Is political action required for economic progress?

Published 10:16 pm Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Johnson Center is extremely pleased to bring Jason Riley to Troy next week. Mr. Riley is an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal and author of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed. I believe that the book will make many Americans rethink the role of government in race policy.

The effect of policies today examined by Mr. Riley in no way excuses our nation’s sad racial history, from slavery through the institutionalized discrimination of the Jim Crow era. And too many Americans have unfortunately judged others based on race. Thankfully, prejudice appears to be rapidly diminishing, and the Civil Rights movement ended institutionalized discrimination.

Mr. Riley takes issue with the need, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, for government action to improve the economic lives of black Americans. For example, he points out that the black poverty rate fell dramatically between 1940 and 1960, before the Civil Rights movement, but has remained largely unchanged since 1972. Mr. Riley writes that, “the notion that racism is holding back blacks as a group, or that better black outcomes cannot be expected until racism has been vanquished, is a dodge. And encouraging blacks to look to politicians to solve their problems does them a disservice.”

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But do government policies really harm blacks? Consider the minimum wage, promoted as a means to lift Americans out of poverty. Only about 10% of minimum wage earners are in poor households, versus the one third who reside in households in the top half of the income distribution. The unemployment rate illustrates the unequal impact of the minimum wage. Unemployment in December was 4.8% for whites versus 10.4% for blacks, and for teens, who are most affected by the wage, the rates were 14.2% for whites versus 33.2% for blacks. Furthermore, the labor force participation rate for black men is 4 percentage points lower than for whites. One might think that racism explains this, but Mr. Riley explodes that idea: “in 1930, when racial discrimination was infinitely more open and rampant, the black unemployment rate was lower than that of whites.”

Not only have blacks been disadvantaged by the minimum wage and the Davis-Bacon Act (which requires federally funded construction projects to pay prevailing – meaning union – wages), these laws had discriminatory intent. Mr. Riley quotes speeches in the Congressional Record in the 1930s showing that “it’s crystal clear that Congress passed these statutes to protect white union workers from nonunion blacks.”

Many people view affirmative action as imperative for equal access to college. Yet California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, banning racial preferences in admissions to the University of California (UC) system. The UC system now awards more bachelor’s degrees to blacks and Hispanics than before Prop 209, with the largest increases for high paying fields like science, technology and engineering. Fewer minority students now attend the most prestigious UC campuses (Berkeley and UCLA), but this has been more than offset by increased enrollment at the other still quite very good UC campuses. Mr. Riley contends that sending minority students to fail at Berkeley let administrators feel good about themselves at the expense of the students.

One of my big takeaways from the book is the gulf between the positions of prominent black politicians and black Americans. For instance, Mr. Riley points out how black political leaders in New York City opposed construction of a Walmart store even though 69% of blacks would welcome a Walmart in their neighborhood. A school choice ballot initiative in Georgia in 2012 passed with greater support among blacks than whites, and yet the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus immediately joined a lawsuit to block the measure.

Jason Riley offers an important argument in Stop Helping Us and will be a prominent national voice for years to come. His talk will be next Tuesday, February 10 at 10am at the Claudia Crosby Theater at Troy University is free and open to the community.



Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. For more information about Mr. Riley’s talk, email him at or call Ms. Zannyha Wright at (334) 808-6582.


About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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