LAST WEEK'S OVERDOSE of bad news had me looking for a little light at the end of this tunnel of recession, unemployment, high interest rates and inflation. The black poor, who have already been cosigned to the scrap heap by the new administration, looked as if they were about to be buried under an economic landslide.
A telephone call from a woman I know unexpectedly provided a glimmer of hope.
She was very angry. The black middle class has failed the poor, she began. "Teachers, social workers, ministers, doctors, lawyers, you name it."
"I'm blaming us for failing to transmit to the poor the same psychological attitude that our parents, teachers and ministers transmitted to us -- the message that, in spite of discrimination, we can accomplish things and we are responsible for our actions," she said.
It was the message that had carried us in the past, when we were alone and scorned and ignored. But it had been forgotten, by the middle class as well as the poor, in the past 20 years, forgotten as many took advantage of long, long overdue help from the government.
"We need to rekindle that attitude now more than ever," she said.
We made a date to talk about her feelings in detail. In the meantime, I reflected on the now classic reports and statistical analyses that were already depressingly familiar.
Take the case of black children as outlined in Marian Wright Edelman's book, "Portrait of Inequality." Millions of them, all crippled by faltering self-confidence, by discouragement, by dispair, by rage, growing up in deplorable housing and the basest poverty, fighting themselves and ill health and poor education. Seemingly helpless.
When we finally sat down together, I mentioned the Edelman statistics. I pointed out to her they existed because of government assistance that had helped to lift some black children out of poverty in the late 60s, help that was transferred to other segments of the population in the 70s.
The social programs helped some, I said, but not enough. We had needed more. Now, it seemed, the programs that remained, such as Head Start, maternal and child health care and vocational education, faced substantial cuts.
How could this be the fault of the black middle class?
"Maybe now we can see that some of those social programs were good and bad," she said. "They transmitted the notion to the poor that their total salvation would come from outside themselves. They didn't transmit the idea that along with the welfare check came the responsibility for trying to move off the welfare rolls."
Now, I'm a big believer in black self-help, but I've always felt it must be combined with broad, thoughtful leadership and well-planned strategies from both the public and private sectors. But what with the public sector help apparently drying up, I had to admit it was looking more and more as if the only ones left to help the blacks were the blacks themselves.
She had a prescription. Middle class blacks, she argued, must actively become role models for the poor. It was, she said, not only the good and proper thing for us to do, but our responsibility as well.
We could begin in the workplace, she said. That's because the majority of black professionals work with other black people. We could fight the psychologically devastating message -- "You can't achieve" -- that has been routinely passed along to the poor with many of the public programs.
Black professionals, she said, could be communicating, "You can achieve."
Instead of "You are a people forever crippled," the professionals, by example and intent, should be communicating, "You are capable, not crippled."
Instead of, "You aren't good enough to make it," they should be communicating, "You are good enough, you do have the ability, you can succeed."
The black social worker who arranges for a check can also deliver a message of responsibility to those who will hear. School teachers can teach reading and pride at the same time to those who will listen. Doctors can deliver babies on Medicare and also birth control information. Ministers can undergird their pie-in-the-sky sermons with some gritty here-and-now advice.
In these hard times of shrinking opportunity and shrinking commitment to justice, black self-help can be mobilized in constructive and deeply meaningful ways. For, while the heat must never be taken off government to be fair and just and compassionate and to help, the private sector must not simply shrug and write off the Republican era as a lost four years.
There is a real danger in that attitude. If middle class blacks refuse this responsibility, they may end up as just empty window dressing -- alone, caught between a society whose record of concern for blacks is at best open to question and a bedrock of poor blacks who scorn them as turncoats.
The message -- pride, if you will -- means not only pride in who we are but pride in what we do.
It is a message we should have never forgotten.