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review of Jason Riley's "Please Stop Helping Us"

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Jason Riley’s Please Stop Helping Us is a good introduction to the ways in which government has harmed the poor in general and African-Americans in particular. He describes his broad concerns, but also devotes chapters to many of the most relevant public policies: welfare, crime, minimum wage, K-12 education, and Affirmative Action.

Riley puts a lot of blame on Democrats and the Left—whether they’re motivated out of good intentions, paternalism and condescension, or cynical political gain. He drops bombs along the way. “The civil rights movement of [MLK Jr.] has become an industry to monetize white guilt.” (172) The Left “remains much more interested in making excuses for blacks than in reevaluating efforts to help them.” (174) And quoting Fred Siegel on the 1960s: “They wanted to help blacks in the worst way, and that’s just what they did.” (172)

But Riley is not happy with the GOP either, arguing that they’ve missed opportunities—out of apathy or a sense that efforts would not be politically fruitful (15-16). He also uses LBJ to chide them for too much emphasis on “lift yourself up by your bootstraps”, since it’s not all that helpful for the bootless: “Freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now you are free…You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete’…[We are interested in] not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” (2)

Still, personal responsibility matters. Riley cites CNN’s Don Lemon and his “five simple suggestions for black self-improvement: pull up your pants, finish high school, stop using the n-word, take better care of your communities, and stop having children out of wedlock.” (82)

Riley is most concerned about the absence of fathers in the Black community. He was fortunate to have a good Dad. But “none of this [was] especially remarkable behavior, of course, unless the father happens to be black.” (37) He cites research: “The most critical factor affecting the prospects that a male youth will encounter the criminal justice system is the presence of a father in the home.” (83) And he calls men to personal responsibility, but fingers the welfare state for blame as well, noting that the black marriage rate was above the white rate from 1890-1940 (54).

Riley discusses the problems with race, crime, and the police, sharing his own undeserved and unjust encounters with law enforcement. But he chalks it up mostly to “statistical discrimination”: our need to make decisions with limited information and thus, our universal reliance on stereotypes. Given the statistical realities of crime in the Black community (63-66), this is unfortunate (and unjust) but to be expected to some extent.

Although it’s a popular hypothesis these days, Riley notes that contemporary “racism” can’t be a primary explanation—if it’s defined coherently and applied consistently. Racism can’t explain the strong performance of students in other minority groups or immigrant Blacks (48, 125). And the term is narrowly or vaguely applied, rather than connected to the wide array of public policies that have clearly harmed African-Americans.

Readers of Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, and Coleman Hughes will get a refresher in Riley’s discussion of Affirmative Action. (Riley just finished narrating a documentary on Sowell called “Common Sense in a Senseless World”.) Aside from ethical concerns, it’s impractical in many ways: it’s never enough (144); it imposes unwieldy burdens on employers in practice (147-148); and it must lead to mixed perceptions about the reasons for “success” in the benefited group. He spends considerable energy critiquing its application to higher education[1]—most notably, mismatches with student skill levels, as schools compete to hit targets and quotas (156-168).

Riley throws hammers at the K-12 teachers’ unions, saying their agenda makes “perfect sense if the job security of adults is your main objective.” (117) “Race to the Top” monies were tied to receiving “buy-in from teachers’ unions before applying for the grant.” (119) Obama squelched “school choice” in Louisiana, valuing racial targets over educational quality and freedom for parents (132). And unfortunately, pet projects such as Head Start and job training programs offer little help (171).

Finally, Riley is critical of African-American emphasis on politics. From theory and history (echoing Sowell), we know that political activity is neither a necessary nor a sufficient for prosperity (17-33).[2] He calls out “black fealty” toward Obama despite a poor economy (7-9). He describes “voter ID” concerns as “intellectually dishonest political pandering” (12-14)—even as Black voter participation was setting records. (It’s a useful dog whistle but lacks evidence of significant impact—what reduces to just another conspiracy theory.)

While his critique here has merit, it’s really just par for the course in politics, as “rationally ignorant” voters—of all races—are unlikely to have an effective understanding of politics and public policy. Why should any of us know much about politics and public policy, given its complexity and our infinitesimal influence on the process?

Riley’s book is a good addition to an ongoing literature, tracing the nasty impact of government activism on African-Americans. One can only hope that his book finds an audience of people with ears to hear and eyes to see.

[1] He also argues that HBCU’s have peaked in usefulness—and quotes Thurgood Marshall who prophesied their appropriate decline with advances in Civil Rights! But he offers reforms for a slimmed-down version, going forward (134-139).

[2] Riley also puts these discussions in the historical context of the debate between W.E.B. DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington.


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