How to make tomorrow different

Posted: Oct 05, 2004 12:00 AM

It is my experience that when a problem appears to have no solution it means that we are asking the wrong questions. A corollary that I'd add to this is boilerplate conventional wisdom from the self-help world: Don't expect tomorrow to be different from today if you are doing the same thing today that you did yesterday.

African-Americans have been chasing their own tail for years in the arena of politics and public policy because most African-American politicians and thinkers regularly commit these errors. Problems in our communities persist, often getting worse rather than better, yet the general way that black leaders define and think about our problems has not changed an iota in the last half-century.

This is why Bill Cosby has been so provocative. He questioned and challenged the validity of the premises that have propped up and perpetuated the gospel of black politics over all these years.

I've gotten a sense of just how bad the problem is in reading a recent weekly series of op-ed columns by a renowned Harvard professor of African-American studies, Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates has been discussing black politics and social problems in these columns. I've been struck by how little interest this great scholar, in this new venture in writing about politics and public policy, has shown in giving any credence to challenges to prevailing conventional wisdom about black political and social reality.

I have often accused the lack of interest on the part of black politicians to challenge the status quo as result of their actually being quite happy with it. Too much government may be bad for citizens, but it's great for politicians. But I certainly can't explain Gates' views this way. My guess is that when attitudes and opinions go unchallenged for 50 years, everyone assumes they must be true.

A recent column by the professor is a case in point. He discusses a number of different points of view about what it would take to get black economic statistics up to the national average. However, the column goes on to conclude on a dour and quite depressing note that it's not going to happen because neither party has the political will to implement the ideas. To address the supposed lack of interest or will of the current administration, the column states, "The White House has relegated its costly experiments in social engineering to Iraq."

I have two points to make.

First, it is a great mistake to identify our political parties as the prime movers for social change in our country. Government of, by and for the people is the political reality of our very free country. Political parties are institutions of our national political apparatus. However, change takes place through the initiative of citizens. It is undeniably very hard work, which is why only the most committed will make a difference.

Consider the civil-rights movement, a major defining moment for change in the lives of Americans of every color. Black citizens, under the leadership of a brave and committed visionary, made this happen. Where would we be today if the approach had been waiting for political parties to take the leadership to initiate change?

Second, where are the ideas? The proposals for change that Gates discusses are different detailed programs for social engineering. But they all are based on the same idea _ that the way to improve the economic state of affairs of African-Americans is through government-administered programs. The professor leaves this premise unchallenged. Ironically, if there is anything that should be challenged, it is that social engineering will solve black problems. It never has and only has made our problems worse.

Several weeks ago, Gates conveyed in a column a discussion he had with White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice pointed out in that discussion that the Bush administration believes that ownership and choice are what's needed in the black community. Rice pointed out that 50 years ago, when ownership and choice were far more prevalent in the black community, the community was, on average, in better shape socially and economically.

The No Child Left Behind legislation as initially proposed by the Bush administration had a key provision for school choice. This was removed under pressure from Democrats. No one questions that education is of central importance for the black community. The arguments for school choice are very powerful and have wide support among blacks. Yet, I am unaware of a national black political leader who is championing this issue.

Bush's proposal to offer a private retirement account option as an alternative to paying the Social Security tax is a vital reform for the nation and for blacks. The Social Security tax drains wealth from black citizens who are trying to build and accumulate savings. Yet, I am unaware of a single member of the Congressional Black Caucus who is supporting this imaginative reform.

Tomorrow will resemble today if we continue today what we did yesterday. It is time to challenge conventional wisdom among African-Americans, as Bill Cosby has done. It is time to appreciate that change will reflect our own courage, vision and imagination. Let's at least have the debate.