Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House was the culmination of the black struggle to attain the pinnacle of political power. But decades of that obsessive focus on black political advancement has not yielded the results that civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson promised. Even after eight years of Obama, racial gaps in income, employment, home ownership, academic achievement, and other measures still exist, and many civil rights leaders both new and old– including Jackson – explain that by pushing the self-serving narrative that blacks in America are still the victims of systemic racism, and that continuing to pursue political power is the answer.
Jason L. Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, disagrees. The thrust of his slim but significant new book, False Black Power?, from Templeton Press, is the politically incorrect conclusion that black “political clout is no substitute for self-development”:
The major barrier to black progress today is not racial discrimination and hasn’t been for decades. The challenge for blacks is to better position themselves to take advantage of existing opportunities, and that involves addressing the antisocial, self-defeating behaviors and habits and attitudes endemic to the black underclass.
Riley argues in False Black Power? that the left’s politically useful argument of white oppression serves only the interests of the people making it, not blacks themselves, and that “black history itself offers a compelling counternarrative that ideally would inform our post-Obama racial inequality debates.”
Mr. Riley, also the author of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, consented to answer some questions about the book via email.
Mark Tapson: When America elected its first black president there was widespread hope that he would accomplish everything from healing our racial divide to slowing the rise of the oceans. What was the actual legacy for American blacks of eight years of Barack Obama?
Jason Riley: It was a decidedly mixed bag for blacks. They saw racial gaps widen in poverty, homeownership and household incomes, for example. The black jobless rate did improve toward the end of Obama’s second term, but it was quite a wait. Black unemployment didn’t fall below double digits until the third month of his seventh year in office. But my broader argument is not that Obama failed to narrow these kinds of racial divides but that the civil rights strategy has failed. Since the 1960s, the focus has been on pursuing black political power—electing more black officials—in hopes that the black socio-economic gains would rise in concert. Obama’s presidency was both the culmination of that strategy and more evidence of the limit of that strategy.
MT: What do you think about the claims of many black voices, from Colin Kaepernick to the Black Lives Matter leaders, that blacks in America are under the thumb of an entrenched system of racial oppression?
JR: I find that sort of thinking politically expedient but overly reductive. If racism explains racial disparities today, how were blacks able to make the tremendous progress we saw in the first half of the 20th century? During the Jim Crow era, when racism was rampant and legal--and black political clout was minimal--racial gaps in poverty, income, educational attainment and other measures were closing. In the post-60s era, however, and notwithstanding landmark civil rights victories and huge increases in the number of black elected officials, much of that progress slowed, stalled or even reversed course. Racism still exist, but its existence doesn’t suffice as an explanation for today’s racial gaps. I think other factors—mainly culture—play a much bigger role.
MT: Why do today’s black leaders, from Al Sharpton to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Michael Eric Dyson, perpetuate a victimhood among American blacks instead of empowering them with the story of black triumph over adversity in the post-Civil War, pre-civil rights era?
JR: I can’t say for certain because I don’t know those individuals. But I do know that the grievance industry is a lucrative one. But I will say that the left’s victimhood narrative helps Democrats get elected and keeps civil rights leaders relevant.
MT: Over fifty years since Daniel Moynihan’s controversial study of the black family, why is it still so taboo to suggest, as you do in your book, that there is a “strong connection between black poverty and black family structure”?
JR: Political correctness has played a role. Being called a racist still stings. I cite a couple of black sociologists in the book—William Julius Wilson and Orlando Patterson—who have chided their fellow social scientists for ignoring the role that ghetto culture plays in black outcomes. For politicians, you can win a lot of votes by telling black people that white racism is the main cause of all their problems and that government programs are the solution.
MT: Can you expound on why the sharp rise in violent crime in the inner cities seems to coincide, as you write, with the increase of black leaders in those same cities?
JR: My point is that violent crime in inner-cities grew in many cases notwithstanding black leadership. I’m not saying the violence increase was a result of that leadership. I’m not suggesting there’s a causal link. The violence grew under white mayors, too. Look at Chicago. Last time I checked, Rahm Emanuel wasn’t black. The broader point is that electing black officials—mayors, city council members, police chiefs, etc.—does not automatically translate into better outcomes for blacks.
MT: The far left has waxed hysterical about President Trump’s purported white supremacism. What do you believe the rise of Trump may actually mean for black Americans after the Obama era?
JR: It’s hard to predict. So far, I haven’t seen Trump make any concerted effort to engage blacks. And the black leadership in Congress has been outright hostile toward the president. Perhaps we’re in for a sustained standoff. Perhaps blacks are in for at least four years of White House indifference. If so, I’m not too worried. I think they could do worse. Race relations reached their lowest point in nearly a quarter-century under President Obama, who regularly engaged the black community. Indifference from Trump could be an improvement.