Black Conservatives Articulate Alternative View of Civil Rights Self-Reliance, Self-Government Seen Rooted in Black History

By David Mutch, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1991 | Go to article overview

Black Conservatives Articulate Alternative View of Civil Rights Self-Reliance, Self-Government Seen Rooted in Black History


David Mutch, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 instead 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. …

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