Writers for Conservatives, 77: Thomas Sowell
This essay is about a book by Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, published in 2005. Those familiar with Sowell’s work will see it as another one of his brilliant expositions on topics that explain social phenomena widely misunderstood by conventional wisdom, especially by those whose interests are invested in the misunderstandings. Sowell is an unsparing foe of conventional wisdom. As he says in the Preface:
“The purpose of this book is to expose some of the more blatant misconceptions poisoning race relations in our time.”
The book is divided into six parts, the first five dealing with specific cases or issues, the last examining the general phenomenon that fosters the misconceptions. The first is the title essay, and if the reader has read an essay in this series I wrote some years ago — about a book by D. H. Fisher called Albion’s Seed — he will understand the “redneck” phenomenon: The bulk of 18th century immigrants from the backlands of Britain, Scotland, and Ulster, areas constantly exposed to destabilizing fighting and quarreling that made these immigrants proud, touchy, unsocial, and so undesirable that they were quickly shunted from their port of debarkation, Philadelphia, westward and southward into the Southern backlands. They were not the Tidewater Southerners, the plantation owners.
Prior to 1900, most northern Negroes were descended from those who had been freed prior to the Civil War. They were used to the norms of white society, acculturated we would say, but when Southerners began moving northwards in significant numbers, the redneck culture they embodied quickly alienated Northern whites as well as blacks, reinforcing segregation. Ironically, it has been white liberals, starting in the ’60s, who have promoted a “black identity” built around a redneck culture. Sowell covers the whole gamut of disastrous ideas and policies that have followed, blaming Negro shortcomings on white culture.
Once we grasp the point about the prevalence of redneck culture and its terrible drawbacks in the present, we can see clearly the ramifications of current liberal policies. By enunciating the subject of redneck culture Sowell has made plain the true dimensions of our social/racial problems.
The next section, “Are Jews Generic?” is about what Sowell calls “middleman minorities,” the roles they play in societies and the persecutions they endure. Since they have been “the intermediaries between producers and consumers, whether in the role of retailers or moneylenders,” the dangers in such situations are easily imagined. What’s so interesting is the ways these minorities succeed, often beginning with nothing. The essential point is their difference from the surrounding culture, making them seem “clannish,” a quality held against them. But they must be clannish: they “cannot afford to have their children carry the values of the society around them.” Sowell shows how the peddlers carried goods from wholesalers into the hinterlands, eventually saving enough to become a town shopkeeper. When we lived on Cape Breton Island we knew a prosperous storekeeper who had started out as a peddler, and we also knew a woman who, as a little girl had known him as a peddler and had been fascinated by the goods he carried in his 75-pound pack.
Sowell enumerates the resentments inspired by the successes of these minorities, and he points out that the more they are needed, the more they are resented. The history of these societies, especially the attitudes of the surrounding societies and their treatment of the minorities, is an ugly story.
In the next section, “The Real History of Slavery,” Sowell exposes the instrumental use of slavery in the claim that slavery grew out of racism. As he points out, “People were enslaved because they were vulnerable, not because of how they looked.” Slavery existed for thousands of years before the first Africans were brought to the Western Hemisphere. “It was not until the late 18th century that there was even an intellectual movement for the abolition of slavery . . . essentially, European imperialism ended slavery” because only then were Western powers strong enough to enforce their will.
Speaking of modern complaints about the past — e.g. “Why didn’t the Founding Fathers abolish slavery?” — Sowell makes the excellent point: “Moral principles cannot be separated from their consequences in a given context.” Today we look back at the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction with regret that the relations between blacks and whites took a century to straighten out. What Sowell does is to explain much of it. Once we see that racism was the result of slavery, not the other way around, we begin to think clearly about the issues.
The next section, “Germans and History,” examines German history to see whether the Nazi regime (1933-45), specifically the Holocaust, was an inevitable consequence of the German character we can discern in the history of Germans. Since the nation was created only in 1871, Sowell closely examines the history of German settlements all over the world, and while he finds certain salient traits, Nazism is not one of them. It should be noted, however, that German obedience certainly facilitated the success of Nazism. I am thinking of the way Hitler altered the military oath of allegiance from the State to a personal oath to himself as the Fuhrer. As we know, that was a serious constraint on the officers who later considered overthrowing him.
The next section, “Black Education: Achievements, Myths, Tragedies,” begins with a description of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., an all-black school that produced excellent graduates until it was wrecked in the 1950s to comply with desegregation. As Sowell points out, Dunbar was not an elite school. It took the students who applied from all over the city, but what made it so special, so unlike the typical ghetto school it eventually became, was the aspirations of the parents and staff, with their discipline and high standards. He also discusses other outstanding schools, all ignored by the loud-mouthed advocates of “diversity.”
The last section, “History v. Visions,” explains the basic issue that divides Sowell and the point of view he is criticizing, which prefers to blame external causation for problems rather than internal ones which can be solved by the people concerned. Although Sowell always backs up his arguments with specific examples, this section is really a summation of his arguments, a fitting conclusion of this inspiring book, which I cannot recommend highly enough. *