Warning: Part II of this book review could make you very angry. Especially if you or your family are Southern by birth or heritage. As one who was born and lived most of his life below the Mason-Dixon Line, let me assure you that it is not my intent to belittle the South. I am presenting another persons historical evidence as to the nature of the pre-Civil War South. My previous education on the subject , besides my own reading, consists of classes taken at West Virginia University conducted by professors who were almost entirely white, conservative, male Southerners. The textbooks they taught from were written by men of the same background as themselves. This causes me to accept Thomas Sowell's description of the Old South as a redneck culture. Sowell has no intention to offend either; in his introduction, he makes it clear that he does not consider all Southern whites to be or to have been rednecks. Nor does he consider all African Americans to be or to have been of that description either.
In Sowell's first essay in the book, also called "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," he seeks to explain the historical roots of all the negative influences plaguing African American culture today. High illegitimacy rates, high crime rates, high dropout rates, the disintegration of the black family, all these are blamed by today's liberal culture (black and white) on slavery. Sowell disagrees. He claims that these problems began with the exposure of African blacks to a Southern white redneck culture.
Sowell gives us a history and description of this redneck culture. Most pre-Civil War Southern whites descended from ancestors who came from the Northern Badlands of England (for centuries a no man's land between Scotland and England), the Scottish Highlands and Ulster County Ireland. (He is describing my ancestors as well.) These were lawless regions, where no group was able to establish stability. These regions were beyond the influence of English Civilization and many people from these regions immigrated to the South during America's Colonial period. The atmosphere of these regions produced a disorderly people. The daily violence the inhabitants faced made them seek the pleasure of the moment, not what would benefit them in the long term. (If you might die tomorrow, why plan for tomorrow?) Education was not a highly valued commodity in such a culture. Willingness to fight and even die was the only source of security in such a land. This culture was transported to the South in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of the negative values brought to the South included the following: aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement. These values fit in with the world these immigrants left. They were counter-productive to the New World, and to the slaves forced to live in their midst. For example, violent action against one's enemies was approved of in the lands where these Southerners came from. In the American South, almost no prominent politician after 1790 did not involve himself in a duel. Newspaper editors were another dueling class. (My old Kentucky professor taught that the average lifespan of an editor in the Old South and West was five years. Mark Twain wrote a great satire on dueling editors in his short story "Journalism in Tennessee.") Most duels or feuds arose from personal issues, such as my native West Virginia's Hatfield and McCoy feud. Sowell believes that these are the roots of the gang culture among today's black youth. If you or a member of your gang is "dissed", then the offender must die.
Other areas adversely affected by redneck attitudes were agriculture, education and illegitimacy rates. The Southern white culture did not produce a successful agricultural system. Much of what they consumed was shipped in from the North or overseas. The most successful farmers were those who came from other regions, such as Germany. As for illiteracy, the 1850 Census revealed that more than one-fifth of Southern whites were illiterate, as compared to less than one percent of New Englanders. Newspaper circulation in the North was more than four times that of the South. Many of the Southern newspaper editors were from the North. The North had four times as many schools. Illegitimacy was greater in the South than in the North. The regions in England where New Englanders originated from had the lowest illegitimacy rates in England, just as the New Englanders themselves had the lowest rates of illegitimacy in the United States. (So much for the stereotype of the Christian South defending itself against those "godless" Northerners. In fact, most of the Bibles in the Old South were printed in and shipped from the North. Also, with such disadvantages the South possessed, I do not see how it could have produced a successful independent nation. The preceding sentiments are my own, not Sowell's.)
Sowell is correct when he refuses to blame slavery for the problems of contemporary African American society. Yet to blame these problems on a pre-Civil War Southern redneck society does not make sense. If black America overcame the consequences of enslavement before the 1960's, as Sowell contends, then surely black America had also overcame the negative influences of the white culture that practiced slavery. (Even Sowell himself admits his case is a circumstantial one.) The negative state of things and destructive personal behavior , such as gang affiliation, is present in other racial groups. What are the origins of Chinese gangs, of Haitian gangs? Certainly not the Southern white culture of Colonial and pre-Civil War America. Personally, I place the blame for African American problems on the welfare state created by Lyndon Johnson's great society.
Part III of this review will focus on Sowell's belief that black Americans overcame the evil effects of slavery before the 1960's. The story he presents is inspiring and worth blogging about!
(A link to where you can purchase this book can be found in Part I of this review.)