Black Rednecks and White Liberals:
And Other Cultural and Ethnic Issues,
by Thomas Sowell
(Encounter Books, 355 pages, $25.95)
Few public intellectuals have demonstrated as much intelligence and fearlessness as has Thomas Sowell. He mixes learned treatises on Marxism and ethnicity with sharp newspaper articles on everyday issues. An African American, he has demanded that black leaders accept their own responsibility for the tragedy of the inner city.
His latest effort is Black Rednecks and White Liberals: And Other Cultural and Ethnic Issues, a collection of essays on “minority” controversies. Sowell does not disappoint: From educational attaintment to slavery, he smashes conventional icons and insists on individual responsibility. It makes for a wonderfully refreshing and stimulating read, especially for anyone normally immersed in Washington platitudes.
Sowell opens with the book’s title essay, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.” Without rancor he analyzes “redneck culture,” with its emphasis on pride, reliance on violence, lack of economic or intellectual enterprise, sexual promiscuity, and religious intensity. This was once emblematic of Southern whites: he opens the chapter with half-century old quotes criticizing poor whites who had moved north but “absolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to any kind of decent, civilized life.”
Unfortunately, he argues, “redneck culture” did not remain white. Rather, it also permeated Southern black society. Northern African Americans made significant progress even in an era of pervasive racism and discrimination; West Indian immigrants played a leadership role by exhibiting almost the opposite of redneck culture. In the late 1800s, he writes, “Northern black urban communities were themselves becoming cleaner, safer, and more orderly during the era of improving race relations.”
This process was interrupted, however, by cultural change. Argues Sowell: “all of that changed radically within a relatively few years, as massive migrations from the South not only enlarged Northern black communities but transformed them culturally.” Never does he justify racism, of course, but he demands ruthlessly honest introspection.
Indeed, Sowell has spent most of his professional career being vilified for refusing to accept the cultural, ideological, and racial nostrums of the day. In his preface he declares: “Because this book is written for the general public, it does not feature long, convoluted sentences with escape clauses designed to prevent words from being twisted to mean something that they were never intended to mean.”
He applies the same acute eye and intellectual honesty to other issues of race, such as black education. Today everyone recognizes the shocking failure of so many schools to educate African American children. But Sowell notes that black schools have been teaching black students and turning out black scholars for decades: “there has been successful black education as far back as the nineteenth century.”
Good schools continue to generate good results even in the worst neighborhoods. Making good schools isn’t easy, but understanding the problem is essential. He points to common myths — that, say, a racial mix is necessary to successfully educate black children or that “poverty, racism, or innate inferiority” prevents them from learning. He concludes: “Much of what is said — and not said — about the education of black students reflects the political context, rather than the educational facts. Whites walk on eggshells for fear of being called racists, while many blacks are preoccupied with protecting the image of black students, rather than protecting their future by telling the blunt truth.”
ANOTHER ISSUE ABOUT WHICH Sowell speaks bluntly is slavery. Although the practice tends to be analyzed in racial terms today, the word slavery derives from Slav, since Slavs once were frequently enslaved. He points out that it was a pervasive institution throughout the world, almost always directed against those outside of a particular group.
Some of these distinctions were large: such as Christians and Muslims. Often, however, the perpetrators and victims were much more closely related — losers in African or Micronesian tribal wars. As Sowell trenchantly notes, whites were rarely involved in capturing slaves in Africa. The institution became largely black “only after centuries of Europeans enslaving other Europeans had been brought to an end by the consolidation of nations and empires on the European continent, by internal shifts from slavery to serfdom in much of Europe, and by the Catholic Church’s pressures against enslaving fellow Christians.”
Equally important, Sowell notes that slavery was ended because of the West, especially Great Britain. The task wasn’t easy: Slavery persisted for decades in the Ottoman Empire, the Mideast, Africa, and Asia despite a sustained Western campaign to eradicate the practice. In some nations slavery persisted into the early 1900s.
While the West took far too long to recognize the moral horror of slavery, it did recognize it. For that the much-maligned West deserves credit, not condemnation.
Deserving understanding, too, he suggests, are early American politicians who had to confront the practical complexities of eradicating such an entrenched social practice. In one of his most interesting but undoubtedly un-PC statements, Sowell writes: “Only those on opposite ends of a spectrum of opinion found the issue of slavery easy — those like Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who wished to keep blacks enslaved indefinitely, and those like Massachusetts’ William Lloyd Garrison, who advocated immediate emancipation of blacks with the full rights of citizenship.”
It goes without saying — or, at least, should go without saying — that Sowell in no way justifies slavery. Instead, his thoughtful and sophisticated analysis highlights how hard it is even for men of obviously intelligence, principle, and good will to eradicate an evil practice that has become embedded in society. As a result, Sowell heightens one’s appreciation for the dilemmas faced by American statesmen who grappled with slavery for decades before the Civil War.
SOWELL’S ECLECTIC MIND CARRIES him into other fields as well. He devotes a chapter to the role of minorities — such as Jews, Armenians, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, and Lebanese — as middlemen. What social practices led to their success? How did that success generate hostility against them?
He makes some broader judgments based on their experience. For instance, the fact that ethnic Chinese and Indians have thrived more overseas than in their own nations “undermines the multicultural view that Western prosperity in general is not due to any superior features of Western institutions.”
The other is that the Holocaust made anti-Semitism unique. He disagrees: “what made the Holocaust possible were technological and organizational capabilities for mass murder that enemies of other middleman minorities simply did not have available. In view of what was actually done to some of these other groups, there is little reason to doubt that their persecutors would have used such technological and organizational capabilities if they had had them.”
Sowell concludes with a call for honest historical inquiry based on empirical research. Alas, he notes, “nowhere has history been more in thrall to belief systems — visions — than in the history of racial and ethnic groups.” Treating real people as “intertemporal abstractions,” as he puts it, has had devastating results.
Moreover, he argues, accurate historical inquiry “can often be of great value, not only in correcting factual errors but also in dispelling feelings and attitudes that needlessly encumber our lives today.” Such as myths that blacks are genetically inferior or were unusually submissive to slavery. For this reason, for instance, he welcomes IQ research which, he contends, “undermines genetic determinism as an explanation for” today’s racial gap.
Reading Thomas Sowell is a pleasure. Brilliant, iconoclastic, and profound, his work is always worth studying. As is Black Rednecks and White Liberals.