One of my most memorable evenings was spent with two old friends with radically different political views. They were dinner guests, and the revealing exchange between them spoke volumes about internal black social differences.
One was Walter Williams, a black economist from a ghetto background. Walter's economic research convinced him that blacks had more to gain through the economic system than the political system. This conclusion caused the media to give him the misnomer "a black conservative," though I have never heard Walter express the slightest nostalgia for bygone days.
The other friend was a black sociologist whom I will call Hal, who was the latest of several generations of his family to go to college. Hal was the classic ultra-militant. He had a picture of Mao on his living room wall and a picture of Eldridge Cleaver in the kitchen (at that time). He had hung out with Malcolm X and had protested everything but the weather. He was at his most eloquent in denouncing "this fascist country" while looking out the window of his air-conditioned condominium in a white neighborhood.
Hal's eloquence was so great that many affluent white housewives enrolled in the college course he taught, just to hear this black man "tell it like it is." So many people tried to enroll in his course that the administration had to ask him to give priority to those students who needed it to graduate. Only after that should it be made available to white housewives looking for their jollies.
Hal seldom wasted his eloquence on me -- for I was not above reminding him that I had to give him directions to Harlem, even after he had lived in New York for several years.
One of the things I had never known before this dinner was that Walter and Hal both grew up in Philadelphia, and at the same time. Once Walter learned this, he immediately began asking about various childhood friends from the ghetto.
"Do you know Bill ----?"
"What about Joe ----?"
It went on and on, with Hal looking more and more uneasy. Finally, a puzzled Walter asked him: "Well, where did you live?"
When Hal replied, Walter said: "I didn't know any black people lived out there."
"We were the only ones."
Hal is by no means unique, which is why there is no point singling him out by giving his real name. He is only one of many members of the black elite who know little or nothing about the ghetto, but who lecture, write and consult on the subject. Many are blacker-than-thou.
One of the architects of the disastrous "open admissions" programs in New York's municipal colleges is a black man who attended otherwise all-white private schools throughout his childhood, then went on to Harvard from freshman to PhD and did post-doctoral work at the Sorbonne. He has accused me of not speaking for ghetto blacks. The first head of the EEOC was another member of the old black elite whose childhood was spent in private, predominantly white schools. He was a key figure in the process that turned "equal opportunity" into quotas (that didn't work), to the accompaniment of militant rhetoric that eventually propeled him upward into the job of secretary of the Army.
Very often the media regard the most noisy blacks as the most typical blacks. Those of us who take a different economic or political view -- people like Walter Williams or myself -- are grilled about our backgrounds by reporters who suspect that we are middle-class, because we disagree with those whom the press has blindly accepted as the voice of blacks.
The old elite is very good at playing on media misconceptions, especially when they have run out of substantive arguments. A recent smear campaign against Walter Williams, myself and other new voices among blacks has played the theme that we have either forgotten our roots or never had any.
One of those whose monopoly of blackness is being threatened is columnist Carl Rowan, who claims the new black voices are "Horatio Algers" who don't want other blacks to be helped to advance. Disagreeing with Carl Rowan about the best way to advance blacks is the same as being against the advancement of blacks, as far as he is concerned. He even puts outrageous attacks on blacks in quotation marks, as if he is actually quoting someone. He cannot quote what we actually said, because that would expose the falseness of his attacks.
Someone that Rowan does quote is Patricia Roberts Harris from the Carter Cabinet, who asserts that Williams and Sowell "don't know what poverty is." This would be funny if it were not such a pathetic sign of intellectual bankruptcy. Neither of us was ever as middle class as Patricia Roberts Harris. None of our parents was a schoolteacher, or even finished high school. I was almost 9 years old before I lived in a home with running water.
Ironically, Patricia Roberts Harris and I were students at the same college, but under entirely different conditions. I worked full time and went to school at night. Patricia Harris was a campus social leader in an "exclusive sorority -- meaning that it was for middle-class (light-skinned) women. That was before it became fashionable to be blacker-than-thou.
The great social and economic issues facing black Americans today need to be argued out in terms of substance, evidence and analysis. The problem is that blacker-than-thou arguments confuse the issues, and these seem to be the only kinds of arguments the old conventional black leadership has left. They are on as shaky ground there as they are on more substantive matters. But the false issues they raise must be confronted, precisely so that we can then turn our attention to matters of far greater importance for black people and for this country.