Social Sciences

Conservative Author Offers Contrarian View of Black Power

Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley emphasizes “human capital” over political leadership.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | May 28, 2018

Conservative analyst Jason L. Riley offered a dissenting, even radical view on racism and racial inequality to a Reed audience last month, arguing that the most effective way for black people to achieve racial justice in the United States is to focus on old-fashioned virtues—hard work, strong families, resilient neighborhoods, and entrepreneurial spirit—rather than electing black leaders and dismantling institutional racism.

Riley is a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of several books, including Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders; Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed; and False Black Power?, a critical take on black political leadership since Martin Luther King, Jr.

He was invited to Reed by the Thinkery, a student group dedicated to open and critical discussion.

Riley delivered his talk in the Eliot Chapel on April 5 before an audience of roughly 50 people— mostly students, but also including a scattering of alumni and some anxious administrators hoping the event would not disintegrate into the kind of shouting match that has marred talks by conservative speakers at many college campuses recently. Indeed, Riley himself was disinvited from Virginia Tech in 2016 out of concern that his appearance there would spark chaos.

The atmosphere in the chapel, however, was one of reasoned inquiry. Scanning the political and economic landscape of the last 50 years, Riley contrasted a long catalogue of black political achievement—including police chiefs, big-city mayors, congressional representatives, governors, and, of course, the presidency of Barack Obama—with the staggering economic inequality that persists between black and white Americans, an inequality that seems, if anything, to be getting worse.

“Black political clout has not paid off,” he concluded.

Up to this point, Riley and his Reed audience shared a lot of ground. But then he made a radical lurch to the right, arguing that Great Society programs such as welfare, set-asides for minority contractors, and affirmative action—all implemented in the 1960s—have had a disastrous effect on black communities. Rather than attacking white privilege, he argued, black people would be better off refocusing on building human capital—supporting families, pursuing education, and seizing economic opportunity. Before 1960, he claims, this strategy led to impressive progress for black Americans despite rampant racism. “Black people hear lots about what they can’t achieve, and not enough about what they did achieve,” he said.

“Young black people today are taught that teachers are racist, cops are racist, tests are racist,” he continued. “They are taught that the world owes them.”

Riley buttressed his argument with frequent reference to the experience of other minority groups in America, such as German immigrants in the 1700s and Irish immigrants in the 1900s, although he acknowledged such comparisons were imperfect.

He also cited a flurry of statistics, although these skipped lightly over some harsh facts. For example, he cited statistics indicating that deadly police shootings constitute a small fraction of overall gun deaths— his conclusion being that reducing crime would have more impact on black neighborhoods than eliminating police bias. But this comparison ignores the vital point that the police are supposed to protect the community. The devastating impact of a single police shooting is thus magnified far beyond its statistical likelihood.

It was clear from the restrained applause and from the questions afterwards that many students in the audience remained skeptical of Riley’s thesis. Students challenged his analysis of black culture, questioned the causes of crime in black neighborhoods, disputed the proposition that affirmative action was self-defeating, and argued that his analogy to other immigrant groups was misleading. But it was also clear that many listeners welcomed a chance to hear—and discuss—ideas that are different from the ones they typically encounter on campus.