A WASHINGTON ARTIST I know returned from a trip to a small midwestern university and reported an incident that brimmed with unexpected hostility. This man, who is black, said a white student asked him, "What are you all going to do when we pay you back for what you did to us in 1968?" In the retelling, the man added that the mood had been "mean."
This incident came to mind as part of a frightening mosaic after I'd read, "Meanness, Mania," a new book by Gerald Gill published by Howard University Press.
Gill argues that America is in the sway of a pervasive neoconservatism that's characterized by domestic conservatism and hawkishness on matters of foreign policy. At home, this has produced people, institutions and policies bent on reneging on the 1960s commitment to minorities and the poor. He's labeled this "Meanness Mania" spurred by widespread selfishness, economic discontent and inflation. While counterattacking the neoconservative arguments with lavish documentation, his battleplan is for the government to spend more, not less.
This puts Gill right in the boxing ring opposite the neoconservatives who are gaining increasing influence with their calls for government to do less for the poor, saying the '60s programs either failed, didn't do enough or should be sharply trimmed.
The question this raises is how America is going to treat the poor and minorities in time of inflation and economic discontent at home and a dollar decline abroad. In this atmosphere, austerity is easily used as an excuse for subverting equality; blacks are too expensive, say the neoconservatives.
What is different is the pervasiveness, the absence even of lip service to America's commitment.
Writing in Newsweek recently, Bernard Sloan, author of "The Best Friend You'll Ever Have," asked with obvious feeling: "Perhaps the time has come to reconsider which of our citizens are entitled to first claim on our resources. In our haste to better the lives of the lowest economic level of our society, we have betrayed another, far larger and more deserving group. People who have worked hard, paid their taxes, contributed to the country. Shouldn't their needs be met first?"
The affluence of the '60s produced a rhetoric of plenty that spawned the Great Society. Its programs brought unprecedented social, economic and political progress to blacks. But paradoxically, that progress left the masses of the black population relatively untouched. By the time America's economic fortunes began to tumble in the 1970s, the civil rights movement had hungry stepchildren -- feminists, gays, ecological and aging movements -- that were fighting the mother for the country's financial resources, energy and good will.
Now Gill's call for renewed commitment to social and welfare reform and his challenge to government to do more for minorities and the poor must pass through a growing din of whites who say government needs to serve all the people, not just the indigent; and scholars and writers who doggedly attack such policies.
In such an atmosphere, blacks increasingly are discussing the complex question of the role of the public versus the private sector in black life. The National Urban League is proposing an elaborate review of government social programs by a group of experts.
Many of the new occupations in which blacks work, for example, are jobs that don't fit into the corporation hierarchy -- urban affairs managers, director of special markets -- jobs that are synonymous with black concerns that started when blacks entered certain corporate arenas.
And there's the growing feeling among black scholars that the fortune of their people must rest not only with the government, but with myriad tactics of self-help and self-determination. They say, with Gill, step up the role of government, but they add that blacks should resist solutions that don't eventually encourage independence.
Still, it is frightening when the new conservatism is not just argued by the politicians and the scholars, but descends to ordinary conversations between professionals and teachers, or at parties, often in vino verite. And it brings us back full circle to the basic question of whether blacks can expect a modicum of help only in times of affluence?