CAUTIOUSLY, tentatively, like once-scalded bathers testing the waters anew, increasing numbers of black leaders are beginning to voice an important and widely misunderstood conviction: Black people, rather than whites or the government, hold the keys to the next round of progress for blacks in America.
The keys, say people like Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry and Marian Wright Edelman, are self-discipline, education, the willingness to take responsibility for one's own actions. They take a wide variety of specific forms, such as avoiding teenage pregnancy, staying in school, getting and keeping jobs. And they have in common that they can only be used by blacks, for ourselves.
This is not the doctrine of the "black conservatives," dripping with hostility toward government and the role it can play in improving the quality of life for black Americans. It is instead an emerging consensus among mainline civil-rights leaders, many of whose brightest moments have come upon victories won with the help of the power and good will of the government.
It is time, in fact, to remove the opprobrium of the "black conservative" label from the advocacy of black self-reliance. Blacks know that people who call themselves conservatives do not have our best interests at heart. Black politicians are thus somewhat inhibited in speaking in the clearest terms about things we need to do for ourselves: Needing votes, the black politician cannot afford to have the label "black conservative" hung around his or her neck like a gasoline-filled tire.
Moreover, the prescription of self-help is not a conservative one, it is radical in its potential to bring about change. It proposes to harness the most powerful forces for change available in modern democratic societies, self-interest and its explosive effect under capitalism, to the cause of black Americans.
When Jesse Jackson exhorts black teenagers to stay off dope, stay in school, and remember that each of them is somebody, he is telling them that they are not helpless victims of a racist society, but are instead the stars of their own show -- actors whose acts will determine the content of their own lives.
When Marian Wright Edelman's Children Defense Fund undertakes a national campaign against teen pregnancy by appealing to the vanity and self-interest of teenage girls -- in addition to society's interest in keeping babies from having babies -- she is telling young people that the primary responsibility for the quality of their lives is theirs.
When Marion Barry tells black Washingtonians that his government cannot solve the problems of people who have chosen to have more than a dozen children, or take full responsibility for the city's cleaniness when some residents do not even clear the trash from their own yards, he is sending the message that the efforts of government must be accompanied by a large measure of self-reliance.
Two major points differentiate these views from those of the "black conservatives." The first is that the mainstream black leaders appear to recognize that black self-help is not a new concept, that the voices we hear today are echoes of past black leaders like Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The second is that the mainstream leaders do not share black conservatives' ideologically driven view that efforts by government to intercede on the behalf of blacks are somehow doomed to fail, or even to be counter-productive.
No responsible black spokesperson would contend that there is no role for government in the current phase of blacks' efforts to enter the American mainstream. Neither, however, can black leaders ignore the fact that the appropriate function of government has changed substantially.
Its role is no longer to send troops to escort children into school buildings, or to pass laws eradicating the stain of legally-sanctioned discrimination from our society. Nor is it to fashion new ways of implementing the promises contained in the civil-rights laws. Instead, the responsibility of government in the ongoing black struggle today is to defend the hard-won battles of the past quarter-century, and to continue to send clear messages of hope and support.
It is the Reagan administration's abandonment of that role that is so outrageous in the eyes of most blacks. Far from being willing to defend the legislative victories of the 1960s, the Reaganites seek to overturn them, as in their opposition to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. And far from propagating the message that the federal government continues to support the goal of an end to discrimination, the Reaganites seek to extend tax credits to blatantly racist private academies and clubs.
The appeal to black self-help makes sense only if black people have reason to believe that the hard work, struggle and self-sacrifice it entails will in fact lead to better outcomes for us and our children. White people do not need proof of this proposition; more than 200 years of American history demonstrate it to them on every page.
Only the government, enforcing the letter and spirit of the civil rights laws, can ensure that self-help by blacks leads to the same promise of a better life as it does for whites. So let's make sure that the necessity of a role for the government is understood when black leaders appeal for self-reliance by the black community.
And let's stop calling those appeals black conservatism. Let's call them what they really are: common sense.
Harold Logan lives in New Jersey and writes frequently on black political and social issues.