A Review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals – Part II

Part I – Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Part II – Are Jews Generic?
Part III – The Real History of Slavery
Part IV – Germans and History
Part V – Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies
Part VI – History versus Visions

“Are Jews Generic?”

The thesis of this fascinating essay is that the existence of vilified “middlemen minorities” is ubiquitous across cultures and time periods. In Sowell’s view, what unites these groups is not merely the violence and persecution that they face (which is faced by other religious and ethnic minorities), but their role in the economy, which is both needed and reviled: “Middlemen minorities have been intermediaries between producers and consumers, whether in the role of retailers or moneylenders [ranging from] the modest level of street peddlers to that of grand merchants owning chains of stores [and] from the level of the small neighborhood pawnbroker to that of international financiers” (p. 66).

Sowell offers a fascinating illustration to explain this animosity: the experience prisoners of war in a German camp. Every month, their rations were supplemented by packages from the Red Cross: “On days when the Red Cross packages arrived, direct one-on-one trades created chaos [but] particular prisoners would circulate around the camp, trading back and forth–playing the role of middleman among their various fellow prisoners.” Even a credit/interest system spontaneously developed within the camp. Though the middlemen were providing a valuable service, saving fellow prisoners time and hassle, they were generally viewed with hostility: “profits were not regarded as a reward for labor, but as the result of sharp practices” (p. 71). Sowell concludes: “Here, in microcosm, was the fundamental problem of the middleman down through the centuries and around the world” (p. 72).

When it comes to middlemen minorities like “the Jews in Europe, the Chinese minorities in various Southeast Asian countries,… the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, [and] the Ibos] in Nigeria” (p. 65), other prerequisite factors exacerbate the suspicion that seems to naturally attend their role in the economy. In order to be a recognizable “middlemen minority,” a people group has to have a distinguishable ethnicity, which requires that they have managed to retain their culture and distinctiveness. Also, if they had been totally assimilated into the surrounding culture, they would have lost the particular qualities that enabled them to fill their particular economic niche. These qualities often include a certain degree of “clannishness” (p. 73), frugality (p. 73-74), a strong work ethic (p. 76), and an emphasis on education (p. 92-96). This combination of traits, unsurprisingly, usually leads to substantial economic success (p. 78-86), which compounds the resentment attached to the economic “middleman” role.

Sowell astutely observes: “When people are presented with the alternatives of hating themselves for their failure or hating others for their success, they seldom choose to hate themselves” (p. 77). This resentment has been fanned into hatred by politicians throughout the ages, leading to persecution, discrimination, expulsion, and even mass murder. And all of this has occurred despite the fact that these particular ethnic groups were often crucial to the national economy: “It has been precisely where middleman minorities have been most needed economically that they have been the most hated, while places that have not been nearly as dependent on them have been places where they have found their greatest acceptance. This does not present a very reassuring picture of human reasonableness, but neither does the history of most middleman minorities” (p. 104).

This was a fascinating essay and I found little to disagree with. First, it again illustrates the point that culture can contribute to various disparities, in this case, positive ones. Second, it illustrates our natural tendency to resent others’ success and to attribute that success to “unfairness” or “cheating.” Finally, the essay warns us of the horrific evil that can result from large-scale grievances, stoked by power-hungry politicians eager to exploit animosity for their own gain.

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Next: “The Real History of Slavery”

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