An Interview with Jason Riley

BM: You’ve written a lot on social welfare and how it pertains to race and the problems associated with it. At heart, what is the bulk of the problem? Is it with the structure of the laws themselves  or is it with their implementation?

JR: I think the biggest problem is the incentives that have been put in place in the name of helping. They have been counterproductive and I’m speaking specifically of the government efforts that began in earnest with the Great Society Programs of the 1960’s. If you look at what has happened to the black family since then in terms of illegitimacy rates, in terms of crime rates, in terms of incarceration rates, even in terms of poverty you see that the government’s efforts to help have not done so.  In fact in many cases, they have slowed the progress that was taking place prior to the implementation of these programs or reversed the progress that had been made. So to the extent that we’re talking about the government, that’s been the problem: how they’ve gone about trying to help. Ultimately, I think the black underclass has to help the black underclass. It has to develop the same behaviors, attitudes, and customs that other groups had to develop in order to succeed in America and to the extent that government programs—however well intentioned—interfere with that self-development, they’re doing more harm than good.

BM: What then would effective social welfare programs that address race look like? How would they be different?

JR: I think a good place to start is to stop doing what we know doesn’t work. Open-ended welfare programs do not encourage a group to develop a work ethic, which ultimately they need to develop in order to rise out of poverty. Keeping kids trapped in failing schools does not help. Increasing the cost of hiring someone—which is what increasing the minimum wage does—is not helpful. I think those are examples of things that the left has pushed in the name of helping blacks that haven’t worked. I’d start by simply ceasing to do those things that we know have a track record of being ineffective or counterproductive.

BM: Your book touched on a variety of different topics, including education, minimum wage laws, etc. Are there certain spheres in which attempts to improve welfare among minorities have had more success than others?

JR: Nothing the government has tried to do on behalf on behalf of the black poor has matched what blacks are doing on behalf of themselves prior to government intervention. I’ll give you a good example. Between 1940 and 1960, the black poverty rate in this country fell by forty percentage points, before the civil rights act of 1964, before the voting rights act of 1965, before affirmative action programs that went into effect in the 1970s—a forty percentage point drop in black poverty. That has never been matched by anything coming out of the Great Society. So I think there are limits to government benevolence and we need to be more humble in acknowledging that and a lot of what we need to do is get out the way (in terms of the government) and let this self-development take its course. I gave the example of black poverty but you could also take the rate at which blacks were entering the skilled professions in the 40s and 50s; the rate at which blacks were increasing their years of education (both in absolute terms and relative ones)—again, was at a much higher rate in the 40s and 50s than in the 70s and 80s. So that track record, that history suggests to me that blacks are perfectly capable of developing skills and habits and attitudes on their own because they have in the past. And that’s what the record shows. Now the current civil rights establishment has no interest or incentive to talk about that history, because it makes them irrelevant. Their focus is on keeping race front and center and racism front and center as an all purpose explanation of what ails black America. When you start talking about personal responsibility and personal behavior, that makes your Al Sharptons and your NAACPs less relevant to the debate. So they don’t push that narrative, they push racism as an all purpose explanation and as a narrative—whether or not it fits the particular case. So that’s something that the black underclass has working against it: spokesmen and organizations speaking on their behalf that really don’t have their best interest mind, rather they have their own self-interest in mind.

BM: On that note, do you think that the discussion surrounding this type of welfare has changed fundamentally in the past several years? Do you see it changing in the future? Are their any new opinions being brought forth?

JR: Not from the government and not in the Obama era. I see us doubling down in the same policies. The food stamp program has exploded under the president. So I don’t see him taking much interest in a fundamentally different approach to helping the black poor whether you’re talking about again, government benefits or whether you’re talking about minimum wage laws. He wants to raise the minimum wage, he’s calling for more job training, more preschool education, universal pre-k—all these things have been tried in the past and they haven’t had much impact. So no, I don’t see any fundamental new ideas coming out of this administration. And he’s also, by the way, been trying to shut down school choice programs, in his backyard in Washington DC and also in other states like Louisiana. The government down there has pushed a state-wide school voucher program that the justice department’s been trying to shut down, saying that it violates desegregation orders of the 70s and 80s. Not because school choice doesn’t work, but because the administration seems more interested in making sure that black kids are sitting next to white kids than they are in making sure the kids actually learn (whatever color he is).

BM: Obviously, this is a very controversial topic. Could you talk briefly about the type of reaction you’ve received regarding your views and writings.

JR: Well, it depends on the audience. What you get from liberal intellectuals and liberal media generally, you’re either ignored or you’re psychoanalyzed—you’re put on the couch. I often joke that, for the liberals, Justice Scalia is simply wrong or perhaps evil, but Justice Thomas is a sellout, a traitor to his race, confused, self-hating. He gets psychoanalyzed. And that’s the reaction you get from black elites to views that don’t toe the line with the black and civil rights establishment. Now when I talk to the black rank and file, when I talk to the black faith community, when I talk to people who call in to talk on radio shows and so forth, you get a completely different reaction. You get a “I understand exactly where you’re coming from” reaction. You get a lot of people nodding their head and saying, “Yes. There’s something to what you’re saying. Blacks are not taking advantage of a lot of the opportunities that we have today, and too many people want to make excuses instead of being more self-critical of black culture”. When you talk to black parents, who are trying to shield their kids from this ghetto subculture of violence and drugs and gangster rap and anti-intellectual attitudes toward school, learning and so forth—they want to hug me. And that’s part of the reason I wrote the book, to give voice to those folks in the black community because frankly its my industry—the media—that tends to ignore that and continuously run back to the same individuals (your Al Sharptons, your NAACPs) to speak on behalf of black America. And so I think one of the reasons I wrote the book was to give voice to this alternative perspective, which is quite prevalent in the black community, even if you don’t hear from it very often.