It's only a little pamphlet, but "A Policy Framework for Racial Justice" contains the seeds of a potential breakthrough in black thinking about black problems. It is by no means a radical document. It couldn't be, representing as it does the consensus views of the national black leadership. But it marks at least the beginning of a tentative questioning of some of that leadership's traditional assumptions.
On the question of public welfare, for instance, it recognizes that programs ostensibly designed to assist low-income blacks have had the perverse effect of locking them into their poverty by (in economist Walter Williams' phrase) "cutting off the bottom rungs of the ladder of economic progress." So, after making the traditional call for a national full-employment policy, it then calls for a major overhaul of public assistance, with emphasis not on welfare rights but on work incentives to "break the cycle of dependency." Then: "Public assistance (should) be used only for those who have special handicaps that render them incapable of working." That may be close to the consensus view of the black rank and file, but it is a significant break with conventional black leadership thinking.
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an aide to President Johnson, incurred the wrath of the black leadership by suggesting many of the problems afflicting black Americans stemmed from the "breakdown" of the black family. Now the black leadership is saying the same thing. "Policy Framework" notes that 48 percent of black families with children under age 18 are headed by women; that more than half of the black babies born in America are born out of wedlock; that black families are beset disproportionately with divorce an separation and "other destabilizing forces." Then: "Family-related factors such as these constitute an important key to understanding the continuing and resistant problems of black people today."
True the report blames racism for many of the problems facing black families, and it calls for new government policies to help them toward stability and self-reliance. But it also charges that the black community itself has a major role in halting the dissolution of black families in order to improve "the status of black people and to eliminate the problems that remain."
The report, published by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies, reflects the deliberations of 30 black leaders and scholars during conferences, in 1981 and 1982, in Tarrytown, N.Y. It includes an endorsement by the Black Leadershp Forum, comprising the heads of the major national civil rights groups.
Perhaps the report's strongest link with civil rights orthodoxy is its continuing emphasis on racism as at least the historic source of the vexing problems confronting black America. Two things are new and, in my view, constitute the seeds of a potential breakthrough in black leadership thinking: the acknowledgment that it is time to rethink policies ostensibly designed to help black people and the notion that black people themselves must assume major responsibility for solving the problems that remain.