Bleaching the black

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on June 29, 2018

Beyond words:Thomas Sowell argues that ghetto creations such as gangsta rap echo the “violence, arrogance, loose sexuality” that was “common for centuries in white redneck culture”   -  ISTOCK.COM

Making sense of the curious beast called culture — what forms or deforms it, whether it determines success, failure or criminality, and if it is beyond reproach

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil… This is thy lot, the portion of thy measures from me.” Jeremiah 13:23.

God, the blighted bigot, in the Book of Jeremiah, seems to provide an early, biblical version of Messrs Murray-Hernnstein. In 1994, the “properly accredited” Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein breached a malignant taboo about race and IQ and caused a national argument in the US. In their book The Bell Curve (subtitled Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life), they discussed ethnic differences in intelligence, cognitive ability and social behaviour, and argued that human intelligence was a reliable predictor of where a person will end up in life. Measured in the metric of IQ, it could determine outcomes as varied as school performance, income, performance at work, out-of-wedlock birth, criminality, health and mortality, amongst others. More importantly, The Bell Curve advanced the slant that the black American/white American difference in intelligence (15 points on the IQ scale — a full standard deviation), like all human physical attributes, was substantially genetic.

The Bell Curve’s empirical claims were dovetailed into a policy prescription by the authors.: “The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”

What seemed like a vile statement was, in a sense, a sort of reworking of Thomas Sowell’s widely-stated position on blacks and the welfare state and IQ. According to Sowell, in 1960, before the expansion of the welfare state, 22 per cent of black children were born to unmarried women. By 1994, the figure stood at 70 per cent.

Unlike Murray, who has been called a confirmed, certified racist, Sowell is a black economist and social theorist. He was born to a housemaid, was fatherless, and was the first in his family to study beyond sixth grade.

Perhaps the most definitive response to Murray-Hernnstein came from Richard Nisbett, one of America’s most lauded social psychologists, who refuted the evidence for genetic determination of the white/black gap. As maintained by Nisbett, it’s predominantly the environment. And culture. And he called forth the environmental correlates of IQ for the black underclass: poverty, poor prenatal care and nutrition, relative infrequency of breastfeeding, deficiency of vitamins and minerals, lead poisoning, foetal alcohol poisoning, greater exposure to asthma-causing pollution, emotional trauma, broken homes, low parental supervision, poor schools and neighbourhoods, less-desirable peers and disruption of education.

Sowell believes that all of these are products of the “black redneck” culture of audaciousness and raucousness and hair-trigger violence and gangsta rap that has become an inviolable symbol of black racial identity. Why is it, asks Sowell, that blacks from the West Indies, who also had a history of enslavement, brought with them to the US a different culture, produced differing outcomes (from the native-born black population) in entrepreneurship, education, and imprisonment rates? What the two groups of blacks shared was a history of enslavement, but not the influence of the repellent Southern white redneck culture that they appropriated.

Sowell draws attention to the fact that the first black borough presidents of Manhattan were West Indians. As late as 1970, the highest-ranking blacks in New York’s police department were West Indians, as were all the black federal judges in the city. The 1970 census showed that black West Indian families in the New York metropolitan area had 28 per cent higher incomes than the families of American blacks. The incomes of second-generation West Indian families living in the same area exceeded that of black families by 58 per cent. Studies published in 2004 indicated that an absolute majority of the black alumni of Harvard were either West Indian or African immigrants, or the children of these immigrants.

Sowell’s criticism of black inner-city culture in all his books is dogged and unwavering. Middle-class behaviour, he says, is seen by African-Americans as inauthentic, while a flagrantly noticeable low-class conduct is seen as genuinely black. Amongst ghetto blacks there is a hostility towards black students doing well in school. In the hood, any form of academic achievement is seen as “acting white” and invites punishment by ostracism and/or violence. The weak man is a “pussy nigga”. Violence and murder have become honourable. The outlaw is worshipped. Gangsta rap has become something of an instruction manual for inner-city speech ways. Conservatives (black and white) keep tying that up with the “13% of the population is responsible for 50% of the homicides of America” statistic.

Is it a taboo of a different order to make a statement on cultural deficiencies? Is it a matter so toxic that it may never be raised? Is culture beyond reproach? For his moral criticism of the pathologies of black culture, Sowell has been called “Capitalism’s new Livingstone in blackface”. Other black conservatives saying similar things have been called “frustrated slaves crawling back to the plantation”. Is Sowell guilty of sleeping with the enemy?

But the more important question is whether cultural values have an effect on behaviour? Do they determine success? Would cultural deformities produce criminal outcomes? It wouldn’t be hard to concede that culture, while being a product of external circumstances such as poverty and oppression, can also be an instrument in shaping those circumstances.

Albert Camus, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, says: “Men express themselves in harmony with their land. And superiority, as far as culture is concerned, lies in this harmony and nothing else. There are no higher or lower cultures.” It puts one in mind of what Wynton Marsalis, the American trumpeter, had once said about jazz:

“Jazz is something Negroes invented and it said the most profound things about us and the way we look at things. It is the nobility of the race put into sound; it is the sensuousness of romance in our dialects; it is the picture of the people in all their glory, which is what swinging is.”

But does Camus lead us to where the black man in the inner-city might have reached? These are the lyrics of ‘Gettin’ Some Head’ by rapper Lil Wayne. In 2012, Wayne pulled ahead of Elvis Presley as the male with the most entries in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Ridin with a bitch I call hot mouth Shelly/ She pop them ecstasies and get that cottonmouth heavy/ I’m a fly ass nigga take a look at me bitch/ Now ho go and tell the cops I gotta crook in my dick/Straight gut a bitch open like a hook in a fish/ You know me I smoke a blunt while I’m getting brain/ Stick a finger in her butt while I’m getting brain


Ambarish Satwik


Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer;

Published on June 29, 2018

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