American History vs. Affirmative Action Hogwash

by | Jul 10, 2002

Bill O’Reilly of “The O’Reilly Factor” is one of the few major media figures who does not hesitate to criticize Jesse Jackson, so it was appropriate that the author of a critical new book about Jackson appeared on that program. The book is aptly titled “Shakedown,” in honor of the Reverend Jackson’s success in extracting […]

Bill O’Reilly of “The O’Reilly Factor” is one of the few major media figures who does not hesitate to criticize Jesse Jackson, so it was appropriate that the author of a critical new book about Jackson appeared on that program. The book is aptly titled “Shakedown,” in honor of the Reverend Jackson’s success in extracting millions of dollars from weak-kneed corporations that are fearful of his calling them “racist.”

On the program with the author was a loudmouth Jackson supporter. When O’Reilly quoted something critical of Jackson said by Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, the response was that Raspberry wouldn’t be where he is without Jesse Jackson. This is a standard evasion of criticisms of black “leaders.” It is also hogwash.

William Raspberry is not the first black columnist, nor even the first black writer at a major white publication. Before either Bill Raspberry or Jesse Jackson was born, black writer George Schuyler wrote for a leading literary magazine called The American Mercury, edited by the legendary H. L. Mencken. All this was decades before the civil rights revolution and before the phrase “affirmative action” had been coined.

Black writers are nothing new. Back in the late 19th century, Charles W. Chesnutt was published in The Atlantic Monthly. And back in the late 18th century, Gustavus Vassa published a book that went through eight editions. Somehow, they managed to do this without Jesse Jackson or affirmative action.

Why Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bill Raspberry would not have been able to follow in their footsteps without Jesse is one of the mysteries of our time.

From time to time someone tells me that I would not have been able to do this or that without affirmative action. But everything that I have done was done by other blacks before me — and therefore long before the civil rights revolution of the 1960s or affirmative action.

My academic career began before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but I was by no means the first black professor at a white institution or even the first black economist in the Ivy League. Nobel Prize-winning black economist W. Arthur Lewis taught at Princeton before I taught at Cornell. The first black faculty member at a major university was Allison Davis at the University of Chicago in 1940.

There was no affirmative action when I was admitted as a student at Harvard College in 1955 but, even if there had been and even if I had been admitted because of it, what about all the blacks who went to Harvard before me? The first black man graduated from Harvard in 1870 — about a century before affirmative action.

It is not just a handful of individuals who advanced without the supposedly indispensable black “leaders.” Most of the reduction in the number of black families in poverty occurred in the 1940s and 1950s — before any major civil rights legislation. Black males doubled their years of schooling during that time. When you double your education, your income tends to go up — with or without Jesse Jackson or other black “leaders.”

People who look for sinister or melodramatic explanations for the belated emergence of blacks in sizable numbers in a variety of high-level positions often ignore the crucial question of the number of blacks qualified for such positions. As of 1940, the average black adult had not completed an elementary school education.

As the number of blacks with higher qualifications increased, their numbers in occupations requiring those qualifications also increased. Indeed, the numbers increased at a faster rate during the 5 years preceding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than in the 5 years afterward. But no one wants to talk about this because it would undermine the myth that the government and black “leaders” are responsible for the advancement of the black population.

One of the consequences of that myth is that, while most blacks lifted themselves out of poverty, the public image is that government programs were responsible. This has left many whites wondering why blacks can’t advance themselves by their own efforts, like other minorities — and left many blacks likewise convinced that without government programs they would be lost.

Such myths help race hustlers but hurt the race that they claim to be leading.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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