Black leaders and would-be leaders are continuing the decade-old search for a civil rights focus. The increasingly popular battle plan is to "integrate the money." That is, now that blacks have had measurable success in integrating social institutions and politics, the priority must shift to securing our fair share of capitalism's dividends. As generally detailed by its advocates, I think this is the wrong strategy.
The post-King generation of divided and often lackluster leaders never really drew up workable new battle plans. They made four mistakes over the past 10 years or so, and there's no excuse for continuing them.
Those mistakes fall into four categories:
1) Wavering dedication to political action. It's in vogue among blacks who have made it, and those who have blinding ambition to do so, to stress advancement in business, with a depreciatory reference to political action and government programs. Notwithstanding New Right rhetoric, however, government remains a powerful force for good or evil, and politics is likely to be more effective than the desire for profits in protecting and building on past economic gains. Government and politics must be central to the civil rights movement.
2)2 Inattention to grass-roots organizing. The movement must seek its strength in grass-roots activity and populist goals. It must shed its current elitist image -- out-of-touch leaders dreaming up myriad initiatives for governments and capitalists to adopt. In earlier phases of the movement, popular involvement provided both legitimacy and clout for our leaders. A renewed emphasis on grass-roots organizing is crucial.
3) An unfocused, all-encompassing agenda. A complicated agenda, a laundry list, invites dissension in the ranks and makes it difficult to ensure that the troops are focused and the adversary held accountable. If you make a different demand every week, it's easy for someone to oppose you today on the theory that helping once in a while will be good enough. Three objectives are enough, no more.
4) A failure to base new goals firmly on shared moral imperatives. The movement's objectives must have compelling moral content, with neither the appearance nor the reality of crass self-interest.
With these standards in mind, consider the emerging battle cry of "integrate the money." Surely a fine objective. I once argued to an association of black businessmen that vocal demands for a fair share of capitalism were ill-conceived because, as a member of the audience defiantly stated, their primary concern was not with decent education and employment for the masses of black people, but rather with enabling more blacks who are driving Oldsmobiles to move up to Mercedes.
Well, if integrated trickle-down is the battle plan, who wants to serve in the army? Concentrating on the welfare of a few minority entrepreneurs has the appearance of self-serving moral bankruptcy. For that reason, if no other, the strategy will be a failure in the political arena, in corporate board rooms, and at the grass roots.
Nor can such a strategy be salvaged by arguing that bringing the masses of blacks into the economic mainstream will yield widespread dividends for all of society. True as that is, the argument lacks credibility if tied to a trickle-down scheme. When expressed as crass economic me-tooism with a nod to the self-interest of whites, integrating the money has little of the moral appeal that fueled the black movement in the past, and which remains the best energy source around. The just claim on America's economic opportunity will not command broad public support unless it is communicated and perceived in unselfishmoral terms.
It won't take another demi-Messiah to put this assortment of errors behind us. Some reasonably specific elements of an improved battle plan are simple to sketch. If, as I have suggested, there are to be no more than three fronts in a renewed civil rights struggle, my targets would be public school education, job training, and teen-age pregnancy.
The case for these priorities is simple. With the decline in most settings of open and virulent forms of discrimination, the highest barriers to minority economic opportunity are the problems of lack of skills and crippling social patterns--some call them pathologies.
Public education, job training and teen-age pregnancy, unlike crime and some other concerns, are causes with a realistic possibility of attracting consensus solutions. These causes lend themselves to grass-roots organizing and a populist tone. They are not ideas spontaneously generated by leaders jockeying for the limelight or for corporate contributions; nor are they the product of dinner-party theorizing.
Finally, these three causes are rooted in the old moral imperatives. One can be a forceful advocate for them by pointing to the tragedy of unfulfilled lives, and by appealing unselfishly to the best elements in human nature. The formula of Gandhi and King can still work: the national character has not changed.
Take public school education. Because quality education is so crucial to economic opportunity and all that flows from it, blacks should be continuously outraged by education systems that produce crippled children. Apologists blame the parents for not being middle class. But shortcomings of a parent are no excuse for allowing an innocent child to grow up illiterate and trapped in the underclass. A tremendous range of people and interests could be united behind a plan of fiscal responsibility, selective program and salary improvements, discipline, staff accountability, and fierce political retribution against those who stand in the way.
It is time for a limited, focused agenda that can be pressed upon the politicians in litmus-test fashion. Is any of these concerns -- education, job training, teenage pregnancy -- less compelling than the case for integrated lunch counters?