[This review was published in the January 1992 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 45-47.]




Issues & Views: An Open Forum on Issues Affecting the Black Community

A Quarterly Journal, New York, NY


Reviewed by Dwight Murphey


             It may seem unorthodox to expand our “book review” section to tell our readers about a journal (which modestly calls itself a “newsletter”), but we hardly think formalities should prevent Conservative Review from informing its readers about one of the more promising and courageous intellectual undertakings of the day.

             A theme that I’ve stated many times in my articles is that the central crisis in modern society is a crisis of intellectual leadership.  An alienated intelligentsia has dominated the intellectual culture of Europe and America since the early nineteenth century, and has formed ideologies of “exploitation” and “victimization” as part of its quest for political-ideological alliance with a series of unassimilated or disaffected groups.

            At first, the Left’s appeal was to what it hoped would be an angry proletariat.  Since World War II, however, it has seen far greater potential for an alliance with racial and ethnic minorities (and, through “feminism,” with women).  American blacks have been perhaps the foremost of the minorities targeted by the Left.

            The result has been that the progress of American blacks has for almost half a century been tied to the methods, agenda and outlook of America’s alienated “liberal” intellectual culture.  The black leadership, intellectual and otherwise, has in large measure immersed itself in that ethos.

             I am not one to deny the essential idealism of some of those who have embraced the Left’s worldview that millions of people are trapped and need the liberating help of the state to break them out.  But it is undeniable that this idealism tends, before long, to give way to self-serving interests.  (See Eric Hoffer’s book about “the True Believer” and what happens to him.)   Long before now, it has been clear that much black leadership has become a self-perpetuating “special interest group.”  What is more, it serves itself by having reduced (in collaboration with white liberals) a fine people to little more than a self-pitying, ever-dependent subclass within the larger society.

Encouraging Black Self-Sufficiency

            Some major changes are devoutly to be wished: If only black Americans had a leadership appropriate to their own self-development within America’s free society!  If only the alienated incubus suffocating the American spirit could be thrown off…!

            We come, then, to the immense significance of such a journal as Issues & Views and that insightful, capable and courageous group of black thinkers—Elizabeth Wright, Robert Woodson, Walter Williams, Tony Brown, John Sibley Butler, Errol Smith, Jay Parker, Shelby Steele, Paul Pryde, William Reed, Stanley Crouch, Thomas Sowell, Joe Clark, Shelly Green, Anne Wortham, and others—who contribute to its pages.

            The journal was founded in 1985 “to advocate self-help and business enterprise in the black community.”  Elizabeth Wright is editor, assisted by a small but potent advisory committee: J. A. Parker, editor of Lincoln Review, and economist Walter I. Williams of George Mason University.

            The black intellectuals associated together in Issues & Views are too few in number to constitute the new intellectual culture that American blacks, the United States as a whole, and indeed the world community require.  They will need to be joined by countless others.

            Elizabeth Wright has written in some despair about the prospects, seeing little chance of loosening the grip of the alienated elite that is entrenched in charge of “the lucrative race industry.”  And as a white conservative I have no crystal ball by which to predict ultimate victory, either.  All I can do is to say, with her, that “here is where the best interests of blacks and whites lie”—and to hope that the present mess’s self-defeating realities will lead others to the same realization.

Their Critique of the Mess We’re In

            Although it would probably be a mistake to assume that each of the contributors to Issues & Views agrees on all points, the consistent message that I get from its pages is that Booker T. Washington was sound in advising his fellow blacks in the late nineteenth century to focus their energies on self-development and economic skills, maintaining racial pride and identity while welcoming a constructive relationship with white society.

            This was a view that emphasized building, based on both personal and social virtue: the work ethic, saving, the cultivation of valuable skills in the technical areas most open to blacks at the time, adhesion to family, concern for community.

            The result was that Washington organized the National Negro Business League in 1900 because, as Elizabeth Wright says, “there was so much business formation among blacks.”  A few years later, Marcus Garvey continued the message that economic self-reliance was vitally important.  In 1935, “Louisiana’s S. B. Fuller… founded a door-to-door cosmetics company, which he was to develop into a multimillion dollar enterprise.”  Blacks were building a solid foundation.

            In the cultural dimension, Stanley Crouch points out that as late as 1955 the black community abhorred teen pregnancy, drug abuse and drunkenness; and Robert Woodson says that “78% of all black families in 1959 were intact.  In 1959, less than 2% of black children were raised in households where the mother never married.”  An editorial says “American blacks were confident that nothing was beyond their reach.”

            All of this came under attack, however, by those who favored an adversarial relationship to white society that would insist on immediate equality.  (This is a position, I might add, that has strong appeal to anyone who sees freedom in the more simplistic terms of a static model rather than as a complex social reality that requires a number of antecedents and prerequisites.)

            Anne Wortham tells us that “W.E.B. DuBois and others founded the NAACP explicitly to counteract Booker T. Washington….”  Wright adds that “in the early 1900s, they carried out a campaign against Booker T. Washington, purposely distorting his message of economic uplift….”  In the 1930s, the tendency of the New Deal was to make blacks “the economic wards of the state.”

            Nevertheless, black confidence held strong until “it ended somewhere in the 1950s.”  At that point, an Issues & Views editorial says, “our race was diverted by ‘quick-fix’ opportunists and do-gooders.”  Black civil rights leaders chose “to parrot slogans and cliches, and work at keeping the black masses informed of the rank injustices awaiting them at every turn in American society.”  Martin Luther King, Jr., was no longer preaching “get your own minority house in order.”  Rather, “King was simply representative of those earlier establishment black leaders—those who, in the early 1900s had denounced Booker T. Washington….”

            It was in the 1960s that S. B. Fuller reprimanded the adversarial black leadership—who repaid him with a call for a black boycott of Fuller’s products.

            “How did we spend the 1980s?,” Wright asks.  “Why, the same way we spent the 1970s—busying ourselves with protests and demonstrations… We spent it doing our famous re-run of the 1960s.”  She sums it up, saying that blacks have “so little to show as a bottom line after 25 years of worthless social programs.”

            Wright adds that the “ongoing clamoring for the intervention of outside forces keeps blacks, as Steele puts it, “focused on an illusion of deliverance by others.”

            I had thought that these thinkers would have a natural alliance with the rising black middle class.  It is of especial interest, then, that they do not look with any great favor on that class, which has sprung up under the impetus of government and corporate largesse and of affirmative action.  They see its members as obsessed with image, as looking to others for resources, and as having turned their backs on the truest interests of the black poor.  Not only do the black professionals, they say, fly to white suburbia rather than assume the leadership of black communities; they are whiners who constitute the prime constituency served by the civil rights groups.  “The whining about the lack of a ‘level playing field’ by today’s black MBAs is ludicrous… Their man of the hour is Jesse Jackson, who has mastered the art of bullying and coercing white-owned corporations.”

            It is even worse than this, the authors say.  The black “privileged class” gives no leadership to overcome the “blatantly intolerant and/or destructive behavior” that exists within the black community.  Why?  Because their “real fear is that, in acknowledging even the merest hint of individual responsibility, the entire fabric of affirmative action perks might begin to unravel.  They fear that criticism coming from them might send signals to mainstream society that poor blacks are as amenable as other people to modifying and improving their behavior.”   

What They Propose

            Robert Woodson writes that “the solution, as I see it, is to recognize, first of all, that we have a problem.”  Not only has there been enormous moral and social decay within the black community, and not only have so many blacks listened to the siren song of alienated ideology; but blacks have lost confidence in themselves and each other.  “We carry an inferiority anxiety—an unconscious fear that the notion that we are inferior may, in fact, be true,” Steele says.  And it is the lack of trust by blacks in each other that prevents them from pooling resources and from patronizing businesses run by their fellow blacks.

            The keys are in developing skills, they say, in pooling resources to create capital, and in community self-help.  The writers in Issues & Views are not anti-white (Crouch speaks of the “anti-white cant” of recent years).  They condemn the boycott of Korean merchants in New York City, and commend the Koreans for their “hard work and commitment,” but they see nothing wrong with a healthy black consciousness through which blacks will show concern for their own community and unabashedly work together.  Tony Brown points out that other ethnic groups have spent 80% of their money within their own group.  Paul Pryde says that “we need to create incentives for pension funds and other sources of wealth that are owned by the black community, but managed by others, to be invested in ways that are productive of economic activity in those communities.”  But they do not share the Left’s vision of the helpmate state, and I sense no desire on their part for political power to be used in that context.  In my own writing, I have referred to “the vitalist perspective,” which sees the energies of the people, not the state, as the prime force for human well-being.  The vitalist perspective runs with great creative energy through all the writings of this group.