In a just world Thomas Sowell would win the Nobel Prize in economics. Over several decades he has applied his exceptional skills as an economist to an array of interdisciplinary studies focusing on race, culture, and politics. And in doing so he has challenged and undermined many of the dominant ideological myths of our time.
In his new collection of essays, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell once again performs this task with great insight. The title essay, which opens the volume, shows that what passes for “black culture” in the United States, with its particular language, customs, behavioral characteristics, and attitudes toward work and leisure, is in fact a collection of traits adopted from earlier white southern culture.
Sowell traces this culture to several generations of mostly Scotsmen and northern Englishmen who migrated to many of the southern American colonies in the eighteenth century. The outstanding features of this redneck culture, or “cracker” culture as it was called in Great Britain at that time, 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 rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.” It also included “touchy pride, vanity, and boastful self-dramatization.”
Any commercial industriousness and innovation introduced in the southern states in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, Sowell demonstrates, primarily came from businessmen, merchants, and educators who moved there from the northern and especially the New England states. The north generally had a different culture—of work, savings, personal responsibility, and forethought—that resulted in the southern United States lagging far behind much of the rest of the country—a contrast often highlighted by nineteenth-century European visitors.
The great tragedy for much of the black population, concentrated as it was in the southern states, was that it absorbed a great deal of this white southern redneck culture, and has retained it longer than the descendants of those Scottish and English immigrants. In a later chapter in the book, devoted to “Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies,” Sowell explains that in the decades following the Civil War, black schools and colleges in the south were mostly manned by white administrators and teachers from New England who, with noticeable success, worked to instill “Yankee” virtues of hard work, discipline, education, and self-reliance.
In spite of racial prejudice and legal discrimination, especially in the southern states, by the middle decades of the twentieth century a growing number of black Americans were slowly but surely catching up with white Americans in terms of education, skills, and income. One of the great perversities of the second part of the twentieth century, Sowell shows, is that this advancement decelerated following the enactment of the civil-rights laws of the 1960s, with the accompanying affirmative action and emphasis on respecting the “diversity” of black culture. This has delayed the movement of many black Americans into the mainstream under the false belief that “black culture” is somehow distinct and unique, when in reality it is the residue of an earlier failed white culture that retarded the south for almost 200 years.
A related theme that Sowell discusses in a chapter on “The Real History of Slavery” is that the institution of human bondage is far older than the experience of black enslavement in colonial and then independent America. Indeed, slavery has burdened the human race during all of recorded history and everywhere around the globe. Its origins and practice have had nothing to do with race or racism. Ancient Greeks enslaved other Greeks; Romans enslaved other Europeans; Asians enslaved Asians; and Africans enslaved Africans, just as the Aztecs enslaved other native groups in what we now call Mexico and Central America. Among the most prominent slave traders and slave owners up to our own time have been Arabs, who enslaved Europeans, black Africans, and Asians. In fact, while officially banned, it is an open secret that such slavery still exists in a number of Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Equally ignored, Sowell reminds us, is that it was only in the West that slavery was challenged on philosophical and political grounds, and that antislavery efforts became a mass movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slavery was first ended in the European countries, and then Western pressure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought about its demise in most of the rest of the world. But this fact has been downplayed because it does not fit into the politically correct fashions of our time. It is significant that in 1984, on the 150th anniversary of the ending of slavery in the British Empire, there was virtually no celebration of what was a historically profound turning point in bringing this terrible institution to a close around the world.
Sowell also turns his analytical eye to the question “Are Jews Generic?” Why have Jews been the victims of so much dislike and persecution throughout the centuries? He argues that the answer can be found in understanding the trades and professions they often specialized in because of legal discrimination and restrictions. Denied the right to own land and other real property in many European countries, and excluded from many politically privileged occupations, they become merchants, middlemen, and financiers. The middleman and the merchant, Sowell explains, have often been the least understood and most mistrusted members in any market economy. They seem to create profit for themselves “merely” by moving goods from one place to another without producing anything “real.” Furthermore, as financiers they seem to earn interest at the expense of others while doing none of the “real work.”
Sowell shows that the same suspicions, angers, and resentments often directed at Jews through the centuries have also been the fate of Chinese traders and merchants in Southeast Asia, or Indians and Pakistanis who have specialized in these activities in Africa. They, like many Jews, have been the victims of persecution, plunder, and physical harm more because of how they earn a living than who they are per se. It is economic ignorance and envy of success that have generated hatred against minorities. And by giving vent to these prejudices, majorities have invariably harmed their own economic well-being by driving out or killing those who performed essential market tasks that benefited all.
In a chapter on “Germans and History,” Sowell challenges the conception that the Holocaust demonstrated something uniquely cruel and evil in the German people. Through the centuries, Germans were known for hard work, discipline, and skill in various specialized occupations and professions, and as respecters of the pursuit of knowledge and education. While anti-Semitism was an element of German society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before Hitler came to power, in comparison to many eastern European nations, Germany was an example of tolerance and respect for civil liberties that attracted many Jewish families escaping from persecution in countries to the east.
To a dangerous extent, however, Germans fell victim to the ideologies of nationalism, socialism, and collectivism, which Hitler could play to in the years leading up to his gaining power in 1933. Sowell points out that while the Nazis were rabid in their hatred for Jews, through the 1930s Hitler had to carefully measure the degree to which he could violently persecute the German Jews without arousing the average German’s resistance to disorder and random violence. Also, during those years the Nazis often found it difficult to win the German people’s support for boycotting Jewish-owned businesses or breaking off social interactions with Jews. While the Nazi genocide of six million Jews was one of the great crimes of history, Sowell asks us to resist collectivist judgments and generalizations that detract from judging people as individuals.
In the concluding chapter on “History versus Vision,” Sowell pleads the case for letting history be free from bias, ideological agenda, or political manipulation.While every history is a story about man through the interpretive eyes of the historian, Sowell says that if we are to truly learn from history it should not be reduced to mere propaganda and political fashion.