Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Part 2 by Amanda S. Green


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]

112 thoughts on “Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Part 2 by Amanda S. Green

  1. Phooey! Couldn’t find my copy of the book, so have resorted to the Audible edition and am only halfway through the first chapter.

    Do not fear, I will endeavor to not let this impede my uninformed commentary!

      1. Happily, you’ve covered almost precisely what I was able to listen to last night while doing prep for breakfast (setting up coffee maker, dealing vitamins and prescriptions) and conducting my evening ablutions! Yea! By next week I shall have finished the book and be able to nod thoughtfully as you address its topics.

  2. And I will admit to resistance to Sowell’s conclusions based on pride in my heritage (though it’s not just Scots-Irish). But it certainly explains much in their history.

    1. Sowell hasn’t actually reached any conclusions yet, he’s merely describing a pattern. How one acts in response to these cultural expectations is critical.

      Some fifty years ago I ran into my first discussion of this function of culture in a newspaper column (I am going to guess Sydney J. Harris) describing the different imperatives of herder culture* and farmer culture. Because the wealth of the herder is easily made off with such cultures tend to put a high premium on never allowing the least transgression go unpunished, lest they appear weak and ready prey.

      Thus any society in which life is relatively short and wealth easily converted to other ownership is likely to be prone to the same pattern of exaggerated defense of one’s reputation for ferocity.

      *known as “the Nisbett-Reaves hypothesis” this has been challenged but the imperative of small sample size and experimental construction tend to leave the reader unsatisfied and convinced the debunkers lack appreciation of the long lingering effects of culture.. The claims that the hypothesis has been disproven seem more a matter of wishful thought than careful analysis.

      1. Well, I think he has. He’s laid his conclusion out (the redneck/cracker idea) and then makes the arguments to support it.
        (Remember this is a book of essays, not one written as a coherent whole. This first essay stands in its own, as well as contributing to the whole. Though I could be wrong.)

        And, I said I admitted resistance, not that I truly disagreed. I don’t have to like that he’s right.

        1. When I read the essay the first time, I had pretty much the same reaction. My second read-through had me thinking more on what he was saying. As RES pointed out, I’ve only discussed the first section of the essay so far. He’s laying the groundwork for the rest of the essay. There will be some qualifiers as well as adjustments for what happens as migration occurs in larger and larger numbers. It really is such an interesting read and, for me at least, one that must be read several times to get the full impact of what he writes.

      2. The “herding culture” idea meshes well with Sowell’s proposition that transplanted Africans absorbed pre-existing “redneck” culture. While I don’t recall from college anthropology courses that West Africa was as deep into goat & cattle herding as those in North & East Africa, I could still see a lot of cultural synergy between those cultures and what got passed down to the descendants of irascible Celtic sheepherders.

        1. Which was the sub-Saharan tribe which believed “all cattle are ours”? They would certainly grasp the basic principles of property ownership of other herding cultures better than of cultures who claim land can be owned.

              1. The Aryans were really big on cattle. I’ve a vague impression that the Celts were big on cattle, and theft thereof.

    2. I think you missed something. Sowell indicates there’s Scots-Irish, and then there’s Scots-Irish. They’re not all cut from the same cloth.

  3. Thomas Sowell is one of those authors who manages to get us to think …

    Thinking in the best way.  This, in and of itself, is a unusual skill.

    … about a myriad of topics.

    There are people who can make you think about A topic, but when you add this it puts Sowell in the very rare territory, something to be treasured.

    1. Absolutely. He challenges you to consider what he writes as well as the sources he cites. The way he does it allows you to pull on your own experiences and background. There are too few authors who encourage thinking, much less this sort of critical thinking on hot button topics.

      As for being able to write engagingly on more than one topic and, at the same time, encourage you to think about those other topics, Sowell is one of the best, imo. You are most definitely right about it being something to treasure.

      1. And what I said above plays into this, too. I don’t have to like that he’s right. But Sowell will have me pondering it anyway, thinking it through, reasoning myself to his conclusion.
        That’s talent and skill.

        1. Absolutely. I think that is one of the main reasons I am so glad I chose this book. I haven’t read anything in a long while that I’ve enjoyed as much as this and that has challenged me to think about the issues in the contexts of history, economics, politics and — gag — social media influences.

          1. You do realize that Dr Sowell has entire books of research on this theme? There’s Conquests & Cultures etc.

  4. 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.”

    Aficionados of American frontier culture will be familiar with both Davy Crockett’s brag —

    “I say, Mr. Speaker; I’ve had a speech in soak this six months, and it has swelled me like a drowned horse; if I don’t deliver it I shall burst and smash the windows.

    “The gentleman from Massachusetts [Mr. Everett] talks of summing up the merits of the question, but I’ll sum up my own. In one word I’m a screamer, and have got the roughest racking horse, the prettiest sister, the surest rifle and the ugliest dog in the district. I’m a leetle the savagest crittur you ever did see. My father can whip any man in Kentucky, and I can lick my father. I can outspeak any man on this floor, and give him two hours start.

    “I can run faster, dive deeper, stay longer under, and come out drier, than any chap this side of the big Swamp. I can outlook a panther and outstare a flash of lightning, tote a steamboat on my back and play at rough and tumble with a lion, and an occasional kick from a zebra. To sum up all in one word, I’m a horse. Goliath was a pretty hard colt but I could choke him. I can take the rag off, frighten the old folks, astonish the natives, and beat the Dutch all to smash, make nothing of sleeping under a blanket of snow, and don’t mind being frozen more than a rotten apple.

    “Congress allows lemonade to the members and has it charged under the head of stationery. I move also that whiskey be allowed under the item of fuel. For bitters I can suck away at a noggin of aquafortis, sweetened with brimstone, stirred with a lightning rod, and skimmed with a hurricane. I’ve soaked my head and shoulders in Salt River, so much that I’m always corned. I can walk like an ox, run like a fox, swim like an eel, yell like an Indian, make love like a mad bull, and swallow a Mexican whole without choking if you butter his head and pin his ears back.”

    — and Mike Fink’s brag:

    Well, my daddy was a bear in the Allegheny Mountains
    And my mother was a ‘gator in the Ohio
    I was born full-growed at the forks of the river
    And I cut my teeth on a catfish bone

    Oh, my name is Mike Fink, I’m a keelboat poler
    I’m a Salt River roarer and I eat live coals
    I’m a half-alligator and I ride tornaders
    And I can out-feather, out-jump, out-hop, out-skip
    Throw down and lick any man on the river

    Well I poled the Ohio and I poler the Mississippi
    And I poled the Missouri when she’s choked with snags
    I poled on the wilds and the salts of the Kentucky
    And I never met a man that I couldn’t out-brag

    Well, Betsy is my shooting iron, she shoots like thunder
    And she flashes like the lightening and she kicks like a mule
    I can clip an Indian scalp, knock it cleaner than a whistle
    I can knock a tin can off the head of a fool

    Well, Carpenter’s a name that I guess you heard tell of
    I taught that critter everything that he knowed
    But he done me dirt on the Yellowstone River
    And I crossed his eyes with a musket ball

    Well, some say I died on the Yellowstone River
    Or was shot by a man by the name of Talbot
    But if you want to know the truth about what really happened
    You’re gonna have to come knocking on the Devil’s door

    Such boasting is a characteristic of many warrior cultures — engaged in by Goliath challenging young David — and would generally precede any combat between champions, expected as part of the entertainment. It is characteristic of ay culture in which “Honor” has a premium. Consider it as part of the exercise, of puffing oneself up to fight, akin to bears clawing high up tree trunks. It was never taken seriously (except as art) and lives on today not only in Rap but in pro-wrestling.

    1. It goes WAAAY back. Look at the opening to the Code of Hamurabi as Hamurabi lays out why you should listen to his laws. (Which was a lot more than “I’m King and I say so peon”)

  5. I am going to be having to get a copy of this book for the library. Funny thing is that the opening reminded me of my hometown growing up. No where near the southern states at all.

    1. If you note, the comment was from Indianapolis. But you saw the same, as Sowell points out, in Detroit and elsewhere.

  6. Hmm … Memories of some early 18th Century records are going through my mind, and they don’t seem to match the assertions. Anecdotally, the nationality of immigrants don’t quite match, nor do attitudes of things such as education (thinking of some Indians who came up to a school and cut the throat of a school master, and records of schools) or work (there’s a rhythm to work in agrarian societies in hot climes). Much of what I recall looked down on braggarts, and was remarkably subdued, maybe because otherwise would lead to things like dueling. There were braggarts, and I’m thinking of gouging matches where this was common. But it was also looked down on by local contemporaries as a low thing.

    In general, what is described here as a culture seems to be what was called trash by the locals. Here I recall the story of a slave who said she’d never forget when a Union soldier called her “Sorry black trash.” That was a major insult. But if it was a predominate culture, how could it be considered an insult?

    BTW, have seen a court case where a couple were brought up on the charges of what we’d call “shacking up,” and they plead that they intended to marry, but were waiting for the preacher to come by on his circuit. That worked for the first instance, but on the second or third the court found them guilty and sentenced them to be wed, the ceremony performed in the court room, with the jury as witnesses. This was in the early 1800s, and is also an indication that while such things happened, they were not considered the norm. Just like it was thought a scandalous thing when a drunk passed out in the back of a church and snored loudly through the sermon.

    Does this mean he’s wrong? Not necessarily. Just some recorded examples don’t agree with the premise.

    1. In general, what is described here as a culture seems to be what was called trash by the locals.

      Sowell is clearly describing a sub-culture in the ante-bellum American South, one despised as “White Trash,” “Crackers,” and “Rednecks” by the gentility. Note the reaction of the good folks of 1956 Indianapolis and the 1719 mob action in Boston. For the most part these were folks pushe out of polite society and encouraged to live (and hopefully die) on the frontiers — frontiers which at that time were mostly constituted of the Appalachian Mountains.)

      1. Yep, which is something Sowell discusses later in the essay. It is the same mentality that helped convince the British to send convicts to Australia, etc.

      2. Family legend says we could have been Australian if Great^X grandfather had been slower on his feet. My brother’s daughter researched the ancestry on my mother’s side (some interesting characters there), but now I find myself wondering just where in England the family came from…

      3. Something in the back of my mind just came into focus, and can be summed up as land speculation. Specifically, the Pine Barrens Speculation, which involved one Revolutionary War figure I can’t recall at the moment. To a lesser degree, the better known Yazoo Land Faud, and the obscure Trans Oconee Republic fit in. Yes, people went where they could get land, and that was usually on the frontier, but there was also a great deal of good ol’ fashioned land speculation, and that involved fraud. That was a big factor in getting rid of the old headright system of land grants. After this point, you have to leap forward to homesteading to get roughly the same intended effect as the headright system.

        What I think was going on was that people were going where they could afford. No doubt people hated to see them arrive in the first place, but I think most gravitated toward the frontier because that’s where they could afford to live (and some simply didn’t like close company – one ancestor moved West until he died of old age, and maybe Daniel Boone complained when he could see the smoke of a neighbor’s chimney). I don’t think they were hoping the Indians would lift their scalps, but they just wanted them gone, like sheriffs hauling someone to the county line. And enough people with money wanted their own land that land speculation was profitable.

        I’m really thinking about this sort of culture as a thing defined by circumstance way more than perpetuation from a point of origin. Similarities may well be like panda thumbs: something that came out of similar situations but with no relationship between the two.

        I know this isn’t coherent, as I haven’t had caffeine, but it’s something starting to gel.

        1. It finally sunk in that the whole similar culture from similar circumstances is precisely what was discussed here yesterday. There’s certain mindsets that work better in different situations, and outside of that doesn’t work all that well, which seems to be what Sowell is getting at (haven’t finished reading the essay and may not today because life happens – but I sure want to).

          What’s troubling to me is the idea of perpetuated culture. I can see that where a culture isn’t challenged in some way, such as in an isolated area, but I’m really uncomfortable with saying “This culture originated in X,” as it’s just a hair from the “culture is genetic” mem, and the “Where did your family come from and what is your culture?” question given one of ours in school. Yet we have observation here of some traits of old Scot culture transplanted to the US and still quite active. Is that a case of perpetuated culture, or similar culture from similar circumstances?

          For perpetuated culture, maybe cultures only change not only when challenged but at the points where they are challenged? If there is a practical reason to change culture, then it changes, but if not it remains? Can it be that people just follow the path of least resistance unless there is strong motivation to do something else, either through religion or other values? That could explain both perpetuated and similar cultures.

          Dast if I know. I’m too stupid for this. Just that one of the things that’s gelled is what we called a mill town culture and how it’s different from agrarian, and maybe there’s similarities between general types of work (thinking of wage vs self employment and other broad factors) that causes similar cultures. And now I’m thinking of that emancipated slave that took a grandfather under his wing and seemed intent on changing patterns of thought among fellow sharecroppers, and that centered on personal responsibility.

    2. Kevin, I’m not questioning your memory. However, I will remind you Sowell was describing a sub-culture. Also, this is only the opening section of the essay and there will be more left. Besides, no matter what the premise or how well researched it might be, you will always be able to find exceptions. Does that mean the premise — or the exceptions — are wrong? No, it just proves there is very little, if anything, that is universal.

      1. Well, I question my memory. Also, since I didn’t do research on cultures, and this was just things I came across looking for other information, I consider it anecdotal. I have no problem discussing the less than savory activities of some ancestors and their kin, so it’s not like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. I guess the first thing that came to mind is that the source of immigration over a sizeable region doesn’t match the assumption. The third was whether immigrants from other regions could be influenced by a predominate settlement of immigrants from another (the second was to see whether Irish ancestors came from Ulster county – strictly curiosity). Without doing any research, I think most of the surnames originated in other parts of England and Ireland, with other in Scotland.

        Now the,idea of a perpetuated culture may be valid, particularly if it’s not challenged in some way, but I’m thinking that a surprising number in the South came from other states, usually Virginia, with most foreign immigrants from Africa, and even that practically ended with the ban of the importation of slaves.

        I want to make it clear I’m not saying his premise cannot be correct, only contrary things come to mind, And, as I’ve raised a contrary opinion, I find myself cherry picking in support of that premise. Not good. Perhaps natural, though, and raises the question of how can we be sure this same thing isn’t happening here.

        That might sound mean, but I’m just thinking of the premise. For one thing, how culture could perpetuate. My guess if it’s unchallenged by other cultures and doesn’t go through external pressures. Another is whether there was some validity to the claims made in 1956, or if it’s a standard thing said against any group that we happen to look down on, sort of like SJW screaming “Nazi.”

        Yes, I understand that he’s addressing a subculture. But as I type this, I’m thinking of less than sterling members of the family tree who didn’t act like their raising, and would fall right into what he calls a subculture. That raises how they adopted it in the first place.

        Again, I’m not saying his premise cannot be correct. I’m just thinking about it and testing it.

      2. I was intrigued enough to get a Kindle copy, but have yet to chase footnotes, I also did a quick look at Toqueville’s comments on slavery and the South. Toqueville’s comments don’t feel right, but here I need to tread carefully, because Toqueville was there and I obviously wasn’t. What struck me was that if slavery were the cause of what he observed, then why wasn’t it evident in the middle class who could afford slaves, but could not afford a life of leisure.

        Yes, I know Sowell dismisses Toqueville’s theory, but I wanted to see what he was dismissing.

  7. _Albion’s Seed_ goes into a lot of detail about the cultural effects of the four major British groups that settled in Colonial America. The Scots-Irish… yeah. Andy Jackson vs. John C. Calhoun. ‘Nuf said.

    1. Sowell does reference Albion’s Seed. It should be kept in mind that “genteel” does not precisely correlate with “gentle.”

      Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
      And he shows them pearly white
      Just a jackknife has old Macheath, babe
      And he keeps it, out of sight
      You know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
      Scarlet billows start to spread
      Fancy gloves, though, wears old Macheath, babe
      So there’s never, never a trace of red

      1. Walter Kaufmann’s collection of German verse gives some stanzas at the end that didn’t make it into the usual English version:

        And the fish keep disappearing
        To the court’s profound chagrin
        In the end the Shark is summoned
        But the Shark knows not a thing
        And he simply can’t remember
        And the blame is never his
        For a Shark is not a Shark
        When you cannot prove he is.

      2. *Shakes paw in a RESward direction* I did NOT need that Ohrwürm! “Makie Messer” is one of three songs that I memorized the first time I heard it. “Oh der Haifisch, der hat Zähne/ und er trägt die ins Gesicht…”

    2. I thought Albion’s Seed was terrific and I wish there was similar anthropology book for different regions within Britain.

  8. Scots/irish prone to Fightin’ at the drop of a hat, drinkin’ till the cows come home, chasin’ any skirt around, being overly dramatic. {casts eye at traditional Celtic music tracks on I-pod} Yep, sounds ’bout right. 😀

    Least anyone take that wrong, I be Of Celtic blood – and bloody proud of it.

    1. When I read that diatribe about the morals of “those” people I immediately assumed it had been cadged from some east coast paper of the turn of the last century and was referring to either the Irish or Italian immigrants so loathed by good Muricans of that age.

    2. My predominately Irish grandfather would fight at a drop of a hat – when drunk. He also had a problem with alcohol at one point, and warned us about it. It may well be something genetic among the Irish. He certainly thought that since he had a problem with it, we could, too.

      1. My mother’s father was Danish, from an area variously German or Danish. He’d mellowed a bit by the time I was born, but I think the Celts might have gotten a bit more than Scandinavian genes from the raids.
        I never acquired his taste for Akavit, and I gathered his old straight razor wasn’t always used for shaving.

        My aunt (Mom’s sister) warned that the family is prone to addictive behavior in a few ways. Yep, not least of which is food.

      2. Lots of genetic things make one prone to alcoholism or addiction in general. Family history or alcoholism, pretty well documented of my maternal family. Most of whom have brown eyes. I have blue eyes. I drink, or I don’t. A bottle of wine lasts (typically) 4 days, a glass a night. My brother has brown eyes. He’s gotten into trouble with his drinking…

        There are studies that show blue eyed people handle alcohol better than brown eyed types. Native Americans are prone to alcoholism- they’re mostly brown eyed… Don’t know where green eyes fall on alcohol handling ability…

        I still put it down to free will and choice, Regardless of family history or eye color or anything else, no one forces you to take that 1st, 2nd, or 15th drink of the night.

  9. Again my thanks for choosing this book. Considering the current controversies, as this commentary makes clear, This is a must-have for one’s reference collection.

    And, as Amanda Green has pointed out, it’s not just studded with facts (foot noted extensively) but beautifully organized and a pleasure to read. Loads to think about, eminently re-readable.

  10. As a possible aside, I don’t know if this ties in but I’ve long suspected that the disconnect we in ‘middle America’ have with certain honor cultures lies in the area of if you are living in poverty, you will hyper-zealously defend what little you have remaining even if that is only your reputation. Hence inner-city youth (who objectively are far more prosperous than their forebears, though perceiving themselves as ‘disadvantaged’ in comparison to the greater culture) shooting each other over ‘dissing’ incidents.

    1. I long ago concluded that the reason certain sub-cultures tended to live in trashed houses but kept their cars immaculate had much to do with the fact that the cars were theirs and the houses weren’t. That, and the fact that the cars were a major part of how you presented yourself to the public.

      Any hour spent on fixing up your house was an hour of labor donated to your landlord and an hour’s work which threatened to increase your rent.

        1. I believe that it is also one those cases of perverse incentives. As I understand it, a car is excluded from the wealth limits of some of the “public assistance” programs. So there’s an incentive against building up much of a cash reserve as it might make the government stop handing them our money, while spending wads of cash on car bling allows them to continue to suck on the public teat.

          1. ehh, not quite. most public assistance also limits the value of your car. these vehicles are usually their mom’s or cousin’s or gramma’s car…

          2. Yep. And just where do many of those get the cash for a set of wheels and tires that cost more than their yearly income? I do know some just do cash labor, but much is in “industries” of the type never reported on a tax form

          3. Another possibility is simple practical.
            If you are poor, you can’t ever save up enough for a house down-payment, thus are always renting, and the comments about fixin’ up the ‘lord’s place might apply (although I have known poor folk who have enough gumption to do it anyway, and I’ve known fairly-well-to-do people who can’t/won’t clean their owned houses).
            However, you could swing a car loan and even if you didn’t have money to keep up the payments, you could drive in style until the repo man took it back (known some of them too).

  11. This describes some of the early settlers of Missouri, who were among the rougher, poorer elements of Southern society. Enter the Mormons, who were were looking for a Promised Land and a refuge from religious persecution. Some of them came with an open attitude “God has promised this land to us”. Their bold, upstart claims had insulted and offended religious and nonreligious alike; the established clergy (and many of their followers) hated them because their doctrines insulted all their post-biblical traditions and creeds, not to mention threatening their livelihoods. The Mormons were zealous with the fire of new converts. Most of them had a New England Puritan background and were morally strict and disapproving of idleness, drunkenness, gambling, and nonmarital sexuality. They began to flood the area, too many, too suddenly, often poorly prepared, and with much too little caution. They paid the price for their haste by being forcibly evicted by the old settlers. The Mormons attributed this to religious persecution, but this has to be broadly interpreted as part of a larger cultural clash. I note, in connection with recent gun control discussion, that they were carefully disarmed before being evicted.

    1. It is possibly worth pointing out that, at this stage of the essay, Sowell is merely describing the cultural values without condemning nor condoning them. His concern is not whether this is an admirable culture, merely what its expressions might be, why they might have developed and how they have propagated.

      If anythin he is sympathetic, pointing out that where life is nasty, brutish and short there is little reason to delay gratification but rather to live each day as fully as you can for it may be your last.

      1. Though it seems fairly obvious that he thinks this culture is at least partly at fault for the pathologies of inner cities, or he wouldn’t have written what he did.

        (I must have ignored the bit where Amanda said this was only halfway through.)

        1. More accurately, perhaps, is that he contends our refusal to face the facts of this culture exacerbate those pathologies. It is denial of the inheritance of this culture, the insistence that it — and only it — constitutes “authentic” black culture that is source of the real problem.

          Sowell’s primary theme seems to be that we can never address social issues if we are in constant denial of their origins and their treatment. This is the theme of many of his works, so it is not improbable to find it here. As Sowell notes, both Frederick Law Olmsted and Alexis de Tocqueville attribute this to the influence of slavery but closer examination of History reveals they’re wrong, their explanation too facile. It is pursuit of deeper truths that drives Sowell’s scholarship.

          If anything, the problem is not that Cracker Culture is wrong, it is that it is ill-suited to the pressures of living in urban environments and to advancement in post-industrial society which values exactly those qualities which Cracker Culture disdains.

          It is important to avoid our conditioned biases in such discussion. A tuxedo is proper wear for a formal event and coveralls are proper to rebuilding an automobile chassis — but neither is intrinsically superior to the other absent consideration of context.

      2. Amanda’s summary of the essay points out to me that the whole thing can be better understood if it is seen as a cultural clash, and not necessarily a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story as it has traditionally been painted. Although I do favor one side over the other (how could I not?), time and distance allow me the luxury of seeing the other side of the story a little more clearly than some of those who were directly involved at the time could.

        1. Exactly. And despite cries of outrage over Ethnocentrism, seeing the other guy’s perspective does not require abandoning your own. What it entails is, for example, recognizing that a Strength Culture must be engaged in its own terms, that negotiation will not be understood except as sign of weakness.

          See resolution of every recent war between the West and the Arab-Islamic cultures. “They didn’t wipe us out, therefore we won!”

          1. “What it entails is, for example, recognizing that a Strength Culture must be engaged in its own terms,”
            Why is it that calls for “diversity” in the US never include respecting crackers, but do require accepting the black analogs?

            1. Why is it that calls for “diversity” in the US …

              Because while they keep using that word, they have no idea what it means. This is true of many words used by The Left. For example, “antifa” demonstrably means “fascist” but they are incapable of recognising that.

      3. One point to make here: cultures and social mores that are expedient for life in one setting (settled urban) are more likely to get you killed in another (rough frontier). Then, when the frontier is gone, the habits continue.
        Most people adapt to the “environment” really well, but entire groups don’t change as fast as the environment changes — and sometime can’t: cf. drugging boys for being boys when the schoolmarms don’t like their normal behavior (yes, I just switched from culture to biology, but the analogy holds, I think).

        1. Whenever I think about cultural adaptation this movie comes to mind.

          Them what ain’t quick to adapt often become dead.

    2. That sort of sudden influx of people is something Sowell discusses later in the essay. How an established culture or sub-culture acclimates to new members has much to do with timing, how rapidly the new members appear, how many join the sub-culture in an area at a time, etc. His observations are very interesting and thought-provoking. If I don’t get to them next week, I will the week after.

    3. I’ve also heard that most of the Mormon settlers were opposed to slavery. The locals in Missouri, on the other hand…

      And note how the ultimate solution to the “Mormon problem” resembled what RES described above as –

      “For the most part these were folks pushe out of polite society and encouraged to live (and hopefully die) on the frontiers”

      That’s obviously not what ultimately happened. But the area that is now modern-day Salt Lake City was not viewed at the time as a place that people could actually settle in and thrive.

      1. That was part of it, too. Missouri was a slave state. Most of the Mormons, coming from the North, were opposed to slavery. The locals were sufficiently paranoid on the subject that published advice to free colored members to be careful about coming to Missouri and quoting relevant sections of Missouri law was interpreted as an invitation and cited as such as a pretext for mob action.
        Later, when similar trouble began in Illinois, Joseph Smith had envisioned removal to somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, but the area wasn’t well known enough to specify a location. Brigham Young in consultation with other leaders took up the plans for an exodus and seems to have made the decision of the Salt Lake Valley largely based on the reports made by Fremont on his return from his second expedition around August 1844, after Joseph Smith had been killed. The atmosphere by then was “Get out!” “We’re going, we’re going!” “Go faster!”

        1. The persecution and execution of LDS settlers, judicial and not-so-much, was a sad episode in a country supposedly guided by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
          Also a cautionary tale to those inclined to the “it can’t happen here” view: note above the caveat about disarming the Mormons before dispossessing them.

  12. My paternal grandparents from northern England and Scotland and were part of underclass that Sowell describes. My grandmother insisted they emigrate to Canada just after WW2 because she didn’t want that life for her two sons, she wanted to break cycle of violence and poverty and she succeeded, my father and uncle part of respectable middle class.

    Underclass with troubling behaviour still exists in Britain, they call them chavs.

  13. As a Scotsman, exiled in Wales, I think has captured much of out past cultural traits. Many years ago I lived and worked in Columbia SC, it was very interesting to see old, and now lost aspects of Scots culture, still alive. (Sometimes more frightening than interesting)

  14. One of H.L. Mencken’s essays said that the difference between North and South was that north of the Mason-Dixon line, if a man came home and found another man in his wife’s bed, he was espected to take out his gun, shoot . . . and MISS.

    Much of what Sowell seems to be saying can be found in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s seed, along with similar characterizations of the English subcultures that settled New England, Pennsylvania, and the coastal South. (I suspect that Fischer may have been one of Card’s inspirations for the Alvin Maker series; Fischer explicitly discusses the different supernatural practices of the four cultures.)

    1. Yeah, the difference between the Scots (one large chunk of whom were rebels against the crown) and the Puritans (kicked out for different reasons) and the intended colonies (like Jamestown) can be wide.
      Then throw in the Dutch, the Germans, the French and the Spanish…. Oy vey.

        1. I think they didn’t start coming in large numbers until the latter quarter of the 19th century, and so had little impact on settlement. Their impact was more felt during the late stages of industrialization and urbanization, as they flocked (like the native-born Americans) to the cities and towns that were home to the labor-hungry factories and mines.

          1. There is also the factor that some cultures are better than others at assimilating outsiders. Scots-Irish (Jacksonians) were reputedly excellent at this, welcoming folks and enjoining them to “dig in!” Other cultures are far more punctilious and may require several generations of conformity before accepting newcomers.

            Additionally, the greater the presence of a cultural group the greater their “mass” as it were — adding a few Germans to an established Scots culture is different than mixing equal masses … and there may also be a factor of which is being added, along the lines of the chem lab advise to always “do as you oughter, add acid to water.” Adding a few Catholics to a secure Protestant group may work better than adding a few Protestants to a Catholic group, to consider one possible example.

              1. A part of my family found it most advisable to flee Scotland when the Bonnie Prince’s claim failed.  They settled for a while in Ireland, where they found they did have one thing in common with the locals, a very strong and abiding distaste for the English.

                So, with this month’s great bash, while almost all others put on the green – including the Chicago River, I don a bit of orange.  Most of the year, if I drink whisky it is Scotch, but on that day, if at all possible I will drink an Irish Whiskey.

        2. They are the Second Wave, who started coming to the US after 1865. Especially after 1873 and the global economic Panic that happened that year. They are one of the few things that managed to convince the Old Line English-Americans that the Irish were not all that bad, really. At least the Irish spoke English, dressed properly, and followed a known religion. Russian Orthodoxy? Italian Catholicism? Yipes! And Poles, well at least they moved on west to Chicago, which was pretty barbaric to begin with 😉 And then you got Maronite Christians and Orthodox from the Mt. Lebanon area and Bakaa Valley coming as small traders, because of the surge in anti-Christian activity in the Ottoman Empire, and even the Poles and other Slavs look more, well, European.

          I used to love teaching Second Wave immigration. I’d come to class in a dirndle, put the notes on the board in German, and when the students stared, I’d repeat everything more slowly and loudly, in German, while sounding annoyed. When they were totally lost, I’d drop character and say, ‘Welcome to Ellis Island. Now you know what immigrants experienced.”

          1. I’m just impressed they didn’t think you were speaking in tongues and call the priest to perform an exorcism before you dropped the act. 😉

          2. Discomfort with the patterns of immigration had become strong enough to result in the formation of a political party in 1850s.  The policies of the Know-Nothing Party (later the American Party) resulted in Lincoln observing that:

            If the Know-Nothings get control, [the Declaration] will read. ‘All men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.

            Cited in A Patriots History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen

  15. Crap! One more book for the “to be read” pile.
    Thanks for the review. It’s been most interesting.

    1. Yes, I’m adding this and Albion’s Seed to my list. I also recommend Hillbilly Ellegy for a more personal account of the culture of poor whites who moved north to find work.

  16. See, isn’t it so much more fun to read things that don’t drive you to frustration?

    1. Very much so. The only problem is, I want to take time to read more of Sowell than I already have and I don’t have the time right now. You know, there are little things like work, family, etc., getting in the way. 😉

  17. The Steel Bonnets, a non-fiction book by George MacDonald Fraser about the Border reivers, makes some very strong points at the end of the book, about the survival of Border culture in the United States and Canada, for good or ill. It is a very good book anyway, but it ties into this discussion.

    There is also a funny Celtic song treating the Moon landing as a raid. I mean, obviously, with a Nixon sending out an Armstrong, there had to be a raid somewhere….

  18. I am fascinated/surprised by how many of us had not read this book. I have a hard back copy sitting on my shelves right now from many years ago that I bought as soon as it was published. And read, and re-read and discussed with my husband many times. Could not discuss with friends here (I am a western transplant to the south) as no one had heard of Thomas Sowell and if they had weren’t going to admit it! I have several of his books and always read his writing with great interest. One of our true philosophers – he always makes you check your premises. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Please jump into the discussion. I have been reading Sowell for years, just his economic work. Part of that is because there are so few people who write about econ in a way I find interesting. Part of it is, I’ve been burned by so many authors writing on issues like those in this book that I shy away from almost all others as a result. I am now correcting my oversight of these books by Sowell.

  19. One reason I am inclined to argue that the failure to 100% support a Jacksonian foreign policy is racist against the Scots-Irish.

  20. So, what did you do to celebrate International Women’s Day?

    Nice Prizes for Good Little Girls!
    By Sarah Hoyt
    I’m sick and tired of Women’s Day, and of all the well-intentioned, nice people who wish me a happy one, or tell me that I’m awesome, and one of those women that women’s day celebrates.

    But Sarah, you’ll say, what can you have against a day to recognize awesome women? It’s a nice idea, showing people that women are an important part of society.

    Oh, yeah? Why is it nice to single people out on a merely biological characteristic and make a big deal out of the fact that some people with that one biological characteristic are great?

    In other words, why should people who happen to be women be celebrated for achieving anything?

    What is so special about being a woman physicist, a woman chemist, a woman doctor, or for that matter a woman writer, unless it’s assumed that women have less capacity than men, and that, therefore, our achieving anything is a near-miracle?

    Even though I only once got a rejection for a novel because – I was told – I didn’t write from my womanhood, I want to assure you I never write from my womanhood. There are parts of the body that aren’t meant to type with, and besides, it would probably short the keyboard.

    I write from my humanity, from being the person I am. Sure, that includes an awful lot of living life as a woman – I had some reader praise me the other day for being aware that a woman, going into a fight with a man was at a disadvantage and my reaction was “yeah because I’ve done it.” – but most it includes an awful lot of being human, both whom I’ve been and whom I’ve observed. …

  21. ” . . . reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery. . . ”

    I’m not seeing the downside here.

  22. Are we talking the same people here who are the subject of James Webb’s book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America ? From Webb’s description ” fight, drink, sing, pray “, it sounds so to me.

  23. It seems to me that some of Mr. Trump’s appeal in the southern states (and others) is the correspondence between his behavior and the Scots-Irish culture.
    Especially considering the boasting rituals (see the Brags above), which tie into Salena Zito’s observation that Trumpers take him seriously but not literally, and neverTrumpers the reverse.
    Also the foreign policy component that Bob mentioned.

  24. Unrelated but pursuant to other recent discussions:

    Disgraced school deputy gets caught lying about Florida massacre
    The disgraced Florida sheriff’s deputy who explained his failure to act during the school massacre by saying he believed the shooter was outside actually radioed that gunfire was inside, according to a report.

    Scot Peterson, who resigned as school resource officer, also warned fellow cops to stay away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as Nikolas Cruz fled after allegedly killing 17 people, the Miami Herald reported.

    “Do not approach the 12 or 1300 building, stay at least 500 feet away,” Peterson said over the radio, according to internal radio dispatches released Thursday.


    Yes, the tapes are out!

  25. My father’s family–Lowland Scots who arrived in the later 19th century–looked with horror on their Scots-Irish neighbors in the Piedmont of Virginia. My great-uncle would say “When a neighbor’s child is born, they wait a week to see if it cries or barks.” Thus the difference between crackers and the generations of buttoned-up Scots who followed them.

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