Getting Beyond Racism

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By William Raspberry
Monday, May 16, 2005

The plight of have-not blacks in America's urban ghettos, says economist Thomas Sowell, can be laid at the feet of white people.

And not just any white folks. The culprits are that particular breed of white people known as "rednecks."

If you've followed the writings of Sowell for as long as I have, you'll know that he's not saying anything as simple as racism accounts for today's black poverty. He's saying something much more complex and, to my mind, far more intriguing.

Immigration from the British Isles to the New World was not so random as many of us imagine. Most of the settlers of Massachusetts, for instance, came from near Haverhill in East Anglia. Virginia aristocrats came from the south and west of England. And the Deep South was populated largely by immigrants from the northern borderlands, Ulster and the Scottish Highlands -- from "among people who were called 'rednecks' and 'crackers' in Britain before they ever saw America." And these are the people who formed the culture -- the speech patterns, preaching styles, social behaviors, propensity for violence and attitudes toward schooling -- that became the culture of Southern blacks, Sowell claims in his new book, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals."

And it is this cultural heritage, he argues, "more so than survival of African cultures," that has produced the urban black culture of today.

So what?

So this, says Sowell: The redneck culture has been a developmental millstone for both blacks and whites imbued with it -- witness the lower academic achievement in the Deep South. But he says it has been preserved most faithfully in the black ghettos -- just as the French spoken in Quebec retains formulations now considered archaic in France. Indeed, in a fascinating switcheroo, the redneck culture has become, to many of its defenders, the authentic black culture and, on that account, sacrosanct.

And it continues to be a millstone, though many of the penalties it extracts are blamed on racism.

But as Sowell argues -- and has been arguing for decades -- the racism explanation cannot account for differential outcomes among blacks from within and without the redneck culture. For instance, a recent study found that most of Harvard's black alumni were either from the Caribbean or Africa or were children of Caribbean or African immigrants.

It is interesting to read the Sowell analysis alongside University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson's new book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?)."

I hope it won't give away too much of the plot to reveal that his answers to his own questions are: no and yes.

Dyson, who can coin a phrase with the best of them, spends a large part of this work defending the "knuckleheads" of Cosby's inelegant description against those who (like Cosby) believe their refusal to adopt the manners and language of the middle class is holding them back.

Or as Dyson puts it, defending the Ghettocracy from the Afristocracy.

The point, as he is at great pains to make, is that there's nothing wrong in the ghetto that an end to racism wouldn't fix. For Cosby to suggest that slovenly language and dress have anything to do with the trouble that black youth are in is to blame the victim and "let white people off the hook."

And Cosby, whom Dyson "deeply respects," etc., has been letting white people off the hook for years -- with his universal (rather than an authentically black) approach to humor and even with his toweringly successful Huxtable family (which reassured white TV viewers that the nightmare of racism had ended and that it was safe to lay their guilt aside).

The danger is that in our zeal to score points off one another, we'll forget what the game is about in the first place. Dyson, for example, roundly defends the black youngsters whose circumstances sparked the Cosby campaign; but he has no practical advice for them. It is up to the rest of us, he suggests, to keep alive the faith that racism is the only explanation we need.

Is Sowell's redneck culture a better one? Perhaps more to the point, is it salable?

One thing seems beyond dispute: Maybe we haven't laid racism to rest, but we have reached the point where what we do matters more than what is done to us. That's great, good news. Would somebody write a book about it?

willrasp@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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