Since the 1960s, black leaders have placed a
heavy emphasis on gaining political power, and Barack Obama’s presidency
represented the apex of those efforts. The assumption — rarely challenged — is
that black political clout must come before black social and economic
advancement. But as JASON L. RILEY argues in this excerpt from his new book, “False Black Power” (Templeton
Press), political success has not been a major factor in the rise of racial and
ethnic groups from poverty to prosperity.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was followed by large
increases in black elected officials. In the Deep South, black officeholders
grew from 100 in 1964 to 4,300 in 1978. By the early 1980s, major US cities
with large black populations, such as Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Washington
and Philadelphia, had elected black mayors. Between 1970 and 2010, the number
of black elected officials nationwide increased from fewer than 1,500 to more
Yet the socioeconomic progress that was supposed to
follow in the wake of these political gains never materialized. During an era
of growing black political influence, blacks as a group progressed at a slower
rate than whites, and the black poor actually lost ground.
In a 1991 book, social scientist Gary Orfield and his
co-author, journalist Carole Ashkinaze, assessed the progress of blacks in the
1970s and ’80s following the sharp increase in black officeholders. The
thinking, then and now, was that the problems of the cities “were basically the
result of the racism of white officials and that many could be solved by black
mayors, school superintendents, policemen and teachers who were displacing
white ones.” The expectation, they added, “was that black political and
education leaders would be able to make large moves toward racial equity simply
by devising policies and practices reflecting their understanding of the
background and needs of black people.”
But the integration of these institutions proved to be
insufficient. “Many blacks have reached positions of local power, such as
mayor, county commission chairman or superintendent of schools, positions
undreamed of 30 years ago,” they wrote. Their findings, however, showed that
“these achievements do not necessarily produce success for blacks as a whole.”
The empirical evidence, they said, “indicates that there may be little
relationship between the success of local black leaders and the opportunities
of typical black families.”
A Justice Department report responding to the incident
noted that although the city’s population was 67 percent black, just four of
its 54 police officers fit that description.
“While a diverse police department does not guarantee a
constitutional one, it is nonetheless critically important for law-enforcement
agencies, and the Ferguson Police Department in particular, to strive for broad
diversity among officers and civilian staff,” said Justice.
But if racial diversity among law enforcement and city
officials is so “critically important,” what explains the rioting in Baltimore
the following year after a black suspect there died in police custody?
At the time, 63 percent of Baltimore’s residents and 40
percent of its police officers were black. The Baltimore police commissioner
also was black, along with the mayor and a majority of the city council.
Contentious relations between the police and ghetto
communities are driven mainly by high crime rates in those areas, something
that the political left doesn’t like to acknowledge.
The sharp rise in violent
crime in our inner cities coincides with the increase of black leaders in many
of those very same cities, which makes it hard to argue that racist or
indifferent authorities are to blame.
What can be said of Baltimore is also true of Cleveland,
Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans and Washington, where black mayors
and police chiefs and city councilmen and school superintendents have held sway
In her 1995 book, “Facing
Up to the American Dream,” political scientist Jennifer Hochschild
examined data from the late-1950s to the early-1990s — an era that covers not
only growing black political clout but also the implementation of the War on
Poverty and two full decades of affirmative-action policies in hiring and
Hochschild reported that between 1959 and 1992, poverty
fell from 55 percent to 33 percent for blacks and from 18 percent to 12 percent
for whites, which means that the “ratio of black to white poverty has remained
at 3 — hardly a victory in the war on racially disproportionate poverty.”
The absolute numbers, she added, “tell the same story:
there are now about 4 million fewer poor whites than 30 years ago, but 686,000
more poor blacks.”
‘Germans, Jews, Italians and Asians saw economic gains
precede political gains in America.’
Moreover, low-income blacks lost ground to low-income
whites over the same period. Between 1967 and 1992, incomes for the poorest
fifth of blacks declined at more than double the rate of comparable whites.
This history should have served to temper expectations
for the first black president. Without taking away anything from Barack Obama’s
historic accomplishment, or the country’s widespread sense of pride in the
racial progress that his election symbolized, the reality is that there was
little reason to believe that a black president was the answer to racial
inequities or the problems of the black poor.
The proliferation of black politicians in recent decades
— which now includes a twice-elected black president — has done little to
narrow racial gaps in employment, income, homeownership, academic achievement
and other areas.
Most groups in America and elsewhere who have risen
economically have done so with little or no political influence, and groups
that have enjoyed early political success have tended to rise more slowly.
“Group cohesion, expressed in political pressure and bloc
voting, is often regarded as axiomatically the most effective method of
promoting group progress,” explains the economist Thomas Sowell.
But historically, “the relationship between political
success and economic success has been more nearly inverse than direct.”
Germans, Jews, Italians and Asians are among those who saw economic gains
precede political gains in America.
Similarly, the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, the
English in Argentina and Jews in Britain, among many other examples, all
prospered economically while mostly shunning politics.
A counterexample is the Irish, whose rise from poverty
was especially slow even though Irish-run political organizations in places
like Boston and Philadelphia dominated local government. The Irish had more
political success than any other ethnic group historically, according to
Sowell. “Yet the Irish were the slowest rising of all European immigrants to
America. The wealth and power of a relatively few Irish political bosses had
little impact on the progress of masses of Irish Americans.”
Even if a group has the ability to wield political
influence, they don’t always choose to do so.
German immigrants to the US in colonial times were not
lacking in numbers. In Pennsylvania they were one-third of the population, a
situation that was not lost on non-Germans. “Why should Pennsylvania, founded
by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shorty become so numerous
as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them?” wrote Benjamin Franklin in
Nevertheless, Germans, many of whom arrived as indentured
servants and focused initially on paying off the cost of their voyage, had
other priorities and were well known for avoiding politics. Germans began
entering politics only after they had already risen economically.
Viewed against this history, many blacks were expecting
Obama’s presidency to deliver more prosperity than political clout tends to
deliver for a group — in the US or anywhere else.
The black experience in America is of course different
from the Irish experience, which in turn is different from the Chinese or
German or Jewish experience. Indeed, we can’t even generalize about all blacks
in the US, since the experience of black natives is different from the
experience of black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. But that doesn’t
mean group cultural traits that show patterns of success or failure should be
Even if we can’t make perfect apples-to-apples
comparisons, it doesn’t mean we can’t make any comparisons or draw any
conclusions. Many different racial and ethnic minority groups have experienced
various degrees of hardship in the US and in other countries all over the world.
How those groups have dealt with those circumstances is something to study
closely and draw lessons from going forward — even if the only lesson is to
One of the clear lessons from this history is that human
capital has proven to be far more important than political capital in getting
ahead. And that reality helps to explain why blacks fared the way they did not
only in the Obama era but also in the preceding decades.
Obama’s election was the end product of a civil-rights
strategy that prioritized political power to advance blacks, and eight years
later we once again learned the limitations of that strategy.