Thomas Sowell’s Migrations And Cultures

We are only now entering the second decade of the 21st century, but already it seems obvious that the salient force shaping world politics will be human migration. The shrinking populations of the global north have and will continue to draw the burgeoning populations of the global south, and the dividing line in Western politics will no longer be about taxation, foreign policy, social spending or any of the mainstays of previous years, but about raw immigration numbers. Will we build barriers to global migration, or facilitate the influx? Will the nation states upon which we built our democratic governance continue to function, or will their traditional roles be usurped by international institutions like the European Union and the United Nations? Our answers to the problems posed by large-scale global migration cannot help but touch upon the most fundamental questions of governance – questions we seldom broached since the founding of our nations, and always with catastrophic political fallout.

My conviction about the high-stakes nature of human migration has led me to read more and more about its causes and consequences, both past and present, and that led me inevitably to Thomas Sowell’s Migrations And Cultures, surely among the most comprehensive and well-researched books available on the subject. Sowell focuses his study on six key immigrant groups – Italians, Germans, Jews, Japanese, Chinese and Indians – and compares and contrasts their successes abroad, in various countries, to their achievements in their native lands. With each group, in each country in which they arrive, he provides information about their rate of assimilation (as measured by their fluency in the native tongue and their rates of intermarriage, as well as the names they give to their naturalized children), their economic achievements (the industries they work in, or found; their average income relative to the native population), and their participation (or lack thereof) in the local politics. Finally, he provides important information about how the host nations adjusted to these newcomers – whether they were generally tolerant and accepting or, as often happened, grew resentful at the successes of these upstarts, and sought to confiscate their wealth, limit their political power, or otherwise hamper their ascension.

It has been some time since my last Sowell reading, and I had forgotten how completely he peppers his writings with data, down to the smallest detail. One of the consistent themes of this book, for example, is that culture and traditions, developed over centuries, are not easily discarded, and that these differing cultures naturally produce populations with widely varying skillsets, disciplines and values. By way of example, consider Italy, which dominates a sixth of this book’s discussion of immigration. Sowell stresses that Italian immigrants cannot be understood without considering the specific region of Italy from which they departed, for the Italian culture was itself far from unified.

Among the nations of Europe, Italy had one of the highest rates of illiteracy – 62 percent in 1871 – but the regional variations concealed by this national figure were both large and growing for decades. While illiteracy was 42 percent in the Piedmont and 85 percent in Sicily in 1871, this declined rapidly in the Piedmont to only 11 percent illiteracy by 1911, while the decline in Sicily was to just 58 percent, increasing the disparity between the two regions from two-to-one in the earlier period to more than five-to-one in the later period. In parts of southern Italy, there was an active resistance to compulsory attendance laws, leading in some cases to riots in which schoolhouses were burned down.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Italian immigrants from northern regions of Italy – the first large wave to emigrate – left their country with greater skills and aptitudes, increasing their participation in the “skilled work” of their host nations, predominantly in Western Europe and South America. By the early 20th century, however, the migration pattern shifted: northern Italians were more likely to stay, and southern Italians more likely to emigrate, now for the United States, where they worked predominantly in “unskilled” jobs, concentrating in construction, as well as sewer work, “boot-blacking” and other difficult, menial jobs. They continued the practice of employing their children from a young age, which cut short their educational opportunities and harmed their future representation among America’s professional classes, but they also had a reputation for hard work and thrift, saving money to send back home to family in Italy or to eventually return to their native land and purchase property. We also learn something of their cultural values from the fact that, for decades after their arrival in America, Italians had the lowest rates of intermarriage of all European arrivals, or that their women were underrepresented in America’s brothels – as compared to the Irish, for example.

I include this lengthy discussion to give some sense of the detail Sowell provides, as well as to suggest something of the rich tapestry of narratives he weaves. To see these disparate groups and their vastly different cultures united in one work, compared and contrasted, is to see commonalities and disparities that persist to this day, and will likely persist to the end of time. It is refreshing to see these cultural differences treated honestly and soberly. In a concluding chapter, “The Past and the Future,” Sowell outlines a dilemma that is now all too familiar to us: “What the passage of time and the development of modern industry and instant communications has done has been to make the transmission of knowledge, skills, and technology less and less dependent on the transportation of bodies – all the while making such transportation so inexpensive as to permit larger migrations, over greater distances, of immigrants who may be less and less selective.” At the close of the last century, Sowell saw clearly the immigration problem that would come to define the present century; anyone interested in understanding the nature of that problem would be wise to consult him.