- - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

By Jason L. Riley
Encounter, $23.99, 184 pages

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. famously said we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race. Jason Riley is not one of them. The Wall Street Journal editorial board member’s new book, “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed,” is a moment of clarity in a tempest of confusion over the impact of social-welfare policy on blacks, particularly in light of recent commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mr. Riley argues convincingly that liberal initiatives intended to assist blacks have hurt them more than they have helped. Social-welfare programs of the 1960s helped wreck the black nuclear family and make socioeconomic self-independence undesirable. Minimum-wage laws priced inexperienced blacks out of jobs. Weak law enforcement endangered blacks who lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Affirmative action either benefited blacks who were already academically qualified or put academically unqualified blacks in rigorous schools where they struggled to succeed. Mr. Riley demonstrates that these are not empty hypothetical statements, but concrete conclusions based on experiential evidence.

Mr. Riley provides a further contribution to our public discourse on race by broadening the window of black history beyond the 1960s. Most commentaries on black American progress begin in the modern civil rights era, as though black achievement before this time period either did not exist or is too insignificant to be discussed at great length. Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson’s argument in his 2010 book “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America” captured this tendency: “Forty years ago, after major cities from coast to coast had gone up in flames, black equaled poor . Over the next three decades — as civil rights laws banned discrimination in education, housing and employment, and as affirmative action offered life-changing opportunities to those prepared to take advantage — millions of black households clawed their way into the mainstream and the black poverty rate fell steadily, year after year.”

Mr. Riley, by contrast, stretches and deepens the reader’s understanding of black progress by contextualizing the 1960s within the wider canvas of black achievement in the 19th and 20th centuries. In building off the work of Thomas Sowell, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom and other scholars of black demographics, Mr. Riley notes, for instance, that 75 percent of black families in Philadelphia in 1880 had two parents and children. Black unemployment in 1930 was lower than white employment. Black poverty fell 40 percent between 1940 and 1960. This evidence, Mr. Riley writes, suggests that blacks are quite capable of succeeding on their own without the need for race-based government intervention. The deeper implication is that the logic behind liberals’ well-intentioned social policies would collapse if this were indeed the case — and historical evidence has proved Mr. Riley’s argument to be true.

Yet, “Please Stop Helping Us” does not overwhelm the reader with numbers or economics jargon. Instead, Mr. Riley places a human face on the book’s pages by weaving in personal anecdotes as a black man growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., and working in the Washington, D.C. area. Mr. Riley discusses how he was accused of “acting white” by valuing his education and speaking formal English. He recalls one terrifying instance when he was stopped by Washington, D.C., police officers late at night, their guns brandished. Mr. Riley’s older sister became a single mom; his younger sister died of a drug overdose. To the benefit of the reader, then, Mr. Riley’s book is a delicate blend of empirical evidence and personal memoir.

Mr. Riley’s argument needed one point of clarification. He rightly identifies American liberalism as the primary force behind well-meaning social policies that impede black success. Yet Richard Nixon, a Republican, started the first major affirmative-action program, called the Philadelphia Plan, which sought to help blacks gain jobs in a city construction industry that was dominated by white unions hostile to competition from blacks. Mr. Riley’s book identifies the plan through a secondary source. Further clarification could have distinguished conservatism, rightly understood, as the defender of black liberty, and the Republican Party, which has had a role, albeit less influential than the Democratic Party, in supporting public policies that undermine black achievement.

The lasting virtue of “Please Stop Helping Us” is that it synthesizes past scholarship on the limitations of social-welfare policies and the triumph of black achievement absent government activism into a readable and tightly written narrative. Readers who would like to further explore the issues Mr. Riley examines should also read the work of Thomas Sowell and the Thernstroms, as well as that of Herbert Gutman, Nathan Glazer and Steven Ruggles.

There is a final lesson Mr. Riley has the courage to confront, and it is not that liberals are wrong and conservatives are right, or vice versa. It’s that ignorance of evidence is ignorance of reality, and ignorance of reality is more dangerous to the well-being of blacks — or to Americans of any other skin color, for that matter — than any well-meaning social policy gone wrong.

Mr. Riley is no coward.

Greg Collins is a columnist for American CurrentSee, a digital magazine of The Washington Times.

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