As we celebrate Black History Month, it is critically important we do not overlook the essential contributions of modern Black intellectuals to our country. If you look at mainstream listings of leading Black intellectuals, most would be absent one of the greatest and for a very unfortunate reason: his truly independent thought about what actually lifts people out of poverty and the centrality of the intact family. This is Professor Thomas Sowell.
He was born in the South, orphaned shortly after birth, adopted by a great-aunt and grew in an impoverished home without electricity or running water. Later, he dropped out of high school in Harlem to serve the Marine Corps in the Korean War where he developed his life-long passion for photography, his primary artistic outlet, by serving in the strategic Combat Camera Corp. He returned to earn his way into Harvard where he graduated magna cum laude, earned his master’s degree from Columbia University and his doctorate in economics nearly ten years later from the University of Chicago. The Chicago School of economics was one of the world’s powerhouses in that field of study and he became one of that school’s leading intellectual lights. He was mentored by the great economist Milton Friedman.
Beyond being a leading economist and accomplished photographer, Sowell also became an influential philosopher, social commentator, leading national columnist and ground breaking thinker in the field of linguistics and late-talking children. One of his greatest passions was advocating for educational choice because he believed the greatest step up for all children was excellence in education which is far more likely to occur when parents have access to innovative educational choices, rather than just one neighborhood public school.
Professor Sowell has had an illustrious teaching career at Cornell, Howard, Rutgers, Brandies, Amherst College and UCLA and currently is a leading Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University where he enjoys the freedom to conduct his research and write books and articles fulltime.
In his younger years, he was an avowed philosophical Marxist. As he developed in his career, he rejected those ideas soundly. When asked what compelled him to forsake Marxism, he wryly offers a one-word reason: “facts.” Rather than never actually improving the lives of citizens, it did the exact opposite. And horrifically so.
He often appeared as a guest on William F. Buckley’s popular PBS television show Firing Line where he would explain how free market ideals were one of the most powerful tools liberating his and all peoples. In fact, Buckley described Dr. Sowell as “the closest thing this century has come to on the order of an Emancipation Proclamation” because of the astounding empowerment of his economic labors and advocacy. Sowell has been a long student of diverse cultures and policies that lift the underprivileged to a better life. He explained in 1981,
I haven’t been able to find a single country in the world where the policies that are being advocated for Blacks in the United States have lifted any people out of poverty. I’ve seen many examples around the world of people who began in poverty and ended in affluence. Not one of them has followed any pattern at all like what is being advocated for Blacks in the United States.
Throughout his career, Sowell has been one of the most learned and wisest advocates of the power of the Black family, persuasively explaining that it is an absolute myth that the Black family has always been in tatters. He asserts that it “is only within our own time that we suddenly see this inevitable tragedy [of the declining Black family] which the welfare system is going to rush in to solve.” In fact, he decries the welfare system as well-intentioned, but deeply troubling in its long-term results. It is simply not empowering. It has not only failed to lift the plight of the Black citizen, but in many ways has cemented their dilemma. That is not freedom.
Dr. Sowell, in stark contrast to many of his more liberal peers, is a fierce defender of independent thought and free academic inquiry. He is no follower of intellectual fashion. Earlier this year, he correctly noted “The political left’s attempts to silence ideas they cannot, or will not, debate are a confession of intellectual bankruptcy.”
Sowell also takes the longer view of history, being deeply mindful of how what was considered progressive just years ago is now condemned as repressive and damnable:
If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.
As Harvard’s celebrated cognitive linguist Steven Pinker, a friend of Sowell’s described him, “Thomas is absolutely fearless. He’s forceful in his opinions, he will not compromise any of his opinions for the sake of social politeness.” It takes not only brilliance, but a strong spine and moral resolve to make one’s mark on the world as a singular thinker. At age 90, that is Dr. Thomas Sowell’s great legacy as one of the modern world’s leading intellectuals. And the Black family and its children have not had a greater, and more underappreciated champion.
The Free to Choose Network has just released a lovely hour-long documentary on the tremendous power of Dr. Sowell’s ideas and the broad influence of his intellect, scholarship, and writings. The Daily Citizen highly recommends enjoying this important and concise documentary together with your teen-age and young adult children.
Photo from Wikipedia