Monday, September 19, 2005

Thomas Sowell on "The Real History of Slavery"

It’s not like Alex Haley pictured it. At best the "Roots" portrait is incomplete. At worst the book and TV mini-series is mendacious.

I’m talking about the not-so-peculiar institution of slavery. The rest of the story (and the more accurate story) can be found in the extended essay, "The Real History of Slavery," in Thomas Sowell’s provocatively-titled book, BLACK REDNECKS

That fuller perspective may not come as a total surprise. Most of us have memories of ancient Greek and Roman society in the recesses of our minds--civilizations suffused with human bondage. Others may recall the Barbary pirates. What is surprising, however, is how most of our front-burner thoughts on the topic are at odds with this larger perspective.

Ideas that seldom inform top-of-the-head ruminations include the following: Slavery existed worldwide and throughout the history of civilization. Slavery wasn’t founded on racial differences but on disparities of power. Throughout most of history whites enslaved whites, blacks enslaved blacks, and other groups enslaved vulnerable neighbors. (The very word "slave" derives from "Slav"--an ethnic group subject to raids from various directions.) The British, more than any other national group, were responsible for outlawing slavery around the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, those English imperial efforts were met with great resistance in the Ottoman Empire and in parts of Africa.

These ideas are not the ones that typically spring to mind when the word "slavery" is mentioned. Instead, the Roots picture of white slavers going ashore in Africa and rounding up vulnerable natives is typical. This image is itself implausible. In
most cases slavers acquired their cargo from African tribes that, like peoples around the world, captured and sold neighbors who were not powerful enough to fend off adversaries. Indeed, Sowell notes that slavery flourished in the West African area from which Kunta Kinte was presumably abducted.

The "problem" with such facts is that they don’t conform to the "black and white" Hollywood paradigm that is required if one wants to use history as a political weapon. Having Africans enslave other Africans--only some of whom were sold to merchants docked at the shore--isn’t a stirring myth. Race-based indignation is further undermined by accounts that depict black slaveowners who supported the Confederacy or managed plantations in the Caribbean.

Also unhelpful for contemporary purposes is the fact that the British expended decades of effort and approximately 5% of their GNP in an effort to eradicate a practice that most nations accepted without question. (Even Thomas More’s Utopia included slavery in its vision of perfection.) Most disconcerting of all, at least for some contemporary groups, is the fact that Quakers and evangelical Anglicans like William Wilberforce provided the spiritual impetus that made his island nation willing to pay a steep price in lives and treasure for a cause whose reward was largely intangible.

Sowell’s discussion of the black family delivers another blow to conventional wisdom. The author points out that between 1890 and 1940 African-Americans actually had slightly higher marriage rates than whites--a distinction that, since 1960, has more than disappeared. These facts suggest the implausibility of using the "legacy of slavery" to explain social pathologies that only emerged a century after the fact.

History is what it is--warts and all. If major kudos go to the British for eliminating slavery, so be it--no matter how grating that fact might be for those who equate Western civilization with racism. More importantly, as Sowell notes, the shame and guilt that often poison race relations are actually mitigated by looking the facts about slavery square in the face. The truth, he believes, will set us free.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


A Cal State sociology professor recently convinced the education pooh-bahs in San Bernardino of the need to incorporate "Ebonics" into their curriculum--at least on a limited basis. By giving official linguistic recognition and respect to what most people consider street-talk, these officials hope to peak the interest of marginal students and to discourage them from dropping out of school.

Unfortunately, none of these lofty objectives were achieved by Oakland’s experiment in substandard English. And now Professor Thomas Sowell has written an extended essay--contained in the book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals--that helps explain why.

Ebonics, Sowell argues, is not a distinctive black language. Instead, it is a dialect with an undistinguished pedigree that includes Southerners of both races and extends back to the borderlands between Britain and Scotland. Terms like "yawl," "dis," and "dat" as well as verbal constructs like "I be" and "she ain’t" were common in the more primitive regions of those countries--areas which provided a substantial number of emigrants to the American South. Thus, what some academics have labeled "Ebonics" is really an Anglo-Saxon export associated with a pre-Enlightenment "cracker" culture.

Characteristics of that culture in America have been described by observers ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to W.E.B. DuBois: less interest in education, anemic entrepreneurial activity, undisciplined work habits, emphasis on immediate gratification, intoxication, ostentatious display, an exaggerated sense of personal pride, frequent duels, and lax sexual mores. These accounts focus, by and large, on white "redneck" culture. But the same traits naturally defined most of the non-white inhabitants of the South who had no contact with the African cultures from which they were s eparated by thousands of miles and several generations.

Significantly, not all black Americans (and not all white Southerners) were part of or remained tied to this culture that originated in foreign territories where lawlessness made an emphasis on long-range planning futile. Sowell points to blacks in the North whose manners and speech patterns were reflective of those found in the population among which they lived--at least prior to the unwelcome northern migration of Southern blacks in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Sowell also notes the impact of schools established in the South after the Civil War by religiously-motivated New Englanders. These "New England enclaves" not only produced a disproportionate share of black leaders, they also inculcated in their students an ethic that replaced the dysfunctional ethos in which they had been immersed from birth. DuBois himself praised these efforts as "the finest thing in American history."

West Indian migrants constitute a third group whose stunning accomplishments have been inversely related to their participation in "redneck" culture. These individuals, also exposed to the "legacy of slavery" in the Caribbean, became entrepreneurs in Harlem, comprised a huge percentage of black graduates at Ivy League schools, and in the 1930’s were actually less likely than whites to spend time in New York’s Sing Sing Prison.

The upshot of Sowell's analysis is this: Ebonics is more closely associated with a dysfunctional redneck culture than with any distinctive black identity. As the Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal observed, "the so-called 'Negro dialect' is simply a variation on the ordinary Southern accent."

The utter irony of the Ebonics fad is that while most whites and many blacks have escaped the clutches of this once-prevalent culture, some intellectuals seem hell-bent on perpetuating and even expanding its scope. By identifying the language of redneck culture with racial pride, academics succeed in linking racial identity with a world of violence, ignorance, and hair-trigger resentment--with values nowadays commercially disseminated via gangsta rap. No wonder Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. recently lamented that black youths commonly view educational accomplishment as selling out to "da man."

The KKK would be ecstatic with these results--not having the wit to see that they exist as cousins in the same cultural backwater. Misery loves company.