THE CIVIL RIGHTS REVOLUTION has by now destroyed every vestige of legal segregation and assured equality before the law to every American. Equality before the law, however, has not brought with it sudden equality in the marketplace. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and other darker-skinned minorities are still heavily clustered on the lower rungs of the occupational ladder. The incomes of blacks and Puerto Ricans average less than two-thirds those for the population as a whole; Mexican-American incomes are a quarter below the national average.

Many take such differentials as prima facie evidence that discrimination in employment is a grave national problem, and demand affirmative action efforts to bring each minority up to a position of full party. "The effects of discrimination and disadvantage continue to prevent some groups of people from enjoying the opportunities and benefits available to most of their fellow citizens," asserted a 1978 report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. There could be "no more important goal in the Nation than achieving equality of opportunity" and "equity of reward," the report throughout conflated the two. Whenever a "minority" ranked below the "majority" on some measure of economic or social status, the commission took it as a sign that the opportunity structure was flawed and that remedial action by the federal government was imperative. The idea that every group should have its "fair share" of socially valued positions and objects, and that a fair share is one equal to its proportion in the population as a whole, has become part of the liberal conventional wisdom.

Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell, one of the country's few black academics in good standing with the Reagan administration, has forcefully criticized this assumption in Race and Economics (1975), American Ethnic Groups (1978) and several journal articles. Ethnic America: A History examines the histories of several major ethnic groups to illuminate the current debate over ethnic entitlement. He begins by denying that the people of America can be neatly divided into "majority" and "minority" camps, oppressors and victims. There is no single American majority, but rather a complex mosaic of ethnic groups with varying characteristics. While some groups rank well below the national average on various indexes of well-being, others stand well above it. The incomes of American Jews, for example, are two-thirds higher than the U.S. average; Japanese-Americans earn about a third more, Polish-Americans 15 percent more, Italian-Americans 12 percent more than the national average. Since all of these groups suffered from acute nativist hostilities for decades after they first arrived on the American scene, it is difficult to believe that the explanation for their conspicuous success today is that employers discriminated in their favor.

What, then, does lie behind the contrasting patterns of economic adjustment of ethnic groups? Sowell opens up the problem with four brief chapters evoted to Americans from Europe -- the Irish, the Germans, the Jews and the Italians. Digesting the abundant recent historical literature about each, he demonstrates that both the rates and the specific channels of upward mobility followed by each varied considerably. A number of factors were responsible, including accidental differences in the timing of their immigration and in the transportation connections with the Old World that determined where they landed and first settled. Arriving with the capital to start a farm or business, as many Germans did, certainly helped. But Sowell sees the different objectives, skills and cultural values the immigrants arrived with as the key determinant of their contrasting experiences. Southernl Italians, who came as sojourners intending to earn money for a few years and then return home, were slower to learn English, to take out naturalization papers, and to move up the occupational ladder than groups committed to making it in America from the beginning Jews and Germans came with work experiences and habits of urban living that Irish and Italian peasants lacked, and climbed quickly. The latter groups had to undergo a far more wrenching cultural transformation. It was a slow and painful process for them to accumulate the "human capital" -- the values, attitudes, skills and contacts -- necessary to compete successfully in an urban industrial environment. Both did eventually become as prosperous or more prosperous than the average American, but it took the Italians half a century and the Irish almost a century to do so.

Sowell then turns his attention to five non-European, racially distinct groups -- the Chinese, Japanese, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and blacks. All are currently classified as "disadvantage minoritiesc by the federal government, and thus offer a chance to test the proposition that racial minorities face obstacles utterly unlike those that confronted European immigrants. The presence of the Chinese and Japanese on a list of currently disadvantaged groups is an extraordinary anomaly, by such measures as income levels, rates of college graduation, proportion in professional and managerial occupations and the like they are notably more advantaged than most of their fellow countrymen, including those of British descent. From the mid-19th century to World War II, Orientals were indeed severely disadvantaged on the West Coast, where most resided. Popular fears of "the Yellow Peril" resulted in discriminatory legislation comparable to that directed against blacks in the Jim Crow South. Despite barriers that sharply constricted their occupational choices, Japanese farmers and gardeners and Chinese proprietors of laundries and restaurants were exceptionally hard-working thrifty and zealous for the education of their children. When restrictions upon Orientals eased after World War II, the younger generation had educational attainments that allowed it to make spectacular advances in business and the professions, particularly in the scientific and technical sphere. This challenges the common assumption that the racial visibility of non-white groups inevitably holds them back. The Chinese and Japanese today are as recially visible as they ever were, but American perceptions of Orientals have changed drastically, at least in part because of their remarkable economic achievements.

Mexican and Puerto Rican leaders today claim that they too suffer from a racial disability, because of their mixed Spanish, Indian and black ancestry. (When the 1930 Census classified Mexicans as "non-white" it aroused a storm of protest in the Mexican-American community that made the bureau reverse itself, an interesting commentary on the changing ethnic scene.) Sowell grants that they have encountered prejudice and discrimination at times, like most other groups, but denies that racism is at the root of their economic difficulties. Many are sojourners with little education and no skills; even long-term residents and their children frequently return to their homelands and have been more resistant to cultural assimilation than their European predecessors. They tend to preserve their mother tongue and experience difficulty in English, to drop out of school early and to have very large families -- all factors associated with poverty. These Hispanic groups have been edging up the occupational ladder of late, however. Ironically, their future advanced may be slowed by the current fad for bilingual education, which may diminish the likelihood of their becoming fluent in English and limit their access to high status jobs hat require it. Bilingual education benefits Hispanic teachers whose skill are too marginal to earn them regular teaching posts, but it has yet to be established that it does pupils more good than harm.

The most controversial chapter in the book deals with Afro-Americans. Sowell rejects "white racism" as a blanket explanation for every problem in the black community. There was prejudice aplenty, he insists, but the key sources of black poverty lay elsewhere -- in the blighting effect of slavery and its legacy of illiteracy, indolence, and dependence, and in the recent arrival of the black masses on the urban scene. The first Great Migration to the Northern city came as late as World War I, and even that migration was not very great by comparison with the wave that began with World War II. Most residents of today's ghettos are either migrants from the rural South or their children. In light of their recent arrival, their low economic rank is no more surprising than that of the Irish in the middle of the 19th century or the Italians at the turn of the century. It is the result of their relatively low levels of education and job skills. That culture, rather than race per se, was at work is suggested by the fact that blacks with quite different cultural characteristics -- members of the largely mulatto elite who descend from "persons of color" freed before the Civil War, and immigrants from the WEst Indies -- have fared much better. Although they have more visibly African features than the typical American black, hustling and disciplined. West Indies have been strikingly successful in business in New York City; in 1969 their incomes were 28 percent above those of native blacks in the city, and their American-born children actually earned more than the average white. Gradual acculturation to urban ways and rising educational levels have brought impresive gains for native blacks within the past generation. Those dismayed by the fact that black incomes are a third below the national average should recall that they were 60 percent below in 1940. These dramatic advances. Sowell argues, are not the fruit of affirmative action; they were well underway before the federal government set forth "goals and timetables" for racial hiring in 1971, and were not appreciably speeded thereafter.

Some will dismiss this book as another exercise in "blaming the victim." The author's blunt descriptions of the unsavory personal charactristics of groups at the bottom of the ladder may seem shocking in an era which "WASP" is the only remaining ethnic slur permissible. I would place somewhat more emphasis than he does upon the casual weight of anti-black racist hostility until recent years. His discussion of the mulatto elite fails to note that while the West Indians prospered, it did not, and it is hard to find a cultural explanation. Recent studies of blacks in northern cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries reveal that "second generation" (i.e. northern-born) Afro-Americans did not move into better jobs than those held by their fathers, the pattern in every immigrant group. It could be that they retained their rural culture with greater tenacity than the children of immigrants from abroad; a more plausible explanation is that employers simply refused to hire them except in certain traditional "Negro jobs." Cultural analysis of the kind Sowell offers can never be altogether convincing to the skeptic, because of an insufficiency of evidence with which to measure the cultural characteristics of ethnic groups in the past with precision. It is easy to fall into circular reasoning. Group X was on the bottom because it lacked discipline, thrift and ability to plan for the future. How do we know that it lacked those traits? Because they were on the bottom. Despite these reservations, this is a stimulating volume that cannot be ignored by any student of ethnic America.