That Thomas Sowell hasn't yet won the Nobel Prize for Economic Science reflects more poorly upon the economics profession's infatuation with mathematical formulas than upon Sowell's lifetime achievement. Personally, I've learned more from Sowell than from any other living economist, with the possible exception of his old teacher, Milton Friedman.
Now in his mid-70s, Sowell's latest book of essays, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, doesn't break much new ground. But it forcefully summarizes many of his recurrent themes in a half dozen extended meditations on historical issues of great relevance to the contemporary world.
For example, in "Are Jews Generic?" Sowell outlines the tendency of the masses to persecute "middle-man minorities" such as Jews, Armenians, and the Overseas Chinese, precisely because of the value of their contributions to the economy.
In "Germans and History," he defends that much maligned nationality against insinuations, such as in Daniel Goldhagen's bestseller Hitler's Willing Executioners, that German history should be viewed as inevitably leading up to the Nazis. Sowell concludes, with his characteristic concern for the universal fallibilities of mankind:
"The racial fanaticism of Hitler and the Nazi movement ... were not historically distinct characteristics of Germans as a people. On the contrary, the rise of such a man as the leader of such a people should serve as a permanent warning to all people everywhere who are charmed by charisma or aroused by rhetoric."
Unfortunately, the title essay, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," is the most questionable in the book.
Yet it features many acute observations. For example:
"By cheering on counterproductive attitudes, making excuses for self-defeating behavior, and promoting the belief that 'racism' accounts for most of blacks' problems, white intellectuals serve their own psychic, ideological, and political interests. They are the kinds of friends who can do more harm than enemies."
The central conceit of the essay is that blacks' troubles today in large part stem from their having absorbed the self-defeating culture of poor Southern whites.
As Sowell wrote in the Wall Street Journal (April 26 2005):
"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."
But when examined closely, Sowell's theory exhibits major problems. Indeed, I suspect Sowell is really trying to get blacks to reject ghetto gangsta culture as not authentically black, but a borrowing from poor white trash. When I explained to my wife what I thought Sowell might be doing, she replied: "Hey, if it works, I'm all for it."
There's no question that for scores of years after the Civil War, the South was the poorest, worst educated, and least enterprising part of the country. The fairly rapid improvement in the wealth and health of the South after the spread of air conditioning following WWII, though, suggests that some of what Sowell sees as long-term cultural weaknesses were simply the initiative-sapping effects of too much heat and humidity.
Still, as historian David Hackett Fischer's landmark 1989 book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America documented in overwhelming detail, the cultural patterns laid down by different groups of British settlers before 1776 still explain much about today's America.
Following Grady McWhiney's book Cracker Culture, Sowell attributes much of "redneck culture" to the Scotch-Irish, those bellicose Protestants from the violent Scottish-English border region and their descendents who had settled Ulster. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Scots-Irish migrated to America, especially to the Appalachian backcountry.
Sowell in turns attributes many aspects of current black culture to the Scotch-Irish, such as a tendency to react tumultuously to being "dissed." For example, President Andy Jackson, the exemplar of Scotch-Irish manhood, was admired by his followers for having fought several duels.
Certainly, the Scotch-Irish were more prone to brawl than the two dominant cultures of the 17th Century North, the intellectual Puritans of New England and the pacifist Quakers of Pennsylvania. But those two elite, self-selected religious groups were exceptional. The typical human culture has no doubt been closer to the Scotch-Irish than to the Puritans or Quakers. So correlations between the old Appalachians and the current ghetto-dwellers aren't proof of causation.
Even more damaging to Sowell's hypothesis, the Scotch-Irish tended to stay away from the blacks. They went to the highlands, both because disease was less of a problem for Europeans in the cooler uplands than in the lowland South, and because they disliked having to compete with slave labor.
Today, the state with the least educated whites is the prototypical Scotch-Irish state of West Virginia, which had so few slave-owners that it seceded from Confederate Virginia and joined the Union during the Civil War. Other heavily Scotch-Irish states like Tennessee and Kentucky have limited black populations, too.
Slaves tended to be owned mostly by big slave-owners on the tobacco and cotton plantations of the Southern lowlands. The planters were often descended from the second sons of minor aristocrats in southern England -- just as poor whites in the lowland South often originated among the servant and farm worker classes of southern England.
African-Americans may have assimilated more of the 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, than they inherited Scotch-Irish populism.
Consider Liberia. Freed slaves who were sent to Liberia reproduced the white Southern lowland social structure -- with themselves as the slave-owning aristocrats and the native blacks as the slaves.