Here’s the Major Barrier to Black Success Today

It’s often thought to be beyond question that black political power is necessary for economic power and enhanced socio-economic welfare. That’s an idea that lends itself to testing and analysis.

Between 1970 and 2012, the number of black elected officials rose from fewer than 1,500 to more than 10,000. Plus, a black man was elected to the presidency twice. Jason Riley, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, tells how this surge in political power has had little beneficial impact on the black community.

In a PragerU video, “Blacks in Power Don’t Empower Blacks” (, Riley says the conventional wisdom was based on the notion that only black politicians could understand and address the challenges facing blacks. Therefore, electing more black city councilors, mayors, representatives and senators was deemed critical. Even some liberal social scientists now disagree. Gary Orfield says, “There may be little relationship between the success of … black leaders and the opportunities of typical black families.” Riley says that while many black politicians achieved considerable personal success, many of their constituents did not.

After the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, riots, which followed the killing of Michael Brown after he charged a policeman, much was made of the small number of blacks on the city’s police force. Riley asks: If the racial composition of the police force is so important, how does one explain the Baltimore riots the following year after Freddie Gray died in police custody? Baltimore’s police force is 40 percent black. Its police commissioner is black. Its mayor is black, as is the majority of the City Council. What can be said of black political power in Baltimore can also be said of Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and New Orleans. In these cities, blacks have been mayors, police chiefs, city councilors and superintendents of schools for decades.

By contrast, when blacks had little political power, they made significant economic progress.During the 1940s and ’50s, black labor force participation rates exceeded those of whites; black incomes grew much faster than white incomes. Between 1940 and 1950, black poverty rates fell by as much as 40 percent. Between 1940 and 1970, the number of blacks in middle-class professions quadrupled. Keep in mind that was before affirmative action programs. Riley says that racial gaps were narrowing without any special treatment for blacks. After the 1960s, the government began pouring trillions of dollars into various social programs. These programs discouraged marriage and also undermined the work ethic through open-ended welfare programs, helping keep poor people poor.

The fact that political success is not a requirement for socio-economic success — and indeed may have an opposite effect — doesn’t apply only to blacks. American Jews, Italians, Germans, Japanese and Chinese attained economic power long before they had political power. By almost any measure of socio-economic success, Japanese and Chinese are at or near the top. Riley asks, “How many prominent Asian politicians can you name?” By contrast, Irish-Americans have long held significant political power yet were the slowest-rising of all immigrant groups.

Riley says that the black experience in the U.S. has been very different from that of other racial groups. Blacks were enslaved. After emancipation, they faced legal and extralegal discrimination and oppression. But none of those difficulties undermines the proposition that human capital, in the forms of skills and education, is far more important than political capital. Riley adds that the formula for prosperity is the same across the human spectrum. Traditional values — such as marriage, stable families, education and hard work — are immeasurably more important than the color of your mayor, police chief, representatives, senators and president.

As Riley argues in his new book — “False Black Power?” — the major barrier to black progress today is not racial discrimination. The challenge for blacks is to better position themselves to take advantage of existing opportunities, and that involves addressing the anti-social, self-defeating behaviors and habits and attitudes endemic to the black underclass.


WalterWilliamsWalter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

The views expressed in opinion articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by Black Community News.

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  1. In 1973 Los Angeles, Tom Bradley inspired thousands of young Black kids to realize their God-given potential. Years earlier, so did Sen. Ed Brooke. I wouldn’t diminish the memory and accomplishments of these men and women who really did “pull themselves up from their bootstraps” and led by excellent example.

  2. Today’s politician cares only about themselves. Candidates for Congress for the most part are millionaires who are our of touch with their constituents, except when they are hustling votes, and merely want to instill their way of thinking on the masses.
    Once these millionaires are in office they are preoccupied raising money for their next election, jumping in bed with the highest paying lobbyist, and enjoying their power trip living in the lap of luxury at our expense.
    There is no logical reason to have a Representative or Senator entrench themselves in Congress for three, four or five decades all the time living high on the hog at taxpayer expense. Nor is there any logical reason to support those that fail to obtain reelection by providing these millionaires a pension for life because they “served” for a few years.
    I believe that the key to a solution for these abuses of power are term limits and no pension. The main question is how can the American taxpayer get this done when the existing laws would have to go through the very Congress that has given themselves all the perks and it is highly unlikely that they are willing to give up their high life.

  3. A reminder that today is the anniversary of President Johnson signing the act in 1968 that would enslave America’s poor and ensure votes for the Democrat Party for generations to come.

  4. Dr. Williams, is Jason Riley’s data correct in that 70 years ago African Americans had a higher (or at least commensurate) household income than did Whites? History tells us that the Black labor force (the entire working-age Black community) had to struggle with segregation de jure/de facto in terms of employment. If his facts are correct, I and millions of African Americans have been misled about racial discrimination in the worst way.

    • I believe he said their income rates grew at a higher rate. In other words there was a greater improvement from where they were before.
      I don’t know how old you are, but in the 60’s, those of us who weren’t Black truly admired the Blacks in the civil rights movement–not just the leaders, but those brave and dignified regular people who took the risks and did the work to give their grandchildren a better life.
      Those were people who truly rose above their struggles. They would be ashamed of some of the young now who claim to be victims. They were ordinary people, moms and dads, and young kids, who were in danger many times. They did the work, while the young now mock a lot of their values. Maybe those values are what gave them the courage to do what they did. Rappers and others who think they are smarter than their great-grandparents and travel with heavily-armed entourages aren’t nearly as brave as those young boys in their Sunday best, Bibles in hand, who marched unarmed into the police dogs and fire hoses of the bigots. These were people who in turn were raised by extremely poor people who shared those same values. They were in many cases people forced to go barefoot who had more class and dignity than some we see now in $200 sneakers.

      • “…greater improvement from where they were” is a pretty general statement. That could mean anywhere between from Reconstruction to Great Depression. Will turn 60 this month and while my folks from Greenville, Miss. didn’t face overt racism once in Los Angeles, there was terrible economic discrimination. And yes, those Freedom Riders and Civil Rights Revolution had a profound effect on me any my generation.

      • I don’t intend to be trite, but we all know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. It’s always puzzled me that, in the face of obvious discrimination, why were the Black citizens of that city the only ones to recognize “this is wrong” and take appropriate action?