Why Black People don’t Need Jason L Riley’s help
by Latonia Westerfield
When Jason L. Riley’s book Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed was first published and received by the masses, conservatives heralded him and his views regarding racial politics as “thoughtful, lucid, [and] combative” (Krauthammer, Williams, Please stop Helping Us Back cover). Those on the political left basically saw Riley’s views—which are less than friendly to liberal politics and its strong ties with black voters—as a wake-up call to pay attention to the GOP’s new expert on racial politics.
We all (black, white, Asian, Latino, liberal, conservative, independent) need to pay attention to Riley’s words. His words are indicative of why in 2015, race and racism are still cause for black people to fill the streets in protest with their hands raised in the air, demanding that their lives be seen as valuable. This is because Riley’s book doesn’t say anything new, in terms of understanding and dealing with issues in black communities, but rather presents the same old argument that dates back to slave auctions—black culture and, by extension, blackness is inherently defective, “if the rise of other groups is any indication, black social and economic problems are less about politics than they are about culture” (Riley 4).
Riley dedicated a significant portion of his book to discussing the perils of black culture—which he argues is responsible for bad black behavior and pathology—yet he failed to fully explore what the term culture means and how it informs the socially constructed category of race. Specifically, he did not look at how identities stemming from black culture are formed within a mix of complex historical and personal circumstances. In the chapter Culture Matters, he talks about a boy from his youth, Trevor, who was lured to the “dark side” of black culture: “But Trevor’s neighborhood ultimately got the better of him. Overtime, he was taken in by the knuckleheads and thugs…he drank and smoked weed. His language and attitude changed….he listened to Geto Boys and Ice-T. Girls became ‘bitches’” (Riley 40). I am sure Riley intended the description of Trevor to serve as a compelling narrative/cautionary tale against the pitfalls of black culture. However, this account, and the entire Culture Matters chapter, revealed to me an issue that is commonly glossed over in American mainstream culture and black culture—people rarely look critically at how identities are constructed.
When one belongs to a sub-culture, they are required to not only navigate the waters of their home culture, but the dominant, hegemonic culture as well. US anthropologist Ward Goodenough thought of culture in these terms: “culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” This definition is further complicated when one must measure up to multiple cultural standards stemming from complicated (and conflicting) histories and divergent belief systems. In this sense, culture can be viewed as a crucible in which identities are forged. where hegemonic cultural traits are filtered, absorbed, appropriated, or rejected altogether. Put into biblical terms, one cannot completely serve two cultural masters.
Defining and critically exploring culture is a crucial element missing from Riley’s book. This is especially true of the first three chapters in which Riley spent most of his time arguing that blackness, imparted through culture, can be used to explain black people’s pathologies, “Education is not the only area where an oppositional black mindset has been detrimental to social and economic progress. Black cultural attitudes toward work, authority, dress, sex, and violence have also proven counterproductive, inhibiting the development of the kind of human capital that has lead to socioeconomic advancement for other groups” (Riley 50). This argument is selective at best because it fails to account for the convoluted nature of culture and history—which includes a plethora of other (loaded) social constructions related to gender, class, sexuality, and disability—which have created institutional barriers of oppression.
Individuals build their identity on top of an intricate web of fluid social structures, stemming from the relationship between their personal experiences and their historical contexts, a relationship which is always linked, and often conflated. While black identities may be historically linked, the personalities and behaviors that stem from them are not solely determined by this link, and therefore cannot be solely understood through the lens of black culture. This is why Riley’s missing examination of culture is detrimental to his analysis of black culture (especially his harsh views about black youths).
Without an in-depth look into culture, he can only present etic views. These views lack depth and empathy, and yield one sided results which argue that the problem in black communities is not unchecked white supremacy/privilege, racism, sexism, and class issues, but rather the fact “blacks today on balance remain [culturally] ill equipped” to seize the benefits of the civil rights movement (Riley 58). Or an argument that says “black culture not only condones delinquency and thuggery but celebrates it to the point where black youths have adopted jail fashion in the form of baggy, low-slung pants and oversize T-shirts” (Riley 51). Riley observations of aspects of black culture make it seem as if an umbrella form of blackness exists and that all black people fall under it.
Yes, there is a sub-section of black culture that wears their clothes loose and baggy, and listens to hip-hop and rap, but fashion and music choices do not make people ignorant, nor do they turn them into thugs and criminals. Fashion, slang, and music are popular resistance tools that allow people to express their own identities in the face of dominate cultural systems that have historically devalued them. Riley’s harsh views of young black people as delinquents, which has more to do with generational difference than political ones, underscores his inability to understand the nature of sub-cultures. There are countless sub-groups of people that challenge mainstream culture through music and style choices.
Most young people walking down the streets today sag and listen to rap and hip-hop because it’s not just a black thing, it’s a counter-culture thing. People resist dominant culture because they feel, in some shape or form, oppressed and marginalized by it. It is unfortunate that black people are not afforded the opportunity to stand apart from dominate culture without being held up as an example of bad cultural habits and behaviors.
Black people are not doing anything, in terms of counter-cultural expression, that hasn’t been done by other marginal groups in America. Furthermore, not all black people choose to resist mainstream culture in similar ways. In fact, some choose to resist black culture by creating their own sub-sets of cultural norms that celebrate, express, and protect parts of their identity that deviate from the “standard” idea of blackness (the experiences and expressions of the amazing writers that contribute to the Black Girl Dangerous blog come to mind). And some black people reject the idea of “black culture” altogether. In short, there is not one standard version of black culture or way to express blackness, despite Riley’s description of one.
My intentions behind this response are not to glorify rap music and aspects of black sub-cultures that turns women and girls into “bitches” and “hoes”, and glamorizes crime and violence. Nor is it to disagree with Riley’s charge that there are issues within black communities (though they are not all about race). I am, however, questioning his subjective assessment of blackness and his superficial presentation of it. Perhaps I find fault with Riley’s analysis of black culture because I am willing to open my mind to the possibilities that some young black people are drawn to the lyrics and lifestyles of rappers because they look like them, come from similar backgrounds, and create pictures that are more appealing than their own realities. As Kanye West said in his freshman album College Dropout, “but as a shorty I looked up to the dope man. Only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke man.”
Or perhaps I disagree with him because as a black woman, I know all too well that there is no freedom in static, racialized classifications. “Because we tend to perceive white Americans as “people without culture,” when white people engage in certain practices we do not associate their behavior with the racialized conception of culture, but rather construct other, non-cultural explanations” (Volpp 89). Writer Matt Rohrer’s creative non-fiction piece, White Boys Will Be Boys: My Mike Brown, White Privilege and Adolescent Mischief, supports the quote from Leti Volpp with real life experiences:
Teenagers do risky things like shoplift (cool ones do anyhow). They sneak into the movies, they knock over mailboxes, egg houses, they catch tags in the school bathroom. They listen to loud, profane music, dance to it in their cars, windows rolled down, asserting that the world is theirs to exist in, to modify, to enjoy…Forging a unique, critical identity occurs against rules, constructs, personalities. Like a sharpening knife, a teenager’s personhood develops against a rough, unbending world. Unfortunately, the world grinds back harder against black kids. Regular ol’ angsty adolescent development is clearly still a privilege reserved for middle class whites.
When young black kids display the behavior described above by Rohrer, people look at them with disdain and blame their culture, their blackness. Looking at black culture as a cesspool that breeds pathology is not only racist, it is incomplete and dangerous. The historical and contemporary context of racism is far too complex for “bad” black behavior to be the main issue facing black individuals. Too much of Riley’s time is spent leaning on the idea that black culture nurtures and celebrates thugs and “ghetto” menatlities, and that black people are liberal dependents. These views took away from his finer points and insights of the ills plaguing black communities.
To be fair, he did highlight important problems (the issue of black-on-black crime, for instance) and provided interesting solutions in the chapters Mandating Unemployment and Educational Freedom. These two chapters provided his audience with an important historical background of the racism beneath labor unions and legislations of the 1930’s-60’s. Riley also presented various solutions for tackling the problem of the crumbling public school system that fails poor, black children. Though I found his arguments regarding these topics to be sound, I was disappointed, but not surprised, when he failed to fully discuss structural racism in its various covert and overt forms. “So while racism may not drive today’s proponent of minimum-wage laws, the effects of these laws continue to harm the job opportunities of blacks in general” (Riley 101). If institutional and legal racism was once the driving force behind labor legislation, what happened to it?
Since Riley failed to elaborate on the subject, I’m left to assume that legal and institutional racism just evaporated into thin air, and did not wily shift from the surface of American systems to beneath them. Riley does not go far enough in his book to examine the history of political and institutional prejudices within both parties and relies too much on the idea that liberal polices and well-meaning liberals are to blame for the perpetuation of racism and institutional blocks of black people’s success.
Racism runs deeper than political parties and policies. It feeds off of our inability to understand its ever-morphing nature, which can change from overt to covert in the blink of a generation, “it’s true that particular manifestations of racism, such as legal racial segregation, have been eliminated. But we have become so fixated on segregation as constituting the heart of racism that we cannot see the deep structural and institutional life of racism” (Davis 129). While there are no longer “whites only” signs barring black people from stores, restrooms, and schools, there are still racist barriers that exist in covert capacities.
These barriers manifest themselves via disparities such as:
- infant and maternal mortality rates. “The U.S. lags behind other developed countries because there remain significant gaps in access to and utilization of prenatal and preconception care…There is a well-delineated history of racial and ethnic disparities in maternal and infant outcomes in the U.S., with black women and their infants being at greatest risk and having the highest rates of poor outcomes.”(Collins).
- Who gets left behind in the education system, “racial disparities in educational achievement can have serious consequences. Not surprisingly, it impacts life outcomes when the typical black student is graduating from high school (if he graduates at all) with an eighth-grade education” (Riley 114).
- Who has access to a variety of fresh, quality produce, “the typical small supermarkets in Harlem contain the usual variety of dry goods but a poor variety of fresh produce and meats. One ethnographer shopped weekly for 3 months at [one such] supermarket…and discovered that she could rarely get the quality or variety of fresh produce that was available in the adjacent [predominantly white] upper west side supermarkets” (Mullings; Wali 27).
- And who gets perpetually portrayed as a criminal, profiled by the police and private citizens, killed by police, and makes up the majority of inmates in America’s overflowing prison systems:
The expansion of the criminal justice system, and the emergence of a prison-industrial complex is accompanied by an ideological campaign to persuade us once again in the late twentieth century that race is a marker of criminality. The figure of the criminal is a young black man. Young black men engender fear. Black people are not impervious to this ideological process…When we speak about the representation of the young black man as criminal, this is not to deny the fact that there are some young black men who commit horrible acts of violence. But this cannot justify the wholesale criminalization of young black men. Racism, incidentally, has always relied on the conflation of the individual and the group (Davis 38-39).
The problem with Riley’s book is that he failed to see culture and identities as permeable, dynamic entities that are products of a compounding relationship between personal experience and linked histories. Riley’s one-sided analytical attack on black people and culture gives racists (whether they are conscious of it or not) license to believe their bigoted opinions and discriminatory action towards black people are justified. Case in point, here is a review of Riley’s book from Audible.com, “[this book] should be required reading by EVERY black American [sic]. Riley pulls no punches as he systematically lays out the case for LESS government help to the black community, and MORE personal involvement by black parents and their kids. Pay attention in school. Don’t worry abut “acting white” because it is your ghetto mentality that is holding you back.” Black people don’t need Riley’s help if his words only add fuel to the fire of long-held, misguided racist notions.
So, to Riley, and his many ideas about how to save us all from black culture, I would like to say: please, stop helping us.
- Collins, Sam. “The Infant Mortality Rate in The US is Too High.” Think Progress. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.
- Davis, Angela. The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012. Print.
- Duranti, Alessandro. Linguistic Anthropology. (Qtd: Ward Goodenough.). Cambridge: University Press, 1997. Print.
- Mulling, Leith and Alaka Wali. Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem. New York: Kluwer Academic, 2001. Print.
- Riley, Jason. Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberal Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed. New York: Encounter Books, 2014. Print.
- Rohrer, Matt. “White Boys Will Be Boys: My Mike Brown, White Privilege and Adolescent Mischief.” Apogee Journal (2014): n.pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2014
- Pref. West, Kanye. Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam, 2003. CD
- Volpp Leti. “Blaming Culture for Bad Behavior.” 12 Yale J.L. & Human. 89 (2000). PDF
Latonia Westerfield is currently a MFA photography student at the Academy of Art University. Her photography conceptually examines the complexities of intersectionality and identity construction. She has always been a writer at heart, and spent most of her time as an undergrad at The University of Washington, where she earned a Bachelors of Arts and Science in social-cultural anthropology, writing about culture, marginal identities, and her experiences as a black woman. She is an anthropologist, mother, wife, photographer, writer, and native Washingtonian. Latonia Westerfield currently resides on Whidbey Island.