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Thomas Sowell has been insisting for years that what causes lower performance levels by blacks in school and on intelligence and aptitude tests is cultural. His latest column summarizes his arguments that it's not racism or inherent genetic unintelligence at root. What I haven't seen in his work until now is much of a positive story besides simply saying that it's cultural. [hat tip: truegrit] This column gives a more detailed answer. The cause is the redneck culture that blacks absorbed that is now concentrated among what he calls black rednecks in today's ghettos. According to Joanne Jacobs [hat tip: Sam], his argument is not to demean black culture but to say that this redneck black culture is not authentic black culture. His book-length treatment will discuss that aspect, apparently. I didn't see it in the column.


Well now I'll have to read the book since this sounds off to me. I'll grant that the root is cultural, but I seriously doubt that it can be tied to redneck or cracker culture. Based on what Sowell says in regards to the terminology and behavior I would guess that he is arguing that the parent culture is Scotch-Irish. Just to be clear the American Scotch-Irish were Scottish and Ulster-Scottish (Scottish Lowland and Ulster Presbyterians) who immigrated to America in large numbers during the 1700�s. Initially these people settled throughout the middle and lower Appalachian area. They turned out to be some of the most fervent supporters of independence from Britain; so much so that the war was commonly referred to as the Presbyterian Rebellion in Britain. This drive for independence is one of the hallmarks of Scotch-Irish culture. You might recall a Scotch-Irish governor of Virginia who said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" (Patrick Henry) After the war many of these Scotch-Irish moved into dominant political and socio-economic roles, which doesn't exactly square with Sowell's assertion about lower levels of intellectual and economic achievement. I recently read somewhere that 60% America's Presidents in the 1800's were Scotch-Irish including; Jackson, Polk, Taylor, Buchanan, Johnson, Harrison, Arthur and McKinley. Despite Sowell's generalizations about the Scotch-Irish they have played a very important positive role in American culture. I would also argue that historians have often shown that the Scotch-Irish had higher levels of education and culture than outsiders often thought or were led to believe.

The Scotch-Irish were also strong supporters of the Union during the civil war. Author and naturalist Horace Kephart wrote that the Appalachian mountain area sent 180,000 riflemen into the Union armies. It was after the war that many of the Scotch-Irish moved south and settled areas like Mississippi and Arkansas. I would grant that there was cross cultural influence between blacks and the Scotch-Irish particularly in areas like music, religion, foods, crafts, and expressions. Yet it seems that there are serious areas of dissimilarity between the cultures too.

I suppose the four things that bother me the most are that Sowell sounds remarkably like one of his oft chastised anointed ones, that someone would think the explanation is so easily reducible, that it doesn't square with my experience of Scotch-Irish descendants and urban/rural black people, and that aside from Jeff Foxworthy redneck and cracker are akin to nigger.

Right now, without reading his book, it sounds as though Sowell is putting forth a sound theory, one that I think merits looking at. Black culture has obvious stratas, and the fact that black immigrants are gaining in education and opportunities points up the need to look at some of our sociological assumptions.

I don't know that you could call Southern "redneck" culture Scot-Irish, because you get plenty of them in the North without any of the cultural attributes that were expressed... I thought that a certain part of England was pinpointed. The interesting thing is that Sowell traced a dilution and melting away of some of these problematical characteristics. It made me want to look at what he might have to say and whether this might be a key to unlocking some of the innercity problems.

It would also help American blacks to look at some of their ideas of some not being "black enough" and where those cultural roots came from. And ( excuse the pun) could give shades of meaning to what the black experience is.... it isn't all the ghetto, and I don't think it ever was only that.But I'm just a white chick talking, which is why I would love to see where Sowell is going with this.....

thanks for the h/t, Jeremy.

It strikes me that his usage of redneck and cracker is specific enough to rule out the general contemporary sense of redneck. When Sowell says they were called "'rednecks' and 'crackers' before they ever got on the boats to cross the Atlantic" he must have a specific group of folks in mind. Here is a good explanation of the origin of these terms. I'd guess that when Sowell talks about the decline of this culture in Britain he is simply referring to the Scotch-Irish who immigrated south.

I would think that the bar has got to be set pretty high to substantiate Sowell's claims. I'd think that he'd first need an accurate thesis about Scotch-Irish culture, its transmission to southern blacks, and an explanation as to why it survived in the inner city. I'm dubious about Sowell's grasp on the first; even though I'm sure the second happened. Given that I'm fairly certain it doesn't explain the problems we see in the inner city today.

I'm not even sure why this should be construed as inauthentic. Most things I've read along these lines argue that there was an amalgamation of cultures, not blacks simply adopting Scotch-Irish culture or simply the negative aspects of Scotch-Irish culture. Aside from linguistic and culinary habits black urban culture up to the sixties and rural black culture today bear little resemblance to Scotch-Irish culture. Further, any similarities contemporary urban black culture has with Scotch-Irish culture are likely simple correlations rather than causations. Victimhood and welfare dependence are two features many people think are part of urban black culture would be antithetical to Scotch-Irish culture. More and more it is looking like I'll have to read the book�.

Virginia Postrel picked up on this column yesterday. She opened with "I've long maintained that many of the cultural characteristics and personal behaviors, good and bad, that Northern commentators (largely white) consider 'black' are in fact southern.

Socially retrograde values of white trash have been legendary, from the pens of prize-winning Southern writers to TV's Beverly Hillbillies. Black stereotypes, however, have been so politically incorrect that only lately has it been possible to discuss cultural deficiencies without risking the label of racism. The names Amos & Andy are as meaningless to young people today as Kit Carson or Pinky Lee.

At some risk, I suggest that an erudite discussion of "culture" and "origins" is misdirected. I don't think the progenitors of either black or white populations can be held responsible for an explosion of children being born out of wedlock, an easy acceptance of stealing, lying and deception, substance abuse as an accepted part of the landscape, gang formations in unprecedented numbers, a steady trend toward foul language in popular entertainment (TV, movies, pop music) and a rising tide of violence (rape, assault and murder) despite our having one of the highest percentages of our population in jail. We are living at a time when a lot of our co-called "culture" is broken and no one has any idea how best to repair it.

I can understand why no one wants to claim any of these evils as part of their "cultural tradition" and so would prefer to point an accusing finger in another direction. But unless and until we can ALL start "owning" (isn't that the right buzzword?) these problems, all the rest of our discussion is fairly empty. If I could add anything to the conversation it would be: It's time - time overdue - to direct our attention to remedies as well as colors and origins.

Historically, white trash and poor black cultures have been pretty intertwined (witness the dialectics). It's an interesting claim, although the authenticity component strkes me as highly dubious.

I think the authenticity component is really a rather modest claim. Those negative cultural elements aren't essential to someone's being authentically black, and thus not displaying them doesn't make someone not really black, as if often said of people (e.g. "but Colin Powell's not really black..."). I realize that the sentence is ambiguous between that and the stronger claim that those who display these characteristics are displaying a culture that's not black, but I don't think that's what he means given the longer description at Amazon.

The more I turn it over in my head, the stranger it sounds; it's true that blacks got those cultural traits from po' whites, but I don't see how that make it any less "theirs". It'd be like me saying that I'm not being authentically me, since my relatives got here in the 1890s and subsequently acquired culture from the autochthonous Americans. Both claims turn on a really odd culture/person dualism, where you just peel away the culture and find the real person.

At any rate, it'll be interesting to see how he unpacks that bit of the argument.

I think what is most pertinent is not *where* the cultural traits come from so much as the idea that instead of problems arising from one culture oppressing and exploiting another, the problems arise from within the culture itself.

That is what is new on the topic. And that is what I would like to see pursued in weighing evidence and coming up with solutions.

I'd agree heartily with John Ballard.

That's not so new. We see the "black culture is its own demise" meme all the time. What's new is tying the cultural problem to external cultural "infection", if you will.

External infection? I can't see that... maybe you can explain what you see there.

I don't think that "black culture is its own demise" is exactly what is being said. It seems more of an idea of looking inside it for the weaknesses, yes, but not repudiation of the entire subculture. You do need to look at why American Blacks in this subculture are not moving ahead with the expected improvements socially. Why do African blacks move ahead and benefit from gains in education, etc. on a larger scale?

Besides, this subculture tends to punish Blacks who do succeed- what does it mean to "not be black enough" if it isn't a cultural stranglehold on those who prove themselves educationally, socially, and financially?

Sometimes, as Ballard had said, a culture internalizes their own infection by what they promote in their identity. People do this on the individual level all the time. The only way to correct it is to change the pattern that feeds it.

And that is something that Sowell seems willing to look at.

Of course it's cultural. Blacks don't get to define performance or the aptitude and intelligence tests, so they perform poorly. When I came to this country, I sat through a battery of computerized placement exams; there was no instruction book. I wrote the answers in between the lines in the exam book and turned it in. I got a zero and was placed in remedial education. In fact I was several years ahead of my classmates, but had never heard of a computer exam.

Blacks (and women) (and ...) have difficulty "performing" within the constructs of a culture which is not theirs. It is only natural. To the extent that we value and understand one another's culture, we are enriched.

I am Scotch-Irish (redneck) and have seven living close relatives who all attended Harvard and did well their. The blame, if there is any to place, falls on the solipsistic expectation that other cultures are like ours or want to be like ours.

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