Politicians, the black leadership keeps saying, must be forced to respond to the "black agenda." The major sin of the Reagan administration is that it has ignored the "black agenda." The rationale for running a black presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries is that, while such a candidacy might not succeed, it would force the party's nominee to deal with the "black agenda."
Well, I have a friend who wonders if there really is a black agenda, at least in the positive sense of the phrase. "What I see," she says "is an overall mentality that predisposes us to think only in terms of what we are against. We react, respond, rebel--re-everything. And the result is that we let other people set our agenda."
She is not against protest. As a veteran of the civil rights movement, she has done her share of protesting, demonstrating and hell-raising. But the genius of those 1960s protests, she says, was that their focus was things that black people wanted. "The George Wallaces, the Bull Connors, the Jim Clarks were forced to react to us."
But in recent years, particularly during national administrations viewed by blacks as hostile, "we have been reactive rather than 'proactive.'" She offers two examples:
* The attitude of black Washingtonians to the changing ownership of the "mom and pop" neighborhood groceries. "We used to complain that the stores were owned by Jews, who were exploiting us. Now that the Koreans have taken over many of the stores, we accuse them of exploiting us, claiming that the CIA is putting them in business, and so on. But we never developed plans for getting those stores into black hands."
* The fact that the last two speakers for the annual Transafrica dinners have been a former president of Jamaica and the current president of tiny Grenada. "The only reason I can see for choosing these two men was that they were in disfavor with the Reagan administration. In other words, even though the administration is wrong about Grenada, we were reacting again. For two years in a row, we let the Reagan administration define our agenda."
She acknowledges that blacks "have a lot of things to rebel, react and respond to." But she also thinks blacks have a lot of things to support and lobby for, if they would only take the time to set their own priorities.
"While other ethnics, many of them newcomers to America, are getting a toehold in the American economy, we are constantly protesting, instead of using our mental, economic and political resources to deal with the fact that we are non-capitalists in a capitalist society," she charges. "Our whole mind-set is to see what the national agenda is, and then to protest against it."
But what other choice do blacks have when the present administration is hostile to many of the programs blacks consider vital to their interests?
"There are a lot of choices," she says. "One of our big problems is teen-age pregnancy and the fact that so many black children available for adoption aren't being adopted. Well, this administration is very much interested in family issues. Without aligning ourselves with the pro-life crazies, it seems to me we could use the administration's interest in family issues as leverage to do something about the problems of adolescent pregnancy and unadopted children. In other words, we ought to be looking for ways to connect up with the administration where we can, looking for coincidences of interest."
As a matter of fact, that is precisely what black businesses--especially consultant firms dependent on government contracts--are doing. They may not like much of what the Reagan administration is doing, but they look for those few areas where their interests and the administration's interests coincide.
The national civil rights leadership, on the other hand, seems to fear that to look for points of agreement with the administration will be viewed as doing business with the devil. And so they protest.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't protest," my friend insists. "All I'm saying is that we have to keep our self-interest in mind and take what's available to promote those interests, no matter what administration is in power."