Marian Wright EDELMAN and the Children's Defense Fund she heads released a grim and shocking report this week. In 1981, it reported, a black child's chances of staying alive, of learning, and of being healthy and secure lag far behind those of white children. In fact, it documents, a black child in America today has nearly a one-in-two chance of being born into poverty and staying there.
Edelman's 141-page documentation of what it's like to be young, poor and black could not be more timely, in light of the rhetoric on poverty from some members of the incoming administration, especially Martin Anderson, President-elect Ronald Reagan's choice for Director for Domestic Affairs and Policy. Anderson's blithe refrain is that poverty is virtually nonexistent in the United States.
The facts in Edelman's report, which is buttressed by tables, charts and government data, effectively counter Anderson's claims. But the facts really don't matter in the New Gospel according to the New Republicans. Their tack is to redefine the problem to tailor their limited solutions, to solve the problem by restating it: Let there be no poverty. And there is none.
Oddly enough, a new group of black Republicans and neoconservatives are emerging as key players in the drama -- conservative economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, for instance, and his close associate, Walter Williams, a professor at Philadelphia's Temple University. With the articulate eloquence of a Frederick Douglass, they argue against conventional liberl wisdom. They oppose the minimum wage, affirmative action, rent control, busing, welfare.
Ironically, the position of these men (180 degrees removed from that of the majority of blacks, though they would contend the opposite) is exacerbated by the unique timing of their rise to influence.
Many black liberals and even nationalists had legitimately questioned aspects of certain programs long before the conservative brought out their sledge hammers.
For example, there has been a change in the mind-set of some blacks about the wisdom or efficacy of busing as the best way to achieve better education, a questioning brought on partly by the violent politics of busing. Some black parents want to reexamine the issue, others question whether their children, ipso facto, learn better in a white environment.
But espousing such a view in the current climate is more likely to hasten the scuttling of the program -- and a much feared return to separate and unequal schools -- than a reexamination and adjustment of current programs to equalize educational opportunity.
This conservative tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water has the effect of muzzling all criticism and poisoning the air for objectivity. Thus, let it be said that a program like the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) has had some incidents of political patronage, and watch how fast the program is scuttled in the name of financial waste -- never mind the fact that millions of people need the assistance the program providess and no one is proposing a viable alternative. It is tough to argue the legitimate merits and demerits in such an atmosphere.
All this poses a dilemma of great concern to liberals, for it is this kind of atmosphere that truly turns back the clock. If we are forced back to square one without building upon the lessons of the past, we accelerate an artificial see-saw of history, and impede true progress. This is a dangerous course, for the alienated and ignored are often social dynamite.
Marian Edelman addressed that issue last week when someone asked her about the social programs of the '60s "that didn't work." Let's talk about those that have, was the essence of her retort. It also poses a dilemma for the black conservatives. If they are going to spend a lot of energy and imagination shooting down the old programs, they have an obligation to propose some new ones -- lest they become nothing more than tools of the wicked right.
The best we can hope for as the new era begins to unfold is that the extremists of the Republican Party are on an extremely short leash, and that the sensible people and today's realities will force them to repaint a realistic picture rather than the one they've chosen -- rosy hues in abstract colors.
That would be the better solution to the dilemma, because even liberals such as Edelman are girding up for battle. Says she: "I see no reason for optimism, but we have a strong case to make and we're prepared to fight."