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 than 10,000.
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.”
When Michael Brown was shot dead after assaulting a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, a large fuss was made over the racial composition of the police department and city leaders, which supposedly explained the subsequent civil unrest.
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 for decades.
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 college admissions.
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 1751.
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 ignored.
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 manage expectations.
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.