Dissecting Social Justice in Schools with Thomas Sowell

by James A. Bacon

A guiding premise of the Northam administration’s education policy is that Virginia’s system of public education is guilty of systemic racism. Informed by social-justice sensibilities, Northam hopes to close the achievement gap between racial/ethnic groups by making the school curriculum more “culturally relevant” for minority students, training teachers in culturally relevant instruction, recruiting more teachers of color, and presenting a more “inclusive” version of American history.

I have long argued that most of these supposed remedies will accomplish little to close the achievement gap, that, in fact, they might do actual harm. The ideas Northam is implementing have been incubating for years. Thomas Sowell was writing about them in his 2006 book, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.” Sowell’s arguments are every bit as relevant today as they were 15 years ago, perhaps even more so.

Sowell’s book is so rich that it is impossible for me to do it justice in a brief column, but I will try to hit the highlights as they apply to the debate over K-12 education in Virginia today.

The foundational thesis of the book is encapsulated in the title phrase “black rednecks.” Sowell, who has written extensively about minorities around the world from Jews and overseas Chinese to Armenians and Volga Germans, believes that an ethnic groups’ cultures persist over long periods of time and cultural traits shape how the groups respond to the challenges confronting them.

In the case of Africans who were brought to America as slaves, they were stripped of most of their African culture and marinated in the dominant culture of southern whites for several centuries. The whites who settled the South and Appalachia came from different areas of the British isles and northern Europe than the whites who settled the northern colonies, and their culture was very different, too. Southern and Appalachian whites were rowdier, less industrious, looser in their sexual behavior, more obsessed with protecting their honor, and more prone to violence, Critically, they placed less value on education than did their northern counterparts. Southern blacks absorbed this culture, Sowell contends. When southern whites and blacks migrated to northern states during the industrial revolution, the northerners stigmatized both groups for their undesirable behavior. (Regarding the Appalachian transplants, think “Hillbilly Elegy.”)

Sowell contrasts southern attitudes towards education with Puritan- and Quaker-influenced attitudes in northern states. Free blacks who moved to northern states absorbed the Yankee emphasis on education, and their descendants typically outperformed southern whites in indices of literacy and educational achievement. But free blacks were overwhelmed in number by southern blacks, and the black redneck culture largely prevailed.

Culture matters, Sowell contends. By attributing all the ills in the African-American community to racism, social-justice thinking does blacks a huge dis-service. The onus falls on whites, not blacks, to do all the changing.

External explanations require no painful internal changes to the black population but leave all changes to whites, who are seen as needing to be harangued, threatened, or otherwise forced to change. In short, prevailing explanations provide an alibi for those who lag. …

Those who provide black rednecks with alibis do not favor to them, to other blacks, or the larger society in which we all live. In American society, achievement is what ultimately brings respect, including self-respect. Only for those who have written off blacks’ potential for achievement will alibis be an acceptable substitute. 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.

American scholarship has focused overwhelmingly on the effects of slavery, racial discrimination and segregation as explanatory factors for lagging black educational achievement. It is impossible to deny the impact of anti-literacy laws and a century of separate-but-unequal school funding. But Sowell takes a different path: In “Black Rednecks” he seeks out examples of black success. Thanks in part to the Reconstruction-era effort of Yankee missionaries who moved south to start schools for former slaves, American blacks made one of the most rapid advances in literacy in history. A propensity for learning and achievement persisted in some quarters even through segregation.

Sowell highlights the achievement of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. In 1899, he says, there were four academic public high schools in the city — three white and one black. In standardized test scores given that year, the black students at Dunbar averaged higher test scores than students in two of the three white schools. Many of its graduates went on to earn degrees in higher education in an era when only a small percentage of the population went to college. The high school produced an insanely disproportionate number of outstanding black professionals and leaders in the early 20th century. According to modern-day theory, such success should have been impossible. “During the years of Dunbar’s success,” writes Sowell, “it was starved for funds and some of its classes had more than 40 students.”

Sowell cites many other examples of black academic success. The common denominators are setting high expectations, requiring self discipline, and demanding hard work. The cultural proclivity for hard work in school, he suggests, is the primary differentiator in outcomes between racial/ethnic groups. “The biggest secret is that there are no secrets, unless work is a secret. Work seems to be the only four-letter word that cannot be used in public today.”

Sowell addresses the pernicious doctrine, common among social engineers, that black students cannot achieve a quality education unless they mix with white children and attend schools with black teachers. Aside from the fact that there have been many high-achieving mostly black schools (often charter schools) with mostly white teachers, it is abundantly evident that Asian students manage to out-perform all other racial/ethnic groups (including whites) in white-dominated schools without teachers that “look like them.”

“The … dogma that black children require a separate, racially oriented or “Afrocentric” education has seized the imagination of many, with no … empirical evidence to support it,” writes Sowell. “The vision has spawned such subsidiary notions as a need for racial ‘role models’ for inspiration and a ‘critical mass’ of black students in order for these students to feel socially comfortable enough to do their best.”

One of the few studies to examine the facts at the time of his writing, Increasing Faculty Diversity, found no empirical evidence to support such beliefs. Moreover, says Sowell, the evidence suggests that schools with higher percentages of black schoolmates can be detrimental to black achievement. If an anti-intellectual black subculture takes hold, a pervasive pattern arises of not only neglecting school work but of disdaining black students who apply themselves, speak in standard English, or otherwise “act white.” The students most adversely affected are middle-class blacks who otherwise would be expected to out-perform their lower-income counterparts.

On the prevalence of “ghetto speech” even among middle-class black youth, Sowell opines, it is popularly said that the grammatical peculiarities derive from African speech patterns. In point of fact, he says, the same words and phrases stem from southern white speech, which in turn can be traced to parts of Great Britain from where the whites’ ancestors came. In other words, there is nothing “authentically black” about such speech at all. But those who advocate teaching in this idiom would isolate black children from the educational, professional and business mainstream where standard English is spoken — even as people around the world seek to speak standard English as the universal language of science and commerce.

One concluding observation from Sowell:

Despite many pious expressions of goodwill and hope for improvements in the education of minority students, few are prepared to do what it takes, including taking on entrenched vested interests in the schools of education, the teachers’ unions, and state, local, and national educational bureaucracies. Even fewer are prepared to challenge black students to work harder and abandon the counter-productive notion that seeking educational excellence is “acting white.”

If Sowell were writing today, he might have updated the list of special interests that must be overcome to include the diversity consulting business. An entire industry has arisen around the propagation of social-justice ideas. That industry can prosper only as long as it can nurture a sense of grievance. But as long as the prevailing ideology that only whites must change and, as victims, blacks have no agency to improve their lives, educational inequality is bound to get worse, not better.

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44 responses to “Dissecting Social Justice in Schools with Thomas Sowell

  1. Sowell’s 56th book (published on his 90th birthday – June 30, 2020) is Charter Schools and Their Enemies.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_Schools_and_Their_Enemies

    Most interesting about the book may be the criticism. Per Wikiprdia … As education historian Diane Ravitch explains, charter schools consist only of “the most motivated students and their families.”

    Wait. I though systemic racism was the issue. How can inner city charter schools achieve great results through “motivated students and their families” when all have been victims of systemic racism?

    • Bingo. The problem does not lie with white people. They are the ones, along with many others, including blacks like Sowell, who are trying to solve the problem with remedies like school choice, and proven solutions that work within all schools, none of which have anything to race, except to extent race baiters use false race claims that thwart solutions that will diminish their power to milk the system for more money and votes. Think Northam and his cronies.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    According the to Walter Williams the decline in black education is linked to a decline in black culture. Williams was also a fan of Sowell. He makes his case in this column:
    http://walterewilliams.com/black-education-decline/

    • The late, great Walter Williams asked some good questions …

      “Let’s look at a bit of history to raise some questions about the mayor’s diversity hypothesis. Dr. Thomas Sowell provides some interesting statistics about Stuyvesant High School in his book “Wealth, Poverty and Politics.” He reports that, “In 1938, the proportion of blacks attending Stuyvesant High School, a specialized school, was almost as high as the proportion of blacks in the population of New York City.” Since then, it has spiraled downward. In 1979, blacks were 12.9% of students at Stuyvesant, falling to 4.8% in 1995. By 2012, The New York Times reported that blacks were 1.2% of the student body.

      What explains the decline? None of the usual explanations for racial disparities make sense. In other words, would one want to argue that there was less racial discrimination in 1938? Or, argue that in 1938 the “legacy of slavery” had not taken effect whereby now it is in full bloom?”

      • Yes, exactly right.

        Another words, we have been, are being, fed a pack of lies by the race mongers. The real victims of this despicable race mongering are disadvantaged kids in America of all colors. And, also, all kids of all colors in American schools today, and for the past 50 years, at the least.

        • The key great mistake, according to folks like Sowell and Walter Williams, and their ilk, was when LBJ, shorty before he left office, gave a speech that, in effect, turned the Federal civil rights initiative into a Federal money giveaway program. This speech, in effect, changed everything. Now, there was money, big money, huge money, to be made off race. And LBJ had locked in a constituency for his party, and his own legacy, now already damaged heavily by Viet Nam debacle.

          This locked race into a long lasting business, one that not only thwarted real solutions to old problems, but created many more new problems, including many more classes and kinds of aggrieved people. This also destroyed vibrant cultures across America, as it also to locked more and more folks of different and expanding kinds into generations of poverty and spiritual despair, and anger and socially destructive behaviors, driven by imagined grievance. The political elite, political parties, and universities now sold these expanding lies like drugs, addicting millions of Americans of all sorts and kinds. This of course spread everywhere across America, into Appalachia for one of many examples.

          Indeed, our entire political system has worked to drive and thrive off this poison injected into society, the rise of wedge politics going on steroids in late 1980’s for example.

          Everyone has dirty hands here. And now it is quite literally tearing our country apart right before our very eyes, everyday on TV, all this harm driven by our own leaders.

          So now the harm seems intractable, given that so many of our leaders have a stake in America’s and its people’s misery, hated, and despair, and are working hard, is if in a frenzy to keep it alive, pitting groups of us one against the other, all for the short term political and monetary advantage of our leaders fighting with one another. It is a vicious very close to, if not now, out of control.

  3. Wait… I thought talking about race instead of class and economic disadvantaged regardless of race is where we ran off the rails. No?

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Walter Williams words Mr. Larry. Take it up with him when you get to heaven.

    • That K-12 has failed was evident on Wednesday. Wonder how many ED were in the crowd, assuming raccoon hats with buffalo horns are prohibitively expensive?

      John Prine could put the title to song,
      “While dissecting social justice,
      In Education with Thomas Sowell,
      An American Flag with the gum on the back,
      Fell out on the floor.”

      Of course education, unlike climate, has so many highly accurate instruments for measuring effects and comparing to conditions that one can immediately discard theories that don’t fiit the observations… or change the observations. One or t’other.

    • No James… right here in BR… all kinds of complaints about race when they say it should not be. No Sowell or Williams.. old school about race.. we need to move away from race and focus on economically disadvantaged.

      Too late for heaven!!

  4. so I got curious about whether or not ANY public schools in Virginia actually did well with ED economically disadvantaged kids.. so I did this retrieval from VDOE – ED SOL Reading scores… note the various geographic locations:

    Fairfax County Kent Gardens Elementary 100
    Fairfax County Langley High 100
    Fairfax County Thomas Jefferson High for Science and Technology 100
    Richmond City Open High 100
    Richmond City Richmond Community High 100
    Virginia Beach City Green Run Collegiate 100
    Virginia Beach City Old Donation School 100
    Rockbridge County Mountain View Elementary 96.43
    Virginia Beach City Floyd Kellam High 96.15
    Henrico County Deep Run High 96
    Fairfax County Poplar Tree Elementary 95.83
    Loudoun County Briar Woods High 95.65
    Russell County Belfast Elementary 95.24
    Virginia Beach City Shelton Park Elementary 94.74
    West Point West Point High 94.74
    Highland County Highland High 94.44
    Washington County Watauga Elementary 94.4
    Greene County William Monroe High 94.29
    Scott County Hilton Elementary 94.29
    Virginia Beach City Kingston Elementary 93.55
    Arlington County Arlington Traditional 93.18
    Fairfax County Great Falls Elementary 92.86
    Loudoun County Freedom High 92.86
    Roanoke County Northside High 92.86
    Virginia Beach City North Landing Elementary 92.86
    Scott County Yuma Elementary 92.68
    Washington County Abingdon Elementary 92.34
    York County Tabb High 92.31
    Washington County High Point Elementary 92.17
    Dickenson County Ervinton Elementary 92.11
    Virginia Beach City Kempsville High 91.79
    Fairfax County Churchill Road Elementary 91.67
    Washington County John S. Battle High 91.67
    Washington County Patrick Henry High 91.38
    Loudoun County Emerick Elementary 91.3
    Virginia Beach City Tallwood Elementary 91.11
    Bedford County Jefferson Forest High 90.7
    Pittsylvania County John L. Hurt Elementary 90.7
    Fairfax County Cooper Middle 90.48
    Grayson County Fairview Elementary 90.48
    Bristol City Washington-Lee Elementary 90.41
    Prince William County Charles J. Colgan Sr. High 90.13
    Prince William County Mary G. Porter Traditional 90.07
    Falls Church City George Mason High 90

    • Now, divide them into congressional districts of D and R.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      I saw my old school Briar Woods on your list. Economically disadvantaged. What is the exact criteria for this label?

      • It’s a VDOE buil-a-table retrieve for all schools in Virginia for SOL reading scores for only ED – economically disadvantaged.

        There are about 1780 individual schools and I grabbed a couple dozen at the top… on one post then a couple dozen at the botton for the second post.

        I did not post the two-dozen or so schools who had less than 50 ED in the school. I can, upon request.

        • James Wyatt Whitehead V

          Yes Mr. Larry I know that. I have used this table many times. But what does VDOE define as economically disadvantaged? What is the criteria?

          • James Wyatt Whitehead V

            Thanks Mr. Larry. The key factor in identifying economically disadvantaged is the eligibility for free and reduced lunch. Looking at Fauquier and Loudoun eligibility requirements, it seems to be tied to income and the status of the child. Complicated form to fill out too. It was interesting to see the free and reduced lunch program is from the Richard Russell National School Lunch Act. Dick Russell was the Georgia Senator who held up civil rights legislation in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

          • talking to some folks that actually do that kind of qualifying.

            If a kid is receiving health care from Medicaid, they pretty much are automatic. People might be surprised at how many kids are in that situation. And lunch is not necessarily totally free – it could be reduced based on income – means testing.

            As the data from VDOE shows – despite the oft-repeated claim that Va Public Schools are a failure especially with ED kids, the facts are that there are many, many schools across the state in many counties both urban and rural that have SOL scores in the 90’s.

  5. so now, look at the SOL reading for economically disadvantaged

    low scores – again note the geography

    Charlottesville City Greenbrier Elementary 36.76
    Norfolk City William H. Ruffner Middle 36.73
    Fairfax County Herndon Elementary 36.62
    Richmond City Chimborazo Elementary 36.13
    Fairfax County Cunningham Park Elementary 35.8
    Fairfax County Bryant High 35.62
    Newport News City Horace H. Epes Elementary 35.58
    Norfolk City St. Helena Elementary 35.29
    Petersburg City Lakemont Elementary 34.94
    Fairfax County Bailey’s Upper Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences 34.72
    Harrisonburg City Keister Elementary 34.48
    Loudoun County Frances Hazel Reid Elementary 34.41
    Newport News City Hidenwood Elementary 34.34
    Newport News City Newsome Park Elementary 34.01
    Alexandria City Mount Vernon Elementary 33.64
    Richmond City Woodville Elementary 33.52
    Norfolk City James Monroe Elementary 32.88
    Norfolk City Jacox Elementary 31.55
    Richmond City George W. Carver Elementary 31.53
    Albemarle County Paul H. Cale Elementary 30.43
    Danville City Woodrow Wilson Intermediate 26.34
    Richmond City Martin Luther King Jr. Middle 26.15
    Fairfax County Fairfax County Adult High 22.22
    Richmond City Fairfield Court Elementary 21.94
    Richmond City Richmond Alternative School 18.31

    • Larry … pay attention.

      Bryant High is actually Bryant Alternative High School.
      Fairfax County Adult High is not a typical high school either.
      Herndon Elementary School is 56.7% Hispanic. How many are English as a second language students?
      Bailey’s Upper Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences is 73.3% Hispanic

      I think you have to eliminate reading scores from alternate high schools and schools with large numbers of ESOL students if you want to make a point. Of course children who are still learning English are going to struggle to read English more than native English speakers.

      • I just did the retrieve that VDOE presents.

        Yes.. some are Charter and Alternative but VDOE does not seem to provide a way to filter – that I see…

        Part of the point is the reality that some of the best and some of the worst scores come from public schools.

        But some of the best scores actually come from plain old public schools… some public schools DO know how to successfully educate economically disadvantaged schools and don’t need “charters” or “success academies” to do it.

        Then I also wonder how the “Success Academy” approach would work in rural Virginia for good old boys kids… yeah that was bad…

        • Turns out, you can filter out these categories:

          English Learner
          Migrant
          homeless
          military connected
          Foster Care
          Disabled

          so here’s the filtered list (I think) of the top performing schools in the State – so quite a few public schools that do well at teaching economically disadvantaged kids… – and quite a few that are not.

          Fairfax County Kent Gardens Elementary 100
          Fairfax County Langley High 100
          Fairfax County Thomas Jefferson High for Science and Technology 100
          Richmond City Open High 100
          Richmond City Richmond Community High 100
          Virginia Beach City Green Run Collegiate 100
          Virginia Beach City Old Donation School 100
          Rockbridge County Mountain View Elementary 96.43
          Virginia Beach City Floyd Kellam High 96.15
          Henrico County Deep Run High 96
          Fairfax County Poplar Tree Elementary 95.83
          Loudoun County Briar Woods High 95.65
          Russell County Belfast Elementary 95.24
          Virginia Beach City Shelton Park Elementary 94.74
          West Point West Point High 94.74
          Highland County Highland High 94.44
          Washington County Watauga Elementary 94.4
          Greene County William Monroe High 94.29
          Scott County Hilton Elementary 94.29
          Virginia Beach City Kingston Elementary 93.55
          Arlington County Arlington Traditional 93.18
          Fairfax County Great Falls Elementary 92.86
          Loudoun County Freedom High 92.86
          Roanoke County Northside High 92.86
          Virginia Beach City North Landing Elementary 92.86
          Scott County Yuma Elementary 92.68
          Washington County Abingdon Elementary 92.34
          York County Tabb High 92.31
          Washington County High Point Elementary 92.17
          Dickenson County Ervinton Elementary 92.11
          Virginia Beach City Kempsville High 91.79
          Fairfax County Churchill Road Elementary 91.67
          Washington County John S. Battle High 91.67
          Washington County Patrick Henry High 91.38
          Loudoun County Emerick Elementary 91.3
          Virginia Beach City Tallwood Elementary 91.11
          Bedford County Jefferson Forest High 90.7
          Pittsylvania County John L. Hurt Elementary 90.7
          Fairfax County Cooper Middle 90.48
          Grayson County Fairview Elementary 90.48
          Bristol City Washington-Lee Elementary 90.41
          Prince William County Charles J. Colgan Sr. High 90.13
          Prince William County Mary G. Porter Traditional 90.07
          Falls Church City George Mason High 90

  6. Important Footnote: Sowell is writing today, last time I checked which was not long ago.

  7. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t critique its arguments, but I do see some issues in what Mr. Bacon presents in his column.

    Bacon writes, “When southern whites and blacks migrated to northern states during the industrial revolution, the northerners stigmatized both groups for their undesirable behavior…Sowell contrasts southern attitudes towards education with Puritan- and Quaker-influenced attitudes in northern states. Free blacks who moved to northern states absorbed the Yankee emphasis on education, and their descendants typically outperformed southern whites in indices of literacy and educational achievement. But free blacks were overwhelmed in number by southern blacks, and the black redneck culture largely prevailed….Culture matters, Sowell contends. ”

    I recently read “The Warmth of Other Suns,” written by Isabel Wilkerson and published in 2010, and this book debunks the popular idea that Southern Blacks brought bad behaviors (i.e., “Black Redneck culture”) with them to the North. Earlier in the book she writes, “Over time, the story of the Great Migration has suffered distortion that have miscast an entire population. From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West, they were blamed for the troubles of the cities they fled to. They were said to have brought family dysfunction with them, to more likely be out-of-work, unwed parents, and on welfare, than the people already there. In the past twenty years, however, an altogether different picture has emerged fromongoing research by scholars of the Great Migration. CLosere analysis of newly available census records has found that, contrary to conventional though, black migrants were more likely to be married and to raise their children in two-parent households, and less likely to bear children out of wedlock. ‘Compared with northern-born blacks,’ writes the sociologist Stewart E. Tolnay, a leading expert on the Migration, ‘southern migrants had higher rates of participation in the labor force, lower levels of unemployment, higher incomes, lower levels of poverty and welfare dependency.'”

    I concede that educational attainment or attitudes toward educational attainment is not specifically mentioned in what I quoted above, but higher rates of marriage and employment as compared to Northern Blacks does not support the idea Southern Blacks who migrated North were either “less industrious” or “looser in their sexual behavior.” It follows that they probably had higher levels of educational attainment as well, though I am not certain.

    Wilkerson attributes these differences between Southern Black emigrants and Northern Blacks not to different cultural values, but to the fact that emigrants are by definition exceptional. They have to pull together the resources, motivation, and courage to leave their family and communities and travel to a new one that may be very different from their own. It follows that people who are exceptional enough to successfully emigrate would also be exceptional in other ways, such as in gaining and retaining employment, staying off welfare, and remaining married. I suppose it’s possible that the emigrants were also exceptional in not fitting the “Black Redneck” mold, but then you would expect them to achieve at the same level as Northern Blacks, rather than outperform them.

    I do not find Mr. Sowell’s culture argument about Northern and Southern Blacks to be compelling in the face of the evidence I presented above. Further, I would suggest that the stigmatization of the Southern Black emigrants by Northern Blacks was due to competition for scarce resources (e.g., housing and jobs in still-racist Northern cities), and the stigmatization by Northern Whites was due to competition for the same jobs and housing (with working class White immigrants) and racism (all Whites).

    • Thank you for presenting an alternate interpretation of the Great migration.

      Do your sources tell you anything about the cultural attitudes of Southern and Appalachian whites to northern industrial centers? Is Sowell’s interpretation off there, too?

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      I would agree with you that the caricaturization of cotton belt Black Americans is wrong. It reeks with tales of Uncle Remus. The term of redneck blacks is just not right. At the same time I do understand what Sowell is pointing towards. A clear distinction between free antebellum blacks who embraced northern culture/values and those who came later during the Great Migration. You can find a similar distinction between Old Immigrants from the Age of Jacksons and the New Immigrants of the Gilded Age.

  8. For what it’s worth, I do agree that we do a disservice to Black Americans by treating them as if they have no agency or autonomy and acting as if only White people can solve their problems. I just don’t think that all or most of the problems faced by Black Americans as a population as compared to other Americans (e.g., lower life expectancy, higher morbidity, lower incomes and educational attainments, etc.) can all be laid at the feet of personal responsibility and/or some sort of “bad culture.”

    • How do you account for smoking cigarettes? Clearly, that has some connection to personal responsibility. Or do you lay smoking entirely at the feet of the tobacco companies (who haven’t been allowed to advertise for 30 years)?

      (I’m glad to know you we agree that white people do blacks a dis-service when they deny that black people have any agency. That’s a starting point we can build upon!)

  9. The top performing public schools in Virginia are better than many charter type schools and equal to the best.

    SOL Reading scores for ED kids (economically disadvantaged)
    ( data from VDOE build-a-table): – “social justice”:

    Division Name School Name Pass Rate
    Fairfax County Kent Gardens Elementary 100
    Fairfax County Langley High 100
    Fairfax County Thomas Jefferson High for Science and Technology 100
    Richmond City Open High 100
    Richmond City Richmond Community High 100
    Virginia Beach City Green Run Collegiate 100
    Virginia Beach City Old Donation School 100
    Rockbridge County Mountain View Elementary 96.43
    Virginia Beach City Floyd Kellam High 96.15
    Henrico County Deep Run High 96

  10. Regarding the summary of Thomas Sowell’s position on African American Vernacular English, i.e., Ebonics –

    “On the prevalence of “ghetto speech” even among middle-class black youth, Sowell opines, it is popularly said that the grammatical peculiarities derive from African speech patterns. In point of fact, he says, the same words and phrases stem from southern white speech, which in turn can be traced to parts of Great Britain from where the whites’ ancestors came. In other words, there is nothing “authentically black” about such speech at all. But those who advocate teaching in this idiom would isolate black children from the educational, professional and business mainstream where standard English is spoken — even as people around the world seek to speak standard English as the universal language of science and commerce.”

    Sowell is clearly not a linguist, and his thinking on this is way behind what I was being taught in undergraduate at the time he was writing these essays. I’m not Black, so I don’t know if there is a popular belief among Black Americans that the peculiarities of AAVE come from African languages, but I’ve never heard this before and it certainly isn’t coming from any work by academic linguists. I would disagree that there is nothing “authentically black” about the speech though – it is authentically Black because it is spoken by Black people. We don’t say that American English isn’t “authentically American” because so much of our vocabulary and pronunciation historically comes from French.

    Also, who today is advocating teaching in AAVE? I’m not sure who Mr. Sowell was arguing against in 2005, much less why you bring this up as if its relevant in 2021. Despite doubting this issue’s current relevance, I will point out that there are plenty of other countries where there are multiple languages and/or dialects, some “high” and some “low,” used in public education and they seem to do okay. No one worries that teaching American children in French in an immersion school somehow will damage their ability to speak English. So even if people were to teach school in AAVE, what’s the problem? They could still learn standard American English as part of their language curriculum.

  11. The discussion in BR about education and race some days is that we’re wrong to focus on race and instead it ought to be about economically disadvantaged…

    Then later, Thomas Sowell is brought up and we’re back to race.

    Which should it be?

  12. Perhaps we should stop saying to minority Americans, “We’ve studied your problem and here’s the solution,” and start asking, “What can we do to help?”

  13. Why are Sowell and Williams the same only African American thinkers
    you right wingers recognize?

    • False premise. They are not the only African American thinkers conservatives recognize. Shelby Steele is widely followed. On multiple occasions, I have profiled the work of Wilfred Reilly on this blog.

      • So we have competing narratives here in BR. Some are saying that the focus on race is wrong and others continue to focus on it.

        Sometimes it seems the two narratives come from the same folks – just on different days!

        • The only inconsistency is in your head, Larry. I have argued that many instances of what some people call “systemic racism” is not racism at all but a reflection of socio-economic inequalities. I also have argued that different sub-cultures in the U.S. system have different values, priorities and ways of looking at the world that affect their behavior and can be self-defeating. I acknowledge that racism exists, but I do not regard it as the automatic go-to explanation for statistical disparities between races and ethnic groups.

          • It’s right here in BR on any given day. Railing against race-based initiatives like CRT then the next day more swilling of race-based narratives.

            Argued both ways right here in BR… I’ll point it out next time which won’t be long.

  14. Well done, Jim, Sowell’s years of research provides a wealth of information on solving the black education issue but it runs up against the group think of the conventional wisdom that has not worked. Politicians like our governor choose to kick the can down the road because applying Sowell’s council is hard and unpopular.

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