Although often painted as a united movement, the black struggle for civil rights and equality has almost always been contentious and acrimonious among those ‘on the same side.’ For decades, this fight was primarily over tactics and rhetoric.
In recent years, it’s been more about political ideology.
There are differing opinions to how to make lives for black Americans better, and those to the economic right of center—probably due in part to its ties to the South and the small government rhetoric once used to support Jim Crow segregation—get the short end of it, despite their valid critiques of the status quo.
The unintended consequences of social programs still create perverse incentives for the poor. Many public schools trap students in low achieving tiers that stunt their academic growth and lower their chances at becoming successful members of a global economy. Stressing the importance of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and entrepreneurship is not as sexy as “social justice” and communal outrage.
The vastly outnumbered black conservatives are sometimes called “[Uncle] Toms” and “sellouts” for pointing these facts out, as if they do not care about black people. Indeed, such treatment led me to title one piece for my school newspaper, “Angry, Black, and Conservative.”
I don’t self-identify as a conservative anymore, but that’s more about the (d)evolution of the Republican Party since the end of the Cold War than a great shift in my own politics, though there has been some.
Indeed, when I first started learning about politics as a young adult, and to an extent, race, I probably would have enjoyed Jason L. Riley’s Please Stop Helping Us because it completely fit my worldview.
But then I grew up and learned a few things.
The problems with Riley’s book are far too many to list in one book review.
The introduction reads like a checklist of conservative shibboleths about black people and model minorities. “[I]f the rise of other groups is any indication,” Riley writes, “black social and economic problems are less about politics than they are about culture.”
This gives the game away straight off.
The first half of his book is much less about how welfare and government harm or hinder black people than it is airing Riley’s resentment and hostility toward black people and his myopic view of “black culture.”
Moreover, the book is rife with anecdotes and cherry-picked quotes supporting his thesis, rather than rigorous analysis or fair treatment of competing narratives about the current state of black America. Instead of making his case for a right-of-center approach to black problems, he spends page after page lamenting the lost black youth.
In one instance, he tells of members of his own family falling prey to the wrong crowd, rejecting polite society and listening to Geto Boys and Ice-T. That his family members died young is nothing to laugh at, but that Riley would mention these recording artists as at all related is comically misguided.
Rappers are storytellers. The most popular stories of these in particular made arguments against the destructive problems Riley complains about throughout his book, but that doesn’t get in the way of his narrative.
Even if their messages were vile, the idea that the problems of black America stem from an inability to distinguish fact from fiction in music is plainly unserious.
Unfortunately, Riley’s follies neither begin nor end with misunderstanding Hip Hop.
Early in the book, Riley defends Booker T. Washington, once the de facto leader of black America now out of favor among liberal scholars. As Riley tells it, Washington rose to prominence after giving a speech in Atlanta on “racial conciliation.”
The speech Riley mentions is indeed famous, but “conciliation” is not the word anyone would use today. Washington said to white America: In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. (emphasis added)
This passage is fairly read as an endorsement of racial segregation. Yet, that goes unmentioned in Riley’s defense of the fallen civil rights icon.
Washington’s program was essentially to sacrifice equality by endorsing segregation, allowing blacks to become a class of menial laborers, and forgoing their political rights—which Riley oddly conflates with the ascendency of black politicians—in exchange for economic opportunity.
But a century of segregation in the South proved that tradeoff to be false, with devastating consequences.
Riley could have said that this was probably the best blacks could have hoped for and Washington was trying to make the best of a bad situation. This is the best argument for the accomodationists, and may even be true, though he fails to make it.
At the turn of the 20th century, the South was a place under the reign of white terror—where the both the unemployed and industrious black folks were murdered with impunity. This was no secret.
Indeed, the South was quite proud of the way it handled its Negroes, announcing lynchings in newspapers—sometimes advertised in advance as family events—and violently overthrowing democratically elected governments run by black people.
You wouldn’t get that from reading Washington’s Up from Slavery. Washington eases the mind of his readers that the South in 1900 was a changed place that no longer tolerated the Klan. Furthermore, “the fact that [the Klan] ever existed is almost forgotten by both races.”
While it is true that the Klan had been driven out of existence temporarily by the time Washington’s autobiography was published, white terrorism was hardly a thing of the past. To further say that black folks with living memory of the night riders and murders had “almost forgotten” is to be disingenuous to the point of buffoonery.
Throughout Please Stop Helping Us, Riley emulates Washington’s selective memory and blithe dismissal of societal realities. In no realm does Riley do this more than in his treatment of crime and law enforcement.
Notably, Riley makes the elementary mistake of assigning causation to correlation when discussing the spike in mass incarceration and the declining crime rates. He presents no specific data to back up his causation claim and selectively cites late Harvard law professor William Stuntz’s critique of the Warren Court reanimate the discarded “soft on crime” trope.
Stuntz’s broader critique is that the criminal justice system is overly punitive and effectively broken. Moreover, Stuntz wrote about the devastating effects of that system on minority communities. This was missing from Riley’s book.
In a striking change of tone, Riley recounts many of his own negative encounters with police. He talks about being pulled over many times for no reason and being humiliated when in a suburban neighborhood when he was going to a friend’s house to show off his new car.
But one story about the police stood out: Against his uncle’s advice, Riley drove through Washington, D.C. rather than around it when going to his college internship in suburban Virginia from his uncle’s home in Maryland.
This was back in the times when Washington was still the “murder capital” of the United States and aggressive policing was taking hold across the country.
Once, Riley was pulled out of the car and thrown on the ground by police at gunpoint because he “fit the description” of a robbery suspect.
Riley’s takeaway from this and the other episodes was that he was young, black, male and thus, statistically speaking, more likely to be criminal than others. He learned his lesson about driving through the District.
That other black kids who tend to “fit the description” didn’t live in Maryland had to face treatment like this every day seems to have escaped Riley’s attention.
Riley recognizes that young black men are treated differently because of how they’re perceived. He justifies maltreatment based on race because there are so many black criminals. Cops and others who mistreat black people are “likely…acting on probability.”
But most black people, even young black men, are not violent criminals. Thus the probability actually shows that disparate treatment is wildly inefficient in catching criminals, as demonstrated by New York City’s Stop and Frisk statistics, in addition to being inherently wrong. That a lot of black people are criminals does not obviate the constitutional protections that require individualized suspicion and reasonable treatment by police officers.
Young black males see and feel what happens to them—being followed in the stores, stopped often in the streets, and having a gun put to their heads by the people charged with protecting them—even when they’re not doing anything wrong.
Riley does not so much as entertain that such actions amount to wholesale abuse.
What incentive do these young men have to play by the rules when the protection of those rules don’t apply to them? Add an often lacking public education system and segregated neighborhoods suffering high unemployment and poverty rates to this general rejection and fear by society at large, you have a perfect recipe for bad decisions and behavior.
This is especially true for young men, a demographic known across races and time for making bad decisions.
This does not absolve any individual of his actions. There is no contradiction in understanding certain outcomes are more likely from a system that has yet to fully correct for centuries of mistreatment and injustice and believing people are responsible for the bad decisions they make.
Riley cannot reconcile individual responsibility with people who are given limited opportunities, experience disaffection with their circumstances, and sometimes face desperation will predictably make bad decisions. This, he argues, undermines individual agency and treats black people as incapable of making responsible decisions.
Certainly an odd accusation from someone who blames saggy pants, foul language, and rap music for the ills of black folks.
Nevertheless, Riley made some good points in his book, such as explaining the unintended consequences of majority-minority voting districts, the detrimental political alliances with unions against community interest, and the negative effects of the public school monopoly, to name a few.
That more black individuals should make better decisions is not untrue. But how society treats them, particularly in their younger and most impressionable years, is more important than what music they listen to or how they wear their pants.
The great potential value this book had to offer is drowned-out by Riley’s contempt for American black people, thinly veiled as assaults on a nebulous yet omnipresent “black culture.” Worse, the short shrift he gives his opponents’ arguments and the facts he conveniently omits ultimately undermine the book’s purpose.
Please Stop Helping Us is a wasted opportunity to promote small government solutions to persistent policy problems. Like the liberals he chides for putting their ideology before the people they seek to help, Riley puts his own antipathy before his policy message.
I blame political culture.