The Great Antidote – Jason Riley

On this episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, she is joined by guest Jason Riley. In their discussion, Juliette and Mr. Riley cover the history of black America, the civil rights era, and the future of black empowerment.


Guest Bio

Jason Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and a commentator for Fox News. His next much-anticipated book, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, will be available in May 2021. He is a recipient of the 2018 Bradley Prize. After joining the Journal in 1994, he was named a senior editorial writer in 2000 and a member of the editorial board in 2005. Riley writes opinion pieces on politics, economics, education, immigration, and race. He also speaks frequently on ABC, NBC, CNN, PBS, and NPR.

Riley is the author of several other books, including Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders (2008), which argues for a more free-market-oriented U.S. immigration policy;  Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed (2014), which discusses the track record of government efforts to help the black underclass; and False Black Power? (2017), an assessment of why black political success has not translated into more economic success. He has also worked for USA Today and the Buffalo News. Riley holds a B.A. in English from SUNY-Buffalo.​

Episode Transcript

Juliette: Hi, welcome back to my podcast. Today it is my great pleasure to welcome Jason Riley. He’s a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, and a commentator for Fox News. Jason is the author of several books, including the book I would like to talk with him about today called False Black Power. He has a new book coming out soon called Maverick about one of the more brilliant minds of the last 50 years Thomas Sowell. I can’t wait to read it, and I’ve already watched a documentary about Sowell, which you can stream on Amazon. It’s great. Welcome, Jason.

Jason Riley: Thank you.

Juliette: So before we jump in. What is the most important thing that people my age or my generation should know that we don’t?

Jason Riley: It’s not necessarily unique to your generation, but for young people in general, and that is not to cut yourself off from different perspectives or from other perspectives. Try to understand where people you disagree with are coming from. And one reason it might be a little more difficult for your generation is because of social media. And it makes it easier to do that. To have a Twitter feed or Facebook stream, or something like that, that really just reinforces what you already believe about most things. And it’s easy to sort of cut off other points of view. So that was a little harder before social media. I guess the advent of cable news made it a little easier, but social media has a lot of people in their own little silos, and not really talking to one another and instead talking past one another. So I think that it’s important to keep an open mind and try and understand where other people are coming from.

Juliette: That’s a really good point. I try to keep that in mind. It’s kind of difficult, especially with social media and Instagram and all of that, trying to kind of push us into the world that we like, the information we like, and what we believe in, but I definitely will keep it in mind. So now I want to jump into your book, False Black Power. First, let me say it’s a great book. While it’s small, it presents a provocative argument about how slavery is not the cause for the stalling black advancement. And it’s rooted in history and data about black families that are often overlooked by civil rights activists and many historians today. The starting point of the book is your disagreement with the Moynihan report of 1965, which is called “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action”, which documents the rise of black families that are headed by single women in inner cities. So can you tell us about the report a little bit and what your issue with it is?

Jason Riley: Well it was a report released during the Lyndon Johnson administration in the 1960s. Patrick Moynihan later went on to become a US Senator from New York and at the time, worked in the Johnson administration and had gone off and written this report on the black family. I do disagree with parts of it, but I do agree with his assessment of where things were headed among blacks due to the demographic trends that he pointed out. Namely the rise of these single-parent homes run by single mothers primarily, and how that was going to be a big barrier to the social-economic advancement of blacks in general. And at the time there was a lot of excitement because of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. You had the culmination of these landmark pieces of civil rights legislation that had either just passed or about to be passed. And everyone thought that was going to take care of everything. And that the breakdown of the family, the nuclear family, that was less of a big deal and he was being sort of a spoilsport. And so he got attacked quite viciously at the time. And what’s interesting is that attack resonated for decades. And that is to say that among social scientists, there was a hesitation to talk about the black family and the breakdown of the black family as a cause for racial inequality in America. For decades after the Moynihan report, based on the reaction to Moynihan, social scientists just didn’t want to go there. They were afraid it would hamper their careers, that they would get called names and that they wouldn’t be able to find jobs or get promotions, and so forth. And so sociologists and psychologists and educators, a lot of people just sort of steered clear of talking about this huge elephant in the room, which was the breakdown of the black family. And so this didn’t get a lot of attention for several decades. So it was really a landmark study. And in many respects where I disagreed with it was that Moynihan, and not Moynihan alone- I mean, this was common knowledge at the time based not only on Moynihan who was white but also on the black sociologists that he turned to compile this report. People like E Franklin Frazier, who was a famous black sociologist at Howard University advised Moynihan on this record and he used- I should, I should back up here. I’m not sure if he actually advised him. I’m trying to think of when Frazier passed away and when Moynihan was putting this together, but Moynihan relied on Frazier’s research, which had been done in the ’40s and ’50s. And what Frazier had come up with have become pretty much the basis of the literature in this area. He was considered the authority. And the Moynihan hand report very much doubled down on what people like Frazier had found. So Moynihan wasn’t alone in this in what he found here in terms of a cause. And all of these guys had assumed that the reason the black family was in the state that it was, was due to slavery. And that the black family had been destroyed during slavery. And we were still seeing the ramifications of that as late as the 1960s. And that was the assumption that Moynihan had. And that was the assumption of the researchers that he based his report off. And so that is where I quibbled with Moynihan’s report. And that would be based on data that came out later in another book that I cite in False Black Power, called- a book by Gutman is the name of sociologist. And it’s the Black Family and Slavery and Freedom, I believe is the title. But Guttman went back and looked at the makeup of the black family from the end of slavery through the first couple of decades of the 20th century and what he found, and this is why I quibbled with Moynihan’s report, is that the black family came out of slavery quite strong. And that if you look at marriage rates among blacks in the late 1800s and early into the early 1910s and 20’s and 30’s and 40’s, you see black marriage rates higher than white marriage rates at that time. In fact, every census taken between 1890 and 1940 shows blacks with a slightly higher marriage rate than the white marriage rate at the time. So Gutman said, “well, wait a minute. If that was happening in the late 1800s and early 1900’s how can what we’re seeing in the 1960s be blamed on slavery? This is retrogression, this can’t be, this isn’t a legacy of slavery. This must be a legacy of something that has happened since slavery because if we go back again to the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s, we don’t see this breakdown of the black family that Moynihan had identified.” So that’s where I quibbled with Moynihan. Not that his findings were inaccurate, but the cause of what he found is where I took issue.

Juliette: So somehow the data presented by Gutman was ignored, but then the Moynihan explanation survived. Why do you think that Gutman’s data was ignored at the time? Why do you think that today we continue to ignore that and follow a similar reasoning to Moynihan’s, and continue to assume that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are the main reasons for the social breakdowns that we’ve observed?

Jason Riley: Sure. Well, the focus of the civil rights movement changed in the post 60’s era. What happened- what was going on prior to the ’60s is a focus on building black human capital. Attitudes, behaviors, education skills, that is what the black community was based on foremost. Obviously, there was a push for civil rights. Obviously, there was a push for integrating political institutions but it wasn’t the primary focus of the civil rights movement of that era. It was about blacks building that human capital that other groups, frankly, had built in order to get ahead in America. Increasing the years of schooling and so forth, starting businesses. Economic advancement took priority not so much getting black people elected. And in the 1960s, that changed. What happened was the Voting Rights Act passed, and the thinking was that if blacks can get their own, meaning other blacks, elected into office, the rest will take care of itself. If we just have more black political clout, all the socioeconomic problems will just take care of themselves. And so the emphasis was put on electing more black people, electing black officials. And this was tremendously successful on its own terms. I mean, just to give you a sense of how successful the Voting Rights Act has been; in 1964, the year before it passed only about 7% of blacks in the state of Mississippi were registered to vote. It was the lowest percentage of anywhere in the South. But by 1966, just one year after the Voting Rights Act passed, the black voter registration rate in Mississippi had climbed to 60%. The highest in the South. And Mississippi wasn’t alone in Georgia went from 19% to 51% over the same period. In fact, in every Southern state, the gains were tremendous. They were striking. Today, the black voter registration rate in the South, or where most blacks still live by the way, is higher than in other parts of the country. In 2012, the black voter turnout rate exceeded the white voter turnout rate for the first time in our history. So the Voting Rights Act on its own terms has been tremendously successful. I think between 1970 and 2010 the number of black elected officials went from fewer than 1500 to more than 10,000 nationwide, including of course, a black president. You had blacks in Congress, you had black governors and senators and then at the state and local level black city councilmen, you had black police chiefs and fire chiefs and school superintendents. So, on those terms, it worked, but what didn’t happen is what we were told will come in and wake. The socio-economic gains did not follow from those political gains. And so if you look at Marion Barry’s Washington DC in the 1980s, or Sharp James’ Newark New Jersey in the 1990s, or Coleman Young’s Detroit, Michigan in the 1960s, you had these black elected officials who had built these tremendous political machines to get themselves reelected over and over again. Yet the black poor fell further behind on their watch, despite the fact that you had these black men running the cities. And not just running the cities in terms of being mayor, but again, city councilmen, congressmen school superintendents, and all down the line, really running city government. So it was clear that this strategy- that we could just put all of our eggs in this political clout basket and the rest will take care of itself, didn’t pan out. And so one of the reasons I wrote False Black Power is because I thought the Obama election was sort of the culmination of the strategy. To get a black president elected. And so I wanted to look back after he had been elected and say “So what? What do we have to show for it in terms of racial inequality in this country has pursuit of this goal led to the advancements that, that the civil rights movement promised?” And I find that they had not, and then I delve into why. And as to why the strategy continues to be used today, and why the findings of the Moynihan report- or the findings of Guttman have been ignored. It’s because I think that the civil rights movement from the 1960s has turned into an industry today, if not a racket. It’s a very lucrative industry to say that the black problems that we see today, inequality, in terms of education or employment,r income, homeownership, or all the rest are due to the legacy of slavery, is a very lucrative, lucrative business. It keeps groups like the NAACP and the past relevant today. It keeps groups like Black Lives Matter relevant. It helps them raise money. And so this is the narrative they push, regardless of the reality. I think it’s a matter of incentives. Black politicians continue to push it because it helps them get elected. It helps scare people to the polls. They have an incentive to keep this narrative out there, that all that we see that is wrong in the black community today is the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. When in fact, the facts tell quite a different story.

Juliette: Why do you think that this strategy of gaining political clout doesn’t work well?

Jason Riley: It’s not that it doesn’t work. It’s that it’s less efficient than other means of advancing a racial or ethnic minority group from poverty to prosperity. And it has not only failed blacks. Other groups have also taken this political route to prosperity. The Irish come to mind. They were tremendously successful politically. After arriving here, you had Irish political machines, running places like Boston and Philadelphia and New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Yet among the European immigrant groups who came, the Irish were the slowest to rise economically, despite all of this political clout that they had. There was no real Irish middle-class to speak of at the time. And in fact, it wasn’t until the decline of those Irish political machines that we saw the rise of the Irish middle-class to the point where today Irish incomes and levels of homeownership and educational achievement, and incomes, and all the rest far out exceed the national average. So blacks have taken the sort of Irish route and gotten the same results thus far. It’s been a very slow go of things. And you can compare the advancement since the 1960s socioeconomically, to what was going on in the black community prior to the 1960s, and prior to the shift in emphasis toward attaining political clout. So if you go back to the 1940s and ’50s, for instance, you see black incomes rising at a faster rate than white, and you see black educational achievement outpacing white educational achievement. Both the rate at which blacks were gaining educationally both in absolute terms and relative to whites. You see blacks entering the skilled professions. So we’re talking about teachers and social workers and architects and doctors and lawyers. They were entering the skilled professions at far faster rates in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s than they were after the implementation of say affirmative action in the 1970s. So you can look at both compare the pre 60’s era and the post-civil rights era and the achievements are stark. The advancement is quite stark. And there was more of it going on prior to the shift in emphasis towards gaining political clout. And other groups have done it in the reverse. They’ve you know- you look at what the Germans did or what Jews did or today what Asians have done. You know, Asians are an interesting case because they’re the ones hitting it out of the park these days in terms of not only educational achievement, but also household income representation and school professions. And how much political clout do Asians have? Certainly not as much as blacks do. So the idea that political clout is some sort of prerequisite for advancing a group economically is undermined by the history of other groups. And the groups that have pursued politics first have tended to rise more slowly. So again, it’s not that it doesn’t work. We’re talking about what has worked best historically.

Juliette: Another point you make in your book is about how the breakdown of the nuclear family wasn’t caused by the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow laws, but instead by the implementation of well-intentioned welfare programs, especially in the 1960s, like post-civil rights era, can you kind of walk us through this point and what you mean in that?

Jason Riley: I think what you basically find is that the government doesn’t do a good job of raising children. A nuclear family does a better job and, and the attempts of the government to essentially replace a father in the home have been disastrous however well-intentioned they’ve been. First of all, they put in place incentives. Perverse incentives. Telling someone, “If you have more children we’ll get more money from the government. If you have more children that you can’t take care of. And, and if the father does come around, and we find him around we’re going to stop sending you the checks.” So to the extent that you’re not married, you have a child and you try to make the father part of the child’s life and the government’s going to punish it. Another perverse incentive. We got to a point in the late 1980s and early 1990s -right before we did welfare reform in 1996- we got to a point where the government was providing more benefits for single mothers than they would ever be able to earn in the labor force if they went out and got a job. So why even go out and try to get a job? And that’s what I meant. That these are well-intentioned policies that have been put in place to help, but in practice have harmed. Welfare benefits are just one of many examples. Another example I use is affirmative action policies that are a legacy of the 1960s. This is a program that was put in place to help increase the ranks of the black middle class, to increase the number of black doctors and lawyers and engineers, and so forth. And yet, after the University of California system ended racial preferences in college admissions black graduation rates went up and not by a little bit. They went up by more than 50%, including some of the more difficult disciplines like math and science and engineering, again, by more than 50%. So a program that had been put in place to increase the number of black professionals had in practice produced a situation where we had fewer black professionals than we would have had in the absence of the policy. And why was that? It has to do with something that goes by the name of mismatch. Which is what schools have been doing with racial preferences. Its allowing kids to attend schools where they did not meet the average grades or test scores of the average student at that school. They were being admitted with lower grades and lower test scores than the average student. And therefore, many of these black kids were dropping out or switching to easier majors and so forth. Once schools could no longer take race into account, more kids were attending schools where they actually met the requirements of the average student at that school. And as a result, more of them are graduating. And so again, a well-intentioned policy producing perverse results. And so you can go down any number of great society programs and see this effect. And that’s what I tried to do to some extent in False Black Power and in an earlier book called Please Stop Helping Us where I also get into these policies.

Juliette: The statistics on that sort of thing are amazing just to see how it has the opposite effect that it’s intended to.

Jason Riley: There was a study done some years ago of students at MIT, black students at MIT, and black students at MIT had scored in the top 10% of all kids nationwide on the math section of the SAT. So talking about some very smart kids, but they were in the bottom 10% among their peers at MIT. So kids who would have been hitting it out of the park on the Dean’s list at a less selective of school were struggling at MIT and therefore more of them were dropping out or switching to easier majors. And so you turn kids into artificial failures. I see no benefit. And flunking out of MIT versus graduating from the University of Richmond flunking out of Berkeley versus graduating from UC Santa Cruz. I mean, what is the goal here? To make the freshmen class look like America? Or regardless of whether anybody graduates or actually have kids succeed in school and gone to do something in the field of their choice. And perverse incentives, aren’t linked- they’re not associated only with race. Anytime you lower the standard of a student trying to enter a school where that student is going to be surrounded by other kids who have met higher standards on average, you’re setting up that kid to fail. So studies have been done, for instance, of legacy kids (Students who are children of alumni) when they are admitted to the schools. And they are admitted with lower test scores, class ranks, and so forth. They too flunk out at higher rates. They switch to easier majors at higher rates. When athletes are admitted to these schools of any color, with lower test scores and so forth, the same thing. So it’s not necessarily a racial thing. It’s just what happens when you send kids to school where they’re over-matched academically, instead of sending them someplace where they can handle the work.

Juliette: That is a good point. Okay. Really fast. Do you happen to have like five to 10 extra minutes? Because I have a few more questions. If you don’t, it’s completely fine.

Jason Riley: I’ve got a couple more minutes. Go ahead.

Juliette: Okay. So you have some pretty harsh words in your book against the over-incarceration argument made to show that discrimination in America is still holding black people back. You write that “foes of mass incarceration of black men seem much more concerned with the plight of criminals than the plight of the most likely crime victims.” But while I was reading, I was kind of wondering the following, which is, could it be that both sides have it right in a way and that there’s a lot of blame to go around? Is it possible that on one hand, the black community has been held back by the welfare state and other government rules, which has led to serious breakdowns of family and other things, but that also the state of affairs in inner cities because of the welfare state has caused blacks to be more likely to choose employment in illegal markets like drug markets, rather than lower-paying jobs that are legal? Like a double oppression type of thing.

Jason Riley: Well you have to look at the order in which things happen. The order matters. So, for instance, you said “is incarceration breaking up families?” Isn’t mass incarceration a cause of the family breakdown that we see? Well, let’s go back to where we started with Moynihan. Moynihan was pointing this out in the 1960s, the mass incarceration period didn’t start until the 1980s. So the breakdown of the black family predates the mass incarceration era. So “A” can’t cause “B” if “B” happened first. The other problem with associating poverty and things like that with higher levels of criminality today is that there was less crime in black communities when blacks were much poorer than they are today. So just to give you a few statistics on this. In 1960 black men were murdered at a rate of 45 per 100,000 people in the population. In 1990, the murder rate was 140 per 100,000. From 45 to 140. Would anyone argue that in 1990 there was more racism than there was in 1960? Again, the order of these things matter. And so a lot of the social pathologies that we see today did not occur. We did not see to the extent that we see them today, 50 and 60 years ago. The other problem is we talk a lot about mass incarceration, but we don’t want to talk about crime. In other words, we want to break down the prison population by race, but we don’t want to break down who commits crime by race. We want to break down police shootings by race, but not again, who’s committing crimes by race. And you can’t really do one without the other if you want to present a complete picture. And so that’s one of the reasons I take issue with that. Blacks are about 13% of the US population, but commit an absolute majority of all murders in America. More than 50% every year. Black violent crime rates are seven to 10 times higher than white violent crime rates. And the reason I get upset about how this is presented in the media is because as we know, most crime is intra-racial. In other words, most of the blacks who are murdered every year, and there are more than 7,000 of those90% of them are killed by other black people. So if you really care- and they’re killed and their victims tend to be poor black people, low-income black people. So if you care about upward mobility among the blacks, if you care about the plight of the black poor I think focusing on police shootings is a little wide of the mark. I mean, in 2019, there were 492 homicides in Chicago, almost all of them, black and Hispanic. Only three of them involve police. 3 out of 492, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. So, we can have a discussion about police. There are crooked cops out there, there are bad police, there are racist cops out there. Racism still exists. It has not been vanquished from America. No one’s denying that, but if your goal is to address the violence in these communities, the homicides in these communities, and you look at the data and it tells you 3 of the homicides involve police, and 489 did not. Where are you going to direct most of your attention, most of your resources? It seems to me, you have a lot of activists who want to talk about policing. I want to talk about the non-police-involved killings that are going on out there. And so that’s where a lot of the frustration rises. This is not to deny that police brutality exists- it’s that I think it’s been overemphasized to the detriment of the people you’re trying to help. Because a focus on policing as we know from other data can cause police to pull back to be less proactive, less likely to get out of their cars and engage with civilians, all of which gives an advantage to the criminal element in these communities. And so we’ve seen this after a lot of these high-profile shootings, whether it’s in Baltimore or Chicago or Ferguson, Missouri. Police tend to pull back when they get scapegoated. And what happens is crime goes up, and again, most of the victims of that spike in crime turn out to be low-income blacks.

Juliette: Are you worried about what’s happening today? And do you think that the implications of everything that’s happening today will be more difficult to get- I don’t know if get over is the right way to put it- but just to move forward?

Jason Riley: I am worried to some extent today about the trend lines. Particularly what’s going on with the critical race theory discussion. That’s something that’s been around for decades but was mostly confined to academic seminars on college campuses and writings among intellectuals who were writing for one another. Now we see it seeping into the school curriculum from kindergarten on up. We see it in the workplace and diversity training programs. We see it in the everyday vernacular, people use. Unconscious bias, systemic racism, anti-racist things like that. And that I find worrisome because it’s a theory that I think doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny, first of all, but also it blames all of the problems of blacks on white people and says it is the responsibility of white people to solve the problems of black people. And I don’t know how you help a group advance who walks out the door every day with that attitude. That none of the problems they have are their fault, and they have no responsibility to take care of themselves. They’re all the fault of someone else. And I just don’t think that’s a recipe for helping a group advance. And to the extent that that sort of thinking has gained currency in popular culture does disturb me.

Juliette: That mindset does worry me too. To wrap up quickly answer this last question. What is one thing you believed in at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Jason Riley: One thing I believe- well, this is something that doesn’t have anything to do with my journalism or my writing, it’s not something I’ve ever written about or covered, but on a personal level, it might be organized religion. I grew up in a very religious household and then turned away from organized religion in my late teens and became sort of very bitter towards it in my twenties and for most of my thirties. I later came to the realization that, although I didn’t have any use for organized religion, I understood better or came to better appreciate the purpose that it serves, and why other people are religious, and to better appreciate sort of how it helps them, how it helps society, where it comes from that tradition. So again, while it’s something that I haven’t gone back to embracing as I had as a child, it’s something I’ve come to appreciate why other people do. That’s one area.

Juliette: Thank you so much for sharing. I really liked that response. Thank you so much for your time. I know your time is precious, so thank you so much, and I’m really excited to read Maverick when it comes out. Thank you for your time and thank you for being on my podcast.

Jason Riley: Okay. Take Care.

Juliette: Well, that’s all we have time for today. I’d like to thank my guest once more for his time and insight. I would also like to thank everyone who listens, subscribes and shares The Great Antidote Podcast. If you’d like to be on the podcast or have a guest in mind, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] Bye.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.