A number of acquaintances, including some whose opinions I value, have taken me to task over a recent column on Ivanhoe Donaldson, the former city aide who has admitted stealing nearly $200,000 in government money.
The points they raise include these:
It is unfair to rebuke black leaders for not publicly chastising one of their own, particularly someone like Donaldson, who, as both civil rights activist and political strategist, did so much to aid the cause of black people;
It may be legitimate for those who served in the civil rights trenches with Donaldson to criticize him, but not for a black conservative such as Robert L. Woodson (whom I quoted extensively in the column);
Criticism of black leaders by blacks only gives ammunition to our enemies. If our leaders are beset unfairly by whites, we must defend them. If their behavior is indefensible, we must shut up.
That, with a few variations, is what I've been hearing. And at the risk of annoying yet more respected acquaintances, let me say: They're wrong.
First, the issue (no matter what traditional black leaders think of the newly visible black conservatives) is not indiscriminate leader- bashing. Woodson's point was specific: "We are not talking about tax evasion or philandering or some kind of personal difficulty," he said. "We are talking about people ripping off their own people -- the family."
The money Donaldson admits stealing included funds for emergency housing for low-income District residents, which is to say the same poor black people Donaldson served as a leader of the civil rights movement. Woodson's point, which I accept, is that if the Reagan administration had withheld the funds, we would have raised hell. How can we keep silent when a black man in a position of trust takes the money to support his newly affluent life style? Is a conservative with a demonstrable interest in the plight of poor blacks forbidden to raise the question?
I have no interest in simply beating up on Donaldson, who, though he is a friend in whom I am deeply disappointed, remains a friend. But Woodson's point is a legitimate one, and so is this:
For blacks to keep silent while our leaders are ripping off the people we claim to care about is not merely questionable morality but also bad tactics. It is true that our criticism may provide ammunition for those who don't love us, but it is also true that our silence does not disarm our enemies.
In fact, it has this perverse effect: if we keep quiet in the face of perfidy within our ranks, we hand the initiative to our enemies and then find ourselves in the absurd position of defending those who betray our interests.
It happens over and over. We kept silent when we knew, at firsthand, that a good many of the incompetent teachers who were miseducating our children, were black. And when white people demanded competency tests as a way of screening out these incompetents, we found ourselves attacking the tests and defending those who were cheating our children of their rightful education.
We held fund-raisers for politicians convicted of stealing off cash and food stamps intended for poor people -- not because we approved of what they were doing but because we felt it necessary to defend our own against the attacks of white critics and prosecutors.
We were aware 20 years ago of the alarming disintegration of black families, but we kept silent lest we give ammunition to the enemies of black people. And when Pat Moynihan, in an attempt to be helpful, called public attention to what was happening to black families, we attacked him as though he, not the disintegration of our families, was the enemy.
If we had taken the initiative in highlighting the problems in our schools, the disloyalty of our officials and the deterioration of our families, we might have disarmed or at least neutralized our enemies.
Speaking out on the problems that we know about gives us the right to say to the racists, the bigots, the turn-back-the-clock anti-revolutionists: "We are aware of the problem, and we're dealing with it." Our silence, however well intentioned, has the effect of handing the initiative to those who don't love us, and we wind up not attacking our problems but actually defending them.
It is, my respected friends, a luxury we cannot afford.