Jason Riley has a must-read column in this morning's Wall Street Journal on the black middle class.

The column is pegged to the presidential election, which has conservative African Americans facing the same dilemma  many other conservatives face, namely whether to vote for Donald Trump.

But the column  really explores the question of how the black middle class arose: through paternalism in the form of racial preferences, as progressives assert (patting themselves on the back for supporting affirmative action), or by the kind of hard work, good habits, and availability of opportunities that historically have allowed a middle class to develop.

Riley calls our attention to the paternalism advocated by former Princeton President William Bowen, who recently died, and  former Harvard president Derek Bok in their book "The Shape of the River." Riley writes:

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.

Unfortunately, affirmative action may make white progressives feel just dandy, but that may be the extent of the benefits of this misguided policy:

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.