Finally, at 51, social theorist Thomas Sowell is being heard. Congress calls for his testimony, the lecture circuit beckons, columnists applaud or abhor his right-wing views about blacks. And for the past year Sowell has been trumpeted as "Ronald Reagan's favorite black intellectual." None of this notoriety particularly pleases the prickly conservative economist. He has no interest in making policy. When the new President offered him a Cabinet post, he declined, just as he had overtures from Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. Though he did join the White House Economic Policy Advisory Board last February, Sowell resigned after one meeting, saying the trip from his Palo Alto, Calif. home was "too much of a strain."
Sowell remains popular at the White House because his scholarly writings dovetail neatly with Reagan's emphasis on self-reliance. In the latest of his 11 books, Ethnic America (Basic Books, $16.95), Sowell examines the history of white and nonwhite minorities and finds that the relative success of immigrants, including blacks, is determined less by race and initial poverty than by individual and cultural motivation for achievement. If poverty were due only to bigotry, Sowell argues, "Jews and Japanese would not be among the most prosperous American ethnic groups." At one time a Marxist, he now advocates limiting government intervention, and has no use for busing, affirmative action or minimum wage laws, which he believes simply price the poor out of jobs. "The typical white liberal," in Sowell's view, "loves to believe blacks can't do anything without his help."
Conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. hails Sowell as "one of the brightest men around doing sociological research," while black commentator Carl T. Rowan labels him an Aunt Jemima, giving "aid and comfort to America's racists." In turn, Sowell has dismissed Rowan as an "idiot" whose "dumb remarks" intimidate blacks holding differing views. If civil rights leaders have ignored him, Sowell explains, "they have a vested interest in big government. A lot of the money that supports them is federal money."
Born in Gastonia, N.C. of barely educated parents, Sowell and his family moved to Harlem when he was 8, and his father worked in construction. At 17, Thomas quit high school to deliver Western Union telegrams for 65 cents an hour and later worked as a garment district delivery boy for $25 a week. "The experience was invaluable," he says. Lacking a job once, he had to hock his only suit to buy a knish and an orange soda. "Since then," he says with a laugh, "I've eaten at the Waldorf and the White House. It has never been as good."
Realizing there was little future for a black dropout with no skills and no connections, he signed up for night school, then joined the Marines and later enrolled at Howard University. In his sophomore year he switched to Harvard, from which he graduated magna cum laude in economics in 1958. Before he got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Sowell held several teaching jobs—one of them at Howard, where he came under fire for driving students too hard. "One day," he says, "college administrators will realize the difference between glitter and substance."
Sowell's guiding principle is to examine issues "without foregone conclusions." For example, he claims it is a myth that affirmative action advances the relative position of minorities, and instead feels they were better off with the equal opportunity policies of the 1960s. But, he notes, "People don't normally go around shouting from the housetops that they were wrong."
Hardly a publicity seeker, Sowell has no nameplate on his office door at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University's conservative think tank, keeps his phone number secret and won't discuss his private life, including reports that his second wife is white.
But intellectual detachment has not robbed him of compassion or contact with his roots. "When I go to the ghetto," Sowell says, "I don't go as part of a political entourage or to do some hustle. I have never developed the Olympian view of most academics. They look down on people as ants to be moved about to produce whatever patterns the sociologists want. The people in ghettos are not ants, and a lot of them have more character than I find on most campuses."
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