Reprinted with permission from “False Black Power” by Jason L. Riley (Templeton Press), 2017.
A few days after Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, I walked around New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and got reactions from a couple dozen black residents. Postelection street demonstrations were occurring in major cities across the country almost daily. The media tended to present the protests as spontaneous displays of outrage from average citizens over the election results, and some of them surely were. But it’s also true that many of the rallies were being organized and supported by professional agitators at outfits like MoveOn.org and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Minorities were said to be especially concerned about a Trump presidency due to his harsh campaign rhetoric directed at Latino immigrants and blacks.
However, the people I spoke with in Harlem weren’t shocked by the outcome or overly concerned about their future under a Trump administration. I didn’t find any Trump supporters, but neither did I find anyone interested in taking to the streets to oppose his election. For the most part, people told me that they would give Trump a chance to do the things he said he would do—such as reduce crime and protect entitlement programs. And unlike so many black public intellectuals and activists, they expressed a healthy skepticism of politicians and government solutions. “He said he’d protect Medicare. I can go along with that,” said a retiree who was having a smoke with a friend outside of a barbershop. “He said he’d get rid of the Bloods and the Crips and the gangs—get them out of here. I like that. If he does those two things, he’s my man. If he don’t deliver on that, he’s just another politician.” A minister sitting in front of his storefront church also weighed in on the prevalence of inner-city street violence but concluded that “we know the president can’t do much about crime. It has to start at home with the families, the parents, the fathers.” A woman getting her hair done in a beauty salon was even more forthright. “I don’t think Trump is really thinking about black people’s problems,” she told me as some of the other customers listening in nodded. “Even if he was, he can’t solve them. Obama couldn’t solve them even though he really wanted to, so Trump certainly can’t. But let’s see what he does.”
This sobriety of November 2016 contrasted sharply with the headiness of November 2008, when so many people viewed the incoming president as a kind of political savior—a view Obama didn’t exactly discourage. For blacks, however, Obama’s presidency turned out to be more of a distraction from the reality that political power can’t compensate for what is missing culturally. History, including black history, has offered little reason to expect faster and more sustained black progress from the prioritization of political solutions over of the development of human capital. Successful groups in America—as measured by income, academic accomplishment, and professional attainment—have developed certain attitudes, habits, and behaviors. Some groups developed these traits before they came to America; others learned them after they arrived. But the cultural development tended to precede the eventual prosperity. Today’s black leaders are preoccupied with developing excuses, and those excuses often center on white villainy in one form or another.
“Many tell us that white opposition to blacks is so uniquely fierce that it is useless to compare us to others,” wrote the scholar John McWhorter. “But how useless is it to compare us to ourselves?” As far back as the late 1800, “American cities typically had thriving black business districts reproducing white America down to the last detail, including excellent schools—Bronzeville, Chicago; the Auburn Avenue district in Atlanta; the Shaw district in Washington, DC; even Harlem before the 1940s.” As McWhorter explained:
These people were no strangers to racism, which was overt and hostile across America. They could not shop in many white stores or stay in most white hotels; they were barred from most prestigious positions in the mainstream world; they read regularly of lynchings; and interracial relationships and marriages were all but unheard of and condemned anyone who dared them to acrid social ostracization. And yet the very people who lived in that world would be baffled at the consensus among their descendants that whites’ biases rend us powerless to shape our destinies for the better.
They would be baffled and then some. The 1913 edition of the Negro Almanac, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, boasted that “no other emancipated people have made so great a progress in short a time.” It elaborated by comparing the progress of freed slaves in the United States to that of Russian serfs who had been emancipated around the same time, in 1861. Fifty years after being freed, fourteen million former serfs had accumulated some $500 million, or $36 per capita, and 30 percent could read and write. By comparison, after fifty years of freedom “the 10 million Negroes in the United States have accumulated over $700,000,000 worth of property, or about $70 per capita,” the almanac reported, using Census data, and “70 percent of them have some education in books.” Robert Higgs, an economic historian, wrote in 2008 that even if black literacy a half-century after emancipation reached only 50 percent, “the magnitude of the accomplishment is still striking, especially when one recalls the overwhelming obstacles blocking black educational efforts. For a large population to transform itself from virtually unlettered to more than half literate in 50 years ranks as an accomplishment seldom witnessed in human history.”
In 1865, black entrepreneurs were engaged in just twelve different types of commercial enterprises, which included hairdressing, sailmaking, shopkeeping, shoe repair, and catering. By 1917, blacks would own and operate some two hundred different kinds of businesses as they quit the rural South and headed for nearby cities or urban centers in the North and West. In the 1910s, the black populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Cleveland, and Detroit grew by between 105 percent (Los Angeles) and 611 percent (Detroit). The migration continued in the 1920s, when small and midsized cities like Youngstown, Ohio; Durham, North Carolina; and Buffalo, New York also saw their black populations double and triple in size. Gary, Indiana’s black population climbed from 383 in 1910 to 17,922 in 1930.
According to a business directory, there were already around two hundred black businesses operating in twenty-seven different fields in Chicago alone by 1885. A history of the city’s black Bronzeville neighborhood notes that the “rapid growth of the Negro community between 1915 and 1929 was accompanied by expansion in all types of Negro-owned businesses,” from beauty salons and groceries to banks and insurance companies. “In 1938, Negroes in Bronzeville owned and operated some 2,600 business enterprises,” most of which were small retail and service outfits catering to people in less desirable communities.
The progress of blacks after leaving slavery and prior to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s doesn’t receive a lot of attention because it undermines a prevailing and politically useful narrative on the left. That narrative, which is seldom challenged, insists that black underachievement is primarily a function of white racism, that blacks need special favors like affirmative action to improve their lot, and that black integration of political institutions is essential to black advancement. These arguments serve the interest of the people making them, whether those people are racial and ethnic leaders trying to remain influential or political leaders trying to win votes. Still, black history itself offers a compelling counternarrative that ideally would inform our post-Obama racial inequality debates.
In his 1907 book, The Negro in Business, Booker T. Washington reported that between 1860 and 1900, black homeownership rates grew from infinitesimal to nearly 22 percent. Additionally, 74.2 percent of black homeowners completely owned their residences as of 1900, versus only 68 percent of white families. “I am unaware that history records such an example of substantial growth in civilization in a time so short,” wrote Washington. “Here is the unique fact that from a penniless population, just out of slavery, that placed a premium on thriftlessness, 372,414 owners of homes have emerged, and of these 255,156 are known to own their homes absolutely free of encumbrance.”
Between 1950 and 1960 in New York City, which had the largest black urban population in the country and where racial discrimination in employment was lawful and commonplace, the number of black accountants rose by more than 200 percent. The number of engineers increased by 134 percent. The number of schoolteachers grew by 125 percent. The rise in black physicians (56 percent), lawyers (55 percent), nurses (90 percent), and social workers (146 percent) were also striking. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act would not be passed until the mid-1960s, and there is no intention here to minimize the importance of that legislation in making America a more fair and just country. Nor is there any intention to diminish the efforts of so many good people who fought and sometimes died in that effort. But the fact that blacks were entering white-collar professions so rapidly before those landmark bills were passed tells us what they were able to accomplish even during Jim Crow.
“The growth of racial segregation in the 1950s did not keep Black residential options [in New York] from expanding,” wrote civil rights historian Martha Biondi. “From 1940 to 1950 the earnings of Black workers tripled, with a substantial number meeting the income eligibility of homeownership” suggested by the government. In 1953, a real estate journal called blacks “than nation’s newest middle class.” The same year, Time wrote, “The signs of Negro prosperity are everywhere. On the rooftops of Manhattan’s Harlem grows that bare ugly forest of TV antennae which has become a new symbol of middle-class achievement.”
Black progress during this period was not limited to New York City. The scholars Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom reported that nationwide the number of black teachers quadrupled between 1940 and 1970, and the number of “social workers and registered nurses rose even more, from under 10,000 to almost 110,000, with much of the expansion preceding the Great Society programs of the late 1960s.” The Thernstroms added that whether this progress would have continued without the racial preference policies that later took effect in the 1970s “is open to debate. But it certainly cannot be assumed that the progress that has been made since then could not possibly have occurred without affirmative action.”
The great migrations out of the rural South that began during World War I changed the demographic profile of blacks as well as the country. At least 90 percent of blacks still lived in the South in 1900, and three-quarters of working blacks were employed in agriculture or domestic services as late as 1910. The move to cities in the North, West, Midwest, and even the South often meant better schools and higher-paying jobs. More than fifty thousand blacks moved to Chicago between 1916 and 1917. “Coming from the South, where they are accustomed to work for a few cents a day or a few dollars a week, to an industrial center where they can earn that much in an hour or a day, they have the feeling that this city is really the land overflowing with milk and honey,” said one contemporary observer. “In the occupations in which they are now employed, many of them are engaged in skilled labor, receiving the same and, in some cases, greater compensation than was paid white men in such a position prior to the outbreak of the war.” Historian Robert Weems noted that blacks who stayed in Dixie but moved to urban areas also saw their wages rise during this period. “Thus, in the South, as in the North, prized black workers were able to command higher salaries,” he wrote. “Even in the traditionally oppressive (for blacks) Mississippi, the wages of African Americans living in urban areas increased by from 10 to 100 percent.”
A second and larger exodus of blacks from the South coincided with the start of World War II. More than a million blacks left the region in the 1940s, and another million left in the 1950s. These were decades of strong economic growth and job creation in the United States, and blacks were progressing in absolute terms and relative to whites notwithstanding all manner of de facto and de jure discrimination. Between 1939 and 1960, median incomes for black men rose from $460 to $3,075, or by 568.5 percent. For white men, they grew from $1,112 to $5,137, or by 362 percent over the same period. The story was similar for black women, who saw their median incomes rise steadily in the 1940s and 1950s, from $246 in 1939 to $1,276 in 1960. That represented a 418.7 percent increase over a two-decade period when white women saw their median incomes go up by only 275.3 percent.
Education also played a critical role in this advancement. Blacks were narrowing the income gap because they were also narrowing the learning gap. Discrimination kept blacks out of certain fields and occupations, to be sure, but so did a lack of schooling necessary to join certain professions. Even without discrimination, blacks would have had difficulty competing for white-collar jobs. Blacks began to address this situation in earnest in the first half of the twentieth century and decades before the existence of affirmative action policies that would later receive undeserved credit for creating a black middle class. In fact, the “rise of blacks into professional and other high-level occupation was greater in the years preceding passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than in the years following the passage of that act,” explained the economist Thomas Sowell. “Similarly, and despite a widespread tendency to see the rise of blacks out of poverty as due to the civil rights movement and government social programs of the 1960s, in reality the rise of blacks out of poverty was greater in the two decades preceding 1960 than the decades that followed.” Between 1940 and 1960, blacks and whites alike increased their years of schooling, but the racial gap narrowed from four years to less than two years. Elaborating on the economic significance of this development, Sowell wrote:
As of 1940, more than four-fifths of black families—87 percent, in fact—lived below the official poverty level. By 1960, this had fallen to 47 percent. In other words, the poverty rate among blacks had been nearly cut in half before either the civil rights revolution or the Great Society social programs began in the 1960s. The continuation of this trend can hardly be automatically credited to these political developments, though such claims are often made, usually ignoring the pre-existing trends whose momentum could hardly have been expected to stop in the absence of such legislation. By 1970, the poverty rate among blacks had fallen to 30 percent—a welcome development, but by no means unprecedented. A decade after that, with the rise of affirmative action in the intervening years, the poverty rate among black families had fallen to 29 percent. Even if one attributes all of this one percent decline to government policy, it does not compare to the dramatic declines in poverty among blacks when the only major change was the rise in their education.
The tragedy today is that this black history—this story of black triumph over adversity in the face of near-impossible odds—is downplayed by most black leaders, to the extent that it’s even acknowledged. Black elected officials and activists can be expected to say and do what is in their own interests, even if pursuing those interests leaves blacks as a group worse off. Hence, the Congressional Black Caucus pushes for political solutions regardless of whether a problem really calls for more government help. Its members are rewarded with votes for winning special favors for blacks and for blaming black problems on others, so that is their focus. Al Sharpton and the NAACP leadership show little interest in data that demonstrates tremendous black socioeconomic advancement during segregation because they have spent decades insisting that blacks can’t advance until racism in all its forms has been eradicated. If racial prejudice is no longer a significant barrier to black upward mobility and doesn’t explain today’s racial disparities, the civil rights old guard is irrelevant.
Today, black people hear plenty about what they can’t achieve due to racism and very little about what they have achieved in the past notwithstanding brutal and sometimes lethal bigotry. Yes, racism—in one form or another and to various degrees—has been a constant for blacks since the first slaves were brought to America, but the amount and quality of human capital among blacks has not been constant. After emancipation, blacks set about acquiring the values, habits, and skills necessary to thrive in a capitalist system. The going was tough and the progress was slow at times, but the gains were steady and undeniable. Racial gaps in education, incomes, and professional attainment were closing—doing so during a period when many whites were openly biased and the welfare of blacks wasn’t exactly a government priority.
The conventional attitudes of blacks toward marriage, parenting, school, and work a century ago aided and abetted this unprecedented black economic advancement and complicate liberal claims that black antisocial behavior in the twenty-first century is a “legacy” of slavery and Jim Crow. Since the 1960s, the focus on developing human capital has shifted to a focus on acquiring political power—a false sense of power—and this change in priorities has coincided with dramatic changes in black trends over the past half-century. In some areas, social and economic progress has merely slowed, but in other cases it has stalled completely or even been reversed. The Obama era was more evidence of the limits of this strategy. If blacks want to begin replenishing that human capital—true power—they shouldn’t look to politicians. They should look to their own past.