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The Leave Us Alone Coalition

Review: ‘Please Stop Helping Us’ by Jason L. Riley

police walk through a cloud of smoke as they clash with protesters in Ferguson, Mo.
Police walk through a cloud of smoke as they clash with protesters in Ferguson, Mo. / AP
• September 13, 2014 5:00 am

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It didn’t take long for Jesse Jackson to come to Ferguson.

By August 15, the civil rights leader had joined protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown just a week before. For decades, Jackson—and Al Sharpton—have been staples of such affairs, establishing themselves as the media representatives of controversies to which they often lack any direct connection.

Ferguson, and Jackson’s appearance there, exemplify an aspect of contemporary black culture that Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley says has prevented its success: namely, overreliance on political solutions.

In his new book, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Riley argues that the historical record regarding previously oppressed American ethnic groups provides "little indication, let alone assurance, that political success is a prerequisite of upward mobility."

This is but one of many of the injurious trends that Riley ably identifies and dissects in his book. With the wit, precision, and rigor of a Wall Street Journal editorial, he takes on the most problematic aspects of modern black life in America and makes empirically sound connections between them and misguided liberal policies and attitudes—connections which are often ignored.

Take as an example the Davis-Bacon Act, a 1930s piece of legislation ostensibly designed to protect unionized building trade workers. Through impressive research, Riley shows that the act’s consequence, then andnow, of lowering black employment "is not an accident…It was the intent." It has been so effective that "1930, the year before the law passed, was the last year that the black jobless rate was lower than the white rate."  Yet progressives support the act to this day.

Minimum wage laws and teachers’ unions are both crucial to the modern left, but harmful to blacks today. "Raising the minimum wage," writes Riley, "does nothing for [poor families]," many of which happen to be African-American.

There’s plenty more, despite the book’s relative slimness. As a bonus, careful readers of both this book and the Wall Street Journal’s unsigned editorials might enjoy guessing how much influence Riley has had on those columns. One suspects that it has been significant.

Some of the book’s most powerful passages transcend the polemical by drawing, somewhat surprisingly, from the personal. Riley reinforces his arguments about the importance of culture through the story of his own upbringing, and strengthens his examination of black crime with a harrowing anecdote from his youth.

Perhaps the only fault in the book is Riley’s tendency at times to cite sources—Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, the Heritage Foundation—that, despite advancing true claims, unfortunately might not convince non-conservative readers. But this is a minor lapse, as his assertions rely mostly on objective analyses of economic data and observations from sources such as Tavis Smiley, who once admitted that the economic status of blacks has declined under Barack Obama’s presidency. Riley also stipulates that the civil rights movement was "liberalism at its best."

Will Please Stop Helping Us change anything? Stranger things have happened in American politics. Indeed, more or less from the Civil War to the New Deal, it was the Republican Party that had a lock on the black vote, thanks to the Lincoln legacy. Riley’s book has as good a shot as anything of dissolving the political bonds between blacks and the Democratic Party that have led to economic stagnation for African-Americans for half a century. At the very least, one hopes that the book reinvigorates Republican Party outreach to blacks, which Riley accurately describes as ranging "somewhere between inadequate and nonexistent."

If nothing else, Riley can point the way to another path. Perhaps there is hope: Not long after Jesse Jackson arrived in Ferguson, he was up on a stage, asking for donations. The crowd booed.

Published under: Book reviews