Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Thomas Sowell. Encounter Books, 2005.
The approval by voters of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative corroborates Thomas Sowell’s observation in his Preface to the book, referring to “a growing willingness to consider views that differ from the racial orthodoxy that has prevailed largely unchallenged from the 1960s onward in intellectual circles and in the popular media.” The education, government, business, and media elites of Michigan all banded together to hammer into the population the same old tiresome racial orthodoxy, to no avail. The people had had over forty years of it, experienced it in lived life, and would have no more of it. By an overwhelming fifty-eight percent, they voted to change direction, try something different from the orthodoxy of the liberal elites. Thomas Sowell’s book Black Rednecks and White Liberals suggests further lines for reconsideration and change.
In this context, I believe the most interesting essays in the book are “The Real History of Slavery” and “Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies.” Rejecting the Kunte Kinte view of slavery found in Alex Haley’s Roots, Sowell emphasizes that slavery was a worldwide phenomenon practiced by virtually all peoples and nations, not at all exclusively by white Western nations. Sowell perceives why the contemporary discussion of slavery is usually so distorted:
“Why would anyone wish to arbitrarily understate an evil that plagued mankind for thousands of years, unless it was not this evil itself that was the real concern, but rather the present-day uses of that historic evil? Clearly, the ability to score ideological points against American society or Western civilization, or to induce guilt and thereby extract benefits from the white population today, are greatly enhanced by making enslavement appear to be a peculiarly American, or a peculiarly white, crime” (111).
All of this feeds directly into the radical politics of affirmative action racial preferences. It skews our understanding of the real historical evils of slavery and substitutes emotional Hollywood distortions for the complexity of human experience.
Narrowing the history of slavery from the long record reaching back over three thousands years, in Europe, Africa, China, India, every region of the world, it was nevertheless only the Western world that developed moral compunctions against slavery and launched a “bitter worldwide struggle, which lasted more than a century, to destroy the elaborate systems and institutions for the ownership and sale of human beings” (114). Of particular interest is Sowell’s discussion of slavery under Islamic societies, in North Africa and elsewhere, which enslaved far more people than were ever brought to the Western hemisphere. Cervantes in Don Quixote has an incredible account of his five-year enslavement by Muslims after the battle of Lepanto in 1571. Sowell’s discussion throws interesting light on the conditions to which European and African slaves found themselves subjected. Many millions of Europeans and Africans were enslaved over the centuries in Islamic countries, facts that ought to be studied much more after 9/11.
Similarly, Sowell emphasizes it was black tribal leaders who practiced slavery “before, during, and after the white man arrived” (120). Connecting the real history of slavery with its distorted uses by those who today want to fight for racial spoils, Sowell writes,
“Yet what was peculiar about the West was not that it participated in the worldwide evil of slavery, but that it later abolished that evil, not only in Western societies but also in other societies subject to Western control or influence. This was possible only because the anti-slavery movement coincided with an era in which Western power and hegemony were at their zenith, so that it was essentially European imperialism which ended slavery. This idea might seem shocking, not because it does not fit the facts, but because it does not fit the prevailing vision of our time” (134-135).
Visions hang on beyond their time, beyond their usefulness, such has been the case with racial preferences, which are predicated on a distorted sense of actual historical slavery. By addressing the real history of slavery, Sowell restores the proper perspective needed to come to terms with the complexity of American slavery and the perspective needed to find new ways to work together today. He observes at one point “Africans did not treat Europeans any better than Europeans treated Africans. Neither can be exempted from moral condemnation applied to the other” (139). If Michigan is seeking a new understanding of equality, one place to begin might be to realize, as Sowell says elsewhere, the prevailing vision of slavery of the “morally self-anointed” is wrong. To find a new future, we must recognize our understanding of the past is flawed, reconsider its complexity, understand no one is blameless, and move forward together.
In “Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies,” Sowell reconsiders the prevailing vision of the actual history of black education and demonstrates that it too is much different from the skewed account so many politically motivated radicals and liberals use to justify failed educational programs and policies:
“The quest for esoteric methods of trying to educate black children proceeds as if such children had never been successfully educated before, when in fact there are concrete examples, both from history and from our own times, of schools that have been successful in educating black children, including those from low-income families. Yet the prevailing educational dogma is that you simply cannot expect children who are not middle class to do well on standardized tests, for all sorts of sociological and psychological reasons” (203).
Sowell further states that this dogma is false for both black and other minority children and discusses a number of outstanding schools reaching from after the Civil War to the present, such as the M Street School, later to become known as Dunbar High School in Washington, DC.
After a long survey of these and other schools, Sowell writes,
“What the record of successful minority schools shows, both in history and among contemporary schools, is that educational achievement is not foredoomed by economic or social circumstances beyond the school grounds, as the education establishment constantly strives to prove. Poverty, broken homes, and unruly environments are not to be ignored, downplayed or apologized for. But neither are the failings of others proof that the education establishment is doing its job right. Perfect students with perfect parents in a perfect society cannot learn things that they are not being taught–and that includes an increasing number of basic things in our public schools” (217).
While the howls of protest to this passage might be the usual ones from the education establishment, I would argue his stress on working with students where they are and expecting “work and discipline” (221) from them is a no-nonsense approach that ought to be tried more often than not, instead of the latest pitying, enabling, undermining educational theory that asks little or nothing of kids and gets little or nothing in return. Higher expectations of their families, whether single parent or not, ought to play a part, though Sowell dismisses the idea that without parental involvement there is no hope for the child, insisting that the individual student can take charge of his or her life and achieve despite the family situation.
Excoriating the victimhood approach to education, Sowell laments that “the history of successful black schools has attracted virtually no interest from either historians or educators. That history does not advance any contemporary political agenda, though it might help advance the education of a whole generation of black students” (225). Far from blaming all educational problems of black students on racism, the usual liberal scapegoat, Sowell has no patience with such facile excuses and lays the blame squarely on the students themselves: “By and large, black students do not work as hard as white students, much less Asian students” (228). He goes on to blame a culture of non-achievement, comparing it to red-neck and lower-class whites and Asians who suffer from “the same counterproductive attitudes toward education” which are “just as self-defeating.” Failure is not restricted to any particular pigmentation or race, nor are the real reasons for such failure always unique to any particular race.
In a fine section of this chapter on education, Sowell highlights the views of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, documenting that their attitudes on educational expectations and other matters were much closer than the common politicized opinion today would have it. The necessary resources and exemplary individuals run rife throughout black history and experience. I would argue what is needed is for more people to hear and respect such scholars as Thomas Sowell, learn from them, and work together to chart a new path together into the future.
In his conclusion Sowell essentially challenges educational leaders and students “to work harder and abandon the counterproductive notion that seeking educational excellence is ‘acting white’” (244). He ends his essay on black education in a way that calls to mind Bill Cosby’s recent addresses wherein Cosby has said more studies are not needed. The problems are known. The black community is in crisis and needs to take action: “Despite the heartening achievements of some black schools, which have repeatedly demonstrated what is possible even with children from low-income backgrounds, the general picture of the education of black students is bleak. Much of what is said–and not said–about the education of black students reflects the political context, rather than the educational facts. Whites walk on eggshells for fear of being called racists, while many blacks are preoccupied with protecting the image of black students, rather than protecting their future by telling the blunt truth. It is understandable that some people are concerned about image, about what in private life might be expressed as: “What will the neighbors think?” But, when your children are dying, you don’t worry about what the neighbors think” (245).
Though bleak, attitudes are changing, will continue to change, will, as Ward Connerly has remarked, take time to change, creating a new climate of expectations and performance, on all sides. The passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative registers such change. Neighbors of goodwill do exist, are distressed, worried, and concerned, willing to help, where they can, if allowed. It needs to be said much more often that 14% of black voters approved the proposal. They are people who want much of what Sowell discusses in terms of education for their children and community. These two essays ought to be read by anyone serious about assessing where we are after the passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and where, together, we are all going from here.