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The Theme Of Self-Help

Black conservative intellectuals' solutions for improving race relations are very much tied to the classic attitudes of the Black bourgeoisie, and to issues of identity and status. Further, their solutions always assign leadership roles to the Black middle class. Consistent with their analysis of the causes of Black oppression and Black poverty, they return to the "slavery damaged" theme, and locate the solutions within individual Blacks and the Black community. The reasoning behind their proposed solutions represents some of the most reactionary of their thinking.

Loury and the other Black conservatives insist "self-help" is the only viable solution to Black dilemmas. They argue we have to rely on ourselves because, as Loury states, referring to Booker T. Washington, "[Washington] understood that when the effect of past oppression has been to leave people in a diminished state, the attainment of true equality with their former oppressor cannot much depend on his generosity but must ultimately derive from an elevation of their selves above the state of diminishment."

In addition, Loury and others have developed the profoundly subversive notion, as described by Adolph Reed, that "it is somehow illegitimate for black citizens to view government action and public policy as vehicles for egalitarian redress." Unlike all other American citizens, African Americans, according to Black conservatives, must win white approval by proving ourselves worthy of the rights of citizenship.

"The progress that must now be sought is that of achieving respect, the equality of standing in the eyes of one's political peers, of worthiness as subjects of national concern," Loury argues. Loury frequently acknowledges his intellectual debt to Booker T. Washington's controversial philosophy. He concedes Washington's approach may not have been entirely appropriate for the political and social contexts of his time, but Loury firmly believes the Washington approach is relevant in the post-civil rights era. "The point on which Booker T. Washington was clear, and his critics seem not to be, is that progress of the kind described above must be earned, it cannot be demanded."

Consistent with their belief in the superiority of the Black middle class, Black conservatives argue that instead of relying on government programs and civil rights legislation, middle class Blacks should make economic investments in Black communities; Blacks should support Black businesses; and, most important, the Black middle class needs to teach poor African Americans proper behavior and values. This self-help language, cloaked as it is in Black cultural nationalist rhetoric, has been among the most warmly received of the Black conservative messages in the African American community.

This is not surprising. First of all, self-help literally defines how African Americans have managed to survive slavery, Reconstruction, and a series of trials and travails right up through the present day. Black conservatives and those praising them on this point sound as though African American history has not always included such famous proponents and practitioners of self-help as Martin Delaney, Edward Blyden and Alexander Crummel, Marcus Garvey, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH, and the thousands of Black women's clubs, Black Greek and professional associations and Black church-based organizations, among others. But African Americans' long heritage of self-help activities has tended to see self-help as a supplement to, not a replacement for, deserved government services and full employment at family-sustaining wages.

In addition to its historical resonance for African Americans, the Black conservative promotion of self-help flatters the Black middle class, casting it as the salvation for poor African Americans. It is noteworthy that even some liberal and progressive middle class Blacks have endorsed the Black conservatives' "culture of poverty" analysis and their call for self-help to address the problem.

What is missed about Black conservatives' self-help advocacy is that, unlike the cultural Black nationalist tradition whose rhetoric they borrow, theirs is neither an organic, collective model of self-help, nor one intended to enhance Black unity and Black cultural integrity. It is based on a savage individualism, advocating a laissez-faire formula for Black progress through the commitment of individual Blacks to economic wealth and cultural assimilation.

As stated by Shelby Steele: "The middle class values by which we [the Black middle class] were raised-the work ethic, the importance of education, the value of property ownership, of respectability, of `getting ahead,' of stable family life, of initiative, of self reliance, et. cetera-are, in themselves, raceless and even assimilationist. They urge us toward participation in the American mainstream, toward integration, toward a strong identification with the society, and toward the entire constellation of qualities that are implied in the word individualism."

Steele's comments illustrate another subversive aspect of Black conservatives' proposed solutions-the call to subsume our racial identity and to forgo collective racial action in favor of individualistic pursuits and a nationalistic American identity. Black conservatives issued this call during the 1980s, at a time when overt racist (and frequently violent) attacks on Blacks were at a post-civil rights era high, when the national political leadership of the country implicitly signaled its approval of racist attitudes, and when government and corporate policies were decimating poor and middle class African Americans alike with last hired/first fired policies. Given the political climate of the 1980s, Black conservatives were calling for no less than Black acquiescence and appeasement in their own oppression.

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