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.
Source: New York Post / Jason Riley