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Cruel Compassion

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed by Jason L. Riley (Encounter Books 2014), 407 pages.
When he was asked, following the abolition of slavery, what the country should do with the Negro, Frederick Douglass issued this thunderous reply: “I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us…. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”
Douglass knew that black people needed no special treatment and deserved to succeed or fail on their own. He wanted no patronizing help, but simply to be free of all the impediments that government had historically put in their way.
Sad to say, while many modern Americans claim to honor the great abolitionist, they ignore his plea that society “Do nothing with us.” On the contrary, it is a deeply imbedded belief among many so-called liberals that only through policies that aim specifically at making it easier for blacks to succeed can they make any progress. A possibility that those liberals almost never consider is that their “doing” with blacks is in fact detrimental.
Free-market critics of programs supposedly meant to help struggling people have long argued that those programs are counterproductive. They actually harm the intended “beneficiaries,” or at least most of them.
Such arguments are almost always ignored by key politicians and opinion shapers. Frequently, they are dismissed out of hand with the insinuation that anyone who would make such claims must harbor some racial animosity.
So, what will be the reaction to Wall Street Journal writer Jason Riley’s new book Please Stop Helping Us?
Riley, who is black himself, shows that affirmative-action programs, progressive education theories, minimum-wage laws and other labor-market interferences, and other laws have retarded the economic advance of black Americans. In short, allegedly liberal policies that were adopted to help blacks have instead proven to be millstones around their necks.
He points to the inconvenient truth (inconvenient for statists, anyway) that the gap between the average earnings of white workers and black workers had been closing rapidly in the years following World War II, when government policy was still indifferent to or even hostile to black Americans. That progress, however, slowed and then reversed after the implementation of the federal “Great Society” programs that were intended to speed up black progress.
Rather than reexamining those policies, however, so-called liberals resort to making implausible excuses for their failure. The minimum wage hasn’t been raised high enough; not enough money has been spent on inner-city public schools; anti-discrimination laws have not been enforced severely enough, and so forth.
Riley doesn’t believe any of that. His book’s big target is the “liberal” idea that the best or only way for poor minority groups to succeed is to get political power, then use that power to obtain preferential laws. Looking to the government for group advancement is a delusion that has lured blacks (and other groups) away from self-reliance and individual improvement.
Instead, looking to the state for “help” has created a powerful “civil-rights industry” that pretends to work for the interests of blacks. The leaders of that industry have a fixation on government and their approach merely creates dependency and a sense of victimization. That is in their interest, but it has been extremely detrimental to the well-being of most black Americans.
In contrast, Riley observes, Asians, including recent immigrants, have focused on individual efforts in education, investment, and entrepreneurship, rather than politics. As a result, there is no Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese underclass that is hopelessly mired in poverty. There is, however, a huge and growing black underclass that has been deprived of ability and ambition, thanks to reliance on the state.
So powerful is the “government must help us” mentality that the self-improvement philosophy of earlier leaders such as Booker T. Washington is now disparaged. Riley writes, “Not only has Washington’s legacy been maligned, but several generations of blacks have come to believe that the only legitimate means of group progress is political agitation of the NAACP-Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton variety. If you are more interested in black self-development than in keeping whites on the defensive, you’re accommodating racism.”
Quite a lot of the book is devoted to liberal educational policies that have hurt black progress.
Before it became fashionable for educators to treat any group of students as victims deserving favored treatment, blacks knew they had to excel in school — and did. Black students from public and private schools graduated with solid skills and found their way into good careers despite lingering prejudice against them in society.
The trouble with black academic achievement began when liberal white educators decided that they should not hold black kids to the same rigorous standards, either in scholarship or in decorum, as they applied to whites and Asians.
Riley cites the research of the late sociology professor John Ogbu, who found that academic underachievement was rampant among black students in the wealthy Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Those students, who had never experienced the least bit of poverty or discrimination, knew that they would benefit from lower expectations from their teachers and also from preferential college-admission policies. After all, why “act white” and work hard when you don’t have to?
Educational policies meant to help blacks have done them great harm, yet when the poor achievement of black students is discussed by black leaders and white liberals, the talk invariably turns toward making excuses. Poor results are attributed to “the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow” or to enduring poverty or to “culturally inappropriate teaching methods” in the schools.
Worse still, black leaders (again allied with white liberals) oppose school reforms that would allow at least some students to escape dismal public schools for charters or private alternatives. Riley recounts his interview with American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten: “Jason, don’t talk to me about an achievement gap until we solve poverty in this country,” she said. But of course, one of the main reasons that there is so much poverty is the ineffectiveness of many public schools. To say that black students have to remain in them until we somehow “solve poverty” is an absurdity.
And now the federal departments of Justice and Education have gotten into the act with a requirement that public-school officials punish students with racial proportionality in mind. Schools risk sanctions if their discipline statistics don’t match the racial percentages in their student bodies. Riley wonders why these distant bureaucrats aren’t more concerned about the disruption to the education of serious students than the racial mix of the students who really deserve punishment.
Riley also hammers at liberal nostrums such as the minimum wage. With iconic politicians such as the late Ted Kennedy proclaiming that the minimum wage “is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs,” liberals never want to confront the consequences of the minimum wage. But the inescapable truth, Riley writes, is that these laws “keep the large number of blacks who lack the right education and skills from being able to compete for jobs by offering to work for less money, get on-the-job experience, and ultimately increase their skills and pay.”
Defenders of the minimum wage trot out a few academic studies which they claim show that raising it does not have any disemployment effects. Riley shows why those studies are erroneous, mainly because the data were collected over too short a time period for the inevitable labor-market adjustments to occur.
Again, however, nearly all black leaders remain united with white liberals in demanding that the minimum wage be ratcheted up further. Do they really think they’re helping? Or do they simply prefer the cozy alliance with the liberal establishment that sees more government as the solution to every problem?
Another labor-market interference that hurts blacks (although not exclusively) is the Davis-Bacon Act and similar “prevailing wage” laws in many states. As Riley acknowledges, those laws were not enacted to help blacks. Quite the reverse, they were enacted to keep black construction workers from competing with white (mostly unionized) workers who charged more. Their effect, however, is decidedly harmful to nonunion construction, where blacks and other minorities are more numerous.
Given the “disparate impact” that those laws have on blacks, you might think that black leaders and white liberals would be working hard to repeal them. You’d be mistaken. Again, the political advantages for black leaders of the alliance with Big Labor trumps the obvious harm of prevailing wage laws.
The missing condemnation
Barack Obama was elected twice with almost unanimous support from black voters.
If you think back to the celebration on election night in 2008, many of them thought that their lives would improve dramatically once he took office. But instead of great progress, most of the black community has fallen further back. Unemployment is high and dependency on government welfare has increased. None of that seems to have made the slightest dent in faith in big government, however.
Obama and his political allies have constantly tried to distract supporters with a parade of irrelevancies and new promises such as preschool programs, allegations of racism over voter-ID laws, and the alleged need for more gun-control laws. So far, that strategy has worked pretty well.
Riley sums up his case this way: “The left’s sentimental support has turned underprivileged blacks into 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.”
While the book makes a strong case against government intervention and in favor of the “Do nothing with us!” philosophy of Frederick Douglass, it would have been better if the author had taken his observations about the harm of intervention to their logical, radical, conclusions.
With regard to education, for example, Riley shows that public schooling has adopted educational fads and theories that are damaging to black students, but he doesn’t argue in favor of getting government out of the education business entirely. Pointing out that those fads and theories are bad is not going to bring about change. Black parents need to leave public education and enroll their children in private schools where the academic standards are strong and discipline is maintained.
Some relevant history that Riley does not go into is the existence of many private schools in the Jim Crow-era South that were run by blacks. They ran on tiny budgets that came from the parents, often augmented by donations from wealthy whites. (An illuminating book on this is Dangerous Donations by Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss.) Those schools had very good results and were a source of pride in black communities. After desegregation of Southern schools enabled black children to attend integrated public schools, those effective private schools withered. Black kids who would have attended them now received the same poor public-school education as everyone else — an early instance of “help” that hurt.
Riley advocates voucher policies that expand school choice for black families, but the real path to educational excellence is to turn away from government schools and money altogether. It is disappointing that he doesn’t argue for that. I wish that his readers — blacks and all others — had heard more of a full-throated condemnation of the state as their enemy, not just that a number of supposedly beneficial policies are actually harmful.
On balance, however, Please Stop Helping Us is a valuable book because it throws down the gauntlet to those who proclaim their dedication to helping blacks advance by handing out government favors. If you really care, Riley says, you should help by getting government out of the way.
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    George C. Leef is the research director of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.