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Dear Gavin,

As promised last time, we are now going to start getting into the vexed issue of black/white relations in America. But before we can do that, I have to address something else. We have to set the stage. That “something else” is what might be called the doctrine of primitivism.

This is not a characteristic of this ethnicity or that one, but rather it is an idea that drives many of our contemporary assumptions about ethnicity, particularly with regard to blacks and whites. When a society is as poorly educated as ours is, and this confusion is rampant, this muddle throws everyone into a doom loop.

So follow me closely here. Rousseau—a true white guy—is the one to whom we are indebted for this toxic notion. According to him, man in his native state is the “noble savage.” The reason things are as messed up in this world as they are is because of the corrupting influences of society, or civilization. That was the problem. If we had just followed the advice of Pink Floyd when they said we should “leave them kids alone,” we would all be a lot better off. This war with civilization was a thinly disguised war on Christianity, but that part of it is another topic for another time.

This is where we get the idea that a raw and untutored life is far more authentic than an instructed and polished one. This is where we started to think that what spontaneously erupts from our viscera is somehow authentic, and what is carefully thought out is artificial and contrived. This assumption is current in the church, incidentally, and is not just out there in the unbelieving world.

Now one of the many negative things that the slave trade managed to accomplish was that it imported millions of people from primitive tribes into a society that was just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Speaking of cultural advancement, there was about a thousand year gap. This was not just cruelty to the individuals involved, although it was obviously that, but it was also a form of cultural and generational cruelty. There was an advanced white society and then hapless slaves were uprooted from their home country and brought here. The gospel had been working in Europe for over a millennium, and was the fountainhead of many of our cultural blessings. But that same gospel had barely touched Africa—and when it touched Africa, it was also accompanied by slavers with whips. The end result was the side-by-side placement of two cultures with a radical disparity with regard to cultural development.

At the same time, one of the intellectual currents gaining ground in this white society was this idea from Rousseau that the primitive was more authentic, had more soul, and so on. The end result was a very weird situation where you had two distinct groups envying one another over things that were in complete opposition. The blacks could see that it was the civilization that gave whites the practical power, but the whites were starting to feel that civilization was not all that it was cracked up to be.

I am not here talking about actual facts, but rather about the narrative that began to take shape, in the minds of both whites and blacks. Ethnic mythologies began to take root. The problem was that the word primitive encompasses more than a wizened old black man singing the blues on the front porch of his cabin. That would be one of the gifts we received. But in primitive societies, the actual ones, not the ones imagined by Rousseau, we should remember that the two principal occupations of the men would be drinking and fighting. That would not be one of the gifts they bring. This whole set-up is why a bluesman like B.B. King would perform in a tux. He wanted to lean against the harsh and negative stereotype created by barrel houses and brothels.

A number of years ago I was conversing with a man who had done mission work in Uganda, and as it happened he was acquainted with the First Lady of that country. He asked her one time what he could bring over on his next trip, and she surprised him by saying that he should bring over videos of The Waltons. That threw him for a loop. The Waltons? Why The Waltons? Well, she said, in those videos, the men work.

Now at the same time that millions of blacks were taking enslaved root in the New World, something very similar was happening with hardscrabble whites. I am talking about the ancestors of our rednecks and crackers—all those immigrants who came to America from around the Irish Sea—northern English, lowland Scots, and the Scots/Irish. They came here in massive numbers as well, and the more established settlers made sure to bustle them westward. They settled in Appalachia, and because they liked to fight they served as a decent buffer between the more established colonies and the Indians.

As Thomas Sowell has shown in his wonderful essay Black Rednecks and White Liberals, this resulted in a cheek by jowl juxtaposition of two different kinds of primitive cultures—obviously different, but with numerous similarities and overlap. A couple of the similarities would be the drinking and fighting. What could go wrong?

After the Civil War, after the slaves were freed, the competition for work between crackers and freed blacks was fierce. At the same time, there was a great deal of what we now would call cultural appropriation—in both directions. Music, worship, violence, sexual mores, and so on.

In the meantime, the middle class Americans had a love/hate thing going with what all of this produced. They loved the music, for example, and for a while jazz and blues were the predominant forms of American music. At the same time, there were some downsides to this love affair with primitivism as well. Those would include things like the violence and the consequences of sexual laxity. So records and radios made it possible to enjoy these things at arms’ length. You could buy your mass produced primitivist authenticity at a record store, all while telling yourself delightful lies.

Now the reason I am going into all of this is because a lot of our black/white ethnic disruptions are the result of category confusion between actual ethnic characteristics, on the one hand, and primitivism as a cultural idea and ideal on the other.

Having said this, I hasten to distinguish primitivism as a sociological fact from primitivism as an adopted pose. For the former, I would point to someone who grew up in a remote village in the Congo, and who had never seen any of our modern contraptions—whether escalators, flush toilets, zambonis, whatever. For the latter, I would showcase rich black kids who went to elite private schools growing up, but after they got admitted to Stanford started dressing and talking like they grew up in South Central. This widespread impetus to cop this particular pose is what illustrates just how powerful this primitivist myth is.

Much of what we wrestle with when it comes to negative reactions to blacks is actually a negative reaction to primitivist signals. Let me illustrate. Suppose for some reason you have to be in New York City, and you have to take the subway back to your hotel. It is 1 in the morning, and how you got into this situation is somehow not your fault. But as you are descending the stairwell there, you see two or three young black men leaning against the wall. They are all decked out in the regalia of the Hood, and you start thinking like an insurance company. What direction should you run? Would it make sense to put up a fight?

Now if somebody modern found out that this had been your flinch, your internal reaction, you would catch no end of grief for your bigotry. Right? It would be assumed that you reacted that way because they were black. But let’s run a little thought experiment, shall we? Suppose the same number of black men were standing on the platform, all of them clad in jacket and tie, and with briefcases at their feet. Totally different effect. And so the variable that made you start thinking like an insurance company was not the color of the skin, but the message of primitivism proclaimed by the uniform. Thug-dress sent a thuggish message. Now that thug-vibe is the function of a mythology that is shared by whites and blacks, and it was constructed by whites.

Flip it around. Now it is two or three white guys. Could they dress in such a way that proclaimed their allegiance to an ethos of drinking and fighting? You know, motorcycle gang outfits? Well, sure. And could you imagine those same men with briefcases and ties? Also yes.

There is one difference though. The black men who dressed in the way that reassured you have probably had to deal with multiple occasions where they were accused of “acting white.” The guys in the Hell’s Angels gear, were they to shave and shower and put on some decent clothes, would never ever have to put up with accusations of “acting white.” If that were to happen, they could just stare blankly, and say, “I am white.”

We have maneuvered ourselves into an odd cultural situation, where young black men particularly have been taught and encouraged to send a particular message to the world, and they have also been taught and encouraged to take offense whenever that message is received.

This is already too long. To be continued.

Cordially in Christ,

Douglas Wilson