House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist pledged last week to "fulfill America's Promise," by signing a series of initiatives geared toward empowering black Americans. The new legislation will focus on creating jobs and economic security, providing equal opportunity for quality education and strengthening faith and families.
The legislation was announced at the former estate of 19th-century abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, where the Republican leaders also pledged $995,000 to help complete badly needed renovations on the historic site. Often referred to as the "Father of the Civil Rights Movement," Douglass escaped bondage at age 20 and became a leading voice in the anti-slavery movement as well as a famous writer, publisher, orator, statesman and an advocate for women's rights. He lived in the Cedar Hills estate from 1877 until his death in 1895.
In his anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, Douglass described his circumstances and the condition of slavery. "I ask . not for benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice," was the paper's motto. It was out of this abolitionist movement that the Republican Party was formed, and the link between the two was not lost on Hastert: "As one of America's first Republicans, Frederick Douglass worked with President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery. The values and principles that Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln worked so hard for in the 1800s are the same values and principles that we are fighting for as a Republican Party today," he said.
And indeed, much good has been accomplished in that struggle. But work remains to be done. A shared history of slavery in this country has created social and economic hierarchies that persist to this day. We see evidence of this everywhere, most notably in the racial education and economic gap. This sort of economic and social stratification crushes the expectation of future success from too many of our minority children, and ultimately reinforces all the negative stereotypes about American blacks.
One response has been to shake our fists in anger at the establishment. Anger is justified. Anger is understandable. But heaps of indignation also make it easy for angry minorities to become marginalized and labeled "radical." That's why the emphasis needs to be on conventional social activism, not retribution. It is precisely this ideal of equality and self-sufficiency that is perfectly embodied by the legislative package that Hastert and Frist just unveiled.