Bespeckled and mild-mannered, Jason Riley’s television persona projects more librarian than rabble-rouser. Yet his recent book is a pugnacious challenge to well-meaning liberals who claim that government programs solve rather than exacerbate social problems among African-Americans. Instead of these policies, he argues for rebuilding the African-American family, expanding school choice and reviving a culture of work and personal responsibility within the community.
A member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and an African-American, Riley’s data-heavy Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed is less eloquent and flowery than writing of contemporaries like The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yet Riley brings robust insight to the analytical debate over social engineering wrought by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and expanded by President Obama.
Riley ticks off the data: black unemployment has risen under Obama, and the black/white unemployment gap has risen. Black homeownership fell under Obama, and the black/white homeownership gap grew to the widest point since the 1960s. And the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest African-Americans has grown at a faster pace than gaps between whites, a trend academics call “income segregation.” This indicates society’s most vulnerable members are falling further behind in spite of massive subsidies and welfare programs.
Well-meaning liberals want to shield and protect blacks from criticism, Riley writes, an understandable position in light of a history of slavery and Jim Crow, but he says this ends up diminishing free will and personal responsibility. He shows evidence that African-American crime rates, unemployment, unmarried birth rates and other societal difficulties were lower prior to the civil rights era, a sign that white racism (which was much more widespread then) alone is not to blame for African-Americans’ current struggles.
“By retarding or otherwise interfering with black self-development, government programs have tended to do more harm than good,” he writes. “And black elites who choose to focus on the behavior of whites are encouraging these youngsters to do the same, and thus perpetuating the problem.”
Riley makes the argument that black voters have increased their political power, but this hasn’t translated into economic power or societal advancement. He lays out evidence of a gap between contemporary black political leaders and what black voters want. On issues like school choice, for example, black families overwhelmingly support more options for their children, yet teachers unions dominate the political conversation and keep politicians in line against charter and voucher expansion. Pew Data also shows fewer black Americans (47%) than whites (54%) support abortion in all or most cases, with just 23% of blacks saying abortion should be totally unrestricted. This runs counter to the pro-abortion litmus test imposed by Democratic arty elders.
On the issue of community policing, Riley cites Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald on “broken windows” policing that helps save black lives, with data showing if violence continued in the same trajectory prior to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, there would be 10,000 fewer African-American people alive today in New York City. Indeed, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin most African-Americans in New York support strong community policing, a Quinnipiac University poll found even after the tragic death of Eric Garner.
“By retarding or otherwise interfering with black self-development, government programs have tended to do more harm than good”
Riley shares some of his family’s journey, a difficult one as his younger sister died from a drug overdose, and another became a teenage mother. He blamed their struggles in part on a culture that glorifies criminality and stigmatizes academic achievers as “acting white.”
“Meanwhile, liberal sages are preoccupied with ‘contextualizing’ this cultural rot,” he writes. “And those who attempt to make excuses for black social pathology rather than condemning these behaviors in no uncertain terms are part of the problem.”
Riley argues that despite rhetoric from black leaders like Obama, Jim Crow, segregation, codified racism and even globalization were not the root causes of the collapse of the African-American family. This key driver in continuation of the poverty cycle, he argues, is from societal acceptance of unmarried births and “don’t judge me” cultural mores (similar trends are seen among low-income whites and Hispanics, also). He writes this zinger: “one lesson of the Obama presidency – maybe the most important one for blacks – is that having a black man in the Oval Office is less important than having one in the home.
Riley argues that liberal programs meant to help African Americans like those proposed by President Obama and US Attorney General Eric Holder often do more harm to the community than good.
Yet to Riley’s chagrin, African-Americans remain overwhelmingly loyal to the Democratic Party and President Obama. From labor policy to affirmative action, education and crime, Riley systematically unravels liberal orthodoxies that slow progress for black Americans.
“The left’s sentimental support has turned underprivileged blacks into playthings for liberal intellectuals and politicians who care more about clearing their conscience or winning votes than advocating behaviors and attitudes that have allowed other groups to get ahead,” he writes. “Meanwhile, the civil rights movement of [Martin Luther] King has become an industry that does little more than monetize white guilt.”
Riley reports on how the crack-cocaine prison sentencing disparity, a gap repeatedly denounced as racist by Obama and outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, was actually proposed and supported by black leaders such as Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), then head of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, and most of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). It was seen as a way to protect the community, though the CBC would later fight to repeal the very measure that many black leaders previously supported without any mention of racist motives.
He traces the tempestuous relationship between organized labor and the African-American community; historically labor unions would collude to exclude blacks from the workforce and would use policies like the minimum wage to price black workers out of jobs. Data shows that the most vulnerable workers, those youngest and African-American, are most likely to be laid off under a minimum wage hike.
“King and his contemporaries demanded black self-improvement despite the abundant and overt racism of his day … Upward mobility depends on work and family.”
While he aims more at liberals, Riley also pings Republicans for weak outreach to African-Americans. He argues this happened not out of racism, per se, but from political expediency. Because black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats, they are a difficult constituency to woo, so under a pragmatic desire to win elections, the GOP targeted resources elsewhere. Black votes were not necessary to win elections in years past, though Riley points out this is increasingly changing, and Republicans would be wise to approach with substantive solutions.
In his chapter on affirmative action, Riley examines the effects of California removing race-based preferences in college admissions. He found that while black students were less likely to enroll in elite colleges, they were actually more likely to graduate from college, period. And they were more likely to major in the lucrative and expanding STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), because the curriculums were a better match for their academic credentials.
Though he pulls no punches against today’s current crop of civil rights leaders, Riley speaks highly of older generations of African-American leaders like King, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass, hoping their messages of self-reliance have greater relevance for today’s African-Americans.
“The civil rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century were liberalism at its best,” he writes. “King and his contemporaries demanded black self-improvement despite the abundant and overt racism of his day … Upward mobility depends on work and family.”
Carrie Sheffield is Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.