January 21, 2017

Thomas Sowell is Wrong About Fixing Black Poverty

Thomas Sowell is great at demolishing liberal narratives. Unfortunately, he has a habit of building equally weak theories of his own in their place. One of Sowell’s favorite stories goes like this:

Blacks perform poorly in school, which in turn sets them up for lifelong failure because education is soft on them and encourages a chronic lack of motivation and self-discipline. Schools with majority Black student populations which set very high standards for students have high test scores and most of the students who graduate from such schools go to college. If schools, and families, all set these high standards for Blacks we would see Black life outcomes improve dramatically.

If you’ve read many of Sowell’s books, as I have, then this line of reasoning is very familiar to you. As are, hopefully, the problems with it. The schools that Sowell points to, schools in which Black students do very well, do not select students randomly from the general population. Instead, Black students with abnormally good parents (and, therefore, unusually good genes) enter into these schools which then expel those who cannot live up to their standards.

This is the case, for example, with schools in the “Knowledge is Power” program, which is Sowell’s most recent example in a very long list of schools Sowell likes to point to as demonstrations of Black people’s potential for over achievement. The students who enter these schools are better than average students to begin with and some research has found that a literal majority of students last less than three years in these schools.

All these examples show is that taking an already elite group of Blacks, and kicking out the lowest scoring individuals in this already above average sample, leaves you with a very high performing sample of Blacks. Thus, a school can create student bodies that score very highly on measures of educational success even if the school has virtually no causal effect on anything.

Studies which do put Blacks into highly enriched educational environments and compare their progress to proper control groups find that such programs have no long-term positive effects on cognitive ability. Sowell would likely respond to this by saying that these simply are not the right kind of programs. A problem with the teaching style is possible, but without a properly done study on the right kind of school, Sowell’s hypothesis runs the risk of being pseudo-scientific (unfalsifiable).

Regardless of which kind of schools Sowell thinks are needed to improve the educational attainment of Blacks, the idea that low levels of education causes Black poverty is easily falsifiable. As is detailed in an appendix to this article, the proportion of a city’s population which is Black is a better predictor of its poverty rate than is the proportion of a city’s population with a high school or college degree. Moreover, the size of a city’s Black population continues to predict its poverty rate when these measures of educational attainment are held constant.

In other words, if you have two cities, one all Black and one all White, the Black city will probably be poorer even if there is no difference between these cities populations in educational attainment.

Of course, Sowell’s line about education is not the only story that conservatives are like to turn to in order to explain Black poverty. They also love to talk about broken families. Unfortunately for them, this theory is no more sound than the previous one. As also shown at the bottom of this article, race continues to predict a cities poverty rate when holding the single motherhood rate constant. Moreover, the crime of African Americans has been falling for decades while the single motherhood rate has continued the steep rise that it began in the late 1960’s.

The factor that both liberals and conservatives ignore is genetics. Twin studies show that between 40% and 60% of the variation in individual’s educational attainment can be explained by genetic differences between them.

Recently, behavioral geneticists have begun to identify the specific gene variants which cause individual differences in educational attainment. In fact, a study published earlier this year found that a person’s score on a genetic test correlated at .3 with educational attainment. This is similar to the correlation found between parental socio-economic status and educational attainment.

(In the charts below, GPS means Genetic Polygenic Score, which is a score on a genetic test.)

Genes 1.jpg

(Selzam et al., 2016)

Genes 2.PNG

(Belsky et al, 2016)

Scores on these genetic tests, called polygenic scores, also predict educational attainment among people growing up within the same socio-economic class.

Genes 3.PNG

(Belsky et al, 2016)

In fact, differences in these scores predict which siblings within the same family will end up doing better in school.

Just a few years ago, none of this was possible. This field is growing at an incredible pace and already has extremely impressive results to show even though we have only identified a fraction of the genes involved in educational attainment.

Returning to race, Whites are more likely than Blacks to possess gene variants that predict doing well in school and on intelligence tests.

IQ Genes Chart.png

Piffer (2015)

On top of this, the more heritable a cognitive skill is the more Blacks tend to under perform whites on it.

This, and other research, suggests that genetics plays an important role in racial differences on intelligence tests and in educational attainment. In fact, a majority of intelligence researchers believe that genes explain the majority of why Blacks score more poorly than Whites on intelligence tests.

IQ Experts 4.PNG

(Rindermann, Coyle & Becker 2013)

Moreover, in contrast to the other explanations looked at here, controlling for intelligence eliminates virtually all of Black/White differences in education and income.


(Herrnstein and Murray, 1994)

Of course, genes cannot explain why Black crime has fallen in recent decades. In part, I think this is simply because the Black incarceration rate has risen, meaning that more Blacks are in jail and, as a result, fewer Blacks can commit crimes. Decreases in exposure to lead, and improvements in nutrition, also likely play a role. These environmental variables are important, but like most environmental variables which impact human behavior, they do not easily fit into a political narrative, and so are ignored by most people.

That genetics plays a role in racial differences is seen by many as being much worse than boring. The fact is that a large part of the Black/White gap in education, and the racial differences in life outcomes that appear later in life, are not fixable, and not anyone’s fault. We may not like it, but that’s just how it is, and it’s not going to change. The sooner we learn how to deal with these facts, the better.



Appendix: Predicting Poverty in American Cities Using Race and Educational Attainment

All this data came from the Census. Here are the bivariate relationships between the proportion of a city that is Black, poor, a high school graduate, and a college graduate, for 306 American cities in the year 2014:


And here is this same data entered into a multi linear regression with the poverty rate as the dependent variable:







Facebook Comments
  • Sean Fielding

    This is a great article, Sean, but incredibly frustrating to an old sociobiology fan like me. We have literally lost half a century to (((Gould, Lewontin and their ideological spawn))).

    ‘Genes hold culture on a leash’ was always the default truth, but only the (((Steven Pinkers))) are allowed to say it. It was always more reasonable to hold that position while getting on with the research. Instead, we got Pinker’s co-ethnics beginning their Blank Slate triumph way back in the seventies, and it will be at least the 2020’s before the approach you outline here diffuses from the IQ researchers (a black pill read on that chart is that 41% even of them remain, unbelievably, basically Blank Slate) to the Sociology Dept. to Executive Admin and policy, eg (((Larry ‘I’m taking my oligarch fortune and retreating from Harvard’ Summers))).

    Believe me, this is just like smoking and cancer. We knew for decades from the epidemiology that there was a very high probability that smoking caused lung cancer, easily enough for tort-level burden of proof, but legal success waited on the ‘smoking’ (molecular) gun.

    This kind of data won’t change the (((narrative))) until the last protein product of the last IQ-related gene has been sequenced and all its relevant cellular effects, from conception to adulthood, are understood. And that will be so complicated it will still leave the hypocritical, genocidal (((bastards))) lots of wiggle room.

    But this material is a start, and hopefully it will begin to have major effects before the last White child in Weimerica enters kindergarten.

  • Snark Jacobs

    Sowell regularly points out that the black students who do well in the elite higher education institutions come not from those who benefit from preferential/affirmative action policies, but families that are already ahead of the crowd. He’s also approached the “breeding” theory in the past, but the moral hazards of going down the eugenics route can be avoided by remembering some of his best advice: culture matters, and preferential treatment is going to be gamed regardless of the color of one’s skin.

    Sowell did his work for half a century, and now uses columns to help make clear what his volumes of research data and teachings back up. This article is reverse in its copy, its intention and most importantly the long road of progress – lower case p.

  • Jeff

    Thomas Sowell has tried to argue this a few times in the past as well. He has pointed to some schools like Dunbar High School and a few others where blacks performed really well and concluded that if we just have the right king of schooling, blacks will become smart.



    I have no doubt that the same process of selection happened here. He also says that having a certain kind of “Western culture” style of education will improve performance. But I’m pretty certain that those with a certain genetic predispositions are just more likely to gravitate to these settings.

  • Sowell doesn’t just compare the US to the US, he also shows the data on how blacks out perform whites in parts the UK. Immigrants into the west from Indians,China, Bangladesh, Pakistan across different countries. Finally, anyone using the utterly meaningless arbitary definition of ‘poverty’ in the USA today 2016 cannot be taken seriously.

    • This article is a response to a specific article by Thomas Sowell. In said article, he does not draw on the evidence you mention. He does elsewhere, but this article is not a response to everything Sowell has written.

      That being said, the immigrants that Sowell points to in his books are also elite samples of Blacks.

      The definition of poverty is not meaningless. It has an exact mathematical definition. You may think that the poverty line should be lower, but this hardly matters since it is still true that “poor” people are less wealthy than not poor people and so “poverty” can still be used to analyze racial differences in wealth.

      • Poor is an arbitrary definition there is no mathematical basis whatsoever, which is why the correct definition is ‘lower incomes’ using words like ‘poor’ is political propaganda since as Sowell points out in many books and even a recent TV interview under the governments present definition you can be in ‘poverty’ if you own an automobile and have air conditioning today in the US. ‘Intellectuals’ are always fumbling around in the dark using relative metrics when living standards have increased dramatically.

        All of this is failed thinking since even if we wanted to talk about relative metrics, free market capitalism is not a zero sum game, so even if we have more wealthy people it has not come at the expense of anyone else, at least not in a free market economy, not under the current high tax, socialist cronyism. If you want to argue about the decline of educational standards, one parent families, not prepared to enforce law and order, then that is a reasonable debate, but mostly government failings, and poor political decision making.

  • Mark Martinson

    Has there been any egalitarian response to the gene variant issue? I find this one of the strongest arguments for racial realism. What are the odds that the first 9 genes found that correlate with intelligence fit this patter but only accidentally?

    • To my knowledge, no scholarly egalitarian has addressed this issue yet. This is understandable, as it is new. Piffer’s paper just came out last year.

      • This is a great paper from Piffer’s but it was rejected so it never saw publication. I wish it did though. There were some small responses in his blog post he made on the matter.

  • Jeff

    There are studies which report that kids who go to charter schools do better than those who don’t go. These studies are supposedly based on lotteries.


    However, I think there is good reason to be skeptical of these studies.


  • Dan
    • Sure, I should be able to post a response to it this weekend.

  • jack

    And by pointing out that these schools “do not select students randomly from the general population”
    you are choosing to ignore a very important point he makes: “If schools, and families, ALL set these high standards for Blacks we would see Black life outcomes improve dramatically”.