- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005


By Thomas Sowell

Encounter, $25.95

291 pages

Few public intellectuals have demonstrated as much intelligence and courage as has Thomas Sowell. His latest effort is “Black Rednecks and White Liberals: And Other Cultural and Ethnic Issues,” a collection of long essays on “minority” controversies.

Mr. Sowell does not disappoint. From educational attainment to slavery, he smashes conventional icons and insists on individual responsibility. It makes for a wonderfully refreshing read, especially for anyone normally immersed in Washington platitudes.

Mr. Sowell opens with the book’s title essay, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.” Without rancor he analyzes “redneck culture,” with its emphasis on pride and violence, for instance. This was once emblematic of Southern whites. Unfortunately, he argues, “redneck culture” did not remain white. It also permeated Southern black society.

Northern blacks made significant progress even in an era of pervasive racism and discrimination. In the late 1800s, he writes, “By all indications, Northern black urban communities were themselves becoming cleaner, safer and more orderly during the era of improving race relations.” However, argues Mr. Sowell, “all of that changed radically within a relatively few years, as massive migrations from the South not only enlarged Northern black communities but transformed them culturally.”

He applies the same acute eye to other issues of race, such as black education. Mr. Sowell notes that black schools have been teaching black students for decades: “There has been successful black education as far back as the nineteenth century.” Good schools continue to generate good results even in the worst neighborhoods. Making good schools isn’t easy. He concludes: “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 are preoccupied with protecting the image of black students, rather than protecting their future by telling the blunt truth.”

Another issue where Mr. Sowell speaks bluntly is slavery. Although the practice tends to be analyzed in racial terms today, he points out that it was a pervasive institution throughout the world, almost always directed against those outside of a particular group. Some of these distinctions were large: such as Christians and Muslims. Often, however, the perpetrators and victims were much more closely related — losers in African or Micronesian tribal wars. The institution became largely black “only after centuries of Europeans enslaving other Europeans had been brought to an end” by several factors.

Equally important, Mr. Sowell notes that slavery was eliminated because of the West, especially Great Britain. While the West took far too long to recognize the moral horror of slavery, it did recognize it. It goes without saying — or, at least, should go without saying — that Mr. Sowell in no way justifies slavery. Instead, his thoughtful and sophisticated analysis highlights how hard it is even for men of obvious intelligence, principle and goodwill to eradicate an evil practice that has become embedded in society.

Mr. Sowell’s eclectic mind carries him into other fields as well. He devotes a chapter to the role of minorities, such as Jews, as middlemen. What social practices led to their success? How did that success generate hostility against them? He makes some broader judgments based on their experience. For instance, the fact that ethnic Chinese and Indians have thrived more overseas than in their own nations “undermines the multicultural view that Western prosperity in general is not due to any superior features of Western institutions.”

Moreover, he writes: “what made the Holocaust possible were technological and organizational capabilities for mass murder that enemies of other middleman minorities simply did not have available. In view of what was actually done to some of these other groups, there is little reason to doubt that their persecutors would have used such technological and organizational capabilities if they had had them.”

Mr. Sowell concludes with a call for honest historical inquiry based on empirical research. Alas, he notes, “nowhere has history been more in thrall to belief systems — visions — than in the history of racial and ethnic groups.” Accurate historical inquiry, he argues, “can often be of great value, not only in correcting factual errors but also in dispelling feelings and attitudes that needlessly encumber our lives today.” Such as the myth that blacks are genetically inferior. Reading Mr. Sowell is a pleasure. Brilliant, iconoclastic and profound, his work is always worth studying.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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