April 28, 2005

Thomas Sowell on "Black Rednecks and White Liberals"

Black Rednecks and White Liberals is the new book by Thomas Sowell. He provides a taste of it in the Wall Street Journal:

For most of the history of this country, differences between the black and the white population--whether in income, IQ, crime rates, or whatever--have been attributed to either race or racism. For much of the first half of the 20th century, these differences were attributed to race--that is, to an assumption that blacks just did not have it in their genes to do as well as white people. The tide began to turn in the second half of the 20th century, when the assumption developed that black-white differences were due to racism on the part of whites.

Three decades of my own research lead me to believe that neither of those explanations will stand up under scrutiny of the facts. As one small example, a study published last year indicated that most of the black alumni of Harvard were from either the West Indies or Africa, or were the children of West Indian or African immigrants. These people are the same race as American blacks, who greatly outnumber either or both.

If this disparity is not due to race, it is equally hard to explain by racism. To a racist, one black is pretty much the same as another. But, even if a racist somehow let his racism stop at the water's edge, how could he tell which student was the son or daughter of someone born in the West Indies or in Africa, especially since their American-born offspring probably do not even have a foreign accent?

What then could explain such large disparities in demographic "representation" among these three groups of blacks? Perhaps they have different patterns of behavior and different cultures and values behind their behavior...

While a third of the white population of the U.S. lived within the redneck culture, more than 90% of the black population did. Although that culture eroded away over the generations, it did so at different rates in different places and among different people. It eroded away much faster in Britain than in the U.S. and somewhat faster among Southern whites than among Southern blacks, who had fewer opportunities for education or for the rewards that came with escape from that counterproductive culture.

Nevertheless the process took a long time. 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, New York and Pennsylvania. Again, neither race nor racism can explain that--and neither can slavery.

The redneck culture proved to be a major handicap for both whites and blacks who absorbed it. Today, the last remnants of that culture can still be found in the worst of the black ghettos, whether in the North or the South, for the ghettos of the North were settled by blacks from the South. The counterproductive and self-destructive culture of black rednecks in today's ghettos is regarded by many as the only "authentic" black culture--and, for that reason, something not to be tampered with. Their talk, their attitudes, and their behavior are regarded as sacrosanct.

The people who take this view may think of themselves as friends of blacks. But they are the kinds of friends who can do more harm than enemies.

Perhaps. Yet, when we talk of "redneck culture" today, such as country music and Nashville, we are largely talking of Scotch-Irish culture. And the Scotch-Irish generally stayed away from the blacks. They went to the Appalachian and Ozark highlands where disease was less of a problem for Europeans than in the lowland South. Moreover, the Scotch-Irish disliked having to compete with slave labor and tobacco and cotton slave plantations were uneconomical in the highlands. Today, the state with the least educated whites is the prototypical hillbilly state of West Virginia, which had so few slaveowners that it seceded from Virginia and joined the Union during the Civil War. Other Scotch-Irish redneck states like Tennessee and Oklahoma have limited black populations, too.

In reality, slaves tended to be owned mostly by big slaveowners in the Southern lowlands, who frequently had aristocratic pretensions. Lowland Southerners tended to be descended from Southern England's landowning and servant classes, not from the Scotch-Irish (who actually originated on both sides of the border between Scotland and England). I think it would make more sense for Sowell to point to blacks inheriting lowland Southern quasi-aristocratic prejudices, such as for grandiloquent multi-syllabic words (e.g., Jesse Jackson's style of speaking) and against manufacturing and shop keeping, as for them inheriting Scotch-Irish redneck populism, with which they had limited contact.

For example, free slaves who were sent to Liberia reproduced the Southern lowland social structure, just with themselves as the slaveowning aristocrats and the native blacks as the slaves.

Somewhat similarly, as a boy Sowell absorbed second-hand much from the upper class of New York City. I recently read Sowell's autobiography, and he makes the point that as a boy growing up in Harlem around 1940, he benefited from having two female relations who were maids on Park Avenue who brought home strong opinions about how high-quality folks behaved. (Sowell, by the way, was born in the South but raised in Fiorello La Guardia's NYC when its public schools and other government institutions were at their high point of morale and effectiveness. He disliked visiting the South during Jim Crow times. As an adult, he found himself happiest in California, where he lives now.)

If you look at imprisonment statistics, blacks tend to be better behaved in the South than elsewhere. Oddly enough, the most crime-prone blacks are in Iowa, of all places, where whites have traditionally been well-behaved. (Even though Iowa is very rural, it is so un-redneck in tastes that it voted for Al Gore in 2000.) Wisconsin and even Minnesota are similar. I don't think there has much black migration into these states for quite a few decades, but the local white culture is not rubbing off on the current black generations. My guess is that in those Old Northwest states, blacks get little competition from other groups for filling niches in the criminal economy, so more go into crime. In contrast, in states with more hell-raising whites, fewer blacks go into crime. But, that's just a first guess at this rather odd pattern.

Of course, the least-discussed cultural influence on African-Americans is also the most obvious: Africa. I call this tendency to ignore the African in African-American, to assume that they brought no culture with them from Africa, the Black Slate Theory. For example, when very young, Sowell's parents gave him to his great-aunt to raise (he didn't know he had several siblings until he was about 18). This kind of fostering out of the young is much more common among African-Americans than among whites. It's also much more common in Africa than in Europe, according to James Q. Wilson's book The Marriage Problem.

Perhaps the biggest social problem of African-Americans, as reflected in the very high illegitimacy rate, is that the culture they brought with them from Africa is one of low paternal investment. America's dominant culture had largely succeeded in inculcating monogamy and bring-home-the-bacon norms in blacks by about 1960, when it suddenly lost its self-confidence and began funding, via AFDC, the traditional African tendency toward mothers supporting their children without much support from their fathers.

One interesting sociological question that has been almost completely ignored in the U.S., with Zora Neale Hurston being the only exception I can think of, is the varying influence of different tribes in Africa. Hurston studied this in the West Indies, where tribes maintained more of a separate identity than in the U.S.

The most striking example is Barbados, whose citizens are renown for being the best educated and most civil of all the West Indians. Barbados was the richest and most easterly of the West Indies. According to the PBS series The Story of English, as the first stop for the slave ships coming from Africa, the wealthy slaveowners of Barbados had their pick, and they preferred to buy slaves from tribes they had found to be the most cooperative. Then they'd send the leftovers from the Bad Dude tribes on to be sold in Jamaica and the U.S. To this day, Barbados remains a more cooperative place than most other black communities in the Western Hemisphere.

Obviously, when Sowell points out that African and West Indian blacks outnumber African-Americans at Harvard, he's not mentioning the selection effect. Still, there are so few English-speaking West Indians in the world (maybe about five to seven million? -- there are only 2.7 million in Jamaica, compared to about 35 million African-Americans), their abundance at Harvard is of interest. I'd be particularly interested in seeing how the small number of Barbadians stacks up against African-Americans.

I suspect that the white colonial elite in Barbados and Trinidad did a better job of assimilating blacks into the white culture, without a generating a huge oppositional backlash, than did whites in the U.S. All this deserves closer study that I've ever seen it getting.

Every winter I volunteer to fly off to Barbados to investigate this crucial subject, but nobody has offered to fund my research project yet.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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