Everyone acknowledges that there are gaps between white and Black Americans with regard to a number of metrics, such as wealth, education, employment, and incarceration. The question is why these gaps persist. Answers range along a spectrum from structures at one end to culture at the other.
Structural and cultural explanations for persistent racial gaps are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, in contemporary political discourse, the emphasis tends to fall on one end of the spectrum or the other. Broadly speaking, the Left offers structural explanations for America’s racial gaps (e.g., systemic racism), while the Right offers cultural ones (e.g., family breakdown).
The thesis of False Black Power? by Jason L. Riley is that “the current focus on white racism and political solutions to racial gaps continues to miss the mark.” Instead of a structural focus, Riley offers a cultural one: “When intact families were commonplace, the rise in black education, incomes, and occupations was significant and steady. As black family disorganization intensified and wealth-transfer programs grew in size and scope, that progress slowed in some cases and stalled in others.”
Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Ideologically, he is a Black conservative in the mold of Thomas Sowell, about whom he has written an intellectual biography titled Maverick(2021). His most recent book is The Black Boom (2022), which charts Black economic gains during the pre-Covid years of the Trump administration.
False Black Power? ends with responses by John McWhorter and Glenn C. Loury, who broadly agree with Riley’s thesis. McWhorter critiques Riley for failing to deal with issues such as redlining and mass incarceration, which are the focus of contemporary structural explanations for racial gaps. In reply, Riley argues that those specific issues suffer the same flaws as other structural explanations.
This book offers an accessible introduction to Black conservative thinking about America’s racial gaps and is recommended as such. I am mindful of the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17, however: “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” To make an informed judgment about this topic, then, one will need to read books that advocate structural explanations, too.
Jason L. Riley, False Black Power? (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2017).
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