Teen-agers, as any parent soon learns, have two contradictory urges: when it comes to having their views honored, their rights observed, their independence respected, they want to be treated as adults. But when the problems get tough, and the money gets short, they want to be treated as children, with Mom and Dad assuming the major responsibility for solving their problems.
Black America is, in many ways, in its conflicted adolescence. We want to make our own decisions, without interference from government. But when the going gets rough, we want the government, in the role of parent, to increase our allowance, find us jobs, solve our problems, and make it stop hurting.
The less the government does for us, the more frightened we become; the more it does for us, the more we resent being treated like children.
Partly as a result of natural maturation and partly because the Reagan administration is proving to be such a harsh, uncaring parent, black America is showing signs of growing up, of assuming major responsibility for its own well-being.
Blacks who have found little to talk to each other about, and less on which they could agree, are playing the same theme: Please--I'd rather do it myself.
Clarence Thomas, the conservative chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, complains of black America's tendency to "force every socioeconomic issue into a civil rights context, as though that somehow solves the problem." It's time, he insists, to "identify and isolate the things that are not caused by discrimination and try to deal with them ourselves."
He has in mind, among other things, the idea that unless black parents insist that their children get serious about their moral, academic and vocational preparation, not even the most benevolent government policy can save them from the economic scrap heap.
Frances Welsing, the controversial Washington psychiatrist whose political views could hardly be further from Thomas's, was sounding a similar note a few months ago in a full-page article in the Afro-American.
"A people cannot live and advance without standards," she wrote. "A people who are without their own standards of conduct in all areas of life activity (economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion, sex and war) are a dependent, slave peope, a people functioning under total victimization. . . . A people who cannot stop and prevent their children from giving birth to children and who do not understand the short- and long-term implications of their children giving birth to children are a people who are already far into their own Holocaust and genocide."
Eleanor Holmes Norton, Thomas's predecessor at the EEOC, has been beating the same drum with regard to adolescent parenting. How, she asks, can we hope to improve our lot when "more than half of our children are being raised by single mothers, many of whom are teen- agers and most of whom are poor?"
Jesse Jackson has been singing the song for years, calling on black youths to practice their math as assiduously as they practice their jump shots, and urging the black community, including parents, churches, political leaders and even radio disc jockeys, to reinforce the theme of personal responsibility: "Nobody can save us . . . but us."
Yet, despite this near-unanimity among black leaders as individuals, the black leadership behaves institutionally as though it believes that discrimination and the unconcern of the Reagan administration account for all the ills of the black community.
The reason, I suspect, is the fear that if they acknowledge that black people have a major role in solving their own problems, it will serve to justify the administration's shameful abandonment of its role in the fight for equity.
The trick is to focus on our own struggle for racial maturity without letting America forget what the government can--and must--do to help.