May 30, 2005

IN THE MAIL: Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals, which purports to explain black failure as a consequence of absorbing poor cultural values from “white trash,” in the form of Scots-Irish rednecks. As Sowell writes in this distillation of the book’s thesis:

The culture of the people who were called “rednecks” and “crackers” before they ever got on the boats to cross the Atlantic was a culture that produced far lower levels of intellectual and economic achievement, as well as far higher levels of violence and sexual promiscuity. That culture had its own way of talking, not only in the pronunciation of particular words but also in a loud, dramatic style of oratory with vivid imagery, repetitive phrases and repetitive cadences.

Actually, as someone who keeps noticing interesting overlaps between the culture of my Nigerian relatives and my white southern ancestors, I think the cross-fertilization went both ways. And I’d be interested to hear what James Webb thinks about Sowell’s thesis.

UPDATE: Reader John Richardson emails:

I read Webb’s Born Fightin, as I am from East Tennessee Scots Irish stock (Bulls Gap). Isn’t is more than a little bigoted to call the Scots Irish ‘White Trash’? Such epithets are forbidden about other ethnic groups. And while I will admit Scots Irish setelers may have had their prejudices, few were slave holders. I read Sowells summary of the book at opinionjournal, but did not see his point. Today’s Scots Irish descendents do not have the overwhelming social problems Sowell so eloquently writes about in his columns.

I believe that Scots-Irish weren’t very well-represented among slaveholders, either, who were mostly wealthier. On the other hand, reader Russ McSwain emails:

As I read Dr. Sowell’s book my reaction was the same as your initial observation. There’s no doubt that Sowell’s right, but the cultural cross-fertilization cuts both ways. I can’t find again it but somewhere in his writings VS Naipaul, when asked about his impressions of the American South, responded with: “It has the same smells as a typical West African village.” Can you say Barbeque?

Mmm. Barbeque.