Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks And White Liberals

Black Rednecks And White LiberalsThomas Sowell is something of an iconoclast, but in the best possible way. He is ferociously intelligent, erudite in more disciplines than many can master in a lifetime, and articulate, in speech and writing, to a degree that causes me considerable envy – in short, he is that rare thinker who challenges you in your deepest beliefs, a lone voice of dissent demanding to be heard and engaged with. He has written extensively on the topic of race, in America and abroad, and is widely known for his positions against affirmative action and identity politics. Black Rednecks And White Liberals collects various essays on race and race relations with provocative titles like “The Real History Of Slavery” and “Are Jews Generic?” His theme is the politicization of race, and his thesis roughly this: that slavery and racism have become canards used to excuse the impoverished position (academically, economically, socially) of blacks in America, and that the good intentions of well-meaning people (“white liberals”), in everything from segregation to affirmative action and “esteem”-promoting endeavors, have caused considerably more harm than good.

In the first essay, the eponymous “Black Rednecks and White Liberals,” Sowell argues that southern blacks in the antebellum United States (who made up over 90% of all blacks in America at the time) adopted the cultural traits not of the Africa many of them never saw but of the Southern whites with whom they interacted, who themselves inherited the culture of their European forebears. The northern states, it turns out, were populated largely by urban British, who brought with them an emphasis on education, piety, chastity and hard work, while the southern states drew immigrants from northern Britain and Scotland who had a reputation for illiteracy, promiscuity, drunkenness, sloth and a propensity for violence. To make his point, Sowell contrasts the attitudes and lives of the whites and blacks living in the northern states with those living in the southern states, and the difference is striking: the economic output of America, the inventions and patents (including the cotton gin), the rates of literacy, violence and premarital sex all show a marked difference favoring the north. He quotes such prominent figures as Thomas Jefferson, who castigated the southern whites for indolence and impiety, and W. E. B. DuBois, who likewise criticized the reckless spending habits and drunkenness of blacks in America and argued that they had “much to learn about thrift and hard work” from the Jewish and Italian immigrants.

The next essay – “Are Jews Generic?” – seeks to provide a contrast: while blacks in America tend to underperform and underachieve relative to their population,  Jewish immigrants have a storied history of remarkable successes. Sowell argues that, just as the performance of blacks cannot be written off merely as the result of historical oppression or genetic inferiority, neither can Jewish triumphs be attributed to conspiracies or genetic superiority. The Jews, Sowell argues, are the cultural antithesis of the southern redneck mentality: they emphasize family, literacy, hard work and thrift, and the proof of the success of this approach remains visible today in the inordinate number of Jews who succeed spectacularly in business and academia.

The most compelling and heartbreaking essay, “Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies,” traces the history of black education in America from the time of the arrival of the first slave ships through to the present day, with special emphasis on Paul Laurence Dunbar School (“Dunbar,” for short), founded in 1870 in Washington, D.C. Despite the prejudices of an unsympathetic public, gross underfunding and crowded classrooms, Dunbar consistently produced astonishing academic successes for over 80 years, so much so that schools like Harvard and Yale did not require Dunbar graduates to write an entrance examination. And yet the history of Dunbar is largely left untold, perhaps, as Sowell argues, because the lessons it teaches are no longer fashionable and do not conform to the prevailing narrative:

Throughout the 85 years of its academic success, Dunbar High School taught Latin. In some of the early years, it taught Greek as well. Its whole focus was on expanding the students’ cultural horizons, not turning their minds inward. Still less was its focus on giving students a sense of victimhood or of doors closed, though in fact many doors were closed to them throughout the history of Dunbar’s academic success. On the other hand, many Dunbar alumni were the first to open some of those doors. Instead of today’s fashionable focus on grievances, the tone was set by a poem on the assembly wall, written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, for whom the school was named. Its first stanza said:

Keep a-pluggin’ away.
Perseverance still is king;
Time its sure reward will bring;
Work and wait unwearying—
Keep a-pluggin’ away.

This was written at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were pervasive across the South and were spreading into the North, when blacks were being lynched, and when the very school in which these words were posted received less money than white schools in the same city. Many today might disdain this message of self-improvement as naive at best. But the fact is that it worked—and much that is considered more sophisticated today has a dismal record of failure.

And that record of failure, Sowell argues, is being inadequately addressed, to the detriment of black boys and girls:

The consequences of deficiencies in the education of black students are grave—and getting worse, in the sense that an increasingly demanding technology and an increasingly complex world economy have few places for those who without skills of the mind. Black students, by and large, lag appallingly behind whites, and still more so behind Asian Americans, in those skills. In 2001, for example, there were more than 16,000 Asian American students who scored above 700 on the mathematics SAT, while fewer than 700 black students scored that high—even though blacks outnumbered Asian Americans several times over. As for income, Asian American students from low-income families score higher on the SAT than black students from upper- income families.

This educational failure is nothing less than a national disgrace, on that there is little disagreement, if too little dialogue, but Sowell differs from the majority on the causes and solutions.

He inveighs against the cultural cringe that makes seeking an education, speaking in proper English or dressing a certain way “acting white,” and castigates those who seek to elevate ebonics, which he quite convincingly argues is a European inheritance rather than an aspect of black history or culture, rather than enforce standards of grammar and pronunciation. He has little patience for most of the “self-esteem enhancing” reforms (a focus on black history, the study of rap music, black teachers) popular among the intelligentsia, which he argues are either lacking in empirical evidence demonstrating their effectiveness or run contrary to the existing evidence. Most of all, he resents the current conception of black history, which he feels emphasizes the injustices at the expense of the achievements and reduces black history to “the history of the whites’ treatment of blacks.”

There is much in this book to offend the easily offended, to upset our inherited assumptions about the nature of race relations in America and the undercurrents that have produced the all-too-visible inequalities of today. But if it is disturbing, it is also uplifting, meticulously researched and eloquently argued, a fascinating insight into one of history’s darkest legacies that manages to give us a sense of perspective and, dare we hope, a path forward. Whatever your politics, whatever your preconceptions, Sowell demands to be read.