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An interview with Jason Riley - His new bestseller - "Please Stop Helping Us"

New answers for America's racial inequality questions
New answers for America's racial inequality questions
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Jason Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board. He joined the paper in 1994 as a copyreader on the national news desk in New York. He moved to the editorial page in 1995 as copyreader and later became a copy editor. In April 1996, he was named to the newly created position of editorial interactive editor and maintained the editorial and Leisure & Arts section of WSJ.com. He was named a senior editorial page writer in March 2000, and member of the Editorial Board in 2005.

Dwight L. Schwab, Jr.: After reading your book I would assume it is a bit controversial in some circles.

Jason I. Riley: I think any time you want to talk about black culture as a major barrier to success in America, you’ll be pushed back from people who want to blame white racism. It is much like Bill Cosby who discussed the subject in his book. It is to be expected.

Schwab: What’s wrong with liberals trying to correct the perceived wrongs on black Americans?

Riley: I think their intentions are noble. I have an issue with their methods, not their motives. In the end, blacks have to help themselves with behavior, attitudes and habits. Like any other group in this country, they have to rise to the occasion. The government interferes with that development and does more harm than good.

Schwab: In recent years with various cultures being allowed into the country in large numbers, especially Hispanics, does this have an impact on the minority status blacks have received from the government and citizens? Perhaps blacks are envious or even jealous? Is this on the minds of the NAACP and their original cause?

Riley: I don’t think immigration of Latinos or Asian immigration is a factor. Some have said Latino immigration harms blacks in particular; especially jobs and wages. But I have not seen any empirical evidence of that. Basically, we had more immigrants coming under Bush and Obama. Black unemployment is lower today. Historically higher levels of immigration have been correlated with lower unemployment. Many historians have looked at this. Just because an immigrant comes to America doesn’t necessarily mean someone loses a job. That is the lump of labor fallacy. Black unemployment goes deeper than immigration. It has been consistently double what white unemployment has been for the last 50 years. Yet immigration has widely fluctuated over the last 50 years.

Schwab: With the civil rights legislation of the mid-sixties, what would you consider to be good laws for blacks over the years and some of the bad.

Riley: Well, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are liberalism at its best. All Americans can be proud. We can all agree these were accomplishments and blacks received equal employment and voting rights. I applaud this and the folks including Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. It’s what the government did after that. The problem is after this period with their goal of equal results instead of equal opportunity. It has left blacks worse off.

Schwab: Do you think the NAACP has lost its usefulness and become more of a political forum?

Riley: Oh yes, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There’s quite a bit about that in the book. The extreme disconnect between the NAACP and blacks in general. School choice is a perfect example. In polls, blacks overwhelmingly favor vouchers and charter schools. The black elites do not. They side with the teachers unions that want to protect the status quo and the NAACP has thrown poor blacks under the bus and sided with the unions and their agenda for public education. If you go back to school busing in the seventies and eighties, the black elites wanted to put these black kids on buses and integrate schools far away from their neighborhoods. Most communities said no, we want decent schools right here in our neighborhoods. Of course the black elite’s kids were not on those buses (laughter). But busing was never favored by a majority of low income blacks.

Another issue is the minimum wage law. The racist intent was aimed at black workers. The black workers were coming out of the South to compete for white jobs in the North in the twenties and thirties. Whites hoped to price blacks out of the labor force. Minimum wage laws were the key. The effect today is the same. Blacks are disproportionately blocked from the labor force as they are generally younger and with less education. When you increase the cost of hiring people, less people get hired. It’s common sense. These laws are sold as anti-poverty help, but they do not solve poverty.
Poor households tend to have no workers. What they need are jobs. There is not some grand scheme to move blacks forward with jobs. I don’t think slavery reparations or another massive poverty program is necessary.

I have an anti-poverty program for you. The poverty rate for married black couples in America is in the single digits and has been for the last 20 years. There’s your anti-poverty program; get married before you have children.

Schwab: Let’s move from the NAACP to titles such as The United Negro College Fund and Black Entertainment Television. Is this sort of singular usage of an organization specifically geared to one group a good thing for blacks to pursue in 2014?

Riley: I don’t have a problem with that. It isn’t the government. It is private organizations trying to find a niche or core audience. I have no problem with a Hispanic entrepreneur targeting an audience for his specific product. I don’t have a problem with black television or television companies. It’s the free market. The problem is the government getting involved.

Schwab: What about disproportionate sentencing for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine convictions? Is the Fair Sentencing Act a good thing?

Riley: It’s a good thing if you’re a drug dealer. You get out of jail sooner. Maybe the easy answer is harder time for powder cocaine convictions. My problem with the drug sentencing debate is one, who pushed for these disproportionate sentencing laws in the 1980’s? It was the Congressional Black Caucus leading the charge like Charlie Rangel. The problem was rampant in their communities. This was not some rich white southerner pushing this; it was the Congressional Black Caucus.

We have to get our history correct. The second part of my problem with this is the whole debate that the false narrative on the left is we have a racist criminal justice system. It doesn’t have to do with behavior. Remember, the justice system is run by one black man reporting to another. Liberals maintain we still have a racist justice system.

The facts do not bare that out on incarceration rates. Blacks are about 13 percent of the population, but 37 percent of the incarceration rate. If you could snap your fingers and send home all drug offenders, blacks would still make up about 37 percent. It is not the drug laws driving the incarceration rate, it is the justice. Burglary, battery, assault, all kinds of white collar crimes, theft, you name it. Blacks are overrepresented in all those categories.

It is not the drug laws driving the black incarceration rate. I have a problem with the conservative outreach to lessen the laws and pander to the black voters. That sort of pandering annoys me to no end. People like Rand Paul think this is way to have black outreach. It’s a false narrative to say it’s the criminal justice system driving this. By the way, the black incarceration rate was less in 1960 than today. Was there less racism in 1960 than today?

Schwab: If Martin Luther King came back to earth after almost 50 years, what would he think of the racial policies instituted in that time frame?

Riley: I couldn’t begin to know the answer to that. I could only compare the issues and their answers he had back then to what the civil rights leaders of today say and do. I’ll give you an example. I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal last year or the year before. I included a quote from King speaking to a congregation in St. Louis in the early 60’s, late 50’s. He was speaking of what black people need to do for themselves. He says, and I’m using figures from the top of my head here, "Do you know we are 14 percent of the population in St. Louis and responsible for 47 percent of the crimes? We have to do something about this, it’s on us."

There were people who did not believe Martin Luther King said that. I had to go back to the paper where a college said, “Jason, are you sure about that quote? Can you look up the original source?" (laughter). It was incomprehensible that a civil rights leader would talk like that.

The quote was easy to find. It was from a Harpers Magazine piece by James Baldwin, of all people, one of America’s most famous writers. (laughter) What I am saying is Martin Luther King might be shocked at the types of arguments blacks make today. He knew racism was going to be around for a while. Blacks had to succeed despite that fact. We must still get an education. White attitudes are what they are and we have to move forward.

Today, the black leadership argument is "Don’t talk to me about behavior until racism is eliminated from America." Racism is an all-purpose explanation for what ails America. The black leadership of today scours the land looking for the next Donald Sterling (owner of the Los Angeles basketball team) or rancher Clivan Bunday and go “Look, look. Don’t tell me about the achievement gap when we have Donald Sterlings out there.” (laughter) It’s a huge disconnect. But that is what the NAACP does these days. You talk about outliving your usefulness. That’s pretty much all they do. They have become an arm of the Democratic National Committee and put the interest of the party in front of poor blacks. Minimum wage laws support opposition to school choice. These are not in anyone’s interest but the NAACP.

Schwab: In essence, blacks have turned from "We want a better life" to victims, "Help us."

Riley: Yes. That is it. The left has nurtured that among blacks. The young are taught to think of themselves as victims first and foremost. They are held to lower standards in schools. It is a victim culture permeated by the black elite. You have blacks experiencing an over-dependence on government in general from the military or the post office, or other government jobs. There are government handouts of food stamps, welfare and so forth. An over-dependence of government largess. That is why blacks are so attached to the Democratic Party. The party of bigger government; look to government for support and that bigger means better for black people.

Schwab: So in terms of government policies towards blacks, which are the most damaging?

Riley: Oh I think the opposition to school choice.

Schwab: That’s at the top of the list?

Riley: Yes. I just don’t think anything starts without a decent education. The fact that blacks are stuck in these awful schools is shameful. It’s hard to see anything changing while this continues. I also think the minimum wage laws are detrimental to so many young blacks preventing them from getting that first good job.

Schwab: Then why is President Obama for this?

Riley: Because his agenda is not for helping poor blacks. His agenda is the Democratic Party’s agenda to keep blacks dependent; keep their vote and stay in power. Barack Obama cares more about his labor base than poor blacks. They are taken for granted. They’re either going to vote Democratic or stay home. There’s no danger Democrats will lose votes to Republicans. Obama has to worry about labor, not only in terms of voters, but to get out the vote.

Schwab: So here’s another question concerning Barack Obama. Why is he encouraging illegal immigration when the unions are against it?

Riley: Well, unions think they can turn these people into Democrat voters. You can’t really paint unions as one mind on immigration. You have the AFL-CIO branch and the SEIU branch. The SEIU branch says they can convert them while the AFL-CIO is reluctant to think that will happen.

Schwab: You cite Frederick Douglass at one time saying, “Do nothing for us.”

Riley: Right.

Schwab: Is that the best policy going forward?

Riley: Oh yes. Yes, do nothing. Blacks must help themselves. You must remember the trends that were in place before the Great Society programs. Blacks were arriving out of poverty faster prior to the 1960’s than afterward. The black poverty rate fell 40 percentage points between 1940 and 1960; forty percentage points. It continued to fall after 1960, but at a much slower rate. Blacks were also entering the professional career markets at a faster rate prior to that dateline. So you have to be careful about programs put in place after this trend began to change.

Schwab: Jason L. Riley is the only person in the United States able to vote for president in 2016. His vote makes the next president. Who does Jason Riley vote for?

Riley: (Laughter)

Schwab: You can’t get out of this. You can’t say, “I feel very strongly both ways.” (More laughter)

Riley: No, I don’t know whose running.

Schwab: Okay, from Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton and those in-between like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz. Those mentioned on a regular basis by the media.

Riley: If you’re talking about people who have been mentioned, Paul Ryan would be very impressive.

Schwab: Why?

Riley: I think he understands economics; I like the fact the fact he has gone into the black community all around the country and talked to them. He has introduced himself and avoided Democrats from labeling him a monster.

Schwab: They’re tried.

Riley: I think he’s a very smart guy. I like his political instincts. He’s well-spoken and been able to explain complicated issues in plain English. It is a skill far too few politicians can do well. I like him.

Schwab: It has been reported that President Obama has ditched Hillary Clinton and is now secretly supporting the ultra-liberal Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts. He’ll be voting for her. (laughter)

Riley: Really? (laughter) I can’t see myself voting for her. No, I think she’s a bit outside the range of possibilities for me.

Schwab: You never know. We had a McGovern in 1972. But, I’ll hold you to that comment.

Riley: I can live with that (laughter).

Schwab: And I will be knocking on your door again as we get closer to the presidential race and the issues surrounding it at a later time. Thank you for your time.

Riley: Thank you.

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*** Look for “Redistribution of Common Sense” – Selected commentaries on the Obama administration 2009 – 2014, premiering July 21st on amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and many other book outlets nationwide.