Questions for Jason Riley

Hi, I wrote about race today. If you don’t want to read a thing about race by a white-passing person, you have the power to close this window and do literally anything else. Here is a disclaimer.


I read False Black Power? by Jason Riley and I have some questions.

For those who haven’t read this conservative take on race issues: Riley argues that black pursuit of political power is the wrong way to gain real power and meaningful change for the impoverished and troubled sectors of the black community. Rather, black people ought to concentrate on economic improvement. The author opposes identity politics and narrations of black victimhood. Instead, Riley argues, the black community ought to build human capital through education, strengthen the black family, and focus on internal improvements.

I find elements of his argument intriguing, though for me inactionable. I also have some questions

Intriguing Elements

Riley draws parallels between the situation of black people in America and the situation of other immigrant groups in America. I remain unconvinced that this comparison works. No other immigrant group came to America against their will. No other group was enslaved for 300 years (or any years). No other group in America has ever been so thoroughly oppressed by explicitly discriminatory laws.

Because of this, I have no idea how well or whether the following applies. I will say, however, that I have for years resented a certain strain of feminism that relies on men giving up power. I’m not holding my breath on that because I’ve met people and I know what they’re like. Feminists sometimes make the mistake of begging for equal treatment instead of demanding it. They speak, in my opinion, for a habitual place of weakness. Regardless of the justice of feminist demands, the societal transformations we desire will not happen until we strengthen ourselves and throw off millennia of gender norms that teach us to be non-confrontational and gentle.

There can be value in rejecting victimhood, is what I’m saying, even if one is actually a victim. Dwelling on helplessness is no way to advance a cause. One must not look to the strong to relieve that helplessness. As a practical matter, one must instead become less helpless. I think that working to gain strength is preferable to victimhood in nearly all situations, from personal power imbalances to societal power struggle.

The question of whether this does in fact hold true for the black American community in 2018 is a question for the black community to answer. As a woman and a feminist, I must ask myself what women can do, as individuals and as a group, to obtain a more equal position in society. As a white/white-passing person, I ought to instead ask how I can use whatever power I might have to create a more equitable society.

Not every book need address the white perspective. However, Riley is an opinion journalist for the Wall Street Journal. He knows that his readership contains a large number of white people. He knew that a great many of them would read this book. The only takeaway I could find for white people is that we ought not worry too much about black problems. If anything, we should vote against welfare and affirmative action.

Not only is this less than useful, it actively harms efforts towards a more equitable society.

Riley would, of course, disagree. In False Black Power? he explains that, through his book, he wants to advance an argument that currently gets no airtime. This seems fair to me. Unfortunately, even from this perspective, the book leaves many important questions unanswered.

Questions for Riley

Where is the South?

To support his argument that political power isn’t the answer, Riley compares black economic progress before the Civil Rights era to black economic progress afterwards. He contends that, during Jim Crow, black people made more economic progress than they did after Civil Rights.

To back this up, Riley cites several compelling economic statistics. However, not a single one of those statistics focused on the situation in the South, where Jim Crow existed at its ugliest and most oppressive. Instead, he draws his statistics from Northern cities such as Chicago, Buffalo, and New York City. New York City had significant Jim Crow laws for a Northern city, and it’s not crazy to look at Northern cities in this context. It is crazy not to look at the South without justifying that decision.

If it’s true that black people had less political power in the South than in the North, and if Riley is correct, a comparison of black prosperity in those places during the same time period should reveal no difference in progress rate after taking regional economic conditions into account. Does it? Riley claims that Northern black schools were more comparable with white schools than we have been led to believe. Was that the case in the South?

The answers exist somewhere, but not within Riley’s latest book.

Why the Cultural Shift?

Riley points to the disintegration of the black family as a major source of black poverty. He also argues that the black family was very much intact prior to the civil rights movement, and that the fragmentation of the black family therefore cannot be attributed to slavery. These claims are controversial and others have surely done a better job of addressing them than I ever could.

Setting controversy aside, however, False Black Power never addresses why the alleged fragmentation took place.  To what, then, can we attribute it? If Riley wants to fix perceived problems with the black family, this seems a vital question. Yet the author never directly addresses why this cultural shift occurred.

 this cultural shift occurred: between 1950 and 1960. Before the 1950s, the black family was fine. By the 1960s, it had started to decline. Before the 1950s, black people were economically on track and improving their position. By the 1960s, they weren’t.

What happened in that fateful decade? One can imagine several answers to that question–counterculture? Rising liberalism? Drugs? The sexual revolution? In his book, however, Riley mentions only two things that occurred within that period. Most frequently, Riley divides the two periods by invoking civil rights. The author also occasionally references LBJ’s Great Society program, which established the welfare program along with other entitlement programs.

At one point, Riley directly states that civil rights reforms were good, positive developments. If we take him at his word about civil rights, despite his constant rhetorical use of them in separating the good times from the bad, the culprit must be the Great Society program.

Had Riley directly invoked welfare as implemented in the 1970s as the culprit, he would have been in good leftist company. Many liberal scholars agree that perverse incentives within the welfare program as implemented can trap recipients into cycles of poverty.

Yet Riley avoids directly blaming the Great Society program for the problems he sees within the black community, and for good reason. After all, wouldn’t blaming a political problem for social ills undermine the argument that political power doesn’t matter?

Where is the War on Drugs?

Keep in mind that this book was published in 2017 as you ponder this next bit: Riley spends a great deal of time arguing against Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I haven’t heard from either man in years.

To his credit, Riley includes an essay by John McWhorter that criticizes False Black Power? for treating these two figures as politically relevant today. This does not, however, remedy the inexplicable decision to argue against ghostly straw men instead of against actual arguments advanced by leftists today.

One of the most common such arguments, which Riley fails to directly mention even once, involves the effects of the War on Drugs. He does bring up The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander–one of today’s most compelling books on the far-reaching effects of mass black incarceration. Riley does not address its primary argument, however, but instead dismisses it using a bizarre non-sequitur on fatal police shootings. Later, the author addresses the disproportionate number of black people locked up in our prisons, but only as an example of broken black culture. He does not reference or respond to the argument that our justice system routinely sentences black offenders more harshly than white offenders convicted of the same type of crime.

For someone so concerned about the black family, Riley spends no time pondering the influence such incarceration might have on family cohesion. Nor does he address the individual and societal impact of imprisoning a staggering number of black men in conditions that sometimes seem designed to increase criminality.

Why would an author waste time tilting at ghosts rather than addressing present arguments? How can any modern book addressing the issue of race in America avoid a discussion of the most serious argument regarding institutional racism in current discourse?

What about Education?

In False Black Power?, Riley argues against affirmative action. He asserts that universities do black people no favors when they preferentially admit minority students into Ivy League universities. Riley points to high drop-out rates as evidence that these students are in fact unprepared for the rigors of top university. Would they, in fact, do better at a state school? Could a state school diploma be the first step on the road to bettering that student’s future, perhaps ensuring that their child will be ready to attend an Ivy League university?

I find elements of this argument compelling. For financial success, a degree from any college serves one better than uncompleted attendance at even the most prestigious university. Nonetheless, a vital question remains: why are so few black students prepared for top universities?

Most people who aren’t Nazis can agree on an answer to this question: failing public primary and secondary schools within black communities. Though proposed solutions differ, the problem remains obvious.

Riley is all about building human capital, yet he never addresses the problem of primary and secondary education. How can one claim to seriously address the problem of black advancement without addressing the problem of failing black schools?

As with the Great Society program, perhaps the reason lies in Riley’s main argument. Some people think vouchers are the solution. Others, more funding. Still others, integration efforts. All of these solutions are highly contentious and very political. Without political power, these issues cannot be addressed. 

Riley would likely retort that, despite record numbers of black elected officials, the problem of black schools remains fundamentally unaddressed. Which brings me to the final and most important question:

What is Political Power?

Jason Riley bases the entirety of False Black Power? on the idea that black elected officials equals black political power. He’s hardly the only person to do so. Many people naively hailed the election of Barack Obama as the end of racism. My question to those people, to Riley, to everyone: why is representation the correct measure of political power?

Consider, for a moment, the political power of senior citizens. For years people have advocated driving tests for the elderly, and for good reason. They have advocated cuts to social security and medicare to balance our budget. None of these things have happened or will ever happen. It’s not because senior citizens are well-represented in elected office (though they are). It’s because they call their elected officials. They write angry letters. They watch cable news and are relentlessly informed, at least on a surface level. They show up. They are loud, and they refuse to vote for candidates who do not support their pet issues.

The token presence of minorities in the halls of Congress or even in the White House doesn’t translate into political power, especially if those individual minority politicians tend to be culturally and fiscally removed from the people they supposedly represent. Political organization and action translates into political power.

What if Democrats couldn’t take black support for granted? What if no one in this country could get elected without making meaningful reforms to the educational system and the incarceration system, just as no one in this country today can get elected without promising to maintain or expand social security and medicare?

If that happens and things remain stagnant for black people, I’ll become a lot more receptive to the arguments Jason Riley raises.


About misanthrophile

A human person, mostly. I have opinions on a lot of stuff
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One Comment

  1. Shalom- Writing from Israel, though I graduated from Reed some 40 years ago…
    The education problem is a toughie. My high school was educated, but there was so little interest in education in the black home, that students paid far more attention to basketball than going to classes. Time I spent in black houses, there were no books on the shelves. Add in the (later? I don’t know) phenomenon of failure of black males to stay around and raise their children, and you truly have a community in distress. Don’t know solutions, though I suspect communal pressure to take responsibility for child-rearing to be a part, but truly one royal mess at the moment.

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