Black identity has become a hot item in the movies, on television, and in the schools and colleges. But few people are aware of how much of what passes as black identity today, including “black English,” has its roots in the history of those whites who were called “rednecks” and “crackers” centuries ago in Britain, before they ever crossed the Atlantic and settled in the South.
Saying “acrost” for “across” or “ax” for “ask” are today considered to be part of black English. But this way of talking was common centuries ago in those regions of Britain from which white Southerners came. They brought with them more than their own dialect. They brought a whole way of life that made antebellum white Southerners very different from white Northerners.
Violence was far more common in the South — and in those parts of Britain from which Southerners came. So was illegitimacy, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery. All of this would become part of the cultural legacy of blacks, who lived for centuries in the midst of the redneck culture of the South.
That culture was as notable for what it did not have as for what it had. It did not emphasize education, for example, or intellectual interests in general.
Illiteracy was far more common among whites in the antebellum South than among whites in the North, and of course the blacks held in bondage in the South were virtually all illiterate. On into the early 20th century, Southern whites scored lower on mental tests than whites in other parts of the country, as blacks continued to do.
Many aspects of Southern life that some observers have attributed to race or racism, or to slavery, were common to Southern blacks and whites alike — and were common in those parts of Britain from which Southern whites came, where there were no slaves and where most people had never seen anyone black.
Most Southern blacks and whites moved away from that redneck culture over the generations, as its consequences proved to be counterproductive or even disastrous. But it survives today among the poorest and least educated ghetto blacks.
This is a much bigger story than can fit into a newspaper column, which is why I wrote my book, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.”
White liberals come into this story because, since the 1960s, they have been aiding and abetting a counterproductive ghetto lifestyle that is essentially a remnant of the redneck culture which handicapped Southern whites and blacks alike for generations.
Many among the intelligentsia portray the black redneck culture today as the only “authentic” black culture and even glamorize it. They denounce any criticism of the ghetto lifestyle or any attempt to change it.
Teachers are not supposed to correct black youngsters who speak “black English” and no one is supposed to be judgmental about the whole lifestyle of black rednecks. In that culture, belligerence is considered being manly and crudity is considered cool, while being civilized is regarded as “acting white.”
These are devastating, self-imposed handicaps that prevent many young ghetto blacks from getting a decent education or an opportunity to rise to higher levels.
Multiculturalism today celebrates all cultures but it is the poor who ultimately pay the price of that celebration in stunted development, missed opportunities and blighted lives.
No one today would dare to do what Northern missionaries did after the Civil War, set up schools for newly freed black children in the South with the explicit purpose of removing them from the redneck culture that was holding back both races there.
A wholly disproportionate number of future black leaders and pioneers in many fields came out of the relatively few and small enclaves of Northern culture deliberately planted in the post-Civil War South. What they did worked and what the multiculturalists are doing today repeatedly fails.
But results are no longer the test. The test is whether what you say makes you feel good as someone who is a “friend” of blacks. But friends like that can do more damage than enemies.
This post originally appeared in Capitalism Magazine in May 2005.