Black Conservatives Articulate Alternative View of Civil Rights

Self-reliance, self-government seen rooted in black history

A RELATIVELY small group of black intellectuals in the United States has been busy this summer expounding a decidedly alternative view of the American civil rights movement. While all say emphatically that they still believe in affirmative action by government and business - without quotas - their emphasis is squarely on what individuals can do for themselves.These intellectuals maintain that blacks should shift their focus more than ever to development of individual self-reliance and self-government. Of equal importance, they say, is the fact that these qualities have deep historical roots in the Afro-American experience - because slavery and discrimination from the beginning forced blacks to build up their internal strengths. The nomination of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court brought the discussion to the attention of the media. But what has now come to be called the black conservative movement formed gradually in the 1980s, after the election of Ronald Reagan. It grew from a few blacks who dissented from the orthodox liberal view that government is the agent that can most help blacks advance in society.

No 'Great Society' These intellectuals were part of the nucleus of critics who decided that President Lyndon Johnson's promised "Great Society" hadn't appeared on the American scene by the 1980s and wasn't going to appear any time soon. But they were also addressing specific questions that were of special concern to the black community. A representative comment comes from Dr. Alan Keyes, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a private organization in Washington, D.C.: "We're talking about empowering people instea d of the government bureaucracy," he says. "An example is the tenant management movement, which develops self-government in the local neighborhood." Dr. Keyes, formerly a US State Department official and US representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, says the welfare system has deeply harmed black community life by driving "the man out of the house." He says blacks will do much better utilizing black churches and neighborhood organizations as agents of positive change in community life, providing adequate day care, motivating and organizing people to fight drug abuse and related crimes, and rebuilding the family. Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University, confirms that there is a core of black thinkers who believe that government should have only a minimal role in society, and he counts himself among them.

Intellectuals skeptical He says: "These intellectuals are skeptical of the ability of government to do good even if it intends to, and they are cynical about what government's real intentions are, as influenced by interest groups." Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University, identifies himself as a Jeffersonian liberal who gets a lot of his ideas from John Locke - a central one being that "people own themselves, and the corollary idea, you own what you produce." It is "immoral," he goes on, for "the government to be in the business of confiscating the property of one American and giving it to another American to whom it does not belong." He gives not only Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts as an example of someone who wants such "confiscation" (for poor people in the cities) but also Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, who, Dr. Williams says, "believes in confiscating my earnings and giving them to farmers and banks." Williams claims that massive federal, state, and local government programs have not really changed income distribution in the United States, although they absorb enough money to give each poor US family of four $36,000 a year as a direct grant. Dr. Williams concludes: "We don't have the decency to treat poor people the right way. We do to them what we would never do to someone that we loved. We want to give the poor money without demanding responsibility. Would you do that to your children? "If we love our children, we teach them responsibility. My mother told me, 'You gonna make your bed hard, you gonna lay in it. By far the majority of black people hold to the values of self-sufficiency and hard work, Williams says. He claims that blacks, more and more, are saying that they can do more for themselves than government can. A group of polls published in the January/February 1990 edition of The American Enterprise magazine tends to back his view. One of them was a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) poll about black attitudes on government's role in helping the poor. In the years 1972-76, when asked, "Do you strongly agree that the government should improve living standards of the poor?" 70 percent of blacks polled said they did. But when asked the same question between 1985 and 1989, only 54 percent agreed. This shift in opinion is "certainly marked enough not to be a statistical fluke" and indicates a change in attitude, says Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at NORC, which is located at the University of Chicago. Mr. Smith points out that polling data nevertheless show blacks still to be much more liberal than whites on civil rights and economic policy. Where they are more conservative than whites, he says, is on social morality questions - pornography and abortion, for example. Robert Woodson, who heads the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C., says the civil rights movement has gotten off track. "It has been stripped of its moral content," he insists. Now a specialist in local self-help programs and a "father" of the tenant management movement, he has directed the National Urban League's Administration of Justice Division, holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, and participated in the University of Massachusetts' doctoral program.

Crisis in values He says that since Martin Luther King died he hasn't heard any civil rights leaders refer to the gospel in any of their speeches. The drug culture is a result of this crisis in values, Mr. Woodson says. And it won't be solved by having "respect for specialists and getting master's degrees in crazy stuff so individuals end up driven by outcome and not values," he adds. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist in Boston with the Judge Baker Children's Center and long a liberal activist in the civil rights movement, specifically denies Robert Woodson's claim that the civil rights movement has lost its moral tone because black leaders no longer quote the gospel. "What has happened," Dr. Poussaint says, "is that these leaders saw that in order to create change, you had to get more political. Now, Martin Luther King certainly was an extremely political man. Who is kidding who?" The civil rights movement has always stressed self-help, Poussaint maintains. He says it would be a mistake for conservative blacks to push self-help so much that they give no further attention to ending the discrimination that blacks, other minorities, and many poor people still face in society today. "Current studies are showing that there is still a glass ceiling for women and minorities," he says. "White women are moving up better than minorities. The people at the top are not going to give up their power and control and share it. So what do you do? We still have to deal with discrimination as a primary problem." He urges all institutions to look beyond just racial questions and consider carefully the whole issue of fairness. In tests, he says, upper middle-class children almost always do better than the poor, irrespective of inherent ability. So the question of who has merit is a tricky one. "It's not simply about grades and scores, Poussaint says. "It's what your background is and what you've come from and what you've done with that."

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