppressed is a response to perceived opportunity, not to injustice. And expressions of anger escalate not with more injustice but with less injustice.”

This explains why the race industry has flourished in the wake of victories resulting in more legislation and greater funds, growing into a booming industry as, paradoxically, actual racism was rapidly diminishing. This brings us to Black Lives Matter recasting the motivations of the civil rights movement and the rituals and swagger of the Black Panthers as theatre, but without the stylish traditional costume of beret, shades and Shaft leathers. The performance shifted from tragedy — the deaths and the carnage during last year’s riots — to farce, as the streets cleared and the movement appeared to be colonised by middle-class white students.

It’s all a far cry from the hopes of Ralph Ellison writing in 1964, after the publication of Invisible Man but four years before the Civil Rights Act. “When we finally achieve the full right of participation in American life,” he notes in the essay collection Shadow and Act, “what we make of it will depend upon our sense of cultural values, and our creative use of freedom, not upon our racial identification.”

In that same essay Ellison reflects on the prospect of a black American president in a distant future. When Barack Obama became president there was dancing in the streets and talk of a post-racial world. When Obama left office, the left lost its way on race: there was nowhere to go but back to zero. Now there was no longer a black president it was possible to once again push the idea there never could be one again. Subsequently, it was as though the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act and mountainous legislation towards racial equality hadn’t happened. This is now America’s new dilemma.

Walter Williams died last December, aged 84. The event warranted far more attention than it was given and this will no doubt be the case when Thomas Sowell bows out, though for the moment he is still writing. Hopefully he will comment on the new White House administration and its plans to double down on the very policies he and Williams spent years debunking. 

In the wake of the Capitol Hill protest, Sowell highlighted the selective indignation of those on the left that remained silent during the violence of last year’s Black Lives Matter riots. As he once put it, plainly but succinctly: “It’s amazing how much panic one honest man can spread among a multitude of hypocrites.”

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