Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that there are some intelligent people out there who have never read anything by Thomas Sowell. (I know, I know, the chances are remote, but work with me here.) They've never enjoyed his fascinating excursion into group traits in "Ethnic America," nor his penetrating analysis of what has gone wrong with the schools in "Inside American Education," nor his brilliant dissection of the inevitable pitfalls of regulation in "Knowledge and Decisions." There is hope. His new volume, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," offers a taste of some of his earlier work as well as a cornucopia of new insights. Indeed, the new book is so clarifying and so wise that even experienced Sowell readers will find much that is new.
The title refers to the first essay, which argues that many of the traits commonly considered "authentically black" are actually the inheritance of the white redneck culture amid which many blacks lived for centuries. These include hair-trigger touchiness on the part of men, anti-intellectualism, pride, sexual license, backwardness and laziness. Speech patterns that persist among ghetto blacks today -- "ax" for ask, "bile" for boil, "do'" for door, and "dis" for this -- are traceable to the regions of Great Britain from which white Southerners came. Black and white children from the South lagged academically behind their peers in the rest of the nation throughout the 20th century. This is well-known. What is less well-known is that "black soldiers from some Northern states scored higher on mental tests than whites from some Southern states during the First World War."
Further, schools established for blacks by 19th-century New Englanders in the South imported a very different set of values and expectations, and black youngsters, like W.E.B. Du Bois, rose to the challenge. "In 1871, the Georgia legislature created a board of visitors to attend public examinations at Atlanta University. The chairman . . . reportedly said that he expected the examinations to confirm the Negro's inferiority. But the recitations of former slaves in Latin, Greek, and geometry forced from him the confession that 'we were impressed with the fallacy of the popular idea . . . that the members of the African race are not capable of a high grade of intellectual culture.'"
In a chapter entitled "Are Jews Generic?" Sowell explores the contribution and fate of "middleman minorities" around the globe. From the Ibos in Nigeria, to the Armenians in Turkey, to the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, to the Lebanese in Africa, to the (Indian) Gujaratis in the South Pacific, to the Jews in Europe, middleman minorities have served to lubricate the economies of the nations they have lived among. Additionally, these groups have resembled one another in many respects: a willingness to work long hours, maintenance of strong families and an emphasis on education. They have suffered similar fates as well, as they have repeatedly been the victims of furious violence from their neighbors. The irony, Sowell writes, is that the middlemen are most deeply resented and hated where they are the most indispensable. Such was the hatred for Indians and Pakistanis who served as middlemen in Uganda that the government forcibly exiled them all (50,000) in the 1970s. Economic devastation followed. The story was similar with Jews in Eastern Poland in the 17th century.
Sowell's majestic intelligence and humane sympathy shine through on every page. The chapter on "Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies" is especially powerful. Here is an elegy to Dunbar High School, a public school in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1870, Dunbar produced academic excellence among its black students at a rate that today seems out of reach. "During the period from 1918 to 1923, graduates of this school went on to earn 25 degrees from Ivy League colleges, Amherst, Williams, and Wellesley. . . . At one time, the reputation of Dunbar graduates was such that they did not have to take entrance examinations to be admitted to Dartmouth, Harvard, and some other selective colleges." Dunbar was undermined by politics and now resembles other failing inner city schools.
"Black Rednecks and White Liberals" ranges widely -- from a learned essay on slavery worldwide to an examination of the German national character. This book affirms Thomas Sowell's status as one of America's most eminent intellectuals.