Decision Time for Blacks

Lucas Morel

June 1, 1998

This weekend, the first Black Radical Congress meets in Chicago to set "A Black Liberation Agenda for the 21st Century." Choosing June 19th as the kickoff date, the organizers commemorate a day known by many blacks as "Juneteenth," when slaves in Galveston, Texas first heard of their freedom two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But 133 years later, conference organizers still see "liberation" as an unattained goal for many black Americans.

According to Manning Marable, one of the congress’s founders and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, the conference seeks to "retake the initiative against the right." With endorsements from Angela Davis, Amiri Baraka, and other professed Communists, this is no empty threat. Facing a Republican-controlled Congress, conservative Supreme Court, and increasing state and local initiatives targeting affirmative action, many civil rights organizations are finding fewer allies in the political arena. But the question remains: have conservative principles and policies really translated into oppression for black Americans?

Organizers of the Black Radical Congress certainly think so, as can be gleaned from their announcement posted on the internet. "We know that America’s capitalist economy has completely failed us." The disproportionate number of blacks who are "unemployed and imprisoned, homeless and hungry" are the victims of the American regime. Apparently, neither the free market nor free elections have been able to free black Americans to exercise their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But perhaps this is a premature assessment of the policies of 1990s Republicanism, to say nothing of what decades of "Great Society" programs have wrought for poor Americans, and blacks in particular. For starters, does the Black Radical Congress really want to return to the welfare mindset of the 1960s and ’70s, with its focus on providing entitlements rather than preserving the dignity of exercising one’s natural and civil rights?

As for the political system, does the Black Radical Congress really think the best alternative to the American two-party system is one based on proportionality, where one’s individual rights find protection not according to their foundation in the common humanity of the citizenry, but from a group’s ability to extract entitlements doled out by a bureaucratic administrative state?

And what about the alleged benefits of affirmative action? Has it really profited American minorities to be siphoned off to the most selective schools in the country largely due to skin color rather than academic preparedness? The dismal statistics on minority retention and post-collegiate performance tell the story. On the flip side, if the University of California campuses are any indication, the removal of affirmative action under Proposition 209 should actually promote minority achievement. Competent but not superlative minorities will do what their white and Asian peers have always done: enroll at colleges best suited to their level of scholastic achievement. Similarly, outstanding minority students will find no problem gaining entrance into the nation’s elite schools when judged according to the same criteria that admits their white and Asian peers. In short, fewer educational mismatches means fewer college drop-outs and more equitable protection of the civil rights of all Americans.

Unlike the First and Second Continental Congresses, which sought to unite American colonists against political and economic oppression, it appears this Black Radical Congress seeks to divide Americans according to "new thinking" that contradicts the principles of freedom that established the American union. Nothing could have been further from Lincoln’s mind when he sought to unite this nation according to the principles that gave it birth.

Too bad the conference organizers did not take seriously their commemoration of Juneteenth. It would have pointed them not to an allegedly "new" understanding of politics and economics, but a decidedly "old" one that Lincoln found "four score and seven years ago" in the Declaration of Independence. Taking seriously the "self" in self-government, it established a limited government that left each person free and therefore responsible to govern himself without interference from others.

When all is said and done at the Black Radical Congress, the nation’s blacks should reflect seriously on the "radical" alternative presented by this gathering. They face a simple decision: will they reject or embrace the American way of life? If they choose to consider themselves full-fledged Americans, they must realize that the distinctive feature of Americanism is the idea that one’s race (or sex or religion) should not determine one’s human or civil rights. Each person has the equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by virtue of human nature, and so government’s job should be the protection of these natural rights for each and every person.

The United States has seen its greatest progress in the protection of equal rights when it renewed, and not rejected, its commitment to its first principles. Would that more black Americans would do the same as they consider the alternative offered by the Black Radical Congress.

Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.