The American left should start paying attention to the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley. His name is on the rise. An editorial board member of one of the nation’s most well-known publications, a paper that boasts an average weekday circulation of 2.4 million and falls under the umbrella of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News empire, Riley has a new book out, “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed,” which is beginning to pick up steam. This weekend, he’ll be featured on C-SPAN to talk about it. A few days ago, he sat down with Lou Dobbs. Before that, Bill O’Reilly. Now, his name is being praised by the National Journal (who called him an author who “annihilates nonsense”) and circulating throughout the Twittersphere as a man who has written “a great primer on race.”
As an African-American columnist, Riley has built his brand by diverging from the “black liberal” moniker. In fact, his career has been predicated on maintaining a conspicuous level of skepticism toward the “Lean Forward” stylings of MSNBC and the left’s alleged coziness with black America. He once said: “I think there’s a pattern at MSNBC of them hiring black mediocrities like Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson, Touré and, of course — the granddaddy of them all — Al Sharpton, simply to race-bait.” Quite often he goes “against the grain” (much like ESPN’s Jason Whitlock). Perhaps this explains why a friend and former colleague of his at the WSJ lauded Riley for being an “affable” editorialist “who came to his views as a college student reading writers such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer in the otherwise liberal Buffalo News,” an independent thinker whose mind was heavily influenced by the works of “economist Tom Sowell and historian Shelby Steele, black thinkers who rejected the liberal pieties about race.”
Riley’s recent New York Post column“Why Liberals Should Stop Trying to ‘Help’ Black Americans” (much like his book) is undoubtedly a continuation of these teachings and his latest effort to invalidate liberal ideas. In it, he attempts to disentangle liberal rhetoric from the actual effects of liberal policies on black Americans. He wants to show how liberal ideology holds black success in the Lex Luger torture rack. But behind his fundamental question — “At what point does helping start hurting?” — also lies a troubling and familiar query, one that has historically proven resilient in American political discussion despite the best efforts to lay it to rest: Do black Americans actually need to be saved?
Riley thinks this to be the case. And it’s liberalism that black Americans need to be saved from. The crux of his claim, it seems, is that liberalism’s coercive powers cause more harm to black advancement than the painful enduring legacies of American slavery and Jim Crow era racism. These legacies, Riley writes, “are not holding down blacks half as much as the legacy of efforts to help them ‘overcome.’” To attach a sense of urgency to his words he then cites a few obvious statistics to show how the plight of the black community has worsened in the last 50 years. “The black-white poverty gap has widened over the last decade,” he writes, adding that the “black-white disparity in incarceration rates today is larger than it was in 1960” and that “the black unemployment rate has, on average, been twice as high as the white rate for five decades.” These grim statistics Riley puts forth demonstrate what we supposedly should have been skeptical of all along, liberalism’s ability to save black America.
Central to Riley’s rebuke of liberal politics is the presumption that black Americans have somehow been brainwashed into thinking of themselves as victims. “Today,” Riley writes, “there is no greater impediment to black advancement than the self-pitying mindset that permeates black culture.” This condition, Riley argues, is evidence of the triumphs(?) of liberalism, which “has also succeeded, tragically, in convincing blacks to see themselves first and foremost as victims.” Black Americans, so the story goes, have been duped by the liberal conspiracy. What’s more, they are as much to blame for conferring the status of victim as the grifting liberals who bequeathed that status upon them.
The problem with this logic is that it is unprovable and only exists in the minds of those who rely on myth to explain their own shallow assumptions. There is no evidence that blacks see themselves as victims any more than any other demographic, whether they be white, Latino, Asian-American or whatever. Black people don’t carry with them, in the words of New York’s Jonathan Chait, a “cultural residue” of oppression that they remain entangled in any more than the next race. If Riley bothered to survey actual black Americans he might realize this much. That blacks see themselves (like I hope Riley sees himself) not as victims, but as human beings, operating from unique experiences and disparate backgrounds while all tied to a larger complicated history. While, undoubtedly, self-pity may exist for some black individuals, it has not infiltrated the masses.
This is not to say that blacks have not been injured. The plundering of black people is as old as the country itself and still exists today. But it is not a result of the failures of liberalism; rather, it is a triumph of white supremacism. Liberalism did not deny opportunity and prosperity to black Americans; instead, racism attached itself to liberal policies. As the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently articulates in his June cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” the liberal holy grail, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, was crafted specifically to include the racist traditions of the Jim Crow South. “The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life,” Coates explains. “Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible.” Coates also recounts how troves of black soldiers were denied access to low-interest home loans under Title III of the G.I. Bill due to racist local V.A. officials and racist lending practices by banks. Liberalism was overpowered by America’s most time-honored tradition.
Of course, despite evidence to the contrary, Riley is quick to remind us that this all happened in the distant past. And to be fair, his critique supposedly is limited to the last 50 years. Perhaps that is why he calls the spoils of the civil rights movement — “the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed racial discrimination in employment and education and ensured the ability of blacks to register and vote” — the shining example of “liberalism at its best.” This statement is not difficult to dispute, even if you only think (mistakenly) of liberalism within the confines of curbing racial discrimination. Other landmark achievements include legalizing interracial marriage and constitutional amendments banning slavery, giving blacks the right to vote, and bestowing full-personhood — rectifying the three-fifths clause — to blacks. “Liberalism at its best” was a set of laws guaranteeing black people what they supposedly were legally entitled to 100 years prior. The reoccurring theme was that “liberalism” (Riley’s definition) had to reassert its will against white supremacism.
Ironically, Riley’s beacon of “liberalism at its best” — the Voting Rights Act — is currently under threat, not by liberals but by conservatives. Yet, he makes no mention of this whatsoever in his column. Instead of standing up for what he says he believes, he chooses to stand with the very man, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted to effectively destroy it. Last year, Thomas was part of 5-4 split decision that ruled the VRA was unconstitutional. The court’s reasoning was that essentially, things have changed and gotten better; racism is a relic of the past. Riley’s complaint against liberals echoes the dangerous logic used by the court (what’s in the past is in the past!). Liberals “continue to blame the past,” he writes, inferring that times have changed. Liberals, black and white, seem drunk off their “obsession with racial slights real or imagined.” Essentially, this means that we talk too much about race. He then quotes Thomas who said to a crowd, oddly enough, despite what he wrote in his memoir, that America is more color sensitive now than during his time as a black child integrating into white schools in the deep South before the legal abolition of Jim Crow. “My sadness is that we are probably today more race-and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school … Everybody is sensitive,” Thomas said. Doubling down, Riley claims that we live “in an era when public policy bends over backward to accommodate blacks” and that even “King and his contemporaries demanded black self-improvement despite the abundant and overt racism of his day.” Once again liberalism’s best efforts to save black America have had a deleterious effect on the black psyche. We can’t even help ourselves.
According to Riley, the key offender of liberalism’s stranglehold over the black community is none other than America’s first black president, Barack Obama. Citing a sliver of the president’s remarks following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin — “They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history” — Riley misconstrues the president’s empathy for liberal brainwashing. He writes: “Obama was doing exactly what liberals have been conditioning blacks to do since the 1960s, which is to blame black pathology on the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. And the president is conditioning the next generation of blacks to do the same.” Riley calls the president’s words a “dodge” for his policy failures, a representation of the “left’s sentimental support [that] 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.” Another example of the left’s indoctrination of black minds.
If this all seems like déjà vu, it should. Many of Riley’s criticisms echo the oft-cited talking points of the right wing. Which makes his polemic, one that excoriates liberals for “more of the same,” particularly laughable. It is not new ideas he yearns for, but old ones that conform with his limited pre-established political leanings. But on a deeper level, Riley’s invective sheds light on the twisted logic that continues to pervade Republican circles. He thinks that once the liberal spell is lifted, black liberation will be realized. That when blacks no longer drink the liberal Kool-Aid, believing in their status as victims, they will be made whole. Republicans, desperately trying to convince blacks to abandon the Democratic Party, have imparted the same messaging (evidence be damned): Liberals have made your lives worse; but we can save you. Rid yourselves of liberalism, and follow us down the road to salvation.
But the truth is no political ideology can save black people from the tireless forces of racism. White supremacy knows no party or clique. American history has proven how resilient the virus of racism can be; even when blacks have been made equal in the eyes of the law, racism resurrects itself and spreads through the veins that gives life to the American ideals of freedom and liberty.
This is history. And the Jason Rileys of the world can try to ignore it all they want. But they can only obfuscate what we feel all around us, that which we cannot separate ourselves from, that which we carry with us each day. As James Baldwin reminds us, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” To tell ourselves otherwise is to subscribe to a much more troubling pathology than victimhood, which is to detach ourselves from who we are.
Strangely, this is the path Jason Riley has chosen. And the sad part is none of us can save him.