When Clarence Thomas, the nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, said, ''I emphasize self-help as opposed to racial quotas and race-conscious legal devices,'' black and white liberals were outraged. But in 1899 another black leader used even harsher words. He called Negro homes ''breeders of idleness,'' and insisted that ''work, continuous work must be impressed on Negro children as the road to salvation.''
The words were those of W.E.B. DuBois. The radical educator and political activist could hardly be mistaken for a black conservative. His passionate defense of self-help and economic independence nearly a century earlier indicates how badly the debate over Judge Thomas and black conservatism has misfired.
Judge Thomas' detractors, led by the Congressional Black Caucus and abortion-rights groups, treat black conservatives as eccentrics or reactionaries. Yet a 1986 Caltech survey of black views found that a large number of blacks were pro-life, pro-school prayer and anti-gun control. Even the pollsters called their findings ''surprising.'' In the wake of the Thomas nomination, a USA Today poll reported that 47 percent of blacks agreed with Judge Thomas that self-help, not quotas, should be the goal of blacks.
The truth is that conservative values and goals have been deeply embedded in African-American life for generations. The problem that most white Americans never recognized this. Instead they created a myth of black liberalism. That myth largely grew out of the New Deal years when blacks abandoned their traditional Republican loyalties and became a key cog in the liberal-labor-ethnic coalition built by FDR and the Democrats.
For the next half-century blacks were staunch Democratic devotees. Soon the public became accustomed to regarding blacks as the biggest advocates of federal spending on welfare, education, jobs and social programs. During the late 1960s, mass civil-rights demonstrations, protests, black-power takeovers and the urban uprisings turned the myth of black liberalism into the myth of black radicalism. Many Americans now firmly believe that blacks were permanent rebels out to subvert the nation's values and institutions.
But these myths do not square with the fact that African-Americans are among America's oldest native sons and daughters. They have been totally shaped by American ideals. Throughout the 19th century, black leaders from Booker T. Washington to T. Thomas Fortune talked as much about self-help, family values, crime and patriotism as they did about segregation and poverty.
In this century, black churches, social organizations, political and economic associations have generally advocated conservative programs of self-help and legal protest. If not for the great stumbling blocks of racism and economic exclusion, blacks would have gladly trodden the same path to assimilation as the European immigrants.
Even radical black protest has proved more media illusion than reality. While Malcolm X blistered white America for ''its racist savagery,'' he also made it clear in his speeches that black empowerment would come through the vote, not the gun. There was little to distinguish the program of his Organization of Afro-American Unity -- job and skill training, business expansion, political clubs and veterans assistance -- from that of the NAACP or Urban League.
Strip away the Black Muslims' ''the white man as devil'' and the Black Panthers' ''pick up the gun'' rhetoric, and one finds programs for farm and business development, for breakfast and tutoring programs, that bear striking similarities to the self-help programs advocated by the so-called black conservatives. The proof: Mr. Thomas had no trouble telling the public in 1983 that he ''admired'' Louis Farrakhan's ''self-help philosophy.''
Critics also miss the mark when they assume that Judge Thomas and other latter-day black conservatives owe their political existence to Republican Party patronage.
While the Republicans certainly are happy to cultivate and promote them, they did not create them. More accurately, they reflect the prospering of the black middle class during the past two decades.
According to census figures, by 1987 40 percent of black high school graduates were attending college, 64 percent of blacks owned homes and 27.2 percent of black families earned more than $25,000 yearly. In 1990, Black Enterprise magazine reported that the top 100 black businesses had nearly $7 billion in sales. Although the wealth of the new black bourgeoisie remains proportionately far less than that of their white counterparts, the fact is that thousands of African-Americans have come closer than ever to realizing the American dream.