The civil rights movement today stands at a historic juncture. The long legal struggle against racial discrimination has essentially been won. Leaders of the movement must now consider how an agenda created during the turbulent '50s and '60s should be redefined to conform to the social and political realities facing blacks in the '80s and '90s.
This redefinition should be centered on finding ways that blacks and whites can work to confront the internal difficulties now besetting poor black communities. For the great barrier to progress for blacks today is not an "enemy without" that denies opportunity to blacks because of racism, but an "enemy within" that keeps our young peoplefrom taking advantage of the opportunities available to all Americans.
In short, there is a profound need for moral leadership among blacks. The challenge now facing the movement is to find a way to provide that much needed leadership.
This is not to say that racism has disappeared; so long as there are distinct races of human beings there will be racism. Nor is it to say that government cannot or should not pursue policies aimed at helping the poor. I intend only to acknowledge that profound change has occurred in the last 30 years, reducing the ability of racist whites to act on their prejudices. Today the most hotly contested civil rights issue -- affirmative action -- concerns the extent to which past racism warrants special, not simply equal, treatment of blacks. For blacks the problem has always been not the existence of racism but its management. We have at our disposal now numerous legal means for managing the "enemy without."
Meanwhile, the "enemy within" goes relatively unchecked. The level of violence by blacks against other blacks is of alarming proportions. The academic performance of our young people, even in comparison to recent immigrants for whom English is a foreign language, is dismal. Each year, more black women give birth while still in high school than are graduated from college. The proportion of black children dependent on welfare has essentially doubled in the last 20 years. Young black men can be heard to brag about the children they have fathered but need not support.
This circumstance is the result, in substantial part, of the values, attitudes and behavior of black people. Recent history suggests that neither the defeat of Ronald Reagan, nor the election of more black congressmen and mayors, nor the transfer of monies from defense to domestic spending, nor the implementation of stronger affirmative action policies can be expected to reverse this situation. What can lead to change is a concerted effort by black leaders and intellectuals to promote those norms and values in our communities that discourage dysfunctional behavior.
One obstacle to meeting this challenge is the fear often expressed by civil rights activists that, by focusing on internal problems in the black community, we will let racist American society "off the hook," relieving whites of their moral obligation to help the black poor. Another concern expressed about taking on the "enemy within" is that to do so would confirm whites' belief that blacks are morally and intellectually inferior.
Both of these worries are misplaced. While it may be the fault of past and ongoing racism that so many blacks find themselves mired in poverty, the responsibility for the behavior of black youngsters lies squarely on the shoulders of the black community itself. There is great danger in ignoring this responsibility, for those held legitimately at fault for the black condition may nonetheless refuse to do anything about it.
At some point, and I think that point has now been reached, it is more important to get started rebuilding one's own house than it is to spend time persuading the neighbors that they should help. Blacks cannot afford to be America's conscience if the cost is to neglect dealing with these life-threatening problems. Moreover, nothing provides greater support for those believing in black inferiority than the continuation of the pathological behaviors to which I have alluded. Of course, blacks are inherently as capable of accomplishment as anyone else in this society. You know this, and I know this. But the only way to prove it is for black people to actually achieve up to this potential.
Thus, suppressing discussion of internal failures for fear that racial stereotypes will be confirmed is self-defeating. Blacks' problems lie not in the heads of white people but rather in the wasted and incompletely fulfilled lives of too many black people.
The civil rights movement could experience an historic renaissance were its leaders to apply their considerable talents and resources to grappling directly with this problem. It is up to us concerned black citizens to see that they do.