Blacks and bootstraps

Posted: Aug 10, 2000 12:00 AM

ONE OF THE THINGS I have been falsely accused of many times over the years is advising blacks to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. But you can look through the 21 books, dozens of articles and hundreds of newspaper columns I have written without finding any such statement. That is because I am not in the business of giving advice to individuals and groups, but rather in the business of discussing public policy and trying to show where one policy is better than another.

It is considered the height of callousness to tell blacks to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. But the cold historical fact is that most blacks did lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps -- before their political rescuers arrived on the scene with civil rights legislation in the 1960s or affirmative action policies in the 1970s.

As of 1940, 87 percent of black families lived below the official poverty line. This fell to 47 percent by 1960, without any major federal legislation on civil rights and before the rise and expansion of the welfare state under the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.

This decline in the poverty rate among blacks continued during the 1960s, dropping from 47 percent to 30 percent. But even this continuation of a trend already begun long before cannot all be attributed automatically to the new government programs. Moreover, the first decade of affirmative action -- the 1970s -- ended with the poverty rate among black families at 29 percent. Even if that one percent decline was due to affirmative action, it was not much.

The fact that an entirely different picture has been cultivated and spread throughout the media cannot change the historical facts. What it can do -- and has done -- is make blacks look like passive recipients of government beneficence, causing many whites to wonder why blacks can't advance on their own, like other groups. Worse, it has convinced many blacks themselves that their economic progress depends on government programs in general and affirmative action in particular.

It is undoubtedly true that the careers of black "leaders," politicians and community activists depend heavily on government programs. It is their ability to lobby for government goodies that keeps such people in business and in the limelight. It was the breakdown of restrictions on black voting in the South that caused a rapidly rising number of black elected officials.

Even today, it is the politicizing of racial hype that enables many black public figures to remain public figures and to extort money and concessions from private businesses by threatening to call them racists or organize boycotts if they don't pony up. There is no question that the 1960s marked the decisive upturn in opportunity for race hustlers.

At one time, the aspirations of black leaders and the well being of the black population at large coincided, since both were striving to end Jim Crow laws and other racial barriers. But such coincidences do not last, either among blacks or among other racial or ethnic groups in the United States or in other countries.

"Leaders" have their own interests and agendas that they push, even when the effect on those for whom they claim to speak is detrimental. That is where we are today. Black leaders have a vested interest in black dependency -- on them and on the government that they can try to influence.

Independent blacks who make it on their own are ignored as irrelevant or distracting. That is true not only of individuals, but also of institutions like all-black Dunbar High School in Washington, which for 85 years brought quality education to its students. Dunbar students exceeded national norms on IQ tests, years before the Supreme Court said that separate education was inherently unequal.

Dunbar was located within walking distance of the Supreme Court that essentially declared its existence impossible. Ironically, it was the political maneuvering following the historic desegregation decision of the High Court that ended Dunbar's long career as a quality institution and reduced it to just another failing ghetto school. But there are other quality black schools today -- and they are still largely ignored today.

We have now reached the point where virtually everything that serves black "leaders" -- dependency, grievance-hunting, racial hype and paranoia -- are major disservices to the cause of advancing blacks, at a time when their opportunities have never been better.