Talking Morals to the Underclass Is Like Slave Owners Talking Liberty

July 09, 1995|By ISHMAEL REED

On July 4, while some folks were exploding firecrackers, I was reading Glenn C. Loury's inspirational book, "One By One From The Inside Out: Essays and Reviews On Race and Responsibility in America."

Not too long ago, it seemed like Mr. Loury had everything going for him. As one of the few black members of the conservative hierarchy, he received invitations to the White House, and the mighty consulted him about the problems of the black underclass. But Mr. Loury's privatelife was a mess -- he used drugs and beat women.

Instead of continuing to hold people to a standard he found impossible to obey, Mr. Loury made amends and turned his life around through Christian redemption.

Others are not as candid. In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, the framers blamed the British and King George for enslaving Africans. Of course, some of the authors of the document were slave owners themselves.

African-American writers have been criticizing such hypocrisy at least since the 18th century, when David Walker wrote "Walker's Appeal."

Segments of today's political and cultural establishment are guilty of asimilar hypocrisy.

While the Founding Fathers passed the buck for social evils to the British, today's fathers and some mothers locate the social problems of the United States within the inner city, exclusively. If blacks in the inner city would just shape up, the United States would be a paradise of hard-working citizens dedicated to preservation of family values. This is the argument emanating from the race-card politicians, opinion salesmen and self-appointed arbiters of culture, whom some would call busybodies.

Regularly, it appears that thosewho are preaching morality to blacks can't get their own acts together.

A few months ago, columnist Mike Royko pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was ordered to seek treatment for alcoholism. Mr. Royko tried to punch a cop when he was arrested. This is the same guy who often writes about violence and lawlessness in the black community.

Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, who often travels to housing projects to deliver pep talks about morality, is ensnared in a scandal involving his ex-mistress.

The cocaine habit of Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The NewRepublic, who recently proposed that blacks adhere to a bourgeois morality, was revealed by Vanity Fair magazine.

Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, who made speeches about immorality in the inner city, had to apologize to his wife for his adulterous behavior.

In his inaugural speech and in his speech commemorating the 100th day in office of the 1995 Republican-led Congress, the new House speaker, who is divorced and the child of a teen-age mother, delivered anecdotes about social pathology.

Black California Regent Ward Connerly, who has been anointed a black leader by the news media, thrilled by his call for an end to affirmative action programs at the University of California, was exposed as having received a million-dollar contract on the basis of his being a minority contractor.

I would suspect that these examples are only the tip of the iceberg and that at least some of our public and media moralizers and their Talented Tenth black auxiliary are engaging in private behavior of the sort that has sent members of the black and white underclass, the object of their pious lectures, to jail or disgrace.

And so, though I admire Jefferson and Franklin and some of the others whose genius we celebrate on July 4, it would have been wonderful had they admitted their own moral shortcomings instead of blaming everything on the British.

Ishmael Reed is a novelist, essayist and poet who lives in Oakland, Calif. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in fiction and poetry.

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