Jason Riley: The RealClearReligion Interview
"Uncle Jason, why do you talk so white?"
The Wall Street Journal's Jason Riley says this question posed by his niece is indicative of the collapse of black culture. In his latest book, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Riley argues that bad public policies have contributed to the breakdown of the black family. Late last month, I spoke to Riley about his faith, black culture, and why blacks don't need another Martin Luther King, Jr.
RealClearReligion: What inspired you to write this book?
Jason Riley: I saw a need for a new generation of blacks to be saying these things about the impact of black culture -- particularly in our inner cities and our ghettos -- on these black outcomes that we're seeing. I'm not breaking any new ground here. There are people like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Walter Williams, and others who have been saying these things for decades. I thought it was necessary for a younger generation to continue saying these things for a younger generation of readers.
RCR: What is your faith background?
JR: I grew up in a very religious household. My parents were divorced when I was very young and I grew up living with my mother, although my father was still a very big part of my upbringing. My mother was born a Baptist and later converted to become a Jehovah's Witness. I was baptized a Jehovah's Witness when I was fifteen or so, but I voluntarily left the faith in my late teens.
It was a pretty strict religious upbringing. We attended services three times a week. It was certainly an experience that shaped my thinking on a number of issues. I grew up in a home where my father didn't live, but I also had a lot of male role models in the church. It was a racially integrated congregation, but it was mostly black. I was exposed to any number of black men who were role models in the sense that they took care of their families, dressed a certain way, spoke a certain way, didn't drink to excess, didn't smoke, didn't curse. That was my idea of what it meant to be a man. I was surrounded by those types, not only within the congregation, but my extended family on my mother's side were all Jehovah's Witnesses.
RCR: Do you think the role models you found in church are missing today?
JR: I don't know that they're missing. I'm not sure that they carry the sway with today's young people that they did with me. But they've been there. The church is still there. It's still a very important institution in the black community. More broadly speaking, you have a family breakdown issue going on. I don't know that the church can compensate entirely for that.
The real problem is the breakdown of the black family. One of the statistics I like to remind people of is that as late as 1960, two out of three black children were raised in two-parent homes. Today, more than 70 percent of black children are not. In some of these ghettos, it runs as high as 80 or 90 percent of black kids living in single-parent homes. I think that has a lot to do with those bad outcomes we see in terms of school completion, in terms of involvement in the criminal justice system, drug use, and teen pregnancy, and so forth. It's the lack of fathers in homes raising boys, teaching them what it means to be men, and teaching them what it means to be black. I think the breakdown of the family has been extremely detrimental to black culture.
RCR: Why aren't black pastors doing more to keep the nuclear family together?
JR: I think they're doing what they can. I think if you visit some of these churches, you're going to find more women than men. I think they're up against a culture that is pulling these young black men in a completely different direction probably more so now than ever. In addition, we have public policies that aren't helping, and in many cases, are harming the situation. When you have a policy like open-ended welfare benefits, it does not encourage a group to develop a work ethic. When you oppose school choice for kids, keeping them stuck in failing schools instead of providing better options for them, you're not helping the situation in the ghetto.
RCR: Why is there an abundance of black religious leaders on the left?
JR: There is a long tradition of black leaders coming out of the church. Martin Luther King, Jr. predates your Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons. Traditionally, the ministers were the better-educated people in the black community, and they were natural leaders. I don't have a problem with it per se; I don't care where the leaders come from. I'm not sure that blacks today need another Martin Luther King, Jr. to play the role that someone like King played. I think we're beyond that. I think the problems facing the black community today are going to be addressed at a more local level, community by community. I'm not sure that a premiere black leader has got to step up and take charge in the way that it's happened in the past.
There are a lot of blacks who don't self-identify as conservatives, but when it comes to attitudes towards education, criminality, and culture, I think you'd find little daylight between them and Clarence Thomas. This is an audience that the black leadership largely ignores because that's not where black leaders today want the emphasis. They don't want the emphasis on black responsibility, or black culture, as the main barrier to black progress in America. Their agenda is to keep the focus on whites and white behavior. It's very lucrative for them and it keeps them relevant in the debate.
One of the messages in this book is that blacks ultimately have to help themselves. There may be some residual racism out there, but that is not what is producing the unemployment rates. That is not what is producing the achievement gap in schools. That is not what is producing the black arrest and incarceration rates. Obama and Holder are pretending that "Bull" Connor runs the Ferguson, Missouri police department. You have liberal elites out there pretending as if nothing has changed since the 1950s with regard to race relations. That's simply not the case and I think in a lot of these black congregations, they would agree with me. Blacks have to get their own act together. This is not about pretending that the main barrier blacks face today is white racism.
RCR: What is the disconnect between black church pews and the voting booths?
JR: There are several reasons blacks continue to support the Democratic Party in the numbers that they do. One is black history. Where were conservatives during the Civil Rights Movement? There are a lot of blacks alive today who know the answer to that and remember it. That is going to impact how they vote for their entire lives. Secondly, many blacks don't see a viable alternative to the Democratic Party. They've been convinced that government is good for them and the bigger the government, the better. The left has done a brilliant job of encouraging dependency on government: the Party that gives you things. You have this over-reliance on government in the black community, whether it is in terms of jobs or in terms of handouts.
Republicans don't do much in terms of black outreach. By and large, Republican candidates write off the black vote. I don't ascribe a racial animus to that; I think it's pragmatic politics. Republicans don't think they need black voters to win elections. I don't expect to see more black outreach until Republicans think they need this constituency to win. Right now, you have a huge debate over the Latino vote in Republican circles, but there is no such debate going on in GOP circles about blacks.
RCR: How have race relations fared under Barack Obama?
JR: Some things that are unhelpful would be his sending out Eric Holder to criticize voter ID laws as some Republican racist conspiracy to disenfranchise blacks. Obama has aligned himself with people like Al Sharpton, speaking at Sharpton's annual conference in Harlem. I consider Al Sharpton one of the most racially divisive people in this country. The President's public friendship with this man doesn't help race relations.
The more substantive problem is that Obama has continued to push policies that harm the black underclass such as higher minimum wage laws, which push blacks out of labor markets. He opposed the voucher program in D.C., and tried to end the voucher program in Louisiana.
To his credit, Obama has said some things that need to be said about black culture. He has gone before black audiences and talked about growing up without a father and the bad outcomes associated with that. He has gone to give commencement addresses at black colleges and told male graduates about the importance of being role models in black communities. I like to see him do that and I wish he'd do that more often. Sometimes I wish that's all he would talk about.