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Electing Blacks Hasn’t Really Helped: A Conversation with Jason L. Riley

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.

Reader Discussion

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on July 28, 2017 at 08:58:08 am

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.

"They think the way you solve things is by electing the right people. It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t how you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing."

Milton Friedman

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nobody.really
on July 29, 2017 at 08:57:26 am

What did the Obama administration did for the black population? In my view " Nothing ". Not only blacks, but latinos, middle class, we all suffered under his abnormal regulations, directives, schemes and executive orders. The nation went backwards. One day blacks will realize, that their dream of a black president brought them a totally corrupt politician that hates America more than he hates himself.

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Abelardo Aguilu
on July 31, 2017 at 13:12:01 pm

All blacks in this country are incarcerated. Some within prison walls, the remainder between the shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific. The tragedy is after 1863 the freed slaves could not "go home" and their descendants cannot understand they're still incarcerated. They think, why am I not treated like everyone else. The answer is simple: Because you are Black. I am truly sorry but there's no other reason. That may be thought unjust, immoral, unfair --and I may agree -- but that's the way it is. To the Blacks I say stop making yourself a pain-in-the-ass to the rest of us by dreaming of racial equality--if you are unhappy you are free to go-- go home.

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Martin
on July 31, 2017 at 15:52:17 pm

So Thomas Jefferson's descendants should go home -- to Monticello?

For what it’s worth, several former slaves did relocate to Africa—specifically, to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and to Monrovia, Liberia. This went over about as well as settling European Jews into the land of Israel. That is, there were immediate—and continuing—conflicts with the indigenous populations, as anyone might have anticipated.

The fact that some people might see the world simply in terms of black and white does not mean that others will share this perspective. I doubt I'd be able to tell the difference between a Jewish or a Christian German in 1940, or a North and South Vietnamese in 1960, or a Catholic or Protestant Irishman in 1970, or a Hutu or Tutsi in 1990. But clearly other people could, and were perfectly willing to discriminate on that basis. So I'm skeptical that an African American could escape being seen as an outsider minority by moving to Africa.

(An aside: I recall black college students wearing T-shirts with an outline of the African continent and the words, "It's a black thang--you wouldn't understand"--much to the amusement of our white South African classmates.)

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nobody.really

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.