Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Black Rednecks

The Wall Street Journal has a hugely provocative opinion piece today by Thomas Sowell, which argues black underachievement isn't due to race or racism, but to the internalization of southern culture. (Sowell, if you couldn't have guessed, is a conservative and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. And yes he's also black, which, by the way, doesn't make him self-loathing.)

To set up his argument, Sowell writes about a study done last year that showed the majority of black Harvard alumni are either from the West Indies and Africa or children of parents that emigrated from these places. This allows him to shoot down race and racism as determining variables.
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.
From here, Sowell makes his case that it's the cultural baggage of the South that's responsible for black underachievement as well as white southern failings compared to their northern brethern. As ancestors of blacks freed before 1850 do better than ancestors of blacks freed after 1865, pre-civil war southern whites lagged behind their rivals up north. [Interestingly enough, Sowell's argument aligns with the metro (blue state) vs. retro (red state) debate that presented statistical evidence showing metro areas are more intellectual and economically vibrant.] Sowell calls attention to the fact that there were four times more schools up north than in the south and that northern children went to school twice as many years. I suspect these disparities had to do with the South's agricultural economy where schooling occurred between the planting and harvesting seasons. It's a pretty simple equation, more schooling equals a more robust knowledge base which translates into greater intellectual and economic achievements.

While critics argue the sin of slavery accounts for black and southern white underachievement, Sowell doesn't think so. Regarding blacks he writes:
Slavery also cannot explain the difference between American blacks and West Indian blacks living in the United States because the ancestors of both were enslaved.
His point concerning southern whites is even more plausible because these differences between southern whites and northern whites existed already in England prior to emigration, before these whites every saw a black in bondage. Sowell explains:
The culture of the people who were called "rednecks" and "crackers" before they ever got on the boats to cross the Atlantic was a culture that produced far lower levels of intellectual and economic achievement, as well as far higher levels of violence and sexual promiscuity...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.
Being an opinion piece, Sowell's light on the evidence but his argument seems more than plausible. I assume Sowell's piece is empirically backed by his book, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," which hits shelves this week. And as you can see from the title, the book has a political brunt that isn't too favorable to liberals, which Sowell rams home in his conclusion:
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.
Although most liberals may find that conclusion abrasive and tendentious, I have to agree with Sowell, anyone who equates thug culture to black culture is doing the biggest disservice to inner-city blacks imaginable. Which raises a question: How hypocritical is it to look down on white people who live the stereotypical "redneck" life, while glorifying those blacks who live its inner-city equivalent?