Saturday, December 21, 2013

Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Blacks Rednecks and White Liberals
© 2005 Thomas Sowell
360 pages

Thomas Sowell's provocatively-titled Black Rednecks and White Liberals casts a critical eye toward  conventional understandings of race, class, and history, collecting a half-dozen extensive essays in one volume. Although each essay is written as a standalone piece, some concern common subjects and refer to one another.  Sowell principally writes on African-Americans and Jews here, aside from an apologia written on Germany.  His central argument essentially blames the welfare state for the continuing degradation of black Americans, by way of historical arguments, one of them deliciously twisted -- the title essay.

"Black Rednecks and White Liberals" sets the stage by contending that the woeful culture of poverty keeping urban blacks in a despairing state is not one which they created themselves, but one inherited from poor whites, and specifically the poor whites who emigrated from a border region of Scotland during a specific timeframe in which Scottish 'crackers' of the area were slobbering savages, having not yet been tamed by the graces of English civilization. The poor whites of this ‘cracker culture’  exhibited the same self-defeating behaviors lamented over in the ghetto today; a disdain for education and work, a painfully abbreviated approach to the English language,  wanton sexuality,  and a gleeful embrace of violence, along with an ‘honor’ system that promoted the use of such violence.   It is Sowell’s opinion that southern blacks were acculturated into the behaviors of the ‘white trash’ and dragged it around the country with them. Given its self-defeating nature, Sowell comments that this cracker culture largely died out among the poor whites, and even the first waves of southern blacks who carried it around the country – but after the 1960s, when the welfare state  sprang into being,  those behaviors were propped up – being no longer culled by the scythe of sheer necessity.  After arguing for this, Sowell later builds off it in an essay on education, and again in his final essay on the historical perspective, condemning modern approaches as too forgiving, too soft:  blacks and whites who lifted themselves up out of poverty and despair did so not by accepting substandard English as their cultural heritage, nor by taking self-esteem classes, but by acknowledging the relative inferioty of their station in life to others:. The Scots became intellectual titans after abandoning Gaelic for English, and consequently gaining access to the English literary world, and the Japanese adopted western means of science, government, and economics to catapult from feudal island to global power in the Meiji revolution. In putting aside defensive pride and setting a superior standards for themselves, they both catapulted themselves from backwards hinterlands to first-world countries who would be active players in shaping world history..

Thomas Sowell, it should be noted, is black himself, and is a product of this process of enlightenment, having been reared in the kind of schools he now advocates,  having set for himself superior standards.  To multicultural sensibilities, he may seem like a self-loathing black man at times, for all the abuse he heaps on poor blacks and whites and for all he waxes poetic about the glorious intellectual and moral history of the west, problematic as it was. Were he white, Sowell would almost certainly be condemned as a racist, and a cavalier of western chauvinism.  His entire argument is simultaneously thought-provoking and problematic. Some is straightforward history, like his account of slavery or the reactions of northerners to white southern emigrants, which as they are quoted sound exactly like what you might expect to hear of those participating in 'white flight' decades later.  It's not surprising that long-term residents of an area would react with hostility toward the sudden intrusion of poor immigrants, flooding into areas the residents rightfully considered their own.  Sowell's belief that the culture of contemporary 'ghetto blacks' was one passed down directly by 'crackers' is a much harder sell. Given that slaves were owned not by 'white trash', but by the plantation elite, would they really have spent enough time around the 'crackers' to acquire the values? And why would they adopted those values, considering that impoverished white sharecroppers were just as economically miserable as themselves, and loathed the former slaves to boot?  The statistics Sowell quotes to demonstrate that the black story of the 20th century is sometimes one of regress are damning: even if a reader doesn't accept his condemnation of welfare as causing the erosion of black family life, and stymieing the natural processes that would reverse self-destructive behaviors,  the  analysis is staggering in its implications.  This isn't exactly a national secret -- Bill Cosby has written books despairing about the woeful condition of black family life and communities in the latter half of the 20th century -- but Sowell's  work puts the decline into sharp focus.

Although I find Sowell's contempt for the poor, self-defeating they may be, highly uncomfortable -- especially his frequent brandishment of 'cracker', which in certain counties of the Deep South is a pejorative on the level of kike or wop -- I appreciated various elements of this collection. The almost tributary history to Germany's ancient cultural heritage, for instance, was a relief compared to the  Omnipresent Nazi approach to German history, and the statistical work offers data that can be considered regardless of one's opinion on the unintended consequences of particular welfare policies. I'm increasingly sympathetic to the idea that improperly-designed welfare can exacerbate social problems, but think it more likely that certain destructive behaviors are endemic to the human experience, rather than being the legacy of Scottish emigrants to urban ghettos. Not for nothing have humans created so many religions, philosophies, and institutions to curb the worse of our instincts. Though readers will find a lot of food for thought in this collection, it has a sometimes bitter edge. 

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