Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Part 2 by Amanda S. Green
[Link to previous post here]
Thomas Sowell is one of those authors who manages to get us to think about a myriad of topics. I first began reading him because he is one of the few who can make economics not only understandable but almost enjoyable for me. When I started reading Black Rednecks and White Liberals, I discovered he continues that trend with social issues. Sowell isn’t afraid to look at the difficult issues facing our country, nor is he afraid to tell it like it is. He backs his conclusions up with facts, not feelz. His conclusions might not always be ones I agree with (okay, so far, I can’t say I’ve come to one I disagree with, but I felt I needed to say that, just in case), but I can respect his process. More importantly, I appreciate the fact he sometimes makes me think about things in ways I haven’t before.
Last week, I said I’d be covering the book, one essay at a time. What I hadn’t realized until starting today’s post is that some of these essays have so much information in them, they can’t adequately be covered in a single post. Or, at least not one that isn’t close to 10k words long. What I love about it is that, despite all the detail and data Sowell gives us, it’s presented in a fresh way. He gives information from early American history and shows how it has woven its way into today’s culture. He isn’t afraid to look at – and answer – the hard questions. Nor does he step back when something he writes might cause others to take issue.
The first essay in the book is the one for which the book is named, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”. There’s no soft-pedaling the issues in the essay. Yet, as always, he makes you think. You know, or think you do, what he’s going to discuss when you read the opening quote:
These people are creating a terrible problem in our cities. They can’t or won’t hold a job, they flout the law constantly and neglect their children, they drink too much and their moral standards would shame an alley cat. For some reason or other, they absolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to any kind of decent, civilized life. (BR&WL, p. 1)
Most people reading that will jump to one conclusion – one built upon our own experiences, prejudices, news headlines, etc. – about who the passage refers to. I’ll tell you right now, you’re wrong. That passage, according to Sowell, was written in 1956 Indianapolis and refers to “poor whites from the South.” Now, this sentiment wasn’t an anomaly according to Sowell. In 1951, 21% of those surveyed believed white Southerners living there were “undesirable”. Only 13% of those surveyed felt that way about Blacks. (Disclaimer here. Sowell in this essay uses the term “blacks” instead of “African-Americans”.) Sowell offers more examples to confirm these two instances weren’t anomalies. Many in the North saw Southern whites, especially poor Southern whites as shiftless, lazy and undesirable.
More is involved here than a mere parallel between blacks and Southern whites. What is involved is a common subculture that goes back for centuries, which has encompassed everything from ways of talking to attitudes toward education, violence, and sex—and which originated not in the South, but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. (BR&WL, p. 1)
A common sub-culture.
More than that, one that goes back for centuries.
According to Sowell, this sub-culture began in England and was transplanted to the South when the area was settled. Over the decades and centuries, it has died out in England and has “largely” died out in the South, no matter what the race. However, it has survived in the “poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.” (BR&WL, p. 2)
Sowell’s first premise of the common sub-culture is followed quickly by a second. “It is not uncommon for a culture to survive longer where it is transplanted and to retain characteristics lost in its place of origin.” (BR&WL, p. 2) To support this idea, he gives examples of linguistic artifacts in Mexican Spanish and the French spoken in Quebec. There are German dialects that have died out in their homeland but continue to exist here in the U. S. In fact, there are examples of this in the South. But it goes beyond just linguistics. This permeation of the common sub-culture has fingers in all aspects of Southern life. And these differences between Southern and Northern life were noted more than a century ago.
Southern whites not only spoke the English language in very different ways from whites in other regions, their churches, their roads, their homes, their music, their education, their food, and their sex lives were all sharply different from those of of New England in particular. (BR&WL, p. 2) It was easy for Frederick Law Olmsted and Alexis de Tocqueville to say the differences had their roots in slavery. Sowell admits such a conclusion seemed reasonable but that it will fail under a “closer scrutiny of history”.
Imagine that. Someone wants to actually look beyond the obvious to see what the roots of the lifestyle and situation might be. It’s too bad our schools and universities aren’t teaching this sort of critical thinking to their students.
It is perhaps understandable that the great, overwhelming moral curse of slavery has presented a tempting causal explanation of the peculiar subculture of Southern whites, as well as that of blacks.Yet this same subculture had existed among Southern whites and their ancestors in those parts of the British Isles from which they came, long before they had ever seen a black slave. (BR&WL, p. 3)
With this as his starting point, Sowell turns his attention to the study of the nature of the “crackers” and “rednecks” in Britain long before they arrived in America.
According to Sowell, most of the “common white people” who settled the South, came from the northern border of England, that no-man’s land between England and Scotland. Others came from Ulster County, Ireland. To say those were areas where there was little law and order might be putting it mildly. They were at a minimum, resistant to authority. Yes, if you’re thinking of Mel Gibson in Braveheart right now, you aren’t the only one. The majority of these settlers came to the South before the “progress” of the 18th Century, the Anglicization of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Professor Grady McWhiney, in Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South, writes:
…had the South been peopled by nineteenth-century Scots, Welshmen, and Ulstermen, the course of Southern history would doubtless have been radically different. Nineteenth-century Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants did in fact fit quite comfortably into northern American society. (BR&WL, p. 5)
But what does this really mean?
What the rednecks or crackers brought with them across the ocean was a whole constellation of attitudes, values, and behavior patterns that might have made sense in the world in which they had lived for centuries, but which would prove to be counterproductive in the world to which they were going—and counterproductive to the blacks who would live in their midst for centuries before emerging into freedom and migrating to the great urban centers of the United States, taking with them similar values. (BR&WL, p. 6)
These attitudes, values and behavior patterns included “an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery. . . Touchy pride, vanity, and boastful self-dramatization were also part of this redneck among people from regions of Britain “where the civilization was the least developed.” (BR&WL, p. 6)
Sowell makes clear, however, (mainly because he has to clarify statements that shouldn’t need to be clarified because too many have taken easy offense and used that offense to attack and twist his words) that all this doesn’t mean cultures have remained unchanged over the years or that there are no differences between blacks and whites in this subculture. Even so, “what is remarkable is how pervasive and how close the similarities have been.” (BR&WL, p. 7)
The first of the attitudes and behavior patterns Sowell looks at is pride and violence. He notes that long – centuries, in fact – before “black pride” became a rallying cry, there was “cracker pride” and it was much the same as “black pride”. So how does he define “cracker pride”? it was “a touchiness about anything that might be even remotely construed as a personal slight, much less an insult, combined with a willingness to erupt into violence over it.” (BR&WL, p. 7) This behavior confused those from the North. They didn’t understand what the “crackers” had to be proud of, much less so proud they’d take violent exception to a perceived insult. An example given is of an Englishman tired of waiting for a Southerner to do work that had been contracted for. The Englishman hired someone else to complete the job and, once he learned what happened, the Southerner – the “cracker” – now felt he’d been dishonored by the Englishman and vowed to go to the Englishman’s location the next morning with men and rifles and either the Englishman would die or the Southerner would.
This tendency to not only take easy offense but for the pride to lead to violence is then coupled with an acceptance of the behavior. The example Sowell gives is that of the crowd gathering around a fight and egging everyone on. This behavior didn’t begin with the Southern “crackers”. It had been seen in the Scots, especially those from the “no-man’s land” where so many of the Southern settlers came from, for centuries.
What is important in the pride and violence patterns among rednecks and crackers was not that particular people did particular things at particular times and places. Nor is it necessary to attempt to quantify such behavior. What is crucial is that violence growing out of such pride had social approval. (BR&WL, p. 8)
Not only was there social approval but, in many cases, there was judicial approval as well. Or, at the very minimum, the judiciary turned a blind eye to it. In some instances, such as one pointed out by McWhiney where he recounts the story of a man who learned his wife had been having an affair with a neighbor and who sought out and killed the neighbor, such behavior was expected.
As Sowell notes, “what is important here is not the isolated incident itself but the set of social attitudes which allowed such incidents to take place publicly with impunity, the killer knowing in advance that what he was doing had community approval. Moreover, such attitudes went back for centuries, on both sides of the Atlantic, at least among the particular people concerned.” (BR&WL, p. 10)
But how does that translate to the United States?
In colonial America, the people of the English borderlands and of the “Celtic fringe” were seen by contemporaries as culturally quite distinct, and were socially unwelcome. Mob action prevented a shipload of Ulster Scots from landing in Boston in 1719 and the Quaker leaders of eastern Pennsylvania encouraged Ulster Scots to settle out in western Pennsylvania, where they acted as a buffer to the Indians, as well as being a constant source of friction and conflict with the Indians. It was not just in the North that crackers and rednecks were considered to be undesirables. Southern plantation owners with poor whites living on adjoining land would often offer to buy their land for more than it was worth, in order to be rid of such neighbors. (BR&WL, pp. 10-11)
Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it? All you have to do is change the “poor whites” with “blacks” or “African-Americans”.
Pride had yet another side to it. Among the definitions of a “cracker” in the Oxford dictionary is a “braggart”—one who “talks trash” in today’s vernacular—a wisecracker. More than mere wisecracks were involved, however. The pattern is one said by Professor McWhiney to go back to descriptions of ancient Celts as “boasters and threateners, and given to bombastic self-dramatisation.” Examples today come readily to mind, not only from ghetto life and gangsta rap, but also from militant black “leaders,” spokesmen or activists. What is painfully ironic is that such attitudes and behavior are projected today as aspects of a distinctive “black identity,” when in fact they are part of a centuries-old pattern among the whites in whose midst generations of blacks lived in the South. (BR&WL, pp. 12-13)
Putting aside all the rhetoric of today, all the hot button words and emotion, it is easy to see the foundation for today’s issues with one strata of our society having its roots in another society’s sub-culture centuries ago. Was slavery an abomination? Absolutely. But was it also the sole contributing factor for some of the problems faced by the African-American community today. In fact, it is only one of many factors to be considered. We’ll see more of that as we continue to explore this essay and the others in the book.
[For raising the tone of this blog — ATH is culture! — and helping me with the exposing of the roots of the current mess — in her case with more facts! — if you decide to send the woman a drink– And her Amazon author page is here – Also, she has a new book: Light Magic, under her Ellie Ferguson pen name. SAH]