Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Liberals Didn’t Create The Black Middle Class

Why some black voters prefer Trump’s indifference to Clinton and the left’s self-serving benevolence.

By Jason L. Riley
The Wall Street Journal
October 26, 2016

Black conservatives are as conflicted as the rest of the political right over the candidacy of Donald Trump. Some are supporting the Republican nominee out of partisan duty, while others have decided that he lacks the intelligence and judgment that the presidency demands.

And then there are the black conservatives who are not unbothered by the New York billionaire’s well-documented character flaws but don’t consider them disqualifying. These are blacks who find themselves on the political right not because of the Donald Trumps but notwithstanding them. They’re well aware that racism taints the history of both major political parties, which have evolved dramatically over the decades, but are more interested in what today’s politicians are proposing for the future. These voters are under no illusions that Mr. Trump has given any serious thought to the socioeconomic concerns of millions of black Americans. And yet, as one conservative black friend phrased it over dinner recently, “I’ll take Trump’s indifference over Clinton’s paternalism.”

Last week’s passing of former Princeton President William Bowen recalls one of liberalism’s favorite vehicles for black paternalism: racial preferences. In 1998 Bowen published his most celebrated work, “The Shape of the River,” which was co-written by former Harvard President Derek Bok. The book was a full-throated defense of race-conscious admissions policies at elite colleges at a time when attacks on affirmative action were increasing.

Affirmative action in practice—holding different groups to different standards—had long been unpopular in the U.S. Polls showed that the more specific the description of a race-preference program, the lower the level of support. In 1996 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in favor of four plaintiffs who alleged that they were denied admission to the University of Texas Law School because they were white. The Supreme Court declined to review the decision, which effectively left in place a ban on racial preferences in universities in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. That same year, residents of the nation’s most populous state, California, approved Proposition 209, which prohibited public institutions, including the University of California system, from discriminating on the basis of race.

Messrs. Bowen and Bok set out to show why colorblind admissions policies should be avoided. They argued that black students admitted to elite schools with lower qualifications than other students fared just fine, and they insisted that racial double standards were essential to creating and maintaining a black middle class. Unfortunately for the authors, the evidence they presented substantiated neither claim, and instead of making their raw data on college admissions available to any scholar who wanted to check the book’s conclusions, the data were made available only to scholars who were likely to already agree with those conclusions.

The book’s considerable shortcomings, detailed most persuasively in a blistering 1999 UCLA Law Review article by the scholars Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, didn’t stop its publication from becoming a news event. The New York Times said that its findings “provide a strong rationale for opposing current efforts to demolish race-sensitive policies in colleges” and that “the evidence collected flatly refutes many of the misimpressions of affirmative-action opponents.” The Los Angeles Times said the authors “prove with facts, not anecdotes, that affirmative action works.”

Freshman college students who don’t meet the academic credentials of the average student at an institution tend to have lower grades than their peers and are less likely to graduate. After California banned race-conscious college admissions, and more black students began attending schools based on their abilities instead of their skin color, black graduation rates increased by more than 50%, including in the more demanding disciplines of math and science. Messrs. Bowen and Bok’s book didn’t compare outcomes of black students admitted to elite schools with preferences and those who were admitted without them. If you don’t do that, you’re not even addressing a central criticism of affirmative action, let alone refuting it.

The authors’ condescending claim that the black middle class owes its existence to racial preferences in higher education is even more bizarre, but it’s consistent with the political left’s belief that black people would be nowhere without its interventions. The reality is that blacks were entering the skilled professions—nursing, teaching, law, medicine, social work—at unprecedented rates prior to the widespread implementation of affirmative action policies on college campuses in the 1970s. Between 1930 and 1970, the number of black white-collar workers quadrupled. Earnings for black males rose 75% in the 1940s and another 45% in the 1950s. In the era of affirmative action, the black middle class has continued to expand, but at a slower rate than it was growing before.

At the remove of nearly five decades, the case for racial-preference paternalism is weaker than ever. It’s no wonder that some blacks prefer Mr. Trump’s indifference to more of the same self-serving benevolence from Mrs. Clinton and the left.

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