City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Fred Siegel
The Poverty of Benevolence
Fifty years of the Great Society have made things worse for blacks, not better.
2 July 2014

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed, by Jason Riley (Encounter Books, 205 pp., $23.99)

A half-century ago, the Great Society promised to complete the civil rights revolution by pulling African-Americans into the middle class. Today, a substantial black middle class exists, but its primary function has been, ironically, to provide custodial care to a black underclass—one ever more deeply mired in the pathologies of subsidized poverty. In Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Jason Riley, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal who grew up in Buffalo, New York, explains how poverty programs have succeeded politically by failing socially. “Today,” writes Riley, “more than 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers. Only 16 percent of black households are married couples with children, the lowest of any racial group in the United States.” Riley attributes the breakdown of the black family to the perverse effects of government social programs, which have created what journalist William Tucker calls “state polygamy.” As depicted in an idyllic 2012 Obama campaign cartoon, “The Life of Julia,” a lifelong relationship with the state offers the sustenance usually provided by two parents in most middle-class families.

Riley’s own life experience gives him powerful perspective from which to address these issues. His parents divorced but both remained attentive to him and his two sisters. His sisters, however, were drawn into the sex-and-drug pleasures of inner-city “culture.” By the time he graduated from high school, his older sister was a single mother. By the time he graduated from college, his younger sister had died from a drug overdose. Riley’s nine-year-old niece teased him for “acting white.” “Why you talk white, Uncle Jason?” she wanted to know. She couldn’t understand why he was “trying to sound so smart.” His black public school teacher similarly mocked his standard English in front of the class. “The reality was,” Riley explains, “that if you were a bookish black kid who placed shared sensibilities above skin color, you probably had a lot of white friends.”

The compulsory “benevolence” of the welfare state, borne of the supposed expertise of sociologists and social planners, undermined the opportunities opened up by the end of segregation. The great hopes placed in education as a path to the middle class were waylaid by the virulence of a ghetto culture nurtured by family breakdown. Adjusted for inflation, federal per-pupil school spending grew 375 percent from 1970 to 2005, but the achievement gap between white and black students remained unchanged. Students at historically black colleges and universities, explained opinion columnist Bill Maxwell, “did not know what or whom to respect. For many, the rappers Bow Wow and 50 Cent were as important to black achievement as the late Ralph Bunche, the first black to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Zora Neale Hurston, the great novelist.”

“Why study hard in school,” asks Riley, “if you will be held to a lower academic standard? Why change antisocial behavior when people are willing to reward it, make excuses for it, or even change the law to accommodate it?”

In the 50 years since the start of the Great Society and the expenditure of more than $20 trillion to alleviate poverty, millions of newcomers have entered America from Asia and from Africa. They generally arrived in poverty and have improved themselves by dint of self-help and hard work—those boring middle-class values that President Obama’s mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, denounced so strenuously. But if, as Riley demonstrates, the Great Society programs have failed in conventional terms, they have been an overwhelming political success. Together, government workers and the recipients of government benefits make up a formidable voting bloc. Yet their very political success may also prove their undoing: President Obama’s share of the African-American vote increased between 2008 and 2012, but during that period, blacks’ share of the national income declined and their unemployment rate increased.

“Everybody has asked the question,” Frederick Douglass said in an 1865 speech, “‘What should we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall. . . . And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs!” A century and a half later, Jason Riley echoes that advice.

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