Race and Resentment
by Thomas Sowell
Published, May 4,
Recent stories out of both Philadelphia and San
Francisco tell of black students beating up Asian
American students. This is especially painful for
those who expected that the election of Barack Obama
would mark the beginning of a post-racial America.
While Obama's winning the majority of the votes in
overwhelmingly white states suggests that many
Americans are ready to move beyond race, it is
painfully clear that others are not.
Those who explain racial antagonisms on some
rationalistic basis will have a hard time
demonstrating how Asian Americans have made blacks
worse off. Certainly none of the historic wrongs
done to blacks was done by the small Asian American
population who, for most of their history in this
country, have not had enough clout to prevent
themselves from being discriminated against.
While ugly racial or ethnic conflicts can seldom be
explained by rational economic or other
self-interest, they have been too common to be just
inexplicable oddities-- whether in America or in
other countries around the world, and whether today
or in centuries past.
Resentments and hostility toward people with higher
achievements are one of the most widespread of human
failings. Resentments of achievements are more
deadly than envy of wealth.
The hatred of people who started at the bottom and
worked their way up has far exceeded any hostility
toward those who were simply born into wealth. None
of the sultans who inherited extraordinary fortunes
in Malaysia has been hated like the Chinese, who
arrived there destitute and rose by their own
Inheritors of the Rockefeller fortune have been
elected as popular governors in three states,
attracting nothing like the hostility toward the
Jewish immigrants who rose from poverty on
Manhattan's Lower East Side to prosperity in a
variety of fields.
Others who started at the bottom and rose to
prosperity-- the Lebanese in West Africa, the
Indians in Fiji, the Armenians in the Ottoman
Empire, for example-- have likewise been hated for
their achievements. Being born a sultan or a
Rockefeller is not an achievement.
Achievements are a reflection on
others who may have had similar, and sometimes
better, chances but who did not make the most of
their chances. Achievements are like a slap across
the face to those who are not achieving, and many
people react with the same kind of anger that such
an insult would provoke.
In our own times, especially, this is not just a
spontaneous reaction. Many of our educators, our
intelligentsia and our media -- not to mention our
politicians-- promote an attitude that other
people's achievements are grievances, rather than
When black school children who are working hard in
school and succeeding academically are attacked and
beaten up by black classmates for "acting white,"
why is it surprising that similar hostility is
turned against Asian Americans, who are often
achieving academically more so than whites?
This attitude is not peculiar to some in the black
community or to the United States. The same
phenomenon is found among lower-class whites in
Britain, where academically achieving white students
have been beaten up badly enough by their white
classmates to require hospital treatment.
These are poisonous and self-destructive
consequences of a steady drumbeat of ideological
hype about differences that are translated into
"disparities" and "inequities," provoking envy and
resentments under their more prettied-up name of
Asian American school children who are beaten up are
just some of the victims of these resentments that
are whipped up. Young people who are seething with
resentments, instead of seizing educational and
other opportunities around them, are bigger victims
in the long run, whether they are blacks in the US
or lower-class whites in the UK. A decade after
these beatings, these Asian Americans will be headed
up in the world, while the hoodlums who beat them up
are more likely to be headed for crime and prison.
People who call differences "inequities" and
achievements "privilege" leave social havoc in their
wake, while feeling noble about siding with the less
fortunate. It would never occur to them that they
have any responsibility for the harm done to both
blacks and Asian Americans.