The Magazine

Handing Down Misery

A dissenting view on cultural decline.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Black Rednecks and White Liberals

by Thomas Sowell

Encounter, 355 pp., $25.95

THOMAS SOWELL IS FASCINATED BY differences. Why have the Jews and the overseas Chinese succeeded at commerce, and why do so many people in the countries where they have succeeded hate these "middleman minorities"? Why do some black children succeed admirably in some schools while most black children perform poorly, even in such a favorable environment as Shaker Heights, Ohio? Why do American academic and media elites treat slavery as a predominantly American phenomenon when it was a feature of most societies everywhere until well into the 19th century?

These are some of the questions Sowell addresses in this provocatively titled collection of essays. It is a collection united around some fundamental theses, none of them fashionable today. All cultures are not equal, and Western culture is far better than others. Different kinds of people behave in different ways, largely because of differences in culture. The good news from Sowell is that people's cultures can be changed. The bad news is that for many, and notably for most black Americans, culture seems to be leading the young in the wrong direction.

In the "redneck" direction, as he puts it. I confess I am uncomfortable with the word. Sowell uses it to refer to immigrants to the American colonies from the north of England, Scotland, and the province (he unfortunately calls it a county) of Ulster and their progeny, most of whom settled in much of the South. Following David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, he notes that these immigrants brought with them folkways, patterns of belief, and behavior, which were distinctive from those of immigrants from other portions of the British Isles who settled in other parts of the colonies and were particularly different from the East Anglians who peopled New England.

"The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery." These were transmitted, Sowell argues, to southern blacks--although, in fact, most colonial blacks lived in the southern tidelands, which Fischer says were settled by rather different folk from the West Country of England, people more like Thomas Jefferson than Andrew Jackson. But leave that aside. Sowell makes a convincing case that the folkways described by Grady McWhiney in Cracker Culture are similar to those of ghetto blacks today: "What is painfully ironic is that such attitudes and behaviors are projected today as aspects of a distinctive 'black identity,'" he writes, "when in fact they are part of a centuries-old pattern among the whites in whose midst generations of blacks lived in the South."

This is not the only place where Sowell challenges the currently received version of the history of blacks in America and presents his own alternative. Among American academic and media elites it is taken as given that American slavery was motivated by anti-black racism, and was a peculiarly and uniquely vicious institution. Nonsense, says Sowell. Slavery existed everywhere in the world up through the 19th century, and peoples of all kinds--Europeans as well as Africans, Asians as well as Slavs (who gave their name to slavery), white Americans captured by the Barbary pirates--were enslaved at one time or another. Whites were indentured servants in colonial America. Slavery in America produced racism, he argues, not the other way around.

And despite that racism, American blacks moved forward after Emancipation. Sowell writes at some length of the practical difficulties faced by southern slaveholders--especially George Washington and John Randolph of Roanoke--who wanted to free their slaves. But he concentrates less on what he calls white treatment of blacks and more on the actions of blacks themselves.

He describes the rapid advances in literacy and learning made by blacks in the "missionary schools" established by New Englanders in the South. He records the brilliant achievements of Dunbar High School in Washington from 1870 to 1955. He argues that there was less difference between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, and more mutual respect, than is generally thought. He points out that northern blacks outscored southern whites in armed forces tests in World War I, and that the sharp differences in black and white test scores so common today did not exist then, when there were sharper differences between the scores of various groups of whites.