Jason L. Riley, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Encounter Books, 2014, 184 pp., $23.99.
Jason Riley, who has been a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board since 2005, is the latest to join Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Walter Williams as an eloquent black opponent of the theory that racism explains why blacks fail. In Please Stop Helping Us, he argues that liberal uplift is what most damages blacks. It has convinced them that they are hapless victims whose salvation will come only when whites are purged of all traces of “racism.” “Today,” he writes, “there is no greater impediment to black advancement than the self-pitying mindset that permeates black culture.” There may not be a single new idea in this book, but it is concise, quotable, and in many respects irrefutable.
Mr. Riley believes that blacks would be better off if whites left them alone rather than keep trying to help them. He quotes Frederick Douglass’s remarkable exhortation from 1865:
‘What should we do with the Negro?’ is what everyone asks. ‘Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us! . . . [I]f the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall . . . .’
The Douglass view–that black success depends on blacks–prevailed until about the middle of the 20th century. Booker T. Washington, a former slave, gained national attention with his famous Atlanta speech of 1895, in which he urged blacks not to make demands on whites but to gain their respect through hard work. Andrew Carnegie called Washington the second father of his country, and Harvard and Dartmouth gave him honorary degrees. In 1956, in commemoration of the centennial of Washington’s birth, President Eisenhower dedicated a national memorial to the black leader.
As Mr. Riley notes, however, it was the views of Washington’s great rival, W.E.B. Du Bois, that prevailed. After Washington’s death in 1915, the self-help movement never produced a similarly great black spokesman (Marcus Garvey’s colorful career ended in jail time and deportation), and Du Bois convinced increasing numbers of whites that it was they–not blacks–who were responsible for black behavior.
Mr. Riley explains that this is now virtually dogma:
Several generations of blacks have come to believe that the only legitimate means of group progress is political agitation of the NAACP-Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton variety. If you are more interested in black self-development than in keeping whites on the defensive, you’re accommodating racism.
Another part of the dogma is the belief that winning political power is essential for black economic progress–another view Du Bois pushed. Blacks, therefore, vote overwhelmingly for black candidates, even though they don’t much care what those candidates do once they are elected.
Mr. Riley points to the Obama presidency as an example. When Mr. Obama took office for his first term, the unemployment rate was 12.7 percent for blacks, and 7.1 percent for whites. On Election Day, 2012, the black rate had increased to 14.3 percent while it had dropped slightly to 7 percent for whites. Despite this deterioration for blacks, Mr. Obama still got 93 percent of the black vote. As one black politician once explained to Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University, blacks care so little about what their politicians do that “you can almost get away with raping babies and be forgiven.”
Many elected blacks openly flout the desires of their constituents. White Democrats, who are the institutional framework for black political success, favor Mexican immigration, marriage for homosexuals, and light prison sentences, for example, so black politicians favor these things, too, even though ordinary blacks oppose them.
In any case, Mr. Riley points out that holding office makes little difference to whether an ethnic group gets ahead. The Irish were masters of city-machine politics, but aside from a few patronage jobs, it did not make them rich. Likewise, Asians have the highest incomes in America despite being nearly invisible in politics.
Black “leaders” nevertheless seem to be terrified that whites will, first, never vote for blacks, and, second, want to take the vote away from them. Mr. Riley notes that in 2008, Mr. Obama got more white votes in such “racist” states as Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia than John Kerry did in 2004 or Al Gore in 2000. He also laughs at the spectacle of the black attorney general of a black president fretting that voter ID laws are passed to disfranchise blacks.
Welfare and degeneracy
One of the classic conservative arguments against welfare is that it rewards degeneracy. Mr. Riley writes that “upward mobility depends on work and family,” but that at the same time, “Social welfare programs that were initiated or greatly expanded during the 1960s resulted in the government effectively displacing black fathers as breadwinners and made work less attractive.” As he notes in one of his better lines, “Having a black man in the Oval Office is less important than having one in the home.” Welfare is one of the best examples of liberal “help” that harms blacks.
Until the 1960s, blacks tended to value the qualities that bring success: diligence, politeness, marriage, education, reliability, proper speech, etc. Now, for many blacks, this is “acting white.” Mr. Riley writes that he has put up with this for most of his life, and that even his nine-year-old niece once asked, “Why you talk white, Uncle Jason? Why he trying to sound so smart?” He notes that black rappers have even bragged about subverting middle-class aspirations. Chuck D says that “rappers came in the game and threw that confusing element in it, and kids are like, Yo, fuck this.”
Mr. Riley points out that employers prefer to hire people who “act white:” “The persistently high black jobless rate is more a consequence of unemployablity than of discrimination in hiring.” One of the great achievements of liberal excuse-making is to have shifted the blame for black fecklessness onto “society,” which is another way of blaming whites. But the effect, in Mr. Riley’s view, is that “blacks have become their own worst enemy” by believing that their own actions are less important than the attitudes of whites.
“The black inmate population reflects black criminality, not a racist criminal justice system,” Mr. Riley explains with refreshing bluntness. He is appalled by liberals who write about black inmates as if they were innocent men who have been herded into prison by brutal white policemen. The press repeatedly shies away from the truth about black crime, and until the country faces the truth, nothing sensible will be said or done about it.
Much of the liberal frenzy over crime is just noise. Laws that punished possession of crack cocaine more severely than possession of powder have offered endless opportunities for self-righteous preening, but Mr. Riley points out that it was blacks who were clamoring for stiff sentences to stop a plague that was destroying whole neighborhoods. Eleven black congressmen voted for the 1986 law, and no one at the time argued that it was a “racist” snare for black men.
Likewise, after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, there was a tremendous racket over Florida’s Stand Your Ground justification for self-defense killings–despite the fact that Stand Your Ground was not even part of the case. Mr. Riley points out that although blacks are just 16.6 percent of the population of Florida, they account for 31 percent of Stand-Your-Ground defenses and are slightly more likely than whites to be successful with such a defense.
Minimum wage and racial preferences
Mr. Riley also has a good discussion of how raising the minimum wage hurts entry-level workers, especially blacks. He explains that many early minimum-wage laws, both state and federal, were passed to keep blacks from undercutting white workers. If employers had to pay a relatively high rate, they might as well hire whites rather than less-skilled blacks who might have been willing to work for less.
The most notorious anti-black wage law was the federal Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which is still on the books. It requires contractors to pay “prevailing wages,” which is usually interpreted as union wages. Many unions kept out blacks and even today, blacks are less likely than whites to have union skills. Following the law shuts out low-skill workers, many of whom are black.
As Mr. Riley explains, “When the government mandates that an employer pay someone more than the employer thinks the person is worth, fewer people get hired.” Young blacks are at the bottom of the labor market, and are often the people who aren’t hired or are the first to be fired.
Mr. Riley cites a study of the effect of the 41-percent rise in the minimum wage that took place in stages from 2007 to 2009–during the start of the recession. Twenty-one states had a minimum wage that was lower than the federal wage, so their labor markets felt the full effect of the increase. In those states, an estimated 18,500 young blacks lost their jobs because of the increase in the minimum wage. By contrast, only an estimated 13,200 young blacks lost work because of the downturn.
The dark vision of millions of hard-working Americans trying to raise a family on the minimum wage is a myth. First, only 5 percent of hourly wage earners make the minimum wage. Sixty-nine percent of that 5 percent work part time, and most are age 25 or younger. They are almost never the sole bread-winner for a family, and only 11.3 percent of minimum-wage workers even live in poor households. They are usually working to supplement incomes that are above the poverty level.
However, minimum-wage jobs are important, especially for poorly educated blacks, because any job is a start on the employment ladder. Having work experience of any kind is better than having none, and blacks are not helped by laws that price them out of a job.
Mr. Riley attacks racial preferences from the usual angles: They help better-off blacks rather than the poor, they push blacks past their level of competence so they are more likely to fail, they taint the achievements of blacks who could make it on their own, they make blacks lazy, and they infuriate whites. According to one source, in 2011 there were no fewer than 276 federal laws that granted racial preferences. Mr. Riley would abolish them all.
Mr. Riley cites a study at Duke University, where standards are drastically lowered to admit blacks. Of the male students who came to Duke expecting to major in the sciences, more than half of the blacks switched to an easier major, whereas only 8 percent of the whites did. The study concluded that if the blacks had been at less demanding schools they might have stuck with science.
Preferences have had little effect on black poverty. In 1940, the black poverty rate was 87 percent. By 1960, without any help from preferences, it had dropped to 47 percent. In 1990 after 25 years of racial preferences, 32 percent of blacks were still poor.
Please Stop Helping Us makes excellent arguments and has the added advantage of being written by a black. But will it change anyone’s mind? I don’t think conventionally conservative books have much impact. These arguments have been made over and over. Most of the people who read this book will agree with it already, and the few doubters who pick it up will not be swayed.
I suspect it takes special circumstances for a book with no new ideas to change anyone’s mind. It would have to reach someone who was groping his way towards a more sensible view and would probably have got there–though a little later–without Mr. Riley’s help.
This book would have had a greater impact if Mr. Riley had taken the plunge into race differences in IQ. Does Mr. Riley really believe that if blacks shake off their self-pity–and whites stop helping them–that the performance gap will disappear? Does any conventional conservative really believe that?
So far, no mainstream black author has ever explained the genetic basis for racial differences. If one were brave enough to do so and lucky enough to find a publisher, he might make a terrific stink that could nudge the debate an inch or two towards sanity. Recirculating ideas–even good ideas–that date back to Paved With Good Intentions (1992) and Losing Ground (1984) isn’t likely to have much effect.
On the other hand, thanks to this book, Mr. Riley is being invited onto television programs, where he is able to talk sense to the huge majority of Americans who never read books. This will do some good.
But the larger question is one Mr. Riley does not raise. Which is more important for liberals: helping blacks or appearing virtuous? I suspect it may be the latter. The right attitude toward minorities is the sine qua non for respectability, and I think most white liberals would rather see blacks stuck in the underclass than cease to be respectable. The desire to appear virtuous is so strong it blinds them to facts.
That is why a university diversity officer literally cannot see that his affirmative-action pets are dropping out and should have gone to community college. His sense of virtue requires a certain number of blacks on campus even if they are desperately over their heads.
Liberal blindness drives most social policy in America, especially race policy. So far, no cure has been discovered.