The myth of black failure

Mona Charen

May 04, 1993|By Mona Charen

THE energetic newsletter published by black believers in free enterprise, Issues and Views, is never shy about taking on the so-called "civil rights" leadership.

Why, asks Elizabeth Wright in the most recent issue, do the self-appointed black leaders focus so relentlessly on black failure? "Black history," she writes, "as told by the black establishment goes something like this: Africans uprooted, chained, enslaved; brutal plantation slavery; oppressive Jim Crow and lynchings; then nothing but misery until the 1964 Civil Rights Act."

The fact that blacks in America have a rich history of accomplishment in the years between slavery and the civil rights revolution is downplayed to the point of extinction. "For how could a black man, decades before, or even a century before the 'sacrifices' of the great Freedom Riders hold up his head, much less be the stalwart support of his community?"

The civil rights orthodoxy, Ms. Wright argues, specializes in the myth of black passivity and backwardness before the 1960s as a way to hold onto power. Only if blacks see their welfare flowing from the work of "leaders," rather than their own efforts, will the "leaders" maintain their position.

Booker T. Washington identified the breed in 1911, when he said, "There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs and the hardships of the Negro race before the public . . . Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs."

There is, of course, no question that black Americans had far more grievances in 1911 than they have today.

Those were years of the most blatant racism -- and de jure as well as de facto segregation. And yet, as Mr. Wright points out, the victim industry thrives more today than it did back then.

The myth that blacks were passive sufferers throughout American history before 1964 is now deeply rooted. The dispiriting effect this distortion of black history has on blacks can only be guessed at. But Mr. Wright is surely correct to decry the revision of a proud heritage.

Anyone truly interested in black progress -- to say nothing of the truth -- ought to emphasize, not hide, the accomplishments of blacks in slavery and afterward. It is a tribute to the human spirit that even under the most adverse conditions, blacks were able to found businesses, form self-help societies and achieve social and economic independence.

In the 1920s, in Washington, D.C., John Whitelaw Lewis, a black entrepreneur, was offended by Jim Crow laws. So he decided to build a luxury hotel for blacks only. He found a black architect to design the building and hired only black tradesmen to build it. It became the center of social life for the black elite.

Even earlier, in the 1870s, Robert Reed Church, a former slave, made enough money in business to confound the racists of Memphis, Tenn., by building a beautiful public park on Beale Street for his black neighbors.

As Ms. Wright relates, "Here, blacks enjoyed summer festivities, held graduation exercises and hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the poor -- all paid for with black dollars."

John Merrick founded the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1910. When the first claim of $40 came due, the officers of the company had to redeem it out of their own pockets, so strapped was the corporation for cash.

But by 1939, the company employed over a thousand people and served more than 250,000 policyholders.

The lesson of this history is not one of black separatism, merely of the possibility and opportunity that a free enterprise economy affords. If racists were evicting black tenants in Harlem, wouldn't it be great if blacks could simply buy the building? Well, that's exactly what happened in 1910.

The official black leadership today (at least those blacks recognized by the media as leaders) disdain entrepreneurship.

A successful business, after all, merely improves the lives of ordinary people. It doesn't play upon white guilt, or get one invited to the White House, or make the talk-show circuit. And so, most blacks remain in ignorance of what their forebears accomplished.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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