Documenting Diversity

I have been reading up on Thomas Sowell’s body of work. An American economist most known for his work on race policies, he has published on just about everything from pure economic theory to normative ideology.

Reading his Ethnic America, one gets a rich exposure to real diversity. Written in 1981, this survey of the complexity of American history contrasted with the simplistic progressive narrative of black and white coming out of the 1970s. There is essentially no such thing as a “minority” in a country where every ethnicity is a minority. The observed life outcomes of descendants of Irish immigrants are sufficiently different from the descendants of English immigrants, that they cannot be meaningfully grouped into a single race called “white.”

This book is structured by tracing the history of each major American ethnic group, its means of immigration, and its development into the fabric of America’s culture and economy, showing that, of the people that progressives do not consider white, there is so much diversity of outcomes that discrimination loses its explanatory power as a predictor for members of what are today popularly called “communities of color.” Sowell makes this point well with the plight of Japanese Americans, the ethnicity he identifies as having faced the most stark discrimination in recent times, a discrimination that was broadly supported across America’s political spectrum.

Between March and November 1942, more than 100,000 men, women, and children were shipped off to huge internment camps in isolated, barren regions scattered from California to Arkansas. These locations were “places where nobody had lived before and no one has lived since.”

Ironically, no such roundup was made of the 150,000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii, where the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. The virulent anti-Japanese feelings in the continental United States and the personality of the general in charge of the Western Defense Command apparently had more to do with the internment policy than the “military necessity” used to justify it. General J. L. DeWitt was an elderly career bureaucrat with experience primarily in supply units rather than in combat units and was held in low esteem by other generals. The internment camps for Japanese Americans represented a vast expansion of his bureaucratic empire and public importance. But what made that possible was the pervasive hysteria and hostility toward Japanese, whether in Japan or in America. General DeWitt echoed a widespread opinion in the post-Pearl Harbor days when he declared publicly, “A Jap’s a Jap, and it makes no difference whether he is a citizen or not.” The public support for the internment of Japanese Americans stretched across the spectrum, from the Hearst newspapers and racist bigots like columnist Westbrook Pegler on the Right to outstanding liberals like Earl Warren and Walter Lippmann, Leftists like Carey McWilliams, Vito Marcantonio, and the editors of the Communist Daily Worker and People’s World. The Executive Order authorizing internment was accepted as legitimate by the American Civil Liberties Union and by a unanimous Supreme Court. But despite the virtually unanimous fears of the times, not a single Japanese American was ever convicted of a single act of sabotage during all of World War II.

The impact of the mass internment on the Japanese Americans was devastating. The financial impact alone was massive. There were forced, hasty sales of homes, furniture, and other belongings before being shipped off to internment. Businesses built over a lifetime of hard work had to be liquidated in a few weeks. The financial losses of the Japanese Americans were estimated by the government itself at about $400,000,000—at 1942 price levels. Added to the financial losses were the many personal traumas of forced uprooting and internment and the body blow to the leadership of the Japanese American Citizens’ League, representing the Nisei efforts to become, and be accepted as, good Americans.

The magnitude of racial oppression against the Japanese less than a century ago is well documented, but it does not show itself in the monolithic means that progressives use to show the existence of discrimination: disparate impact. Using the analytics of progressive race ideology, if the average observed life outcomes of a nonwhite group of Americans differs from average White outcomes (And yes, they capitalize “White”) then that is considered evidence of “systemic racism.” But Japanese Americans, Sowell points out (in 1981 less than four full decades after WW2) show, on average, better life outcomes than Americans of European descent. Such a massive degree of recent racism that is not followed by a disparate negative impact calls into question the epistemology of progressive race policy.

An important theme of this book is to point to a stronger causal force for observed disparate impact: culture. As Sowell traces the history of America’s ethnic groups, all but the British have faced racism. However, the communities whose culture emphasizes a value for education, entrepreneurship, and the general deferral of gratification appear to have better average outcomes than those that don’t.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there