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October 22, 2013

Promising Hope, Selling Helplessness

Thomas Sowell on self fulfilling prophecies and the politics of despair:

Years ago, someone said that, according to the laws of aerodynamics, bumblebees cannot fly. But the bumblebees, not knowing the laws of aerodynamics, go ahead and fly anyway.

Something like that happens among people. There have been many ponderous academic writings and dour editorials in the mainstream media, lamenting that most people born poor cannot rise in American society any more. Meanwhile, many poor immigrants arrive here from various parts of Asia, and rise on up the ladder anyway.

Often these Asian immigrants arrive not only with very little money, but also very little knowledge of English. They start out working at low-paid jobs but working so many hours, often at more than one job, that they are able to put a little money aside.

After a few years, they have enough money to open some little shop, where they still work long hours, and still save their money, so that they can afford to send their children to college. Meanwhile, these children know that their parents not only expect, but demand, that they make good grades.

Some people try to explain why Asians, and Asian-Americans, succeed so well in education and in the economy by some special characteristics that they have. That may be true, but their success may also be due to what they do not have -- namely "leaders" who tell them that the deck is so stacked against them that they cannot rise, or at least not without depending on "leaders."

Such "leaders" are like the people who said that the laws of aerodynamics showed that the bumblebee cannot fly. Those who have believed such "leaders" have in fact stayed grounded, unlike the bumblebees.

A painful moment for me, years ago, when I was on the lecture circuit, came after a talk at Marquette University, when a young black student rose and asked: "Even though I am graduating from Marquette University, what hope is there for me?"

Back in the 1950s, when I was a student, I never encountered any fellow black student who expressed such hopelessness, even though there was far more racial discrimination then. We knew that there were obstacles for us to overcome, and we intended to overcome them.

The memory of that Marquette student came back to me, years later, when another black young man said that he had wanted to become a pilot, and had even planned to join the Air Force in order to do so. But then, he said, he now "realized" that "The Man" would never allow a black guy to become a pilot.

This was said decades after a whole squadron of black fighter plane pilots made a reputation for themselves in World War II, as the "Tuskegee Airmen." There have been black generals in the Air Force.

Both these young men -- and many others -- have learned all too well the lessons taught by race hustlers, in their social version of the laws of aerodynamics, which said that they could not rise.

Posted by Cassandra at October 22, 2013 06:50 AM

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It's so sad, because the truth runs so much the other direction. The Air Force would love to find young black men with the right stuff to be pilots.

There was an article in the NYT recently about Army efforts to expand recruiting in urban areas, which is causing it to close old (and successful) ROTC programs at small colleges in the South so they can focus on the big cities. At least part of that rationale is to improve diversity among the officer corps.

That's not to say that there's no racism, nor even that there's no racism among military members. Still, "The Man" will bend over backwards to try to help people like the ones Sowell is talking about.

Posted by: Grim at October 22, 2013 12:52 PM

Oh man, I almost posted this late last night.

Posted by: DL Sly at October 22, 2013 01:41 PM

Sowell's article reminds me of a story I read in Reader's Digest as a girl that literally changed the way I thought about the best way to help people.

It was about a boy born with only one arm who became a minor league (I think - it's been a few decades) pitcher. In it, his Mom describes how hard it was to hold herself back from interfering when other kids told him he "couldn't do" A, B, or C. He would come home crying or discouraged and instead of sympathizing or comforting him, she would say, "Well son - how badly do you want to do this? Are you going to let them prevent you?"

And his answer was to work harder and keep trying.

I've never forgotten that story, though I can't honestly say I always act accordingly. But it really made a huge impression on my young brain.

Posted by: The Cupcake Nazi at October 22, 2013 02:26 PM

The story that always stuck with me is the one of the man who finds a cocoon with a butterfly struggling to get out. So, the man helps the butterfly by opening the cocoon for it only to find that the butterfly can't fly due to unformed wings. Seems the struggle to escape the cocoon was critically important to the development of the butterfly's wings and thereby it's ability to fly afterward.
I, too, have never forgotten that story or it's moral of the virtues of struggling and then, finally, achieving.

Posted by: DL Sly at October 22, 2013 02:41 PM

The problem with the bumble bee was the math was not sophisticated enough. When non-linear equations are used, the bumble bee does just fine. Like helicopters.

Posted by: Mike Bergsma at October 22, 2013 06:35 PM

Mike, your comment roused my curiosity so I did some Googling and found this:


Enjoy, if you haven't already seen it! :) The last commenter (the one who wrote the article cited) is from Boeing.

Posted by: Cass at October 22, 2013 06:53 PM

If any of you know any 'minority' undergrads in core science or engineering, my Submarine Navy has been looking to diversify (more) for quite some time. There is actually a special scholarship program . . .
I don't actually give a d*mn about the color of your or their skin, but congress requests we look more like America. BTW, standards are the same for everybody.


Posted by: CAPT Mike at October 22, 2013 09:57 PM