Douglas Glasgow will be embarrassed on at least two counts. The first is that I am writing about Doug Glasgow, scant days after his boss, National Urban League President John E. Jacob, issued his most important statement of the year, the annual "State of Black America" report. The second is that this is a column of unabashed praise for the modest Glasgow.
I apologize. But some of the things Glasgow, the league's vice president for Washington operations, had to say in a recent speech in Atlanta, have such relevance to the burgeoning debate over the direction black America ought to be taking that I'm willing to risk making him squirm a little.
The heart of the debate is whether it makes more sense to continue the social welfare policies of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society (recently described as an ineffectual or even counterproductive "alms race") or to focus on black economic development.
The first side of the debate is supposed to be that of the NAACP and the Urban League; the second, that of Robert Woodson's fledgling Council for a Black Economic Agenda, a generally conservative group of some two dozen black thinkers.
The Glasgow speech makes clear that while the debate is needed, its lines need not be so sharply drawn.
There is, for instance, a distinction to be made between pointing out the shortcomings of the programs of the 1970s and the allegation that they didn't help.
These programs were "aimed at lessening the devastation and hurt that poor people experienced," and were meant to "address and remove the more obvious elements of poverty." And they did. They were not designed to render blacks economically self-sufficient, "to create mass entry of the poor into the market economy . . . or to alter market dynamics or labor foce tradition to ensure the elimination of economic dependency." And they did not.
Glasgow insists that the Urban League, no less than the Woodson group, would support an agenda of increased employment and business opportunity for blacks while at the same time working to reduce race- based disparities.
He insists too that the black institutions, dear to the heart of Woodson, who has become a recognized authority on the strengths of community- based self-help, must be a part of "any program aimed at structurally altering the relationship of blacks to the market economy," that blacks must "move from notions of philanthropy or dependency to the reality of greater self-reliance," and that it is folly to insist that racism alone is responsible for the plight of black America.
But it is equally foolish, he said, to suggest that government has no major role in the agenda for blacks in the 1980s. The government, he said, must offer assistance (through tax legislation, for instance) in the development of the capital base whose absence has left blacks with one of the lowest business-formation rates in America and must also "support the efforts of black institutions which have demonstrated capacity" to help blacks move to self-sufficiency -- for instance, the Urban League's own training, retraining and job placement programs.
It does not follow from Glasgow's analysis, which he said has the full support of his boss, that there is no reason for the newly joined debate. There is plenty to debate -- the amount of political clout that should be expended in protecting income transfer programs, the best means by which to achieve the economic advancement of blacks, the priority that should be given to elective politics as opposed to economic empowerment, even whether the old-line civil-rights groups or emerging black experts should be the principal leaders of the new agenda.
The vital necessity is to engage the debate on the level of ideas, not of personalities, and to recognize the truth of what Martin Luther King said a long time ago: "We must not let the fact that we are victims of injustice lull us into abrogating responsibility for our own lives."