The Missing Influence of Thomas Sowell
with John McWhorter and Jason Riley
Some time ago, John and I invited the writer and Manhattan Institute fellow Jason Riley onto the show. The topic under discussion was ostensibly Jason’s excellent biography of the great Thomas Sowell. But this conversation was recorded in the summer of 2021. The riots following George Floyd’s death were a recent memory, and the woke wave that elevated the likes of Ibram Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Robin DiAngelo to the apex of the culture was still on the rise. In this clip, you can feel the sense of urgency. John, Jason, and I were all, in our own ways, flapping our arms, warning against the intellectually bankrupt movement that was then overtaking public life, and we were frustrated by how few allies we seemed to have in our corner and how few liberals were willing to call out the insanity overtaking their end of the political spectrum.
Times have changed, albeit too slowly. The tide is rolling back. There are now more vocal left-of-center figures, like Tyler Austin Harper and Jay Caspian Kang, who evince the proper skepticism toward identity politics and DEI excesses. We don’t agree on everything—we may even disagree on most things—but they are smart, sane, and skeptical critics of their own “side” of the debate. That Jay writes for the New Yorker and Tyler writes for the New York Times and the Atlantic can only be considered a good thing—cracks in the doctrinaire identitarian edifice are showing, even in those liberal redoubts.
And yet, while we may be past “peak woke,” more work remains to be done. It is a travesty that the brilliant, iconoclastic Thomas Sowell remains relatively obscure outside of conservative circles. As Jason says in this clip, it’s possible that Sowell’s early exit from the academy allowed him the freedom to think, write, and speak as he sees fit, without the social pressure to conform to institutional biases. There is a price to that freedom—an unfair price but a real one. With no formal mentees and no legacy within the academy, Sowell has not accrued the kind of influence he merits.
It’s easy to imagine an alternate history in which Sowell remained in the academy, taught and mentored graduate students, built up institutional authority, and changed the character of mainstream social thought in the US. That didn’t happen, but it’s not too late to incorporate his work and insights into the canon of twentieth and twenty-first century intellectual history. If we had done so earlier, both for his work and others like him, perhaps we would have experienced a woke ripple rather than a wave.
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JASON RILEY: John, you made the observation. One other person made the same observation, which was Charles Murray, for the book about Tom [Sowell]. The same observation was that [William Julius Wilson and Orlando Patterson] are academics, and they probably wanted to remain academics. It's very tough to say these things that got them labeled, for that brief period of time, conservative and remain in good standing in the faculty lounge.
John I remember saying, you want to be part of the social fabric of the college. You don't want to be despised on campus. You don't want to be a pariah. And maybe that had something to do with it. Tom left teaching and didn't have to worry about that anymore. But if you wanted to remain in teaching, maybe this was going to cause you some problems.
GLENN LOURY: Then how do you explain Glenn Loury? How do you explain John McWhorter?
JASON RILEY: I think you guys are the exceptions, not the rule. Come on, Glenn. You've had an on-again, off-again, relationship with movement conservative. So has John.
Yeah. I was about to confess it. I was about to add to the weight of your argument, though, which is that I was so lonely in the early-mid-1990s and so tired of the ostracism and the contempt and the sneering and the derogation and the ridicule and the marginalization from my coracialist academics with whom I was coming into contact on a regular basis that I probably tacked too far left from my position.
Norman Podhoretz of Commentary magazine wrote about me once, he says, “Loury has fallen into the loyalty trap.” He was throwing my own arguments back in my face, because ten years before I had published an essay in the Public Interest in which I said, “Beware the loyalty trap.” If you're a black intellectual, they think you're only supposed to say certain kind of stuff and that will make you less effective at actually contributing to the well-being of your people, because you can't tell the truth as you see it. Don't fall into the loyalty trap. I was accused of falling into the same trap.
But I've lived long enough to be able to reflect upon those ten, fifteen years from ‘95 to 2010. And I've come back to my senses, Jason.
JOHN MCWHORTER: When I was at Berkeley, which is now a long time ago, it was '95 to 2002. The reason I left had nothing to do with the shit that I was taking, but I had to deal with a lot. People cat-calling me as I walked across campus and down Telegraph Avenue, coming up to me when I was in lines at stores and saying nasty little things, calling my office phone. None of these things happened every day, but it was still part of the atmosphere. And I know if I had stayed, it would have gotten to the point that, when I served on a committee, there was gonna be somebody there who didn't like me. There were awards I was almost certainly never gonna get because I was in bad odor.
And to be honest, I would have withstood that because I'm strange and a lot of my life when I was at Berkeley was about being a performer at night with people who didn't care about any of these issues. I would have withstood it. But I'm an odd person who doesn't mind that sort of thing, I think, as much as many people do. And at Columbia, I suspect I'm about to undergo a little bit more of that because of the way I've gotten louder since last year, once we're all back on campus. And I will withstand it again. But I've got a thick skin. Some people would say too thick of a skin, in a way.
Most people, they don't want that. And I completely understand. It doesn't mean that they're not being true to themselves. If anything, maybe they think harder. But yeah, that's hard. You don't want to be a pariah.
JASON RILEY: I said I'm hopeful, because I see more people than there were out there talking and writing like Sowell. But I am very dispirited at the rise of the sort of progressive left and the woke movement and Black Lives Matter and the ascendancy of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram Kendi.
The idea that [Thomas Sowell] is not as well known as them, or that his work is not as well known, I find just tragic. It infuriates me. I think he's written circles around these guys. Cornel West I would include in this group, as well.
And not only just in terms of his range, but the depth and the rigor of Tom's thinking I don't think they come close to matching. And yet these folks are elevated as these deep thinkers on race. I think that I find that very disturbing that this is what passes for deep thinking on race today. Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
JOHN MCWHORTER: The race discussion is about feelings, it's not about thought. And that's what is conditioning the sort of thing that you're talking about. Just for example, if Ibram Kendi had short hair and his name was Anthony Jones, nobody would have any idea who he is. I think that's a very obvious thing. If his name was Tony Jones and he just had short hair, he didn't have the dreadlocks, even with whatever he's done, nobody would have any idea. I'm just saying that it's feelings. That's why he's more famous than Tom. And I hate that too.
JASON RILEY: It's more than that.
Yeah, it's more than that.
JASON RILEY: Think about Nikole Hannah-Jones—and you get at this in Woke Racism. Where is all this deference to her coming from? There are no shortage of books on slavery or the US founding. She's written none of them. Why are so few historians willing to call her out? Why isn't the head of every history department at every notable institution in this country calling her out? I think it's cowardice, intellectual cowardice.
Jason, we've been calling her out here at The Glenn Show for years.
JASON RILEY: But you're the exceptions. That's my point.
We've been pointing out that Ibram X. Kendi was an empty suit here. I've been calling for erudition, mastery, deep learning, and a sophisticated intellectual frame from people who write about race for years.
JASON RILEY: Why do you have so few fellow travelers? Why are so few joining you?
The mania behind the Ta-Nehisi Coates phenomenon had a lot more to do with the cultural orientation of white newsroom elites than it had to do with the actual experience—lived experience, they say—of African Americans. You asked me a question. Why haven't we got more people who are fellow travelers? I don't have the answer to the question. But I know where to look for it, and it's not in the black community. It's in the structure of American intellectual and political culture—center and left-of-center—in journalism, in the academy, in corporate America more broadly.
And I think there's a general loss of confidence in the virtues of the American project, in the American experiment. How can Colin Kaepernick have defenders? Including you, John?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Oh, in the beginning? Yeah. I understood where he was coming from.
An athlete representing the United States of America on a global stage who thinks that holding their fist up is an appropriate gesture—is a dignified act of virtue, is a moral stand—is a coward and a fool. No, it's playing into a trope.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Jason, do you think it's so bad? Do you feel like Coleman Hughes is obscure compared to them?
JASON RILEY: Oh yes.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Coleman is about to do TED. I happen to know.
He's about to do what?
JOHN MCWHORTER: He's about to do TED. He's being embraced by all the proper places. I don't feel like Glenn and I are so deeply obscure.
It's not about us. And more power to Coleman. I'm talking about the heartbeat of the culture. I'm talking about major institutions. I'm talking about the MacArthur Foundation. I'm talking about the Pulitzer committee. I'm talking about the faculty of the Columbia School of Journalism. I'm talking about the newsroom at the New York Times. I'm talking about the people who publish your pieces at the Atlantic.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Why are they “the culture”? All of those places are politically saturated.
I'm talking about the Democratic Party. I'm talking about the White House. I'm talking about Barack and Michelle Obama. I'm talking about Netflix. I'm talking about Amazon and YouTube.
JASON RILEY: Glenn, you mentioned in passing that in, in the late 1980s, Randall Kennedy had written this critique of critical race theory that appeared in the Harvard Law Review, named names, took them down, and basically said, “This is a glorified argument for affirmative action. That's all this is.” The academics at Harvard, who are the people he sent the piece out to look at before it was published, urged him not to publish it, because they said it'll hurt their chances of pushing for more affirmative action. They were very upfront about it. Kennedy wrote it anyways.
Why aren't there more left-wing critiques of the progressives today? Why is it left to people who are more right-of-center to do this? Am I imagining things, or was there a time when the left did a better job of policing its own?
Yeah, you think of George Orwell or somebody like that. There's Adolph Reed, emeritus now, of the University of Pennsylvania, a political scientist who I just saw interviewed by Matt Taibbi on one of these podcasts where he was offering a left-of-center critique of the careerist interest of the race mongers who are getting paid and who are getting a lot of cash out of what they do.
They have a schtick. They have a performative dimension on race mongering. Reed wants to say, no, it's not race, it's class. And if you paid attention to the structure of profit production, corporate power, money, finance, if you had a real labor movement, you'd have a different politics. He's a Bernie Sanders guy. He is a Democratic Socialist. This is Adolph Reed. But he is a man of the left who has been openly critical of the race of the Ta-Nehisi Coateses of the world.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Britain is better at having that left, I'm thinking. Over there, there are more people who are left-of-center who are criticizing the people who are left-of-center. It doesn't happen as much here. I suspect that I'm just flying blind here, because maybe in Britain—until maybe recently—they were a little bit less afraid of being called racist. I think in the culture, it has not been as deeply inculcated.
If you're liberal but not hard left, you're so afraid of being called a racist—and especially with social media, but even before that—you're probably just going to keep quiet and buy your groceries. There's maybe a little bit less of a muzzle. Lately, since about last summer, now there is. But before that, in other places, there was a little bit less of that sense of a muzzle. But yeah, you're right, Jason. If you're talking about critique from the left, not much. No, you're right.