What a majority of black Americans feared would happen has happened. An avowed conservative Republican will occupy the White House for the next four years. Those who were ardent supporters of President Carter will lick their wounds and go on to other things. Those few blacks who supported Gov. Reagan will enjoy, for a brief period, the opportunity to declare, "I told you so!" But then we all must decide what our relationship must be with Reagan/Bush and Co.
We should not be embarrassed because a large majority of blacks supported President Carter. We should not assume that the president-elect feels no obligation to offer solutions for the continuing plight of black America. We should not compromise the integrity of our historic struggle by a prematuare embrace of those who will soon be in power.
Instead, we must remember that the needs of black Americans are real, no matter which party is in power. Now is the time, as never before, to hold high the black agenda in a way that communicates to the nation the idea that meeting the long unfulfilled needs of black Americans will address the needs of all Americans.
Despite the signs and symbols of our progress, blacks have not been able to utilize the fruits of that progress as other ethnic and racial groups have. Black individuals in significant positions have not been able to reshape the economic and political system in ways that would benefit those at and below the poverty level. And those who argue that the problem is classism instead of racism do not take into consideration the fact that the so-called black middle class has been unable to wield influence in proportion to its high visibility.
The 20th century has not provided black citizens with the pioneering opportunities that offer challenge, possibility and satisfaction. The major opportunity for black persons is to become the "first black." First blacks do not, by virtue of being first, have the power to change for the better the fortunes of a group of people.
Rep. Jack Kemp, in his book," An American Renaissance: A Strategy for the 1980s," describes the unresolved American dilemma. He writes on page 1:
"Here in America was the one place on earth where you could climb as far as your abilities could take you unimpeded by your lack of noble birth or laws of entail and privilege . . . . here if anywhere you make it."
"Of all Americans, blacks are trapped deepest . . . because they have carried the added burden of racial discrimination throughout the century, a burden eased but not ended."
Those two quotations depict the ambivalence, contradiction and inconsistency that have characterized the political response to the needs of African Americans. America is described as a place of unrestricted opportunity for all -- which renders black Americans invisible. But at another place the plight of our experience becomes visible. In an effort to extol the virtues of this republic, we have to ignore the historical experience of certain citizens of the republic. But in an effort to preserve the integrity of our virtue, we occasionally acknowledge the peculiar and particular plight of black folk.
The challenge of the '80s for Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, blacks and whites and the entire nation is to discover new ways to implement remedial and enabling progrms that, while admitting the failures of our nation, at the same time allows us to be justifiably proud of the potential that exists. The president-elect has admitted his late discovery of the problems of racial inequality and injustice. He now has the opportunity to offer creative solutions.
We in the black community must work harder at demanding performance as well as presence from the nation's leadership. We have tended to convey the impression that proximity to the president (meetings in the White House, presidential visits to black churches, attendance at prestigious banquets, etc.) represented the exercise of power. Power was being exercised, but we were not the ones exercising it. Unemployment, apathy toward the drug traffic, corruption of the meaning of the phrase "minority business firm" -- none are automatically dealt with because the president has paid us a visit.
It is not impossible to imagine that the party of Abraham Lincoln could rediscover its soul, and once again find ways to identify with those who are sometimes described as the "least of these." Someone has attributed to Lincoln the phrase "God must have loved the common people. He made so many of them." What a pleasant surprise it would be if the GOP could discover the common people, not for exploitation, but as the basis for its political programs in the '80s.