When the National Urban League held its annual convention in Washington a year ago, the focus was on direction: whether black America should move toward more self-reliance or toward more reliance on government assistance.
A highlight of the convention was a debate on that subject featuring two black academics, a liberal and a conservative.
The issue hardly surfaced at the 1986 convention, which ended here Wednesday. It was as though the liberal-conservative debate had been settled -- squarely in the middle.
League President John E. Jacob, whose keynote address cataloged the deterioration of the black condition over the past dozen years, blasted those "who shove billions into the bottomless pit of the Pentagon but nickel-and-dime poor kids to death." That deterioration didn't come about "because poor blacks stopped helping themselves, but because society stopped helping the poor," he said to enthusiastic applause.
But if he was willing to accept government help in addressing some problems (Housing Secretary Samuel Pierce capped a luncheon speech by handing Jacob a $350,000 federal grant for fighting housing discrim-ju ination), he also announced programs that the league will undertake onju its own, including a new "Education-ju al Initiative" to improve the educa-ju tion and vocation skills of poor children.
He criticized the welfare system for its demoralizing influence, but he also promised renewed efforts at fighting teen-age pregnancy, male irresponsibility and crime.
And so it went through most of the convention. Clifford Wharton Jr., chancellor of the State University of New York, told delegates that while it was premature to abandon affirmative action, it was time to open "a second front," led by blacks themselves, to cure what ails black America.
Too much reliance on special help and remediation, he said, only reinforces the sense of black inferiority. He called instead for the "rehabilitation of the black family for the transmission of sound values -- a job that requires us to look mainly inward, to our own needs and potentials rather than exclusively outward for assistance and reparations."
The focus on self-help hardly represents a U-turn for the league, which traditionally has placed more stress on education and training, on one-on-one assistance, than on massive federal programs.
It does, however, strike me that the emphasis is stronger this year on the need for blacks to take a lead role in improving public education, in designing programs for the poor and particularly in mapping strategies for rescuing the underclass.
But given the constraints on federal spending, where is the money to come from? The answer may be surprisingly easy. The Ford Foundation has given the league a $4.5 million seed grant to help establish a $50 million permanent fund, and other foundations and corporations are joining the effort.
During this convention alone, Philip Morris, the Rockefeller Foundation, Coca-Cola, Xerox, IBM and the MacArthur foundation kicked in a million dollars each, with smaller grants from several others. League programs will be funded from earnings, leaving the $50 million fund intact.
The fact that many of the grants were delivered by black executives of the corporations and foundations makes a number of important points: that black professionals continue to make significant progress, even in the face of the economic deterioration of blacks generally; that black influence on economically powerful institutions is growing, and that where there is the will and wisdom to address problems, money need not be an insurmountable obstacle.
But the underlying theme of the conference -- fast becoming the new orthodoxy of racial progress -- is that while black organizations can do a great deal to help their people take advantage of opportunity, creating that opportunity remains the responsibility of the entire society, including a federal government that doesn't quite see it that way.