Tom Sowell's "Black Redneck" Theory—Ingenious, But Insufficient

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: 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.

And when I explained to my wife what I thought Sowell was doing, she replied: "Hey, if it works, I'm all for it."

(In case you are wondering about Sowell's own regional biases, he was born in the South in 1929. But he grew up in Harlem during the LaGuardia era—probably the best time to be a black youth in New York City. The public schools were well-disciplined and the teachers enthusiastic yet rigorous. A proud man, Sowell did not enjoy his visits to the South before the end of Jim Crow. During the second half of his life, Sowell has been an appreciative resident of California.)

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 Scotch-Irish migrated to America, especially to the Appalachian backcountry.

Sowell attributes much in 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.

(And it must be said that, as Reagan Navy Secretary James Webb points out in his recent book Born Fighting, the Scotch-Irish also contributed more than their share of universities and U.S. Presidents.)

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 hillbilly 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 Oklahoma 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 Southern lowland social structure—with themselves as the slave-owning aristocrats and the native blacks as the slaves.

Somewhat similarly, as a boy Sowell absorbed second-hand much from the upper class of New York City. In Sowell's autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, he makes the point that as a lad growing up in Harlem around 1940, he benefited from having two female relatives who were maids on Park Avenue. They brought home strong opinions about how quality folk behaved.

If you look at imprisonment statistics, blacks today tend to be better behaved in the South than in other regions. Oddly enough, the most crime-prone blacks are in Iowa, of all places, where whites have traditionally been law-abiding and reasonably well-educated. (Even though Iowa is very rural, it is so un-redneck in tastes that it voted for Al Gore in 2000.) Wisconsin and even Minnesota are similar in having particularly dangerous blacks.

The local white cultural predilection for obeying the law does not seem to be rubbing off on the Old Northwest's current black generation.

Oddly enough, Sowell curtly dismisses the least-remarked but most distinctive influence on African-Americans: that they are Americans from Africa.

In tribute to Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate, I call this tendency to ignore the African in African-American, to assume that they brought no traits with them, the Black Slate Theory.

Americans pay little attention to Africa these days. But, as the inscription at the beginning of Sowell's new book, points out:

"We do not live in the past, but the past in us."

Sowell's own autobiography shows the survival of characteristically African patterns.

For example, when he was an infant, Sowell's mother and father, who was dying, gave him to his great-aunt to raise. He didn't know he had several siblings until he was about 16.

This fostering out of the young is much more common among African-Americans than among whites. It's also much more common in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe, according to the distinguished political scientist James Q. Wilson in his 2002 book The Marriage Problem:

"[M]any West Africans regard fosterage as a perfectly acceptable means of raising children. Families there approve of delegating parental roles to other people, often beginning at a quite early age."

Perhaps the worst social problem of African-Americans: the culture that African-Americans brought with them from Africa is one of low paternal investment. Traditionally, an African husband was not much expected to bring home the bacon for the wife and kids. Today, this is reflected in the very high American black illegitimacy rate—currently about two out of three children are born out of wedlock.

Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of UC Davis wrote in Mother Nature:

"Many fathers are only sporadically in residence with the mothers of their children; and fathers, when they are on the scene, may be unpredictable regarding which children they invest in, and how much. A substantial number of women conceive at a young age, often prior to marriage or formation of any stable relationship… relatively few fathers provide a great deal of care."

While this may sound like inner city black neighborhoods in the U.S., she's actually describing "large areas of sub-Saharan Africa."

The anthropologists Jack Goody and Ester Boserup first explored how continental differences in raising food affected family structure. Boserup noted in 1970:

"Africa is the region of female farming par excellence. In many African tribes, nearly all the tasks connected with food production continue to be left to women."

James Q. Wilson summarized their findings:

"In Europe, where animal-drawn plows were used to farm rich land, intensive agriculture made monogamy important… In these places, men did much of the agricultural work … 

In much of Africa, by contrast, farming was done by handheld hoes used to work small plots of land that were often rather infertile. Women were widely used to do the hoeing and carry in the produce.

Many husbands found that they could use extra wives to wield even more hoes, and so marrying several women made sense economically… the conditions they describe may have had important consequences for the kinds of families that had to endure the travails of slavery in the Western Hemisphere."

This tropical farming system causes African cultures to tend toward polygamy and/or matrilineal-matrilocal family structures. These tendencies can still be seen among African-Americans.

Outside of the tropics, you have to be the Emperor of China or the equivalent to be able to afford a huge number of wives, along with the eunuch guards and all the other expensive rigmarole that go along with maintaining a harem.

But, in systems of tropical agriculture where land was traditionally cheap and most of the work is weeding, which women can do as well as men—as opposed to manhandling draft animals for plowing—you sometimes see handsome men with 50 or more wives.

Of course, the Big Man can't afford to keep them locked up in harems. So he puts them to work in the fields, where they can produce enough to support themselves and their children.

Now, the 49 local bachelors who are left over are going to try hard to lure the polygamist's wives out of the fields and into the bushes. So many of the children born to the Big Man's wives might not be his genetic offspring. But their mothers can support them—which means that some cuckoo's eggs aren't that big of a loss to him. 

Likewise, "matrifocal" families are also more common in African cultures. For example, the University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, who lived with various African tribes for 42 months, recounts that once, when he was about to set out on a dangerous journey through lion country, his worried hosts asked him, "To whom should we send your property in case you are eaten?"

"Uh, to my wife, of course," Henry replied, puzzled.

"To your wife!" the tribespeople exclaimed, aghast at his lack of ordinary human decency."Why don't you want your property to go to your family instead?"

By "family," they meant Henry's birth family—rather than his marriage family.

Where there is low certainty of paternity, it's not too uncommon for the mother's brother to play a major role as the adult male in the lives of the mother's children. After all, he knows for sure that he's at least the half-uncle of his sister's kids. In contrast, her husband might have no genetic relationship to them. These sometimes are "matrilocal" families where the brother lives with his sister and her children, while her husband and other lovers may live with their female kin.

Lack of certainty of paternity is, not coincidentally, a major reason there is so much AIDS in Africa. Helen Epstein wrote in the New York Review of Books:

"Africans are at higher risk of AIDS than people elsewhere not because they have so many partners, but because they often have more than one long-term partner at a time."

Sub-Saharan African husbands are less likely to do what it takes to keep their wives sexually faithful, such as working hard to provide for them. Thus Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post:

"[W]omen perform 80 percent of daily work, according to studies by African gender groups …"

These men get cuckolded a lot. In turn, they put even less effort into providing for their wives' children, since the odds are lower that they are also their own children.

This logic all makes perfect sense—and it also goes a long way toward explaining why Africa is so poor.

Still, African-American family structures tend to fall midway between African and white American norms. America's dominant culture had actually succeeded fairly well in inculcating monogamy and bring-home-the-bacon traditions in African-Americans by about 1960, when it suddenly lost its self-confidence.

The government then began funding, via Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the traditional African tendency toward mothers supporting their children without much help from their fathers. And society stopped stigmatizing having children out of wedlock.

Our ignorance of African-Americans' African heritage proved costly. In effect, America imported a welfare policy— paying generous welfare benefits to single mothers—that had worked reasonably well in Scandinavia for a generation. Yet, within two or three years, illegitimacy and crime rates among African-Americans were soaring—because they didn't respond to the new incentives like Swedes. The black illegitimacy rate shot upward from 22 percent in the mid-Sixties to 70 percent by the early Nineties. Fortunately, in the harder-headed atmosphere of the last ten years, the rate has drifted down.

Tom Sowell does not like to evade facts and logic—for example, unlike other Conservatives Establishment luminaries, he wrote respectfully of Peter Brimelow's immigration book Alien Nation in 1995. Perhaps he will explore the relationship between African and African-American cultures in his next book.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]