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.

But if there was achievement, there was also backsliding. The first black presidents of historically black colleges, Sowell says, were unqualified and deemphasized academic achievement and overemphasized social activities. Even so, blacks made steady and impressive gains in education and income in the 1940s and 1950s.

The real disaster came, in Sowell's view, in the 1960s. The high incidence of unmarried parenthood among blacks was not a legacy of slavery or segregation. The expansion of welfare encouraged single parenthood; weak law enforcement resulted in high crime that destroyed housing values in black neighborhoods; cultivation of a sense of grievance encouraged "redneck" patterns of behavior, "the counterproductive attitudes toward education found even in middle-class black communities."

Even so, Sowell points out, there are schools that produce high levels of achievement in black students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. What do they have in common? They insist on hard work. They insist that students can meet the standards of the larger society.

And here we come to a major difference between Sowell and the academic and media elites. The latter see Western society in the same terms Susan Sontag once used to describe the white race, as "the cancer of human history." They have a desperate psychological stake in proclaiming that all cultures are morally equal--and to regard Western culture as morally inferior.

Sowell is of another view: The West is best. Human slavery was tolerated, taken for granted, not seen as even something to argue about, in all cultures for centuries and millennia--until, in the 18th century, certain Britons and Americans began to question its morality. In England, the evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce led a move to ban the slave trade, and in 1807, Parliament did so. Not only that: For decades, the Royal Navy spent thousands of pounds and lost hundreds of sailors in efforts to suppress the slave trade in the Atlantic--successfully--and less successfully in Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Americans joined in. George Washington, troubled by slavery, refused to sell any of his slaves after 1775 and, in his will, freed his slaves and provided support for them after his death in 1799. In 1808, the first date allowed under the Constitution, Congress banned the importation of slaves and the U.S. Navy aided the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade abroad. When the United States acquired the Philippines in 1898, it suppressed slavery there, over the objections of many locals.

Only in the West, Sowell writes, did the movement to end slavery win support. The United States, as a result of its bloodiest war, abolished slavery. The end of slavery in Brazil a quarter-century later was met with general rejoicing. In contrast, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, native princes in India, and Arab slave traders in East Africa treated demands to end slavery with contempt. Slavery was largely eradicated thanks to the superior military power of British, American, and other imperialist powers.

Sadly, slavery still continues, in Sudan, in some other African countries, in parts of Asia, in places where the West has not yet summoned up the determination to end it. Slavery is and always was a great evil, Sowell stoutly affirms. But Westerners were not its only perpetrators. And they were its only abolitionists.

That, of course, is something you will never hear from the offspring of the 1960s radicals who dominate our campuses and hold sway over most of our media. They are committed to an adversarial stance against their own society, the society that has produced the greatest freedom and prosperity human beings have enjoyed in history.

Some day their distorted view of history may be forgotten, just as some of their disastrous public policies--overgenerous welfare, toleration of crime--have been discarded. But the cultural attitudes they have fostered still permeate large segments of our society and hold back those (especially blacks from disadvantaged backgrounds) from the achievements of which they are capable. Against this, Thomas Sowell brings to bear his wide learning and fierce powers of argumentation. May he prevail.

Michael Barone is a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report.