A Raspberry for Sowell and Dyson

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In today's Washington Post, columnist William Raspberry plays Don King and pits two champion black intellectuals against one another for a few rounds on the topic of "getting beyond racism".

In this corner is cranky economist Thomas Sowell, author of a zillion books, most recently Black Rednecks and White Liberals, which argues, in Raspberry's telling,

The plight of have-not blacks in America's urban ghettos…can be laid at the feet of white people….If you've followed the writings of Sowell for as long as I have, you'll know that he's not saying anything as simple as racism accounts for today's black poverty….[White rednecks are] the people who formed the culture—the speech patterns, preaching styles, social behaviors, propensity for violence and attitudes toward schooling—that became the culture of Southern blacks, Sowell claims….The redneck culture has been a developmental millstone for both blacks and whites imbued with it—witness the lower academic achievement in the Deep South. But he says it has been preserved most faithfully in the black ghettos….[I]n a fascinating switcheroo, the redneck culture has become, to many of its defenders, the authentic black culture and, on that account, sacrosanct.

And in this corner is U of Penn professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of the new Is Bill Cosby Right?. This latest Dyson tome is not about America's favorite Dad's alleged dope and grope strategy; it's about Cosby's widely publicized claims last year that black social dysfunction was mostly self-generated.

Raspberry summarizes:

Dyson, who can coin a phrase with the best of them, spends a large part of this work defending the "knuckleheads" of Cosby's inelegant description against those who (like Cosby) believe their refusal to adopt the manners and language of the middle class is holding them back.

Or as Dyson puts it, defending the Ghettocracy from the Afristocracy.

The point, as he is at great pains to make, is that there's nothing wrong in the ghetto that an end to racism wouldn't fix. For Cosby to suggest that slovenly language and dress have anything to do with the trouble that black youth are in is to blame the victim and "let white people off the hook."

And Cosby, whom Dyson "deeply respects," etc., has been letting white people off the hook for years—with his universal (rather than an authentically black) approach to humor and even with his toweringly successful Huxtable family (which reassured white TV viewers that the nightmare of racism had ended and that it was safe to lay their guilt aside).

At the end of his col, Raspberry calls it a draw between Sowell and Dyson, but his heart plainly seems to be with "Uncle Tom" (as Sowell was once called by the NAACP's former head, Benjamin Hooks) and the embattled auteur behind Leonard Part 6 rather than with the author of Why I Love Black Women.

As Raspberry concludes, "Maybe we haven't laid racism to rest, but we have reached the point where what we do matters more than what is done to us." That is one of the major themes of much of Sowell's writing on the black experience in America.

Whole thing here.

NEXT: "The banality of good health"

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  1. The redneck culture has been a developmental millstone for both blacks and whites imbued with it—witness the lower academic achievement in the Deep South. But he says it has been preserved most faithfully in the black ghettos….[I]n a fascinating switcheroo, the redneck culture has become, to many of its defenders, the authentic black culture and, on that account, sacrosanct.

    Wow. I’d like to see an actual anthropoligical study on this claim. Sounds like a stretch to me. To paraphrase Sagan, ridiculous claims require extraordinary evidence.

  2. “The redneck culture has been a developmental millstone for both blacks and whites imbued with it—witness the lower academic achievement in the Deep South.”

    I might agree with that statement, but not on that basis.

    …Did anyone else see the recent U.S. News and World Report on the top one hundred high schools in America?

    “…ranked according to a ratio…the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2004 divided by the number of graduating seniors.”

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7723397/site/newsweek/

    Eight of the top ten were in the South (No, Texas isn’t part of the South.), and nearly fifty of the top one hundred were in the South (No, Texas isn’t part of the South.)

  3. I hear there’s a book out about the topic now…

  4. Why isn’t Texas in the South, Ken? It’s certainly more “Southern” than Arlington, Va.

  5. Why yes, SP, there is a book [snicker] but you knew that. I just finished reading my copy. Well, skimming the last 75%. Actually, Black Rednecks is a series of essays. The first one addresses the issue at hand and is very convincing, while the rest of the book isn’t nearly so arresting.

    No one should presume to trash the idea of black assumption of redneck culture (if not true, what African culture did the slaves preserve and transmit?) without reading Sowell’s material.

    As to the article, suppose every aspect of perceived racism were to vanish tomorrow replaced by meritocracy. How would anything change? Engineering jobs would still require a rigorous education, professions would still require seriously honed skills, the CEO doors of America would not swing wide to welcome street criminals.

    As long as hard work and scholastics are derided as “acting white,” nothing will change. Racism is at work, but it isn’t white on black.

  6. Sowell usually engages in a good deal of n the scene research in writing his books.

  7. dead elvis –
    The book by Sowell on this topic here. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I believe that the gist is that the south was predominantly settled by people from a region of England that had all the hallmarks of what we would call ‘redneck culture’. I won’t defend it as I haven’t read the book (yet), but I think you’ll find the ‘anthropological’ study you’re looking for there. If his other books on culture are any indication, his thesis should be well documented and defended.
    -K

  8. Why is Thomas Sowell dissing the military?

    The Redneck Culture appears to be represented beyond their share of the population, percentage-wise, for bravery.

    Seems like a like of Generals have their roots in the South also, judging by the accents in press briefings.

  9. Ken Shultz: “”…ranked according to a ratio…the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2004 divided by the number of graduating seniors.””

    Er, wouldn’t that give a big advantage to a school where lots of the students do not graduate?

    Take two schools, of 100 students each. At each school, 10 students take AP or IB tests.

    At one school, all 100 students graduate. The ratio for this school would be 10/100 = .1

    At the other school, 90 students drop out. The ratio for this school would be 10/10 = 1.

    So the school with a 90% drop-out rate scores higher, because the denominator is smaller, because fewer students graduate, even though the same number of students take the tests.

    I’m probably missing something, but a score which rewards a school for having a high drop-out rate does not seem to be measuring the right thing.

  10. Re: Newsweek’s High School Rankings. Using the number of AP/IB exams taken is a rather inane proxy for quality (as opposed to, say, the scores on said exams). Especially seeing as after Newsweek did this first a few years ago, my high school changed policies regarding AP exams specifically to inflate its ranking by this measure, as I’m sure many others did as well.

    As for William Raspberry, I’ve always liked that guy…

  11. Upon further reflection, I think my skepticism is rooted in annoyance at the notion of “redneck culture” and his association of that with the South. I think I would look at his claims as being more plausible if he avoided using such a loaded term. Certainly there is lots of room for study of how Africans and European culture might have mixed and been passed down in the new world beyond what we already think we know, but putting it in terms of the Southern Redneck makes it seem, I dunno, like he’s trying to be politically shocking rather than scholarly.

  12. If black culture comes from redneck culture, does that mean that my hatred of inbred, incestuous illiterates makes me a racist?

  13. I’ll hold judgement until I read the book, but I’ve always found Sowell to be extremely thorough in his research.

    It’s been a while since I picked it up, but it seems that Jim Goad tackled this subject at least tangentially in his “Redneck Manifesto”, though perhaps a bit more crudely.

  14. It appears that Sowell confuses “redneck culture” with the white trash subgroup. IMO, rednecks are generally reliable hardworking people who don’t say much. White trash, however, consists of meth-lab operators and welfare slugs.

    It’s not surprising that he would confuse the distinction as I’m sure we all look alike to him.

  15. The point, as he is at great pains to make, is that there’s nothing wrong in the ghetto that an end to racism wouldn’t fix.

    It’s always amazing to me when otherwise smart-seeming people can take such dumb positions. If this were true, then wouldn’t conditions in the ghetto improve when there is less racism, and get worse when there is more? So what accounts for the fact that (for example) Harlem was a better place to live in the ’30s than in the ’80s? (I’m using the ’80s because I have no idea what Harlem is like now.) Can anyone seriously claim there was more racism in the ’80s than the ’30s?

    And, of course, waiting for the “end of racism” is like waiting for the end of stupidity or crime or poverty or sin: don’t hold your breath.

  16. “Upon further reflection, I think my skepticism is rooted in annoyance at the notion of “redneck culture” and his association of that with the South.”

    He referred to the “Deep South” specifically. I agree–“redneck culture” is much more widespread. Indeed, I think what I’ll call “drawl shift” is an under-studied phenomenon of American culture. …As Billy Gibbons said in La Grange, “You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.”

    I’m pickin’ on Gibbons ’cause I heard him on Steve Jones’ show today (God bless Indie 103), and he doesn’t talk like that in real life. In real life, Gibbons speaks like a normal human being. Still, millions of “redneck culture” white people from every part of the country adopted the same affected accent. …I’ve seen it happen.

    I first saw the country as a little kid. Loadin’ the kids up and driving across America and back was a fad in the ’70s, and my family did it when I was real young. Listening to locals in gas stations and restaurants, I’d notice differences in accent across the South and in the New England, but much of the rest of the country sounded the same to me. If you weren’t from the South or New England, I couldn’t tell if you were from Indiana, Oregon or Arizona.

    I spent part of some of the summers in high school crisscrossing the country. Stop in the same gas stations, the same restaurants and most everyone I talked to had adopted this weird drawl. There’s a couple of guys I used to play poker with a couple of years ago–one of ’em born and raised on the beach in San Diego, the other born and raised in Portland, Oregon–and they both talk like Billy Gibbons in Le Grange!

    …It’s like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers! “You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.” I grew up in the area around Washington D.C. (Arlington isn’t in the South?) No one talked like that! I talk to some of my old friends and they sound like they have marbles in their mouths. I went to prep school with these people!

    When you hear that affected drawl, the person you’re talkin’ to is trying to tell you something. He’s trying to tell you that he doesn’t think he’s smarter than you. That he doesn’t think much of people who think they’re smart. …and if you answer him in that drawl, you’re tellin’ him that you’re not pretentious.

    …That’s why President Bush speaks in that fake drawl. He’s communicating to such people that he’s like they are–that down home folks can trust him not to try anything “smart.” …That he’s not one of those latte swilling, elitist types.

    This is the sort of “redneck culture” that Sowell is criticizing, is it not? The idea that people should be ashamed of their intelligence, ambition and culture? If so, I think I agree that this is a product of “redneck culture”, but it seems to be as predominant in Detroit as Atlanta, in Phoenix as much as Mobile, in Portland as much as Memphis, …

    P.S. …And I’ll be damned if that “redneck culture” didn’t seem to emanate from Texas first!

  17. In regards to the suggestion that graduation rates are indicative of quality, may I suggest that high graduation rates could easily mask low standards?

  18. “In regards to the suggestion that graduation rates are indicative of quality, may I suggest that high graduation rates could easily mask low standards?”

    Could, quite true. But that’s not always going to be the case, especially if the school is generally good, as determined by college attendance and SAT scores.

    Wasn’t there a hubub recently about Texas schools undercounting their dropout rate?

  19. And, of course, waiting for the “end of racism” is like waiting for the end of stupidity or crime or poverty or sin: don’t hold your breath.

    Excellent point. I always think that racism will end when humanity has inter-bred to the point where everyone is the same color. But humanity is stupid enough to come up with plenty of other identifying factors with which to feel superior/inferior. Have we learned nothing from Dr. Seuss and the Sneetches with stars upon thars?

  20. Ken, I was born in South Carolina, grew up in North Carolina, have traveled extensively across Texas and the South, and have lived for more than five years in the Washington, D.C., area, including several months in Arlington.

    Trust me, Arlington ain’t Southern no more. Around here, Southern seems to begin somewhere below the Occoquan — or perhaps even the Rappahannock — though there still seems to be some pockets of Southernality hanging on in Maryland.

    Perhaps your earlier memories of accents is a little off. I know what I sound like now — my Carolina Piedmont accent is a target of good-natured derision from coworkers at least once a month — but when I was a child, I thought that myself and members of my family had non-accents compared with our countrified relatives from small towns in South Carolina and Alabama. (We grew up in Charlotte.)

    Still puzzled by your (much) earler characterization of Texas as “not part of the South.” I know, it’s one of those ‘tweener states. Well, I’ve always argued that Texas from Dallas east is Southern as all get-out, while west of the Metroplex is more, well, Western. Though the accents are similar.

    Anyhoo, food for thought.

  21. When I was a kid, the chorus of Redskins fight song ended, “…Fight for old Dixie!”

    (…The Cowboys never should have been allowed into the NFL.)

    The parts of D.C. you mentioned might not seem like the South relative to where you’re from, but scratch the surface… If Arlington isn’t in the South–and I’m not sayin’ it isn’t–you should be able to spit and hit the South from there, no?

    …What is it about Arlington that makes it seem not so Southern to you?

    By the way, there’s nothing wrong with a Southern accent. The affected drawl I mentioned seems offensive to me precisely because it seems like it’s mocking Southern people. …Like little kids making fun of gay people with an exaggerated lisp–it’s offensive. In Le Grange, doesn’t Billy Gibbons sound like he’s makin’ fun of Southern people? Doesn’t he sound like a staggering drunk?

    Imus is from Southern California. He’s been in New York since the ’70s! Why isn’t his fake drawl offensive to people? One of the guitarists from Lynard Skynard sent his kid to my school; his son was in my dorm. His dad spoke to everybody about the evils of drugs–he didn’t have a drawl like a drunken idiot. I spent more time in Texas than I ever wanted to; the people there sounded like Hank, Peggy and Bobby Hill–not like President “Boomhauer” Bush. Where did President Bush get that accent? It wasn’t at Yale.

    …Is he making fun of us?

    P.S. For goodness sake, Arlington’s in Virginia!

  22. I believe that the gist is that the south was predominantly settled by people from a region of England that had all the hallmarks of what we would call ‘redneck culture’.

    Mmm, sounds like Albion’s Seed. Good books rock!

  23. I don’t claim to know a lot about either Southern culture or black culture.

    But I have to assume that somebody out there must be suspicious of people with education. I can’t figure out any other reason why George Bush puts on that idiot drawl and doesn’t seem embarassed about mangling the English language.

    And as a highly educated person I’m mystified by the notion that there’s something bad about education.

    Sure, there are pompous assholes with degrees, and people who have good grades but are clueless about anything practical.

    But take a look around at the rest of society: I grew up in the middle of the socioeconomic scale, and we had pompous assholes and clueless people in our midst. I volunteer among the homeless, definitely at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, and they have insufferable assholes and clueless people in their midst.

    Asshole behavior and cluelessness seem to thrive on all rungs of the socioeconomic scale. So I don’t think either of those stereotypes can explain why some people disdain the educated.

  24. It appears that Sowell confuses “redneck culture” with the white trash subgroup. IMO, rednecks are generally reliable hardworking people who don’t say much. White trash, however, consists of meth-lab operators and welfare slugs.

    The definiton of terms in a debate like this is pretty nebulous with plenty of grey area, so woulnd’t get too hung up on stuff like that.

    also, from what i understand, Sowell is a historian by trade, which i think lends much more credence to his authority on the subject than Dyson who, after ereading him more than I care to admit in the Chicago Sun-Times, doesn’t seem to understand or care to research history and root causes. lots of surface talk.

  25. also, from what i understand, Sowell is a historian by trade,…

    No, actually he is an economist by trade.

  26. But that has not stopped him from writing books on history and making social and political commentary.

  27. Ken,

    Every day on the way to my office in Old Town Alexandria I pass by Robert E. Lee’s childhood home and a plaque for a mass of dead confederate soldiers. There is a lot of confederate history here, but having lived in Richmond and Norfolk, I can attest to the bulk of Northern Virginia being more east coast than southern culturally. People here have a certain “uptightness” that is distinctly unsouthern. Also, very few people who live here are actually from the area. This has got to be one of the most transitive and international areas of the country. You are as likely to run into someone from Ethiopia as you are to run into someone from Dixie.

  28. “So I don’t think either of those stereotypes can explain why some people disdain the educated.”

    maybe it’s a subtle fear that A) they think they’re better than you (why this is so worrisome, i know not) B) they might be planning something sneaky.

  29. I love how people say that the south is a backwater of bigotry and racism, but then define any part of the south which not like that as “not really part of the south.” e.g. Northern Virginia, Florida, etc.

    See Virginia isn’t in the south anymore, ’cause different people live there now.

    Nothing like ignoring data to improve that curve fit….

  30. Thank you, mk. Good point.

    And Ken, you’ve been going on about Billy Gibbons’ vocals in “La Grange” and how he sounds like he’s making fun of a Southern accent or affecting a redneck accent or trying to sound like a staggering drunk.

    I’ve always thought Gibbons was trying to sound like an old black bluesman, such as Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. ESPECIALLY on “La Grange.” Are you familiar with much of ZZ Top’s body of work? They have paid homage to the blues constantly, and even covered a couple of old blues tunes, such as Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.”

    And I’ve heard Gibbons talk on the radio, too. Yes, he doesn’t sound like the “staggering drunk” you describe, but he sure as hell has a Southern-sounding accent to me. (Remember, Mick Jagger doesn’t actually talk like the cockney bad-boy persona he presents on stage. I suppose he’s making fun of us, too. Either that, or he just thinks it’s cool. If that insults you, then so be it.)

    Imus may be from Southern California, but I’ve always been under the impression that there’s still a strong “Okie” subculture in effect there. In fact, I believe Reason’s own Matt Welch has written about such things. OK, checking Imus’ bio, it appears he spent part of his youth working on a ranch in Prescott, Ariz. Hmm, think he might have been exposed to people with a drawl there?

    Your point about “Old Dixie,” which is now “Old D.C.” in the Skins’ fight song, is well taken. But that song was first used in 1938, and the lyrics were changed in the 1960s.

    D.C. is no longer a Southern city. I’m sorry; it’s not. It’s the southern end of the East Coast corridor. You can certainly spit and hit the South, but that loogie will have to travel quite a bit farther than when Ken lived there.

  31. Why is Thomas Sowell dissing the military?

    The Redneck Culture appears to be represented beyond their share of the population, percentage-wise, for bravery.

    Yes, the Scotch-Irish of the South are damn good fighters, and they tend to make up “the tip of the spear”.

    It seems to me that New England/West Coast types only see the negative aspects of “Redneck culture”, while the rednecks often only look at the positive sides. Of course, when the discussion is the similar “black culture”, the same New England/West Coast types give a pass on bad behaviour . . .

    And, of course, waiting for the “end of racism” is like waiting for the end of stupidity or crime or poverty or sin: don’t hold your breath.

    One aspect of racism is that, as long as it is useful in making predictions on behaviour, it will probably continue. From any practical perspective, it doesn’t matter if behaviour is based in genetics or culture, as long as it can be predicted based upon some visual cue (or other type of cue, for that matter).

  32. I still don’t understand what it is about the city that makes it seem like it’s not part of the South to you.

    …What quality of Southern culture does Arlington not possess that rest of the South possesses?

  33. If black culture comes from redneck culture, does that mean that my hatred of inbred, incestuous illiterates makes me a racist? –Number 6

    mmmmmm………Yes!

    maybe it’s a subtle fear that A) they think they’re better than you (why this is so worrisome, i know not) B) they might be planning something sneaky. — dhex

    Lol!

    I would like to say that I think Ken Shultz is making some good points about accents and what they presume.

    And: For offensive use of an affected accent followed by objection from someone who won’t let whitey off the hook, click here .

  34. We are from Maryland.
    My elder brother found that when he went to NY, people thought he was from the “deep” south.
    When we went to NC, everyone knew he was a Yankee.

  35. About Sowell’s background:

    I’ve been an admirer of Sowell for about 20 years now. Not that I necessarily agree with everything he says. And I admit I haven’t read any of his past several books. I have read Ethnic America, Preferential Policies, The Economics and Politics of Race, A Conflict of Visions, and a couple collections of his early columns. I especially recommend A Conflict of Visions for understanding the viewpoints and base assumptions of people whose politics differ from yours.

    I think I first read a Sowell essay about the problem of “black rednecks” around 10 years ago. So he has just recently expended the idea into a book.

    I looked up Sowell’s bio online. He was “born in North Carolina and raised in Harlem.” I don’t know how deep his knowledge of the South is. He hasn’t exactly been isolated from “the black community.” He was also in the Marines in the Korean War (as a photographer), so he knows a bit about the military culture.

    He is an economist by education, but some of the most broadly knowledgeable people I’ve read are economists.

    My favorite economist, David D. Friedman, once defined economics as the science of assuming that people have objectives and tend to choose rational ways of attaining them. He said this means “economics” would encompass practically the whole of human behavior, and perhaps animal behavior as well.

    (OT, but BTW, Friedman is a professor of economics and law, but he never took a course in economics himself. He is a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. However, he is the son of Rose and Milton Friedman — I believe both of them are Nobel laureates in economics — and he used to argue with his dad about economics all the time he was growing up, which was probably a more than sufficient education.)

  36. Ken, I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve been in Arlington, but it’s basically D.C. continued across the Potomac now, but with much taller office buildings.

    But since you ask what Arlington possesses that makes it unsouthern in my eyes.

    Well, where are the people with the Southern accents in Arlington? You know, the Southerners? The few I’ve met who have such an accent around here have invariably been from somewhere OTHER than Arlington.

    Where are the Southern dining establishments? Sure, there’s a few that offer a contrived, upscale take on Southern cuisine, just like there similar places in Philadelphia or New York or San Francisco, but it’s not the same as living in a place like Atlanta, where there’s a good “meat and three” place on nearly every corner and a Waffle House just down the road. The lack of good iced tea is another indicator of insufficient Southernness — to me, anyway.

    Yeah, Robert E. Lee’s former mansion is in the city of Arlington (actually within a protected federal reservation called Arlington National Cemetery) and there are roads in the area named after Lee and Stonewall Jackson. So what? I think I can say with some confidence that there are now more Vietnamese in Arlington County than native Southerners.

    And that’s not a bad thing; I think immigration is a wonderful thing, if only for the dining options it provides. But let’s don’t pretend that Arlington’s mere presence in the state of Virginia automatically makes it “Southern.” The D.C. region is very unique culturally, because it has always been right on the cusp of the North/South divide. But this Southerner doesn’t believe the two counties in Virginia that he’s lived in even remotely resemble anywhere else he’s lived or traveled in the South. They more closely resemble places he’s traveled in the North.

    OK. I’m done with this discussion.

  37. And, of course, waiting for the “end of racism” is like waiting for the end of stupidity or crime or poverty or sin: don’t hold your breath.

    Absolutely right. As Booker T. Washington observed, the only way for blacks to end racism is to make it unprofitable, by producing something that whites want. That’s far more effective than the strategy employed by most civil rights groups, which amounts to little more than begging at the white man’s doorstep.

    Also, I can’t help but notice, yet another thread hijacked by the question of “what is the South?” I can picture Tim Cavanaugh tearing his hair out with needlenose pliers.

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