Sunday, May 15, 2005

Provocative Ideas

Sometimes it's instructive to go ahead and read something that, at first glance, you think you disagree with. Thomas Sowell wrote a column on May 13 that's like that. And it also illustrates the blunt honesty and lack of concern for political correctness that has kept him from becoming a favorite of media elites, who often shower their praise on much lesser lights.

The title, or headline, of the column is "Black Rednecks and White Liberals." It's also the title of his most recent book, which I haven't read. (I suspect it might be hard to find in the larger chain bookstores.) The title of the column is an immediate turn-off, at least for me, but I'm glad I read it. The Pavlovian responses inflicted on us by political correctness condition us to avoid provocative ideas that are sometimes worth considering, and unfortunately Sowell's ideas often fall into that category. From the column:

Black identity has become a hot item in the movies, on television and in schools and colleges. But few are aware of how much of what passes as black identity today, including "black English," has its roots in the history of those whites called "rednecks" and "crackers" centuries ago in Britain, before they crossed the Atlantic and settled in the South.

Saying "acrost" for "across" or "ax" for "ask" are today considered part of black English. But this way of talking was common centuries ago in regions of Britain from which white Southerners came. They brought with them more than their dialect. They brought a whole way of life that made antebellum white Southerners very different from white Northerners.

Violence was far more common in the South -- and in those parts of Britain from which Southerners came. So was illegitimacy, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery. All of this would become part of the cultural legacy of blacks, who lived for centuries in the midst of the redneck culture of the South.

That culture was as notable for what it did not have as for what it had. It did not emphasize education, for example, or intellectual interests in general.

Illiteracy was far more common among whites in the antebellum South than among whites in the North, and of course the blacks held in bondage in the South were virtually all illiterate. On into the early 20th century, Southern whites scored lower on mental tests than whites in other parts of the country, as blacks continued to do.

Many aspects of Southern life some observers have attributed to race or racism, or to slavery, were common to Southern blacks and whites alike -- and were common in those parts of Britain from which Southern whites came, where there were no slaves and most people had never seen a black person.

Most Southern blacks and whites moved away from that redneck culture over the generations, as its consequences proved counterproductive or even disastrous. But it survives today among the poorest and least educated ghetto blacks. ...

White liberals come into this story because, since the 1960s, they have aided and abetted a counterproductive ghetto lifestyle that is essentially a remnant of the redneck culture that handicapped Southern whites and blacks alike for generations. Many among the intelligentsia portray the black redneck culture today as the only "authentic" black culture and even glamorize it. They denounce any criticism of the ghetto lifestyle or any attempt to change it.

Teachers are not supposed to correct black youngsters who speak "black English" and no one is supposed to be judgmental about the whole lifestyle of black rednecks. In that culture, belligerence is considered manly and crudity is considered cool, while being civilized is regarded as "acting white."

These are devastating, self-imposed handicaps that prevent many young ghetto blacks from getting a decent education or an opportunity to rise.

Multiculturalism today celebrates all cultures. But the poor ultimately pay the price of that celebration in stunted development, missed opportunities and blighted lives.

As one who grew up in different parts of the American south, my gut instinct is to be offended. However, my life experience and intellect tell me he's right.

Tom Sowell and Bill Cosby seem to be singing from the same sheet of music, and in harmony.


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