It's a misguided notion for blacks to go it alone

April 28, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Associated Black Charities launched its spring fund-raising campaign Tuesday with a big program at the Eager House restaurant. It was a foot-stomping, hand-clapping event before a capacity crowd of volunteers, business people and politicians; an affair charged with excitement and promise, giddy with hope that an energized and focused black community can find solutions to the myriad social ills that beset it.

And I was as giddy with hope as the rest of them -- giddy, that is, until Lee Michaels, volunteer co-chair of the spring campaign, took the podium and said: "The important thing is that this campaign is about us helping us. We are not turning to the government or to any other community for answers."

The line got the loudest applause Tuesday, as it almost always does. These days, everyone seems to be saying that blacks must no longer wait for government to supply the answers to their problems. I have heard this at the national conventions of the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the National Urban League. I have heard ministers of virtually every denomination, including the Nation of Islam, preach the same thing from the pulpit. Black columnists write it. Broadcasters intone it. Artists convey the sentiment in song or dance.

And I am getting sick and tired of the whole idea. It is misleading and misguided. Let me tell you why.

First, the statement is misleading because it implies that blacks at one time looked to others for salvation, a notion we may unwittingly have picked up from our enemies on the far right. Conservatives appear to view blacks as lazy and unmotivated, whining for handouts rather than working for themselves. Conservatives raised this complaint about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s and 1970s, and the affirmative action and minority set-aside programs spawned by the Nixon administration in the 1970s.

In fact, the opposite is true. The black community has never sought to avoid work; instead it has sought to remove the barriers that impede black opportunities to work, and to eliminate the mechanisms by which blacks were denied fair rewards for their efforts. Even affirmative action plans and minority set-asides represented an uncomfortable compromise based on the recognition that society appeared unable to treat blacks fairly without a federally mandated program. Even most welfare recipients recognize -- later, if not sooner -- that their ambitions never will be realized while on the public dole. Most anti-poverty programs sought to empower individuals to work themselves off welfare.

But the notion that blacks have used government as a crutch is even more misguided than it is misleading. Government is not a crutch, but it is a tool, a tool through which our society organizes its resources to accomplish specific goals. Every other community, every other interest group, uses this tool. Traditionally, blacks have not been allowed to. Yet, as long as blacks pay taxes they have just as much right as everyone else to involve themselves in the debate over how our government's resources are used.

Nevertheless, it is self-evident that government alone cannot resurrect declining neighborhoods, fix broken homes, build strong local businesses or rehabilitate alcohol and drug abusers. Those are the program priorities of Associated Black Charities.

The organization hopes to position itself as the focal point of the philanthropic efforts of the black community in Central Maryland. The spring campaign has a relatively modest goal of $100,000, but the organization has an ambitious five-year plan. During that period ABC will seek to leverage its resources by forming partnerships with other community efforts; build an endowment fund; and encourage corporations and individuals to use ABC as their conduit for charitable giving. It is an exciting program, one that I plan to support.

But philanthropy is just one tool that a community uses to solve problems. Government is another. Do not tell me that I must not use all of the tools at my disposal.

If I cannot turn to my government to address my needs, then it is not really my government at all, is it?

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