The Strange Origins of Thomas Sowell's Theory of Gangsta Rap Culture


Mr. Wiseman is an assistant editor at HNN.

Tartans and Bling: Thomas Sowell’s Tracing of Urban Black Culture to the Grady McWhiney’s 'Celtic Fringe'

Thomas Sowell is perhaps the most unexpected heir to the legacy of recently deceased historian Grady McWhiney. Outside of their shared, conservative political leanings, they are quite different. Thomas Sowell is an African-American economist, columnist and historian born in the South (North Carolina), raised and educated in the North (Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago) who admittedly found going back to the South painful and awkward. The recently deceased Grady McWhiney, on the other hand, was an influential and controversial historian of the South, both in residence and in specialty, who in his book Cracker Culture referred to the Civil War as the “War of Southern Independence,” and who was the former president of the League of the South, a neo-confederate organization that desires a ‘free and independent Southern republic,’ and has been accused by some as a hate group. Yet from different sides of the continental, racial, and social divide, Sowell chooses to rely on McWhiney to argue that urban black culture developed from antebellum, southern white culture. In Sowell’s essay “Black Rednecks and White Liberals,” which is included in a collection of essays of the same name, he refers to McWhiney’s Cracker Culture more than two dozen times and many of Sowell’s other resources are the same ones McWhiney used in his own research. To say that Sowell uses McWhiney as a source is an understatement: in fact, Sowell’s entire thesis is based on the statements made in McWhiney’s Cracker Culture and would fall apart without it.

In Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South, McWhiney postulates that southern culture is in fact a derivative of the culture of the pre-Anglicized, Celtic-dominated regions of the British Isles, which he calls the “Celtic fringe.” People from this region brought this culture to the southern United States primarily in the 17th and 18th centuries, with trappings of their clannish, pastoral lifestyle fitting easily into the sparsely peopled southern backwoods (as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon dominated urban North). McWhiney supports his theory by comparing surnames from various Celt-dominated regions of the British Isles to those mentioned in immigration documents, legal settlements and US census data taken from the antebellum south; and by comparing cultural ‘traits.’ The traits McWhiney uses are broad, inexact terms about Celts and southerners which have been rendered by hostile third parties: they are described as pleasure seeking, distrustful of education and institutions, proud to the point of being violent, sensual, and lazy.

Sowell builds upon McWhiney’s theory about the Celtic origin of southern culture and takes it a step further. He hypothesizes that the southern “crackers,” or as Sowell refers to them, “rednecks” (a term which McWhiney never uses), are the source of urban black culture. He then deems this culture as" chaotic, counterproductive, dangerous and self-destructive" pointing particularly to the"gangsta rap" subculture. In the turn of 20th century, southern blacks, the vast majority of whom were freed slaves or their descendants, moved to the northern urban centers. These “black rednecks” brought their counterproductive culture with them which, Sowell believes, may have suited the Celts back in Scotland and Ireland, but only proved to hold blacks back. Upon the mass migration of southern black to northern cities, relations between blacks and whites deteriorated. When the black rednecks moved north, whites there became hostile to all blacks. Sowell cites cases of residential segregation and an increase in white racism coinciding with an influx of southern blacks into northern cities; and laws that were enacted in northern cities, such as Portland, that were not there before southern blacks moved up. This, Sowell claims, is evidence that white racism was not based on skin color but rather on cultural differences and that many of the woes that African-Americans currently suffer come not from racism or slavery, but from a deluded sense of what is"authentic" black culture. Since the 60’s and the Civil Rights Movement, states Sowell, various “white liberals” have valued black redneck culture as the only authentic black culture. This in turn has left successful blacks stigmatized as unauthentic. Sowell believes that in order for blacks to progress in American society they need to shed the illusion that the ghetto culture of “black rednecks” is authentic when in fact, to him, it has its origins in white culture.

Sowell relies on McWhiney for two primary reasons. First, McWhiney’s formula, namely that if culture A is similar to culture B then culture B is based on culture A, lends itself well to Sowell's argument: connecting what he considers a negative aspect of black culture to white culture, thereby eliminating its “authenticity” as a form of African-American self-expression. The Celts were described (in logs of English visitors to Ireland and Scotland) as violent, slovenly, lazy, and hedonistic, which McWhiney compares to similar descriptions of dirty, slothful, belligerent behavior in southerners made by northerners. The problem is that derogatory terms are often used by any group in power when referring to a group under their thrall (compare how some Japanese characterized Koreans or how some white Americans currently speak about Mexicans). By the logic put forward in Cracker Culture Mexicans too are the inheritors of Celtic Culture. When McWhiney encounters exceptions to his formula he neatly steps around them. When people with English surnames displayed cracker-like behavior, they were just conforming to the dominant Celtic culture of the south. Likewise people with Celtic surnames who do not conform to the stereotype were Yankee wannabees and exceptions to the rule. Sowell resorts to the same formula: southern blacks, since they too are defined by the same negative traits, are in their turn inheritors of Celtic culture. In saying this, Sowell is denying that slaves retained any of their own culture or that subsequent generations of African-Americans, whether free or slave, did not develop a culture of their own.

Both Sowell and McWhiney use their terms ambiguously. McWhiney’s Cracker Culture is sometimes identified with a specific group of backwoods-dwelling southerners, sometimes with southerners as a whole. Sowell is unclear as to who exactly make up the “black redneck” contingent, for at times he seems to target “ghetto thugs” and “gangsta rappers.” He also criticizes any black who questions racial policy in America as somehow participating or least encouraging in “black redneck” culture. In identifying southern culture with that of Celts, Grady McWhiney was trying to create a southern heritage that preceded the Civil War and even colonialism, and to instill a sense of pride and legitimacy. He took the negative stereotype about southerners (which still exists today as attested by the weight that the term “redneck” still carries) and Celts and put them in a more positive light: they were leisure-loving, independent minded, proud people who were loyal to their clan and family. Unfortunately, McWhiney's obvious lack of objectivity and tendentiousness (his self interest as a Celt and a southerner is obvious throughout the text) undermines his analysis. Sowell's work is equally slanted but in a different direction. McWhiney’s noble cracker becomes Sowell’s backwards redneck. Sowell strives to create a redneck boogeyman to scare African-Americans away from a culture he believes will hamper their emergence into the middle class.

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Bill Brewer - 1/12/2007

I grew up in the South and witnessed most of what Sowell describes.

The idea that cultures act the way Sowell/McWhiney describe is plausible. Cultures that compete in a more multi-cultural milieu evolve (e.g., the Northern experience). Those that dominate a whole region freeze in place (the Southern experience).

Jason Blake Keuter - 8/13/2006

You need to chill. As for me, I think I'll try that sarcasm thing you were talking about.

Jason Blake Keuter - 8/13/2006


Assistant Editor - 8/11/2006

My job was to analyze the two pieces in question, not make any diagnostics about black or white culture.

I find your comment useless, since it wasn't directed at what I was talking about, the flaws of both McWhiney and Sowell's argument.

Sarcasm is an exellent way of showing how smart you are without doing anything productive with that intelligence.

Marc Wiseman

Michael Dunning - 8/11/2006

Dear lord, I think the sarcasm is actually dripping from my screen!

Jason Blake Keuter - 8/11/2006

urban black culture is a healthy incubation ground for economic advancement, social cohesion and peace and realizing hopes of integration and an end to racism.