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The Brown Dog

When I was travelling in rural Mexico I noticed that every gas station/general store had a collection of feral, medium-sized short-haired, floppy-eared brown dogs lolling about. They seemed to be everywhere. A friend who grew up in Panama said that they were so common there that they were called “dog of Panama.” I would guess that these creatures result from dogs freely breeding without human intervention–the “default dog,” so to speak.

It soon occurred to me that these “default dogs” had a human equivalent–towns, cities or neighborhoods populated by people of common ancestry, probably of similar IQ, pretty much free to live unhampered by outside intervention. Put another way, fill a city with blacks, Hispanics, Irish, Germans, Greeks, or whatever, and with minimal outside interference you’ll eventually see the human version of the medium-sized short-haired brown dog. The “brown dog” signifies the emergent distinctive group-related pattern, not universal human traits. The utility of “the brown dog” concept is that it encapsulates and predicts a distinct cultural evolution: assemble enough people sharing a common ancestry, leave them alone for a few decades, and “their” brown dog will appear.

A town populated with Germans free to express their cultural proclivities will eventually become a “German brown dog:” clean, well maintained houses with plenty of flowers, a multitude of civic organizations, swept sidewalks, food markets heavy on pork, cafes with great pastries, a well-groomed park complete with a bandstand, a zoo, a brewery, and museums. In fact, the rural version of the German brown dog can still be seen in upper Mid-Western American farm communities: straight upright fences, expensive blue Harvestore silos, freshly painted houses, and neatly parked, modern farm equipment (I checked mailboxes to ascertain ethnicity).

Two brown dogs of particular interest in today’s political climate are the black and Mexican versions. They are ubiquitous because non-blacks and non-Mexicans avoid living in those areas, and because the government is reluctant to enforce outside social norms. The phrase “autonomous homelands” comes to mind.

The McDonalds-like uniformity is striking. A visitor who was parachuted into Newark, Camden, Detroit, East St. Louis, Gary Indiana, New Orleans, or any number of other black urban neighborhoods would be hard pressed to identify exactly where he was, but he would not have to look at a single face to know he was in a lower-class black neighborhood. It is important to note that everything about these neighborhoods happens spontaneously. There is no central plan, nor do residents consciously try to emulate other black localities. No government agency says, “Let’s make this place comfortable for underclass blacks by recreating other poor black neighborhoods.” And yet, all these places share distinctive visible traits that proclaim: “You are among poor blacks.”

The tip-offs are litter and graffiti everywhere, vacant stores, small markets typically run by Arabs or Koreans with iron bars on the windows, abandoned buildings with broken windows, trash-filled empty lots, the absence of national chain stores, vandalized parks and schools, run-down housing, tricked-out old cars, and the like. Not visible but equally part of the neighborhood are high food stamp usage, single-parent families, corrupt politics, high unemployment, widespread drug use, and violent crime. This is not just any slum; it is a black slum.

Even more remarkable is that these lower class black “brown dog” conditions thrive outside the US. When I visited St. Lucia in the Caribbean I felt as if I were in New York City’s Bed-Sty or Chicago’s South Side. There are also similarities from what I see on television between West Africa and black-dominated cities like Detroit and Newark–even a similar penchant for kleptocratic political leaders reluctant to surrender power.

The brown dog is not the time-honored pattern of immigrants consciously recreating their old-world village habitats prior to assimilation. If that were the case, all old-world traits in the US would uniformly weaken over time. In the case of lower-class blacks and poor Hispanics, this drift toward the brown dog has only accelerated as these groups come to dominate their local environments. Two hundred years after the last black slave arrived from Africa, 150 years after emancipation, and despite billions in governments spending to promote racial integration, lower-class black-controlled US neighborhoods are becoming more like West African cities.

This gravitation toward some cultural end point is unrelated to poverty, though specific brown dogs do reflect social class. Middle-class blacks have a different brown dog from that of poor blacks. Side-by-side comparisons of semi-autonomous Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Korean, German, and Mexican neighborhoods with equally low incomes would still show substantial differences–there is no such thing as a universal slum.

New York City’s Chinatown is among the city’s poorest, most congested neighborhoods, but it overflows with thriving small businesses (many on sidewalks), crowded cheap restaurants, and high-performing though often ancient schools with graduates going on to prestigious colleges. It is also completely safe for visitors even late at night. My recollection of San Francisco’s Chinatown is identical, and I suspect that Chinatowns worldwide are similar. Nobody walking through Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, which is packed with often poor Russian immigrants would ever confuse it for lower-class black-dominated Trenton, even though much of the housing stock is as old as the housing in black slums.

The source of this uniformity may well be genetic, though I cannot find any scientific evidence for an assertion that culture is genetic. But how else can one explain close similarities between peoples who have been separated for centuries? Why, for example, does Haiti resemble West Africa, economically and culturally, but not its more prosperous, better administrated island neighbor, the Dominican Republic? Why is it that the lively services in black churches are so similar to Haitian and African church services? It is hard to argue that distinctive cultures in multiple settings can linger almost unchanged for centuries, without an underlying biological substrate.

To repeat, the virtue of the brown dog concept is that it symbolizes a plain-to-see phenomenon that currently lacks a name: the relentless drift to a “default” ethnic/racial condition when a people are left to their own devices. More important than linguistic convenience, however, is eliminating the guess work when anticipating the future. At least with some but not all groups, the past is also the future, sometimes even more so, and this seems to happen regardless of billion-dollar government programs. Finally, the brown dog phenomenon has powerful implications for those who insist that the American melting pot can assimilate everyone, as in some old-fashioned Hollywood movie, in which we all live happily ever after in some homogenized white-bread Utopia.

Determining a group’s brown dog is an empirical question that requires careful inquiry. Eastern Europe Jews who arrived over a century ago have not re-created shtetl-like Jewish neighborhoods. The run-down rural shtetl of Eastern Europe, though often romanticized, was not their brown dog. Life there, including choice of occupation, was tightly regulated by anti-Semitic governments. Given the opportunity to escape these constraints and enjoy economic and educational freedom, they created prosperous neighborhoods in dozens of American cities and throughout Europe and Israel. Perhaps more to the point, thanks to different brown dogs, the Somalis of Minneapolis may never resemble their Swedish neighbors.

Before Third-World immigration, the United States was on its way towards an American brown dog–one with regional and class variants, to be sure–but one that was distinctively American. Now, we are headed towards a whole pack of brown dogs that would be more at home in other countries.