They had been meeting for some time in small groups, discussing the plight of the black community, but also its strengths, searching for ways to move the black agenda from civil rights to economic development. This week these independent black leaders decided it was time to inject their generally conservative views into the national debate. They did it in Washington's time-honored fashion. They called a press conference.
The problem is clear enough, Robert L. Woodson, catalyst of the fledgling Council for a Black Economic Agenda, told reporters Wednesday. "Over the past 20 years, there has been a 25-fold increase in the amount of federal dollars being spent to address the needs of the poor, and yet we are told that the black community is in danger of having a third of its members become part of a permanent underclass." The "alms race," as he called it, clearly has not worked. What is needed, according to a 10-page statement outlining the group's major proposals, is an economic development approach to replace the traditional maintenance approach. "Creating greater wealth and ownership opportunities for blacks is a must and also necessary for the country's continued growth."
The two dozen council members include college professors, economists, social scientists, state government officials, community school principals, businessmen and a public housing manager. Their common link is their willingness to challenge traditional thinking and to focus on pragmatics.
Their propositions run from the philosophical ("The people experiencing the problem have to play a primary role in its solution") to the general ("We have to learn to look at the islands of excellence in the black community") to the specific.
One specific proposal, for instance, would allow immediate tax write-offs for equity investments in small businesses located in designated distressed areas. The reasoning: what blacks need most are jobs, and four- fifths of all new jobs are created by small, young businesses. But the business-formation rate among blacks lags far behind that of other ethnic groups, largely because of the dearth of risk capital. A tax write-off would encourage investment in new businesses, and eventually increase federal revenues.
Other proposals -- many of which the Reagan administration might find attractive -- include education vouchers, loosening of adoption requirements and tenant-association ownership of public housing.
But more important than the specific proposals are the principles out of which they arise: that the strength, resources and problem-solving abilities of poor black communities tend to be neglected in favor of programs "parachuted in" by outside experts, whose focus is more on problems and pathology than on solutions.
As Woodson, president of the Washington-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, puts it: "The experts will study mothers whose children are in prison and try to figure out how to prevent it. We are saying it makes more sense to look at the mothers in these same neighborhoods whose children are not in prison and learn from them what they did right."
Strikingly little of the discussion among council members deals with elective politics, a subject that has come to dominate the public discussions of the traditional black leadership. Their reasoning: economic enfranchisement enhances political strength, but not necessarily the other way around.
Not all the ideas advanced by council members will win broad acceptance; indeed, there is no unanimity among the members themselves -- except on the urgency of broadening and "pragmatizing" the debate.