Ben Stein is right (sort of): Black Americans have “never had it so good”
By Selwyn Duke
Recently, actor-cum-commentator Ben Stein was condemned in media for touting the “progress” the U.S. has made and saying that black Americans “never had it so good.” One website called his remarks a “racist rant” even though he was, in keeping with his personality, just calmly expressing his opinion. The worst thing about this story, though, isn’t that Stein may become a cancel-culture casualty.
In fact, the matter reminds me of philosopher G.K. Chesterton’s observation that the worst aspect of duels wasn’t that someone might die, but that they settled nothing about who was right or wrong. For as is always the case with these matters, Stein is criticized only for making a politically incorrect assertion involving race — and could suffer reputational and career death because of it — when the real issue is this:
Was he correct or not?
He surely was, too — for the most part.
Only, the pseudo-elites don’t want this issue settled and that known, lest their BLM narrative be debunked.
First off, broader perspective is necessary. As even left-wing Think Progress admitted in 2013, the standard of living worldwide was that year the highest it had ever been in history. America is among the world’s lifestyle leaders, too, which means that, at least materially, we’re generally living a relative life of Riley.
Note here that man’s historical default has been grinding poverty. People lived without our luxuries, including those we consider necessities, and sometimes with a lack of many necessities themselves. They had no plumbing, indoor or otherwise; toilets; refrigeration; modern transportation; effective medical care; insurance policies; or safety net of any kind. They might’ve had to toil sunrise till sunset to try to eke out a subsistence living.
Privation was the order of the day, with Spartan boys in their military camps, for example, living off blood soup and being perpetually hungry. Lives were often hard, brutal and short; I’ve read that the average lifespan in the Roman Empire was 22 and in ancient Greece 35, and while these numbers likely aren’t dead-on accurate, our average of 76.4 was surely unheard of.
And even in today’s relatively wealthy world, the U.S. is, again, among the best places to be. The poorest 10 percent of Americans live better than approximately 70 percent of the world’s people; moreover, were the poorest 20 percent of us their own nation, they’d be among the richest countries on Earth. This isn’t surprising when considering how many people worldwide still live on less than a dollar a day.
To the point here, much the same can be said of black Americans. As economist Walter E. Williams informed in 2020, if “one totaled up the earnings and spending of Black Americans and considered us as a separate nation with our own gross domestic product, we would rank well within the top 20 richest nations.” Williams also added that “as a group, Black Americans have made the greatest gains...in a shorter span of time than any other racial group in history.”
So, now, here’s a question for those condemning Stein, one which, if it cannot be answered, will reveal that their criticism reflects nothing but prejudice:
If he’s wrong and American blacks have had it better, when and where would this have been? (Note for the world’s Ras Barakas: Wakanda and Kailasa aren’t options.)
Would it be/have been in Africa today or 50, 100 or 1,000 years ago? Would it be some point in history in Europe, South America, Asia or at an earlier time somewhere in North America? What’s the answer?
The reality is that there’s a reason why, after being asked his impressions of Africa following his “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in 1974, boxing great Muhammad Ali replied, “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat!” To wit:
Blacks are much, much better off in the U.S. — just as everyone else is. This also brings us to a staggering but often unwelcome truth. Far from the claim that slavery has hurt the black community, black Americans should, as Ali might have been, be at least grudgingly thankful for slavery since it delivered them from the grinding poverty typifying much of Africa. (Of course, the deeper issue is that virtually none of them would even have existed without slavery because their great-great-grandparents or great-grandparents, etc. would never have met. So the whole discussion is silly.)
The point is that as with how Rome’s colonizing of other European lands brought superior civilization to them, benefits are often by-products of misdeeds.
All this said, it’s untenable claiming that black Americans “never had it so good” in every dimension. For example, in “three-fourths of 19th-century slave families, all the children had the same mother and father,” Dr. Williams also related in 2020. “In New York City, in 1925, 85% of Black households were two-parent.” “In fact, ‘five in six children under the age of 6 lived with both parents,’” the professor continued, quoting another researcher. Williams further tells us that in 1938, only 11 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers.
Today, 73 percent are.
Of course, this broken-home status and rampant fatherlessness breed a host of social ills, such as rampant crime and violence, including frequent black-on-black homicide; drug use; poor educational and occupational outcomes; and general irresponsible behavior. All these ills were, do note, far less common in the black community a century ago.
What’s more, even unemployment was once lower among blacks — even than it was among whites. Just consider that until “about 1960, black male labor force participation in every age group was equal to or greater than that of whites,” wrote Williams in 2013.
Today, it’s notably lower.
In fact, in “some cities, unemployment for black working-age males is more than 50 percent,” Williams lamented at the time.
Of course, these realities contradict the claim that black Americans suffer today because of the “legacy of slavery” — for vis-à-vis these character- and morality-related measures, they were faring far better at a time much closer to antebellum days.
Note, too, that remedying these largely moral issues would go far toward closing the black-white performance gap (such a disparity, mind you, also exists between whites and Asians). But moral appeals aren’t the racial-grievance mongers’ business — because they’re shallow people, often with ulterior motives. Moreover, the black community’s woes are caused by the very left-wing policies and social norms the racialists themselves support.
At this point they may say, though, and have said, “Well, what does that matter? Things can be better!” But life could always be better, for everyone; perfection isn’t a thing of this world. Scoring America because even though she gave you a lot, you have some perceived deficits within the context of the fit-for-a-king lifestyle she has provided, is a bit like condemning God for your headache — after He gave you your head.
So, once again, leftists, what’s your answer? If Stein is wrong, when and where did blacks have it better?
Don’t be surprised if you now hear crickets. When liberals call someone a “racist,” it usually means they’re out of arguments.