Thomas Sowell On A Social Poison

Thomas Sowell On A Social Poison

Thomas Sowell On A Social Poison

One of the most powerful of Thomas Sowell’s writings is Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Whether you believe in a “Redneck culture” or that it came to parts of the South from sections of England, the underlying basis of what Professor Sowell has to say still stands. White liberals have identified a certain culture in African-American society, one they hold up as “authentic”. One they have championed. This action by those white liberals is, according to Sowell, a social poison that must be counteracted sooner, rather than later.


A simple word that brings up so many negative connotations and rightly so. No one today wants to think about being owned by another person, being property to be bought and sold at the whim of a master. It is also a dark part of our history. But it is just that, history. At the time, despite our horror at the idea today, slavery was legal. Yet, its aftershocks can still be felt. Must of that is because of the so-called good intentions of white liberals. Yet, as Sowell points out, using it as THE causation for today’s problems does more than a simple disservice to our country and, most especially, to the African-American that are part of it.

Many of the prevailing misconceptions of the histories of both blacks and whites in America derive from trying to amalgamate morality and causation, so as to make the moral evil of slavery a causal explanation of contemporary negative social phenomena which have in fact had entirely different historical bases. . . When discussing both blacks and Southern whites, slavery has served as an all-purpose explanation of many social phenomena, ranging from broken families to poor education, lower labor force participation rates, and high rates of crime and violence. . . No matter what the origin of counterproductive behavior, such behavior must be changed if progress is the goal. “(p. 56)

Two things in the above quote are important to remember. The first is Sowell’s use of the phrase “trying to amalgamate morality and causation”. If you think about it, that is exactly what we’ve been seeing since the 1960’s. We have been told time and again that slavery, a morally repugnant act, is the basis of racism in this country. The first problem with that is it assumes there can only be racism on a white to black basis. Despite arguments to the contrary, racism is more than a white and black issue. It isn’t difficult to see racism across the spectrum. Whites can be racist against African-Americans or against Hispanics or against Asians, etc. But it isn’t limited to whites. African-Americans can be racist against whites or Hispanics or Asians just as Hispanics and Asians or any other “race” can be racist against those who don’t look or act like them.

But that doesn’t fit the narrative. If you go onto social media, you can easily find people claiming only whites can be racist because racism comes from positions of power. Yeah, no. The fact white intellectuals have continued to promote this idea is not that difficult to understand if you think about it. Such a belief gives them a social superiority of sorts over those they want to prove aren’t as enlightened or “woke” as they are.

The second point Sowell makes here is that it doesn’t matter what the origin of the “counterproductive behavior”. What matters is changing that behavior if there is to be progress. Yet, do we see white liberals, especially white liberal intellectuals saying this? No, just the opposite, in fact.

[I]f the real agenda is to score points against American society, then blacks can be used as a means to that end. More generally, a pro-black stance by white intellectuals enhances the latter’s moral standing and self-esteem, whether or not the particular manifestation of that stance helps or harms blacks on net balance.” (pp. 56-57)

Looking at the above, something else starts becoming clear. Some, if not all, of these intellectuals care more about their own standing than about those they claim to help. It helps enhance their “moral standing and self-esteem”. How is that helping those they claim to champion?

Blacks in effect become the mascots of these intellectuals, symbolizing and acting out the latter’s resistance to “society”—or, more accurately, civilization. But, while mascots may be indulged, more fundamentally mascots exist for the sake of those who adopt them, and the actual well-being of the mascot is seldom a high priority. By cheering on counterproductive attitudes, making excuses for self-defeating behavior, and promoting the belief that “racism” accounts for most of blacks’ problems, white intellectuals serve their own psychic, ideological, and political interests. They are the kinds of friends who can do more harm than enemies.” (p. 57)

Sowell might be a bit blunt with the above but he’s right, especially if you look long and hard at what has been going on in this country since the 1960’s. What attitudes and behaviors have the white liberal intellectuals been cheering on? A “ghetto” behavior. They’ve used slavery, broken homes, lack of education, etc., (all of which they then tie back to slavery) to excuse these “counterproductive attitudes”. These same white intellectuals are the ones promoting the idea that racism is behind it all. And yet, what solutions have they offered that would break the cycle of counterproductive behavior? Nothing workable and nothing that would break the counterproductive behavior of the so-called “culture” they are trying to propitiate.

A crucial fact about white liberals must be kept in mind: They are not simply in favor of blacks in general. Their solicitude is poured out for blacks as victims, blacks as welfare mothers, criminals, political activists against the larger society, as well as those blacks who serve as general counter-cultural symbols against the larger society.” (p. 57)

Victims. That is the key . In fact, if you think about it, victimhood is the current preferred state when you listen to so many liberals, be they “intellectuals” or not. We have them promoting the idea of African-Americans as victims because of slavery. It doesn’t matter if the African-American in question came from a Southern slave heritage or not. We have the idea that women are victims because of the patriarchy. We have the belief that anyone not identifying as a heterosexual is a victim because of the fact they are “different”. We are told non-Christians are victims because of much the same.

This constant state of victimhood, with the correlating idea that victims MUST be believed until proven wrong, is weakening not only the individual but the country as a whole. It harms the individual because it truly does make a victim of them. They expect to be mistreated, either physically, mentally or emotionally. They don’t learn how to stand on their own but have to have their safe spaces where they can go so they don’t have to be exposed to words or ideas or even just the sight of people who offend them. In other words, they would rather feel than do and they certainly don’t know – or possibly don’t want – to adult.

Intellectuals in the 1960s began promoting the idea that those blacks who exhibited a culture different from the ghetto or black redneck culture were not “really” authentic blacks. . . Rooting black identity in a counterproductive culture not only reduced incentives to move beyond that culture, it cut off those within that culture from other blacks who had advanced beyond it, who might otherwise have been sources of examples, knowledge, and experience that could have been useful to those less fortunate. . . But more successful blacks were increasingly depicted as either irrelevant non-members of the black community or even as traitors to it. In turn, this meant that many blacks who had a wider cultural exposure and greater socioeconomic success felt a need to conform, to some degree or another, to a more narrow ghetto view of the world. . . .” (pp. 57-58)

Whether these intellectuals meant to cause problems for the more successful members of the African-American community or not, we’ll never know. I’m sure there were at least some of them who started this with the best of intentions. They simply didn’t think through the cause and effect of their actions. Instead of rewarding effort and hard work, they wound up punishing it. They caused a rift in the community they were supposedly helping. Instead of expanding the world view, as Sowell says, they narrowed it.

History shows us the problems with a narrow world view. It might feel safe and familiar, but it will ultimately lead to trouble. Not only does it often lead to isolationism, it leads to a lack of understanding what goes on around you. Both can and will eventually blow up in your face. The ability to adapt is stifled and that society or culture will stifle. How, then, does that help the African-American – or any other – culture? It doesn’t, not that the white liberal intellectual will ever admit it.

Sowell has some interesting comments and insights in the summation to the article. Here are just a few:

In addition to the negative effect of the redneck culture on the achievements of both blacks and whites, it has also, for generations, provoked adverse reactions to rednecks of either race by others.” (p. 60)


I hadn’t really thought about it, but Sowell is right. When most people think about rednecks, no matter what the color of their skin, they think about men who wear “wife-beater” t-shirts, are ill-educated and don’t hold down jobs. They are drinkers and fighters and ne-er-do-wells. The women aren’t much better. These are what “good” parents pray their boys don’t grow up to be and that their daughters don’t fall for. Is it an accurate portrayal? That depends on who you ask because, as we can see from the comments to the earlier installments of this series, not everyone defines a redneck the same way. However, Sowell has a very specific definition and it isn’t one with much to redeem the individual.

There is no reason to rule out, a priori, the possibility that different subgroups of blacks were themselves different in behavior, attitudes, skills, and performances. That has already become apparent when comparing blacks from the Caribbean with blacks from the South, or when comparing blacks from the New England enclaves in the South with blacks from the redneck culture. (p. 60)

To support this, Sowell gives hard evidence of census data, etc. Even with only circumstantial evidence, it should be clear his statement is true. So why do liberal intellectuals, especially white liberal intellectuals, continue to hold onto the belief that all the ills of African-American culture stem from slavery? Obviously, not every member of that culture comes from a slavery background. Yet, to so many, that doesn’t matter. Slavery is the source of all ills and racism is at the root of it.

Nope, but try telling that to those who hold tight to the belief.

Easy recourse to slavery as an explanation of either North-South differences or black-white differences fails empirical tests. . . The counterproductive redneck culture that eroded away over the generations, among both whites and blacks, has been rescued after the 1960s by a “multicultural” ideology that has made this residual survival among ghetto blacks a sacrosanct badge of racial identity, not to be tampered with by teachers or criticized by others, under pain of being labeled “racist.” . . . In short, prevailing explanations provide an alibi for those who lag—and an alibi is for many an enormously valuable asset that they are unlikely to give up easily.” (p. 61-62)

An alibi.

I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but Sowell is right. It is an alibi, an excuse. It goes hand-in-hand with the attitude of entitlement we see in too many of this nation, no matter what the color of their skin. Too many have forgotten what made America great, that spirit of facing trials and tribulations, of overcoming dangers and challenges, to forge a new homeland and to excel at what they did. Too many of us want it all handed over on a silver platter, preferably paid for by the government. What they don’t realize is that the government has to pay for it somehow and that somehow is us. It is money out of our pockets.

I can only shake my head when I hear people saying we shouldn’t be a time limit on state or national benefits for someone who is able to work but who chooses not to, for whatever reason. Why should we, as taxpayers, support someone who can go flip burgers but won’t because they don’t like shift work or because they feel the job is beneath them? Yes, if a person is infirm and can’t work, they should be helped. If a mother can’t afford daycare and needs to stay home with a young child, exceptions can be made. But we shouldn’t continue to pay for her to do so and to continue to have more children so she can keep on the dole. That sort of government “help” only serves to help someone into a mindset where they don’t want to do for themselves or where they believe they can’t. Neither attitude or belief is productive or conducive to breaking out of the cultural mindset Sowell has been writing about.

Those who provide black rednecks with alibis do no favor to them, to other blacks, or to the larger society in which we all live. . . The liberal vision of blacks’ fate as being almost wholly in the hands of whites is a debilitating message for those blacks who take it seriously, however convenient it may be for those who are receptive to an alibi. . . By making black redneck behavior a sacrosanct part of black cultural identity, white liberals and others who excuse, celebrate, or otherwise perpetuate that lifestyle not only preserve it among that fraction of the black population which has not yet escaped from it, but have contributed to its spread up the social scale to middle class black young people who feel a need to be true to their racial identity, lest they be thought to be “acting white.” It is the spread of a social poison, however much either black or white intellectuals try to pretty it up or try to find some deeper meaning in it.” (p. 64)

It is, as Sowell says, a social poison. The antidote is there. We, as a society, must be willing to take it. That is the challenge facing us and it is a difficult one. I’ll admit, I hesitated writing this. I am one of those “whites” so often told I can’t understand what racism is because of the color of my skin. I can’t understand what people of color go through because I am pale and have red hair. But I not only agree with what Sowell says, I admire him for having the courage to speak out, knowing he would be condemned.

Not long ago, I got into a discussion – and that is putting it mildly – with someone about race and racism. The other person, someone who is the typical white liberal intellectual, started lecturing me on how I couldn’t understand or identify with the plight of persons of color. Of course, her definition of a “person of color” excluded everyone who didn’t have their long ago origins on the African continent. When I called her on it, she huffed and puffed and had all sorts of excuses. Then, not unexpectedly, she turned it back on me. I couldn’t understand because of my whiteness.

I’ll admit, I did what I’d wanted to do for a long time with her. I pointed out that my “whiteness” included a great-grandmother who was born on the Trail of Tears. Unlike Elizabeth Warren, I can trace my ancestry back to the Cherokee Nation and have the proof. I can show how my ancestors had their land seized by the government before they were force marched from their homes to the Oklahoma Territory. I may burn in the sun but I have more Native American blood in me than Warren or many others claiming to be Native American or persons of color.

It is past time to call bullshit on much of what these white liberal intellectuals are doing. They are not helping those they claim to champion. They sure as hell are not helping our country. Why do we keep listening to them? Stand up, speak out and tell them to sit down and listen to the adults for awhile.

(The original version of this post appeared at According to Hoyt.)

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  • CaptDMO says:

    There are libraries, public and private, with shelves and shelve of books in pristine condition.
    These book shelves make a handy “stage set” for photo-ops. Shiny,(if not leather bound) with all the right titles clearly visible (in “gold” if leather bound) on the thicker ones.
    My copy of BR&WL is NOT one of such books. dirty page edges, cracked spine, spilled coffee, a little hot dog relish, cigarette ashes, ratty thermal paper receipt from the local book monger as a book mark. and of course a coffee ring or two on the cover. It WILL be embossed with my ex libris stamp, in fleeting hope of ever seeing it again should it be “lended”, as well as the reality that others will at LEAST see “Ooooo…CaptDMO has endorsed this book!” (for better or worse)
    Granted , it’s in FAR superior condition than that copy of (eg) “Stranger in a Strange Land” when I got it, ….half the cover missing, ALL the pages grimy in that “thumb spot” duct tape spine repair. and passed around like a groupie on a tour bus.
    Point being is…yes, yes you CAN (to SOME degree) judge a book by it’s cover.
    TRIGGER WARNING: I’ve TRIED to give books I find…well, stupid…to the local library…not interested.
    They have ENOUGH stupid books of their OWN that they can’t sell for 50 cents, or GIVE away, at the semi annual sales. (found a hard cover biography of an ancestor that way once.)
    I HAVE been known to park the loader of the tractor outside the window, start tossing, and load the bucket directly into the hopper of the garbage truck.
    BR&WL will NOT be one of them, lest I’m denied the opportunity to accidentally forget to NOT slip it (paperback) into some college bound high school Seniors back pack. Let them find out for themselves that Mr. Sowell is a “African- Black American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.


    • Amanda Green says:

      I am unabashedly a Sowell fangirl. I’ve recommended and/or given copies of his work to a number of friends. I know our library has a hard time keeping his books on the shelves. Not only are they often checked out but they are also often “lost”, never to be returned.

  • CaptDMO says:

    “….and a nice-looking guy.” – (para-MY correction) Democrat Vice President, 2020 Presidential candidate, Joe Biden.

  • GWB says:

    it doesn’t matter what the origin of the “counterproductive behavior”
    Aside from the excellent points Sowell makes, there’s the element of speaking of a cause that is far in the past as if it can be dealt with today.

    “The asteroid destroyed the dinosaurs.”
    “Well, what do we do about it?!”
    “Eh… errr….”

    BTW, since it’s “unsolvable” because it ended 150+ years ago, it serves as a perpetual alibi (as you mention later). You can never solve it, so you can forever be beaten over the head with it in order to diminish your power.

    Victims. That is the key .
    Well, I think it’s rather the other thing Sowell mentions: counter-cultural. Victimology fits within that. Your statements about homosexuality and anti-Christians give it solidity. Who are the victims? Those who can – by pushing against the ‘normal’ or majority – use their supposed victimhood to break the common cultural bonds established on our Judeo-Christian worldview.
    It’s what they’ve been after since at least the 50s: destroy the dominant culture and all the things that built Western Civilization. Blacks (as ‘victims’ and such) are a way of simply battering at the white majority in order to secure power.

    How, then, does that help the African-American – or any other – culture?
    They don’t intend it to help. They intend it to empower. Them, not the blacks.

    Until we can convince blacks to let go of slavery as a cause/excuse, we won’t be able to move forward. It’s why I almost endorse one person’s proposal for reparations: You can have the portion of 40 acres and a mule you would have received as an inheritance from your 150 years removed slave ancestor, payable by anyone whose family owned slaves past the end of 1865.

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