At the centennial of the 1912 election, pundits and politicos tell us, we again confront a constitutional moment. For the Right, the existential choice is between entrepreneurialism or social democracy, America or Europe. For the Left, it is between the 99 and 1 percent or, in President Obama’s less unhinged version, between a common future that’s “built to last” and unbridled, destructive capitalism.
The writings of Jason L. Riley span politics, economics, education, immigration, and race, among other subjects. The Buffalo-born Riley has worked for the Buffalo News, USA Today, and, for the last 23 years, the Wall Street Journal, becoming one of the leading conservative journalists in the United States. The frequent Fox News commentator is currently working on a biography of Thomas Sowell. Riley’s first book, which was about immigration, was Let Them In (2008). Next came Please Stop Helping Us (2014), examining the history of failed governmental assistance to black Americans. Templeton Press has just published his third book, False Black Power?. It brings that history forward through the end of the Obama administration.
For our latest installment of Conversations, Law and Liberty Associate Editor Lauren Weiner put questions to Riley about False Black Power?. Here is our Q and A.
Lauren Weiner: Why was it important for you to write this particular book now?
Jason Riley: The end of the Obama presidency struck me as a good time for the book. Since the 1960s, black leaders have focused on pursuing black political power—electing more black officials—in hopes that black socioeconomic gains would follow automatically. Obama’s presidency was both the culmination of that strategy and more evidence of the limits of that strategy.
LW: Many passages in False Black Power? testify to a wide opinion gap between the liberal black intellectuals and commentators who have such a strong presence in our media and our universities, on the one hand, and the man on the street (or in the barber shop), on the other hand. Why do you think the common sense of the barber shop, as it were, isn’t heard—at least not enough to get black leaders to move away from the “heightened group identity and us-against-them posturing” that you inveigh against in the book?
JR: I don’t think what you’re describing is unique to blacks. White intellectuals and commentators don’t speak for most whites either, which is one reason white elites were so shocked that Donald Trump won the presidency. Similarly, I don’t think black political leaders are much different from their white counterparts. Both are in the business of prioritizing their chances for re-election, which often means prioritizing the needs of special interest groups—for example, teachers unions. Black voters probably do suffer more than white voters in terms of the quality of their political leaders. But that has mostly to do with the fact that there’s so little competition for the black vote. With a few exceptions, Democrats tend to take it for granted and Republicans tend to write it off.
LW: After the main text of False Black Power?, you append responses to it from John McWhorter and Glenn C. Loury. I was curious as to what you thought of what they wrote. Did you expect them to agree with your analysis as much as they did?
JR: I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m on good terms with both of them, so I knew the discussion would be civil, which was important to me because race is an emotional topic. Both authors used to be more conservative than they are today, and I wasn’t sure exactly what they would make of the Obama presidency. I did know that I could expect thoughtful and informed responses, even if there was some disagreement. And they didn’t disappoint.
LW: Loury wrote that your “diagnosis of what ails us” was spot on. But he also said that “Riley himself doesn’t offer many solutions.” Is that a fair reading of the book?
JR: That’s a fair reading. I don’t pretend to have the answers to these problems. I’m a journalist, not an academic or policymaker. I see my role as laying out what’s been tried already, describing what’s worked and what hasn’t. And I hope those conclusions inform politicians and policymakers who think they do have the solutions.
LW: The Wall Street Journal recently ran the interview you conducted with the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson. While you argue in the book that the actions of government since the 1960s have seldom helped black Americans, did speaking with Dr. Carson lead you to believe that HUD might now come up with policies that work?
JR: Dr. Carson is someone who doesn’t believe Washington can solve all these problems and often makes matters worse. He understands the limits of government. He sees his role as helping people solve their own problems. Which is exactly the type of thinking at the top that the agency needs.