Politics & Policy

Chewing Nails

From the August 29, 2005, issue of National Review.

Black Rednecks and White Liberals, by Thomas Sowell (Encounter, 372 pp., $25.95)

What a surprise, Thomas Sowell has written another brilliant book. He’s written about 30 of them — books, that is, and brilliant ones, or at least excellent ones. You won’t find a dud in the bunch. His books are on race, education, history, economics — and there is a quirky autobiography befitting the man. Sowell has also written hundreds of scholarly essays, magazine pieces, and reviews. He has done a newspaper column almost continually since the late 1970s. He is a model of the public intellectual, to use a term he probably doesn’t like.

Typical in a Sowell book are a raft of facts, a cold bath of logic, and myth-destruction. He has a quality that is priceless to a writer, or scholar: fearlessness. Sowell cares not a fig about popularity, and he does no jockeying whatever to affect his status. Reputation is unthought of. He says what he finds to be true, the consequences be damned. Many people claim to operate this way; precious few do.

His latest book is a string of essays, whose title is taken from the first of them: “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.” An arresting title, that, and an arresting essay. The five other essays are related, I suppose, but only tangentially so. Writes Sowell in his preface, “The purpose of this book is to expose some of the more blatant misconceptions poisoning race relations in our time.” Indeed, that is one of the purposes of Sowell’s life work. He further writes, “[T]hese essays summarize the conclusions of more than a quarter of a century of my research on racial and cultural issues . . .” I should call this book a summa, and it is. But I called a previous Sowell work — The Quest for Cosmic Justice — a summa (which it was). Probably better to say that Sowell pours hard-won wisdom into everything he does.

It’s a mark of the man that his epigraph to this book comes from U. B. Phillips. (“We do not live in the past, but the past in us.”) I had to smile when I saw this name, because when I was in college, studying southern history, Phillips’s name was mud: He stood for racism, naïveté, the Old Historiography, which my teachers — New Leftists, basically — were throwing out. Sowell puts him up front. He’s right, too.

The title essay makes the case that American blacks inherited a “redneck culture,” which came from particular regions of England and Scotland — the ancestral homes of many white southerners. “That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain,” writes Sowell, “while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.” And Sowell thinks that’s a crying shame. So should everyone else.

What did this — what does this — culture entail? Sowell is brutal, but unflinching: brawling, braggadocio, self-indulgence, disregard of the future. These sound like stereotypes, but Sowell doesn’t care, forging ahead with his logic. He is dismayed that the redneck culture — alternatively “cracker culture” — has come to be equated with black identity. And in this, he finds white liberals guilty: They have “aided and abetted the perpetuation of a counterproductive and self-destructive lifestyle” among black Americans. There’s the welfare state, and look-the-other-way policing, and smiling at “gangsta rap.” A bracing passage:

The chafing restrictions of civilization, which can at times become irksome to people of any color, may be vicariously thrown off by those white intellectuals who cheer on outlandish and even lawless behavior by black hoodlums or entertainers. Blacks in effect become the mascots of these intellectuals, symbolizing and acting out the latter’s resistance to “society” — or, more accurately, civilization.

A Sowell book is not for the weak-stomached.

The second essay has another arresting title: “Are Jews Generic?” Here Sowell discusses “middleman minorities,” of whom Jews are the prime historical example. Such minorities have a special economic role to play in a society, sometimes to their sorrow. Joining the Jews are Chinese in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere), Indians in East Africa (and elsewhere), Lebanese in West Africa (the same), Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (reaching back), Koreans in America’s black ghettos — you get the picture. What these minorities have had in common is a passion for hard work, for saving, for education, for risk-taking, for advancing, and, crucially, for mobility. The “middlemen” have always had to be light on their feet.

Sometimes, majorities turn on them, fueled by envy and resentment. To many people, “the rise of middleman minorities from poverty to prosperity has been like a slap across the face.” And the worst violence and degradation have ensued.

Next, Sowell delivers an essay called “The Real History of Slavery.” So, what is the false history of slavery? The one presented by Alex Haley in Roots, essentially. Sowell’s main point is that slavery has occurred in every age and corner, and is little understood. This has terrible consequences: In the U.S., black people may feel special shame, and whites unreasonable guilt. Sowell is always adamant on the ill effects of grievance: “Has a sense of special grievance helped advance any people — or has what happened in centuries past been a distraction and an incitement to counterproductive strife . . . ?”

Sowell straightforwardly explains that the West was unique in its opposition to slavery, and in its efforts against it. (Those efforts have stalled, sadly: Slavery in Africa today is largely ignored.) “On the issue of slavery,” writes Sowell, “it was essentially Western civilization against the world.” And “what was peculiar about the West was not that it participated in the worldwide evil of slavery, but that it later abolished that evil . . .” Indeed, “it was essentially European imperialism which ended slavery.” Choke on that, world.

For my taste, the author is a little too hard on abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, knocking these people as impractical and counterproductive. (That is a big Sowell word, you may have noticed: “counterproductive.”) But he has points to make that you will seldom hear elsewhere. The historian Ernest R. May likes to use the phrase “thinking in time” — which means, putting yourself in your subjects’ shoes, without unfair hindsight. Sowell is extremely good at that. His treatment of Virginia’s John Randolph — a slaveowner with a conscience — is very sensitive. And I have never seen a better brief defense of Lincoln, against charges of temporizing, or moral timidity. The killer line: “Garrison’s rhetoric may look better to a later generation, but the cold fact is that William Lloyd Garrison did not free a single slave, while Abraham Lincoln freed millions.”

Sowell proceeds with what may be the most curious essay in the book: “Germans and History.” In a nutshell, he does not believe that Germans ought to be defined by the twelve years from 1933 to 1945. It would be interesting to see him in debate against Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners). As usual, Sowell goes down byways unexplored by others, and concludes that Nazi “racial fanaticism” was not a “historically distinct characteristic” of “Germans as a people.” Instead, “the rise of” such leaders as Hitler “should serve as a permanent warning to all people everywhere who are charmed by charisma or aroused by rhetoric.”

On the education of black Americans, there is no one better than Sowell, and perhaps his only equals are Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, who dedicated their book No Excuses to him. “Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies” is a 40-page tour de force, which ought to awaken, chagrin, and motivate everyone. (It won’t.) Sowell makes an obvious point, and asks an obvious question: It’s not as though black Americans weren’t successfully educated before about 1960 (when it was harder) — what happened? And in this essay, Sowell provides a splendid analysis of the Booker T. Washington/W. E. B. DuBois split, on which people are so facile.

The final essay, “History Versus Visions,” reminded me quite a bit of The Quest for Cosmic Justice, and, indeed, that phrase is used a couple of times. This piece is a takedown of multiculturalism. Says Sowell, “Few things attract less attention than the achievements of the West.” He continues, “‘Multiculturalism’ has not meant warts-and-all portraits of different societies around the world. For many, it has meant virtually a warts-only portrait of the West and a no-warts portrait of non-Western peoples.” He has just described my entire formal education.

Sowell takes on no issue that is easy, always going for the hard stuff. He is a scholar and writer who chews nails. You may not agree with him — but you must reckon with him. And he pens line after line about which you say, “Only Thomas Sowell could have written that.” Here’s one: “When people are presented with the alternatives of hating themselves for their failure or hating others for their success, they seldom choose to hate themselves.” Here’s another: “Those who warn against being Eurocentric are themselves often the most Eurocentric of all when it comes to assigning blame for slavery, imperialism, wars, and other human tragedies . . .” Here’s one more: “Whites walk on eggshells for fear of being called racists, while many blacks are preoccupied with protecting the image of black students, rather than protecting their future by telling the blunt truth.”

Yes, Sowell is a cold bath. Refreshing.


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