Jason Riley illustrates that old adage about the pavement on the road to hell in a reportorial account that reads with the ease of a memoir. This book is something of a compact sequel to many by Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele who have busted destructive liberal myths about race. In six succinct chapters Riley deals with the issues of politics, culture, crime, labor, education, and affirmative action. He uses personal anecdotes and research to show how liberal policies have harmed instead of helped blacks.
Unlike Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, to whom the book is dedicated, Riley had the benefits of growing up after implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Wrong-headed court rulings, legislation, and the encouragement of destructive behavior, however, nullified the benefits that should have accrued for the black community.
Griggs v. Duke Power in 1971 on the “disparate impact” from the employer’s requirement of a high-school diploma and minimal IQ scores is one such ruling. It replaced equal opportunity with equal results, thus fundamentally taking away the incentives needed for long-term success.
Riley knows from firsthand experience what such misguided policies do. He grew up in Buffalo in the 1980s. His parents, although divorced, stayed involved (especially important in the case of his father) and moved from a black inner-city neighborhood to a largely white suburb. Unfortunately, Riley’s two sisters and best friend succumbed to the culture that is increasingly more difficult to escape. He did not and went on to join the Wall Street Journal, where he now sits on the editorial board.
The influence of Thomas Sowell’s clear-headed approach is evident in each of the book’s chapters. In the first one, “Black Man in the White House,” Riley illustrates how political power among black and other ethnic groups (namely, the Irish) has not translated directly into well-being for the group. Between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, but between 1972 and 2011 it declined only from 32 percent to 28 percent and remained three times the white rate. Demands for political racial power have resulted in gerrymandered black districts that have increased polarization and decreased the well-being of most blacks. For example, the racial preference programs in hiring and contracting instituted by successive black mayors in Atlanta have not translated into advantages for average blacks and the black underclass.
In chapter two, “Culture Matters,” Riley relates the pressures placed on him while growing up to not “act white,” e.g., to speak ungrammatically and neglect school work. Added to this is the message of victimization by the NAACP, the National Urban League, and most black politicians. Such messages lead to an achievement gap between black and white students even in affluent suburbs, like Shaker Heights, near Cleveland, Ohio, as John Ogbu, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, found in his study, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement.
The third chapter, “The Enemy Within,” is a devastating critique of black crime, the overwhelming majority of it black-on-black. Riley speaks from the experience of being stopped by police because of looking like a criminal suspect. Sadly, given crime statistics, police go on probability, as do black store owners. Riley connects increasing crime rates–by 139 percent during the 1960s—to the expansion of criminal defendants’ rights: “In the 1950s, when segregation was legal, overt racism was rampant, and black poverty was much higher than today, black crime rates were lower and blacks comprised a smaller percentage of the prison population.” Riley addresses outrageous claims that equate incarceration to slavery and Jim Crow by “celebrated academics,” such as Michelle Alexander, and asks “is it any great shock that black people without advanced degrees have less sympathy for black thugs?”
In the subsequent chapter, “Mandating Unemployment” Riley connects minimum wage laws to their origins by unions that wanted to exclude black labor and use upward pressure for their own wages. The unemployment rate for young black men began exceeding that of young white men when the minimum wage law was amended to catch up with inflation in 1950. There are more statistics: only 5 percent of hourly workers earn minimum wage, and most are 25 or younger and work part-time. An increase typically benefits not the single mother in the ghetto but the suburban teenager.
In his chapter entitled “Educational Freedom,” Riley lays out how teachers unions act out of self-interest to increase their own numbers, driving up costs of education. They give vast sums to Democratic candidates in exchange for favors. In spite of an increase in federal per-pupil spending by an inflation-adjusted 375 percent between 1970 and 2010, the learning gap between black and white students remains what it was in 1970. Presenting the improved academic performance of some Harlem charter schools as evidence, Riley proposes school choice as a viable solution.
Lastly, the chapter “Affirmative Discriminations” shows how race-based affirmative college admissions harm intended beneficiaries like the black law-school graduates who fail the bar exam at four times the white rate. Riley quips, “Michigan’s law school likes to tout its diversity, but is it doing black students any favors by admitting them with lower standards and setting them up to fail?” Affirmative action harms the reputation of blacks across the board, as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas found out when employers assumed that he had benefited from preferential treatment.
Some of Riley’s observations will be familiar to readers of Thomas Sowell’s excellent work. But Riley marshals the evidence into a compact account, told from the perspective of a younger generation. It’s still not working, is the message. Will liberals listen?
Yes, if they are willing to give up the benefits that such a focus on race grants them. Riley writes that “underprivileged blacks” have become “playthings for liberal intellectuals and politicians who care more about clearing their conscience or winning votes than advocating behaviors and attitudes that have allowed other groups to get ahead.”
We know what would happen if they did get ahead, if we did become the post-racial society liberals claim to want.
Many academics, pundits, and civil rights leaders would be out of jobs, and the political left would have to find something else to unite around.
Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.