Race, culture served on a skewer

A conservative scholar seeks out the origins of ghetto violence.

What could the serious book of essays "Black Rednecks & White Liberals" by a black conservative possibly have in common with "Seinfeld"?

Ethnic skewering. In this book, black rednecks and white liberals are favorite targets.

Thomas Sowell, a Hoover Institution fellow with a deep list of books and syndicated columns, searches for the origin of violence and poverty in black ghettos. He also looks at such subjects as the persecution of successful minorities in his essay "Are Jews Generic?" In addition he offers a defense - refreshing in this anti-Western era - of Western civilization and its irreplaceable role in ending slavery throughout much of the world.

Sowell's latest ponderings on race and culture slap faces and introduce readers to some innovative trains of thought. His main focus: the well-being of blacks in America.

It's a book that is likable - and detestable. Likable for its desire to silence the West's critics. Detestable for stereotyping peoples, for pitting race against race in its easy summations and group condemnations.

First things first. Just what is a "black redneck"? Blacks who adopted violent behavior from poor Southern whites and who waste lives in self-hatred, writes Sowell.

He says that ethnic problems, like failed black schools, are due to "internal cultures" (lack of initiative) and not "external" (slavery). Sowell argues that white liberals with power-seeking agendas use these outside influences as alibis for failure. "In American society, achievement is what ultimately brings respect, including self-respect." Unless mindsets change - such as those of ghetto blacks who disparage hard work as "acting white" - advancement is impossible.

But there's a caveat to his no-blame essays. While Sowell contends external conditions are no excuse - as he demonstrates with examples of the rapid achievements of Asian minorities - in the end he resorts to pointing fingers.

In his title essay on black-redneck culture, he not only faults white liberals for defending ghetto culture as native and natural for blacks, but he also launches into a diatribe on Southern whites. And not the educated, slave-owning whites, but the poor, individual farmers, the ones who "were in no economic condition to buy slaves."

The "common white people of the South" - he mentions Ulster Scots and Highland Scots - imported their "lawless" ways to America. These violent patterns, Sowell says, transferred to Southern blacks and today linger in US ghettos.

However, this leaves one wondering: If these poor whites couldn't afford slaves, then no slaves would be in their company. So how could the whites' misbehavior rub off on slaves? Sowell never explains. So while he contends that each ethnic group is responsible for its own triumphs and failures, he often traces black problems back to white origins.

Sowell's more interesting arguments are done a disservice in one preposterous example after another. In "Are Jews Generic?" the Hoover scholar asks whether the persecution of Jews is unique. He concludes that other minorities, like the Lebanese in West Africa, are victimized for hard work and success. In short, victimized out of jealousy.

But the essay corrupts this intriguing line of reasoning. "Brawling drunkards or live-for-the-moment individuals seldom ... have any realistic chance of succeeding...." Who would argue that "brawling drunkards" are overachievers? It's doubtful brawling drunkards consider advanced degrees in conflict resolution either. It's a shame Sowell's editors let him leave such lines in his work, since they preclude any sincere discussion of often insightful ideas.

"Black Rednecks" conveys some of the complexity of race relations but ends up streamlining too much of its history in a rush to draw conclusions. Racial troubles arise when people take sides "instead of remaining fellow countrymen with different cultures," Sowell says. But his own essays ignore that order.

Katherine Dillin is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.

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