Book Review: Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Thomas Sowell’s 2006 book Black Rednecks and White Liberals is a collection of six long-form essays about history and the relationship between different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. The eponymous first essay argues that contemporary black American “ghetto culture” is not genuinely black, but a continuation of “cracker culture” which American blacks picked up from Southern whites, and that many of the problems American blacks face today stem from this pernicious culture. The second essay, Are Jews Generic, examines the history of Jews and other “middle-man minorities”. The Real History of Slavery dispells the myth that slavery was primarily an American or Western phenomenon and highlights the heroic role of Western civilization in general and the British Empire in particular in ending slavery. Germans and History paints a rather flattering picture of German culture and argues that National Socialism was an aberration, rather than a logical continuation of Prussian militarism. Black Education – Achievements, Myths and Tragedies examines the success of the all-black Dunbar High School in the first half of the 20th century and argues that educational success among American blacks was largely achieved by casting off “cracker culture” and embracing the culture of Northern whites. The final essay, History versus Visions, argues that perceptions of history are too frequently distorted by trying to fit facts into a pre-existing narrative.

In this first part of the review, I will focus on the eponymous essay, which opens up with a description of negative attitudes Northern whites in the US had about Southern whites in the mid-20th century: they are lazy, they are criminals, they neglect their children, they have low moral standards, and are uncivilised. Sowell argues that the similarity between these stereotypes and the negative stereotypes about blacks are no coincidence. He sees those characteristics of American blacks and mid-century Southern whites as being part of a shared culture, which blacks picked up from their erstwhile slavemasters.

Leaning on the work of Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture and David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, Sowell traces this shared culture back to the Celts who lived in the border region between England and Scotland, the Scottish highlands, and Ulster County in Ireland before the 19th century. These people, variously called “Scotch-Irish,” “borderers,” “rednecks,” or “crackers,” lived dangerous and relatively uncivilised lives, which is why it made sense for them to develop a culture that emphasises aggressiveness and assertiveness, as well as a tendency to prefer short-term pleasure over long-term planning. When large numbers of “crackers” emigrated to the British-American colonies, they brought that culture with them. The crackers happened to settle in what came to be known as the American South and made up the majority of its white population.

According to Sowell, American blacks, who also mostly lived in the South, adapted this cracker culture. Thus, today’s black ghetto culture is not originally black, hence the term “black rednecks”. While Southern whites have, for the most part, cast off cracker culture, many blacks have retained it. They were “assisted” in this by white liberals who defended what they saw as a genuine expression of African-American culture, and who attacked those criticising “ghetto culture” as racists. Thus, Sowell thinks that white liberals, regardless of their intentions, share a significant part of the blame for American blacks still doing considerably worse than American whites.

What Sowell isn’t quite clear on is the process by which American blacks adopted cracker culture. After all, most major slave owners in the South were not (to use Fischer’s terminology) borderers, but rather Cavaliers, another of the four major groups of British immigrants identified in Albion’s Seed. This is a criticism also picked up in Steve Sailer’s review of the essay:

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 (…) 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.

While Sowell’s theory of ghetto culture being an extension of redneck culture is not fully convincing, his account of blacks succeeding when they adopt “New England values” is quite persuasive. Contrary to what cultural relativists would have us believe, not all cultures are equal. Some cultural practices are superior to others, and casting off pernicious cultural practices can greatly improve the prospects of a community. American blacks are ill-served by those who insist on preserving “authentic” black culture. Obviously there are many aspects of black culture that are beneficial or harmless, but if they want to catch up to their white countrymen, American blacks need to discard those aspects of their culture that are holding them back. Working hard in school, speaking standard English, being polite to authority figures, and bringing up children in two-parent households might be perceived as “acting white,” but so what? If it works for whites, why wouldn’t it work for blacks? And if your answer is racism, then what about Asian-Americans? They are even better at “acting white” than white Americans, and suprise, surprise, they are also economically more successful than whites.

Especially if you have never read a Thomas Sowell book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals is well worth picking up. Sowell’s clear and elegant style makes for pleasant reading as he takes you on a tour through American and world history. Whether you ultimately agree with him or not, reading Thomas Sowell is always an enlightening experience.

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