Could Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan be serious in suggesting that it's up to blacks to undo the handiwork of 300 years of oppression? Must they find ways to rebuild decayed inner cities? Create millions of good jobs? Build banks that will lend to black businesses? Build schools that work? Eliminate the underground drug economy? End the AIDS scourge? Get rid of the guns that young black men use to murder each other at alarming rates? Since that's what's required, what else could Sullivan have meant when he declared in a headline-making speech last week that blacks must stop looking to the government to solve their problems?
"I firmly believe that enduring solutions to the problems of the black community will be found within the black community," Sullivan told the 21st Century Commission on African American Males.
If he means blacks should take the lead in solving the problems, fine. But it's a lead-pipe cinch that whatever those "enduring solutions" turn out to be, the money and power necessary to implement them won't be found in the black community.
As the only black in George Bush's Cabinet, Sullivan's pronouncements about black issues carry weight. He's in a delicate position in serving a president who doesn't care about those issues, but that is his choice. Though he said much that was useful, such as the fact that millions of blacks have been beaten into "a malady of the soul" by unrelenting oppression, his speech never rose above the expected because it lets government _ and his boss _ off the hook far too easily.
His cautious remarks stand in sharp contrast to those that former Army Secretary Clifford Alexander made to a Senate committee recently. Alexander told the senators bluntly that white America makes solutions more difficult with its arrogance, its indifference, its hostility, its racism.
Sullivan dutifully glosses over the resources issue by instead urging blacks to reverse a "culture of violence" and a backslide in family and community values "by making wise choices in our lifestyles and by engaging in life-affirming behavior." But the culture of violence he decries flourishes in the spiritual sterility of ghetto neighborhoods. It is not a lifestyle choice but the logical result of generations of dashed hopes.
Sullivan chooses to fuel a growing school of thought, propounded by Shelby Steele and other blacks, that, by a sheer effort of will instead of an application of resources, blacks can somehow make an end run around the devastation wrought by institutionalized oppression. Imagine if the United States had said the same to a demoralized Europe after World War II.
It is an insidious distortion of the meaning of self-help to label this a black problem instead of an American one. It is not an expression of helplessness, nor an excuse not to try, to hold this country responsible for what it has done and continues to do to blacks; in fact it is tantamount to defeat to do otherwise, because the problem is simply too big to yield to Sunday sermons.
Blacks can point the way, but government controls the true power and institutions that must inevitably be part of the solution or part of the problem. There is no way to "resolve" away job discrimination, for example; the government either solves that with wise legislation and wise leadership, or makes it worse with hostile judges and demagoguing politicians. It can't be neutral.
What's good is that a serious dialogue is developing. But if something other than bromides doesn't come of it soon, we'll see ever-more-painful reminders that black plight is an American problem.