The real lessons of black history

Star Parker
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Posted: Feb 04, 2004 12:00 AM
February is black history month. Last year it was celebrated by Jesse Jackson shaking down Nissan for an advertising campaign in which "history" was crossed out in "black history" and "future" written in above. Now, Al Sharpton, benefiting from a clueless Democratic party, carries on with wit and charm Jesse's politics of diversion and blame. Isn't it time to start getting real?

Fortunately, the winds of change breeze through the black electorate. A Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies poll showed 63 percent of blacks identifying themselves as Democrats in 2002, down from 74 percent in 2000. An agenda focusing on issues like school choice, ownership and wealth creation is being championed by new black leaders like DC mayor Anthony Williams and Representative Harold Ford.

These developments are not accidental. Blacks are beginning to understand that they need to look to themselves rather than government to solve their problems. Certainly, if growth in government and political power translated into well-being, blacks would be in great shape today. Non-defense related federal government spending, as a percentage of GDP, is now twice what it was in 1964. Today there are 39 black members of Congress, eight times as many as in 1964. More than half of our States, including the District of Columbia, now have cities with black mayors.

Yet, these considerable gains in political power have not translated commensurately into better lives for African Americans. Certainly, a new black middle class has emerged. Black households earning more than $100,000/year have increased tenfold since the 60's. However, these amount to just 6 percent of all black households, and a third of the percentage of white households in this income bracket.

Overall gains by blacks over the last 40 years are, on average, modest or non-existent. Median black incomes are now around 80 percent of those of whites, up from 70 percent 40 years ago. Median black household net worth remains around 17 percent that of whites. Black life expectancy is about 5 years less than whites, a modest improvement from the 60's.

Although there have been impressive quantitative gains in black educational achievement - the number of blacks with high school diplomas and college degrees has tripled - the qualitative picture is more sobering. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom report in their new book "No Excuses" that the average black student "at the end of high school has academic skills that are about at the eight-grade level."

In important ways, the quality of African American life is not just lagging behind that of whites, but dramatically deteriorating against where we were 40 years ago. Seventy percent of black families were intact then, with fathers and mothers at home. Today, two out of every three black children grow up in fatherless homes.

Seven out of ten black babies are now born to unwed mothers, triple the number in the 60's. Crime and drug use is rampant in the inner cities. Around 50 percent of inner city young black males are both unemployed and not in school. Fifty percent of new AIDS cases are in the black community.

Some claim that these troubling statistics show that blacks need even more government. In a recent article in The American Prospect, Lisbeth Schorr of Harvard says that it will take $125 billion dollars every year for another 25 years ($3,000 per year for every black man, woman, and child) to achieve parity among the races. I would argue exactly the opposite.

In 1965, President Johnson said that the 1964 civil rights act was not enough. Introducing affirmative action, the president declared, "This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity...."

Hand wringing liberals and ambitious black politicians joined hands and began educating blacks then that they couldn't handle being free. They laid the foundation of a new political plantation that displaced the pillars of values, faith, family, and personal responsibility with the catechism of victimization and dependency. The result is what we see today.

The success of welfare reform in 1996 hints at what we can expect if we allow blacks the dignity of freedom and choice. Despite predictions by liberals of impending doom if we started to dismantle the welfare bureaucracy, today there are 37 percent fewer mothers with custody living in poverty and 47 percent fewer children reported by the Agriculture Department as being hungry, compared to before welfare reform.

The black history lesson of 2004 should be to remember that Martin Luther King's fight and dream was for freedom, and he made his case through an appeal to values and tradition. King's achievements reflected his courage and character and he succeeded despite racism, with little physical or political power.

Blacks today, particularly black youth, want real freedom and must remember that, as with Dr. King, the answer lies within ourselves. Morally, we must reconstruct the framework of values within our community. Politically, we need school choice, lower taxes, and personal retirement accounts to replace the regressive payroll tax. By embracing freedom, morally and politically, blacks can achieve both Dr. King's dreams and their own.

Star Parker is president of CURE, the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education and author of the new book, Uncle Sam's Plantation. She can be contacted at www.urbancure.org