Black Americans Failed by Good Intentions: Q/A with Jason Riley


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"My beef with the black left is that they want to keep the focus on what government or Washington or politicians or whites in general can do for blacks, instead of what blacks can do for themselves," says Jason Riley, author of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed and editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal

In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie, Riley praises the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s even as he takes aim at affirmative action in higher education, which he says keeps black graduation rates low even as it increases diversity among freshman classes at various univesities. He also argues that the drug war doesn't explain black-on-black violence and ending it won't transform urban America in the way libertarians insist. His book lays out the case against the minimum wage in a chapter called "Mandating Unemployment" and he argues that especially among African Americans, an intact family unit is the best anti-poverty program available.

About 20 minutes.

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher, camera by Meredith Bragg and Fisher, with assistance from Brett Crudgington.

Music: "Applicant" by The Matt Kurz One 

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In 2008, Reason TV talked with Riley about his book about immigrants, Let Them In, and his case for open borders. Watch that here.

Below is a rush transcript of the interview with Jason Riley. Check all quotes for accuracy against video.


0:32—Black Experience and Characterizations

reason: At the start of the book, you write that "the sober truth is that the most important civil rights battles were fought and won 4 decades before the Obama presidency. The black underclass continues to face many challenges, but they have to do with values and habits, not oppression from a manifestly unjust society. Blacks have become their own worst enemy." And liberal leaders, you go on to say, are essentially abetting that. What is the typical black experience and is there this fixation on the black underclass that no longer exists, or is representative, or what does it mean?

Jason Riley: Well, I don't know that there is a typical black experience, which is progress in and of itself. You have a big black middle class now, most blacks are not poor in this country. But the problems of the black underclass continue to dominate the discussion and rightly so, and they do continue to be representative of blackness writ large, so to speak. We need to talk about these problems and what I'm talking about is culture. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I think there is a hesitancy, particularly among those on the left, to discuss black culture. And I don't know how we're going to address those problems if we're afraid to talk about them.

1:45—Achievements of Civil Rights

reason: And I want to get to this, you say, "Much more disturbing is that half a century after the civil rights battles were fought and won, liberalism remains much more interested in making excuses for blacks than in reevaluating efforts to help them." And you talk about the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 as "liberalism at its best." Civil rights activism set the stage for those victories, what did they achieve?

Jason Riley: Well, the 1964 Act gets at legal discrimination in the country. The 1965 voting rights act makes voter registration possible and actual voting possible. They made this country a more just society and I think with Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Riders and those folks, what they were fighting for was worth fighting for.

reason: Absolutely necessary?

Jason Riley: Absolutely necessary, and all Americans can be happy that they made this country more just. Then you get Lyndon Johnson coming in and saying, "that's not enough. Equal opportunity is not enough. We need equal results." And I question whether that is a legitimate or a reasonable goal, since you don't see equal results among groups historically in America or anywhere else in the world. Maybe the best you can hope for from government is equal opportunity. Then it's up to those groups to take advantage of those opportunities.

reason: There is no question that the black experience, with the possible exception of the Native Americans, is infinitely more punishing and oppressive of an experience. So it's not completely out of bounds that you would say, you know what, equal opportunity is not enough. I mean, it may be wrong, but you can understand the impulse.

Jason Riley: What have the results been of trying to go beyond that? That's what I look at in this book. Have these efforts helped or harmed black Americans?

3:32—Government Programs Intended to Help Blacks

reason: As you point out in the book, the black unemployment rate is essentially double the white or national average. What were the programs put into place supposedly to help blacks?

Jason Riley: Well, these were anti-poverty programs. And also, wage floors. And I'm talking about minimum wage laws. Davis-Bacon, and so forth. And if you look at black employment prior to the implementation of these policies—you saw much better outcomes. In the 1940s, well into the 1950s you saw black labor participation rates higher than what we have today.

reason: And just to put a button on that, it's insane that in an America that was manifestly more discriminatory and prejudiced, you had blacks participating more…

Jason Riley: Well, that's the point. For all the legacies of slavery, for all the legacies of Jim Crow, they couldn't keep black employment from being essentially parallel with white employment within the same environment.

reason: Young blacks without skills, like all young workers who have relatively low skills, are they priced out of the labor market and then they just can't get work? Or are you saying that it's anti poverty programs that allow them to get by…

Jason Riley: Well it's a number of factors. One is, yes, pricing people out of the labor force. When you make it more expensive to hire people, fewer people get hired. And you are particularly hurting less skilled, less experience workers by raising the cost of hiring them. Now the left sells this as an anti-poverty program, but most poor households are in that category because they have no workers, not because they have workers that are paid too little. You can't confuse poor households with households with minimum wage workers. And a lot of that confusion results in trying to use the minimum wage as an anti-poverty measure.

reason: And the left, or liberals, tend to look at the person who keeps a job and goes from making $4 an hour to $6 an hour…

Jason Riley: …if they keep the job.

reason: …but they ignore the people who never get hired, and they assume those people will keep their job and work at the same number of hours. Let's look at poverty. Between 1940 and 1960, black poverty in America fell by 40 percentage points in 20 years. That's before the civil rights act, before voting rights act, before Brown v. Board of Education…now it continued to fall through the 70s and 80s but at a much slower rate. You had a much stronger black family coming out of slavery, throughout reconstruction, into Jim Crow, two parent households were much more likely among blacks than what you have today. And in some years, according to the census, the rate of two parent households among blacks exceeded that among whites. And the difference today, and I would argue largely as a result of these efforts to help blacks, you have seen the disintegration of the black family. And until blacks repair that damage, and there is significant damage there, I don't see how these other outcomes are going to improve.

6:44—Single Parent Households/Intrusive Policy Programs

reason: What can the government do? If, in fact, single parent households are the problem, what happens?

Jason Riley: Again, to the title of the book, it's not about what I want the government to do, it's what I want the government to stop doing. Stop raising the minimum wage and pricing blacks out of the labor force, stop mismatching kids with schools in the form of affirmative action and setting them up to fail, stop trying to replace a father in the home with a government check.

reason: You opened the book with a discussion of the last time you saw your father. Your parents were divorced, ideally one assumes fathering is in the household with the kids, but you can be a parent and a father while not living in the same household.

Jason Riley: These kids need a father's presence in their lives, and we know all the bad outcomes associated with not having a father present. We have people calling out there for slavery reparations, or another wealth distribution scheme in America to help solve black poverty. Here's a back poverty program: married couples in this country who are black, they have a poverty rate in the single digits, and have for 20 years. There is your anti-poverty program: get married before you have kids. My beef with the black left is that they want to keep the focus on what government or Washington or politicians or whites in general can do for blacks or should be doing for blacks, instead of what blacks can be doing for themselves. This is the polar opposite of what you got in, say, Martin Luther King's generation, who made black self-development a priority. And he was in a long line of civil rights leaders who did that. I quote from Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, both men born slaves, who said 'all we can really ask for from government is equal opportunity.' Then it's up to us to take advantage of these opportunities. Now today you have civil rights leaders saying, 'until racism has been vanquished from America, blacks cannot be held responsible for the criminality, for the attitudes towards education, for the work habits, and so forth.' Again, the complete opposite of the previous civil rights movement…and the reason behind that, is because the civil rights movement has become the civil rights industry. They have a vested interest in keeping a certain narrative out there, to maintain their own relevance. If it really is about black culture, if it really is about a racial conversation that black people need to have among one another, then what the NAACP is out there trying to do, what Jesse Jackson is trying to do, what Al Sharpton is trying to do, is less and less relevant. It's one of the reasons I wrote the book is because there is an audience for what I'm saying, a receptive audience, that agrees with me on these cultural issues, even though the supposed black leaders don't want to talk about it because it's not in their vested interest to do so.

9:35—Younger Generation of Black Leaders

reason: Who are the young generation of black leaders do you think that are sending the right message.

Jason Riley: There are people like Artur Davis, former congressman. Another former congressman Harold Ford Junior has been saying these things…

reason: and Harold Ford Jr. a Democrat from Tennessee.

Jason Riley: I don't think it's necessarily generational. I think you have many ministers in the black community, many black parents who get what I'm saying in this book and want to talk about these issues. Again, they may not self-identify as conservatives, but I think there are a lot of them out there that share the same values.

10:11—Affirmative Action

reason: So, your broad thesis is that a lot of programs that were put in, whatever their intentions, are having negative effects because they allow the perpetuation of a dependency culture, or a culture that gives rise to a lot of social problems. How does affirmative action fit into all that?

Jason Riley: Again, affirmative action is another well-intentioned policy intended to increase the ranks of the black middle class, increase the number of black college graduates. I talk about it in the book mostly in the education sector and what it's done at the higher education level in particular. And what you have is a mismatch problem, and we saw that when California ended its ban on racial preferences back in 1996. What happened after that ban took place is that black graduation rates increased by more than 50%, not only overall, but in some of the more difficult disciplines, like math, science, and engineering, again by more than 50%. So a policy that intended to help increase the number of black graduates was resulting in fewer doctors, lawyers, engineers than we otherwise would have had.

reason: Explain how that happened?

Jason Riley: Well, what happened was that these schools were funneling blacks into environments where they didn't match the educational credentials of the average student at the school, and so they were outmatched. Many of them dropped out or switched to easier majors. After the ban took place, kids were being better matched with schools where they could do the work, and therefore you had better graduation rates. But the way the whole affirmative action debate has evolved: graduation rates aren't the priority! Diversity is the priority! The campus has to look like America, the college catalogue has to be color-coded. Whether kids are actually graduating is a secondary concern at best. The freshman class is what matters. A good example of this in a nutshell, is a study some years ago done at MIT, black kids at MIT. Black kids at MIT scored in the top 10% of the math section of the SAT, of all the kids in the country, of any color. But they were in the bottom 10% of scores in the math section of the SAT, at MIT. So you have these very smart black kids who would be hitting it out of the park at a less selective school, but they're struggling at MIT. But MIT could care less, because their campus looks like America.

12:40—School Choice/Charters

reason: That leads to one of the places where government policy, in the context here, is going in the right direction and it's really getting out of the way of people creating their own culture—which is school choice. You write a lot about K-12 school choice and this is the fascinating issue because it tends to unite libertarian, conservatives, as well as inner-city blacks in particular. Talk a little bit about the value of school choice and why it's a good thing that it seems to be on the rise.

Jason Riley: Well, it works, that's the value of it. And the problem is that this whole debate we have about school choice is not really about whether school choice works, it's about whether public education should be primarily a jobs program for adults. That's the real debate that's going on out there.

reason: What do you mean by that?

Jason Riley: What I mean by that is first of all, it's hugely popular among the very people who want it and need it the most, low income, inner city, black and hispanic people. For decades it is polled off the charts. And I use this as another example of a disconnect between the black rank and file and the black leadership, your Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons, NAACPs, who tend to oppose school choice because they're siding with the unions, who do not like it not because it doesn't work, but because many of these charter schools, and many of these schools where these vouchers would be used aren't organized, and their primary concern are the adults within the system, not the kids. So you see them fighting for laws which have no educational justification. Last In First Out hiring policies? There is no educational justification for that. Hiring teachers after two years in the classroom, giving them a job for life, making them impossible to fire…there is no educational justification for that. Those are job protections. And yet you see the unions fighting for them even to the detriment to the children they claim to represent. And then you see these organizations like the NAACP who take money from the unions, siding with the unions over the kids and the parents of the kids who they claim to represent.

reason: There were no charter schools in 1996, the first one in the country opened its doors in Minnesota in 1997, now there are tens of thousands. What has to happen for it to become the new normal?

Jason Riley: One of the arguments that opponents of charter schools and vouchers make is that they can't be scaled up to replace our public school system. That's a red herring. They don't need to be scaled up. We don't need a KIPP in every neighborhood in America. I live in suburban NYC, we don't need a KIPP up there, the public schools are just fine. We know where we need these schools, we need them in our inner cities, in our most difficult neighborhoods, with the kids facing the most challenges. And that's where these schools want to be located, and that's what we need. We don't need them everywhere, so this argument that 'oh, we can't voucherize the whole system or charterize the whole system, so we can't do anything' is a dodge and should be dismissed out of hand. But where these schools are located—they are getting results. But you do have a leadership out there, from the president on down, who talks one game but his actions do something different. So he talks a lot about school choice, but his administration is trying to shut down a voucher program in Louisiana. He talks a lot about school choice, but he's been trying to shut down the voucher program in DC since the day he entered the oval office. The president of the United States has never found a public school good enough for his own children, either before he was president or since. He tells us, 'be patient, I'll fix those public schools' while his kids attend private schools. And again, he has a whole other agenda, which is to continue his support from labor, from the teacher's unions, from others who have a vested interest in the status quo, no matter what. No matter that that status quo is harming our most vulnerable kids. I think it's appalling.

16:42—Post Racial Society?

reason: Speaking of Obama, when he was elected, many people on both the right and the left—you start your book with the discussion that this is a pretty great moment, that America has moved past a certain stage in race relations. Do you think discussions of race have gotten better or worse? Or at least are we having more now since Obama has become president? And should we look forward to a period—and how would we get there—where race is no longer an open wound that it seems to be in American political and cultural discourse.

Jason Riley: We're not post racial. But I'd argue that the left has no interest in being post racial. They claim they want to be post racial, but they really don't. They want to keep race front and center in our national conversations, because it serves their agenda, that racism is the all-purpose explanation for what ails black America. There are a lot of people making a lot of money on that narrative and they want to keep it out there. There are political parties who gain and keep political power with that narrative out there, and they want to keep talking about it.

17:58—Black Outreach

reason: By the same token, I'm not a partisan one way or another—I don't know that you are, but what is the Republican party doing to send a message to black America? What did Mitt Romney get? What should they be doing and how responsible are they for the fact that they're lucky if they get 5% of the black vote? And there was a time when the Republican party actually was the black party.

Jason Riley: Oh yeah, these things change over time. Loyalties to parties change over time, that's certainly true. There is some black outreach among the GOP. Today you have people like Paul Ryan making an effort. Chris Christie in his reelection bid in NJ, went into Camden, introduced himself—did pretty well among blacks. In the past you've had people like Jack Kemp, known for his work in the inner cities. You had Richard Riordan out in LA, you had Stephen Goldsmith in Indianapolis, but those still tend to be exceptions. By and large, serious black outreach does not occur among Republican candidates. And I don't ascribe that to racial animosity, I think they're being very pragmatic. They feel they don't need this vote to win, and they feel that time spent courting this constituency that they're not likely to get a big return on is time not spent courting someone else. And I don't think that's really going to change until the Republican party feels they need the black vote to win. You were speaking about immigration earlier. Right now there is a huge debate in the GOP about the Latino vote and whether they can continue to win elections going forward without more of this voting bloc. There is no such discussion about blacks among the GOP right now. I don't think you're going to get one until they feel they need this group to win elections. I wish they would do more black outreach, and the black outreach that they do is pretty much laughable. Going to the NAACP every four years to give a speech is not black outreach. Those folks are probably lost to the GOP. I like what Rand Paul is doing, going to black colleges and trying to get at that younger generation, but that's what you need to do, you need to go into the barbershops, you need to go into the community centers, the churches, introduce yourself. The habit among Republican candidates these days is really to just concede that vote. Make symbolic statements, 'I support school choice,' and maybe that will win me a few votes. You have to do more than that.