A Review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Thomas Sowell is an economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute. His book Black Rednecks and White Liberals is a collection of essays examining questions of race, ethnicity, and culture from Sowell’s characteristically conservative perspective. The book offers a helpful corrective to a progressive vision of racism, justice, and government, but it occasionally provides an over-correction, occasionally leaning too heavily on a conservative narrative that downplays the effects of systemic injustice or the possibility government solutions.

Part I – Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Part II – Are Jews Generic?
Part III – The Real History of Slavery
Part IV – Germans and History
Part V – Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies
Part VI – History versus Visions

“Black Rednecks and White Liberals”

Sowell’s first essay, which shares the book’s title, begins with this provocative quote:

These people are creating a terrible problem in our cities. They can’t or won’t hold a job, they flout the law constantly and neglect their children, they drink too much and their moral standards would shame an alley cat. For some reason or other, they absolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to any kind of decent, civilized life.

Sowell continues: “This was said in 1956 in Indianapolis, not about blacks or other minorities, but about poor whites from the South… A 1951 survey in Detroit found that white Southerners living there were considered ‘undesirable’ by 21 percent of those surveyed, compared to 13 percent who ranked blacks the same way” (p. 1).

Sowell’s main thesis in this essay is that what we know today as “black culture” is actually “white redneck culture” or “cracker culture” which “originated not in the South but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.” (p. 1-2)

To build his case, Sowell marshals a number of observations about language, work habits, pride, violence, and economic activity. He argues that these characteristics are common to “black culture” in urban ghettoes, “cracker culture” in the South, and the culture of the “northern borderlands of England” from which “most of the common white people of the South came” (p. 3). Thus, the culture of 21st century ghettos did not originate with Blacks but with 17th-century whites in England.

For example, he cites multiple contemporary sources who noticed Southerners’ lax work ethic,

“‘No southern man,’ South Carolina’s famed Senator John C. Calhoun said, ‘not even the poorest or the lowest, will, under any circumstances… perform menial labor… He has too much pride for that.‘ General Robert E. Lee likewise declared: ‘Our people are opposed to work. Our troops officers community & press. All ridicule & resist it.’ ‘Many whites,’ according to a leading Southern historian, ‘were disposed to leave good enough alone and put off changes till the morrow'” (p. 18).

In terms of education, he notes that: “As late as the census of 1850, more than one-fifth of Southern whites were still illiterate, compared to less than one percent of New Englanders” (p. 22) and “As late as the First World War, white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi scored lower on mental tests than black soldiers from Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania” (p. 23).

What’s clever about Sowell’s argument here is that progressives tend to attribute poverty to injustice, minimizing the effects of culture and personal choice. Yet it seems difficult to characterize white antebellum Southerners as “oppressed.” Consequently, progressives have to remain open to the possibility that the disparities noted by Sowell are a product of cultural differences between the North and the South. Once this connection is made between culture and disparities, why rule out such a connection when it comes to modern racial disparities?

This question becomes particularly important when we notice similar disparities within racial groups. For instance, “[t]he 1970 census showed that black West Indian families in the New York metropolitan area had 28 percent higher incomes than the families of American blacks. The incomes of second-generation West Indian families living in the same area exceeded that of black families by 58 percent. Neither race or racism can explain such differences. Nor can slavery, since native-born blacks and West Indian blacks both had a history of slavery. Studies published in 2004 indicated that an absolute majority of the black alumni of Harvard were either West Indian or African immigrants, or the children of these immigrants. Somewhat similar findings have emerged in studies of some other elite colleges. With blacks as with whites, the redneck culture has been a less achieving culture” (p. 32-33).

The importance of cultural contributions to disparities is a major theme to which Sowell will return in later essays. However, his main thesis in “Black Rednecks and White Liberals,” that “black ghetto culture” is the actually the product of “white redneck culture,” is open to two challenges.

First, Sowell himself states that many racial disparities were better in the past and have worsened since the Civil Rights Era: “while two-thirds of black children were living with both parents in 1960, only one-third were by 1994. While only 22 percent of black children were born to unmarried women in 1960, 70 percent were by 1994” (p. 34). And: “Census data… show that labor force participation rates were higher among non-whites than among whites in 1920 and 1930” (p. 56). Yet these facts undermine Sowell’s thesis. If “black redneck” culture was borrowed from “white redneck culture” and transported to Northern cities during the Great Migration, then why did the evidence of this culture emerge in the 1960s, after the Great Migration was largely complete?

Second, Sowell emphatically rejects the idea that the “legacy of slavery” is a good explanation for racial disparities today: “When discussing both blacks and Southern whites, slavery has served as an all-purpose explanation of many social phenomena, ranging from broken families to poor education, lower labor force participation rates, and high rates of crime and violence… many of these explanations do not stand up under scrutiny” (p. 56). But why think that material privations cannot be inherited along with cultural privations? If we’re going to trace “black redneck culture” all the way back to the 17th century British highlands, surely we can’t rule out the possibility that 19th century slavery or 20th century Jim Crow laws can have material consequences through inheritance or the concentration of Black poverty through residential segregation.

My own take is that the contribution of racism and injustice to racial disparities is neither 0% nor 100%. In the same way, the contribution of “culture” to racial disparities is neither 0% nor 100%. Provided that we agree on these two statements, which are rooted in ideological dogmatism rather than evidence, we can have rational discussions about the relative importance of various contributions.

Next: Are Jews Generic?

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