I have written many times in my columns about the inherent problems of Affirmative Action, the minimum wage, and other government policies that purport to help black Americans, but never so eloquently as Jason Riley did in his new book, Please Stop Helping Us. Economist Thomas Sowell reviewed Riley’s new book in the July 14th edition of The Washington Times and gave it a thumbs-up. Sowell wrote, “This book untangles the controversies, the confusions and the irresponsible rhetoric in which issues involving minimum-wage laws are usually discussed. As someone who has followed minimum-wage controversies for decades, I must say that I have never seen the subject explained more clearly or convincingly.” A recommendation from Dr. Sowell is all the convincing any conservative should need. I bought the book, and am glad I did.
The theme of Riley’s book is that many of the government policies enacted to help black Americans actually do them more harm than good. Two such policies—Affirmative Action and the minimum wage—figure prominently in Please Stop Helping Us. For example, Riley shows that black unemployment was significantly lower before minimum-wage laws were first enacted 60 years ago. With passage of minimum-wage laws, unemployment among black Americans—particularly black teenagers—has grown steadily. A 50 percent unemployment rate among black teenagers is now common in America’s larger cities; a condition that encourages participation in the drug culture and gangs.
Consider what Dr. Sowell had to say about this phenomenon: “Pricing young people out of work deprives them not only of income, but also of work experience, which can be even more valuable. Pricing young people out of legal work, when illegal work is always available, is just asking for trouble. So is having large numbers of idle young males hanging out together on the streets.” The “illegal work” Sowell referred to is, of course, drug dealing. As for “idle young males hanging out together on the streets,” their next logical step is to join a gang. That choice—in view of their circumstances—is almost a certainty.
As for Affirmative Action, Riley asks the obvious question: Has the program actually worked? He then provides hard data to show that Affirmative Action—in spite of its appealing name—has been an abominable failure. One of the worst problems with Affirmative Action is that in many cases it has set capable young black people up for failure. One of the ways it does this is by admitting them to prestigious universities that maintain academic standards the black students cannot quite meet (nor can a lot of capable white, Hispanic, and Asian students). The concept is like sending a good baseball player directly from high school into the major leagues rather than sending them to a Double-A or Triple-A team. Their failure in the major leagues is almost a foregone conclusion, but they could have done quite well in Double or Triple-A baseball, and then gone on to successful careers. In the same way, black students who are admitted to prestigious universities but lack the prerequisite academic credentials are doomed to fail when they could have done well at most any state university, college, or community college.
When students are admitted to a prestigious university because of their race rather than academic merit, a double injustice is done. The first injustice is to the student who is bound to fail because he or she is not academically prepared to compete with the best students in the world—precisely the students found in America’s most prestigious universities. The second injustice is to the student who is academically prepared but was refused admission because his or her seat was taken by an underprepared student of the preferred race. Black students, like white, Asian, and Hispanic students are better served when they enroll in a university where they have a good chance of succeeding, provided of course they are willing to work hard. It is far better for students of any race to be graduates of state universities than to be dropouts from Harvard.
The words of Dr. Sowell that convinced me to purchase Please Stop Helping Us were these: “There are many ponderous academic studies of blacks…but there is nothing to match Mr. Riley’s book as a primer that will quickly bring you up to speed on the complicated subject of race…Mr. Riley knows how to use plain English to get to the point. He also has the integrity to give it to you straight…The result is a book that provides more knowledge and insight in a couple of hundred pages than are usually found in books twice that length…Unlike academics who just tell the facts, Mr. Riley knows which facts are telling.” As an aside, that last sentence shows why Dr. Sowell is such a popular and successful writer himself.
Many of Riley’s key points are indeed telling. In the interest of space and as an incentive for readers to purchase this excellent new book, I will cite just one example. Riley refutes the often heard claim that blacks don’t do well in their studies because colleges use instructional approaches that are geared to white students. He shows conclusively that blacks from countries where English is not even spoken actually do better in American colleges than blacks who are born and raised in America. Further, Asians perform better than whites in these colleges that are supposedly geared to whites. As a long-time college professor, I can assure readers that, assuming at least average native intelligence, those who do best in their studies are those who work hardest at their studies. Making excuses for black students or students of any race, does them no good. In fact, it is demonstrably harmful to them, as Riley shows in his new book.