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The Dilemmas of Diversity

ISSUE:  Summer 1998
Migrations and Cultures: A World View. By Thomas Sowell. Basic Books. $30. 00.

A recent visit to the Berkshires to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform at the Tanglewood festival produced a program of unusual interest. The all Mozart program was conducted by Seiji Ozawa, the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 was played by Mitsuko Uchida and the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 2 was performed by Cho-Liang Lin. It wasn’t too long ago that Jews dominated the performance of classical music in America but now some of the most talented artists appearing on the concert stage are Asians. This thought struck me as I finished reading Thomas Sowell’s provocative history of world-wide immigration through the experiences of six ethnic and racial groups which migrated to different parts of the world, including the United States: the Germans, the overseas Chinese, the Italians, the Jews, Asian-Indians, and the Japanese.

Sowell, who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, details the persistence of cultural traits in the above Asian and European groups. Each group emigrated to different parts of the world with their own particular set of skills, attitudes, and other forms of “human capital.” The result is the history of the interaction between the culture of the immigrant and the demands of the culture of the host country. The ethnic and racial groups which were most successful were those that were able to integrate their culture with that of the indigenous population and thus assimilate without losing their own identity.

Ostensibly a history of worldwide immigration, Sowell, at the same time, has also focused on some of the most important contemporary issues within American society such as the immigration debate, the controversy over affirmative action, the problems faced by minorities in the inner-cities, and the matter of multicultural education. What is different about Sowell’s book is that he places these issues within a world-wide context and finds that these areas of contention are not unique to the United States. Sowell asserts that the economic, educational, or occupational disparities which are often explained by the special experience of minorities in the United States are also found in countries where minorities have no such history.

In documenting the rise from poverty to prosperity of the various immigrants in his study, Sowell rejects the notion of “haves” and “have-nots” as enduring categories that are frozen in their positions because of social, racial, or economic forces. Rather, he emphasizes the balance between the environment, in which certain groups find themselves in because of history, and the cultural assets that enable immigrants to succeed in some societies and not in others. For example, Italian immigrants in both Argentina and Brazil were socially and economically more successful than they were when they arrived in the United States. Sowell attributes this to the fact that the United States was a far more developed country when the Italians arrived than was the case in Brazil and Argentina where they were able to assert skills that were scarce and necessary for economic development.

Sowell also argues that the plight of contemporary inner-city life in America cannot be blamed entirely on racism. In the case of African-Americans, Sowell contends that much of the disparity that exists between poor blacks and the rest of society has less to do with history, i.e., the legacy of slavery and racism, than to the cultural capital that Africans brought to the New World;

It is not a matter of blame, for either Africans or for the urban societies in which their descendants have found themselves in the Western Hemisphere, that the kinds of urban and industrial skills which many others brought with them to the New World had not developed in most of Africa. Had Africans migrated voluntarily to the Western Hemisphere, there would still be no reason to expect the black population of the hemisphere to have the same economic history as the white population. . . .

Sowell deplores the fashionable but false dichotomy between “blaming the victim” and blaming “society” when it is apparent that, “clearly, no one can be blamed for cultural developments which took place before he was born, or for the geographical settings in which these cultural developments took place.” He discards racism as a primary factor that has prevented groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics in America from attaining economic parity with the rest of society. He points to the prejudice faced by Japanese immigrants in many parts of the world including the United States who, nevertheless, were able to overcome this barrier and eventually find acceptance in many countries. The president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, for example, is of Japanese descent. Sowell notes that the success of the Japanese in foreign countries was not a result of political agitation or demands for affirmative action. Rather, argues Sowell, the economic success of the Japanese as well as that of the Jews and the Chinese had more to do with behavior and performance than “moral crusades or emotional denunciation.”

In the section on Jewish immigrants, Sowell makes the point that anti-Semitism was strongest in Eastern Europe where Jews tended to be least assimilated in language or culture. Their acceptance was greatest, however, in Western Europe, Australia, and in North America, where they had become culturally assimilated citizens, and major contributors to the overall welfare of the host country. Sowell, however, neglects to point out that the Jews of Germany were thoroughly assimilated and it was because of their integration into the overall society that they became targets of the Nazis. In Sowell’s view, however, the Nazis were a group of fanatics “who were neither representative of the history of the country nor able to sustain their influence after competing views were free to be heard.” There is little evidence to support this argument nor can a case be made that the Holocaust was the work of a small fraction of the German population.

Sowell’s argument rests on stronger ground when he contends that anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice towards groups, such as the Asian-Indians, Chinese, and Koreans, is a product of an ignorance of the economic function of “middle-man minorities.” All of the above immigrant groups earned reputations for their business acumen as merchants, traders, and businessmen. As these groups prospered in their middle-man occupations, they also managed to earn the enmity of the native population. Sowell attributes this to a universal ignorance on the part of the lower classes of the mechanisms of credit and interest. The identification of the merchant with newly-arrived immigrants, such as the case of Koreans in poor black neighborhoods in Brooklyn, often results in charges of exploitation, if not violence. Regardless of how inspirational immigrant success stories may be to some, as a rule, they have proved galling to many of the indigenous population at the bottom of the economic strata of society.

Sowell rejects the notion that economic and educational disparities can be overcome by theory or public policy. He points out that nothing in the physical or human spheres is evenly distributed. Sowell argues that the existence of winners and losers is part of the human condition and that some peoples by virtue of their cultural capital are better able to cope with the demands of the environment than are others;

The geographical differences . . . in which peoples and cultures have evolved, are just one of the factors making such uniformity unlikely or impossible. . . . If there is one pattern that emerges from all of these histories it is that each group has its own cultural pattern-and that these patterns do not disappear upon crossing a border or an ocean. . . . Both hereditary and environmental explanations of group differences encounter serious problems in the light of history.

For Sowell, the cultural capital that immigrants bring with them to their new homelands is crucial in determining the groups eventual success or failure.

The ability of the immigrants included in Sowell’s study to culturally acclimate themselves to their new environment is contrasted with the plight of the black underclass in the ghettos of the United States. Sowell argues that much of the problem is a result of cultural differences which have affected the behavior and attitudes of many young blacks. This is apparent in their failure to make the cultural adjustments required for success in the workplace, something that successful immigrant groups have managed to accomplish. The result is the startling fact that in the United States almost half of all African-American children live in poverty, that the prisons are almost half-filled with African-American males between the age of 18—29, and that black unemployment is twice that of whites. This, Sowell contends, is not a matter of low I.Q. or inferior genes but a failure of cultural integration. When minority culture makes allowances for the majority culture, circumstances change. Sowell points out that the income of black American married couples with college degrees were at the same level as white American couples with similar degrees. He also notes that infant mortality rates among black intact families were lower than among white-female-headed families, even when those white females had more education. In short, life-style differences have had major impacts on social misfortunes. Contrary to what liberal theorists would argue, the problem is complex and reaches beyond blaming a group or assigning guilt to society;

While cultures compete, . . . and results in winners and losers among the products of different cultures, this does not mean that the flesh-and-blood human beings whose cultural artifacts no longer remain functional are necessarily losers . . .as they abandon their traditional ways of doing particular things in favor of ways they have discovered in the culture of others. . . .

The six groups discussed by Sowell provide evidence that the success of many immigrant groups has much to do with their adaptation to the culture of their new homeland. Sowell, however, is concerned that the ideological proponents of “multiculturalism” in the United States have encouraged recent immigrants to demand programs that have as their objective the preservation of foreign cultures and languages and, as a by-product, have fostered hostility to the institutions and traditions of the country. These same groups are also beneficiaries of preferential treatment under “affirmative action” programs which were created to remedy historic wrongs. For Sowell, these programs not only add to the cost of absorbing the new immigrants but also increase their resentment by the native population. Sowell concludes with the warning that in recent years, anti-immigrant feelings has grown in the welfare states of Western Europe and the United States and that the combination of lax immigration laws, welfare state benefits, and schemes to keep foreigners foreign are leading to potentially explosive conflicts.

This brings me back to my experience in Tanglewood. The experience of the groups discussed in Sowell’s book indicates that restricting immigration is not the way to combat the type of diversity that threatens to fragment the social fabric. The Asians who performed at Tanglewood are a good example of what America will lose should we forget the positive aspects of diversity in which one’s cultural identity need not be sacrificed in order to participate as full Americans in all aspects of public life.


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