Being all you can be

Black History Month should emphasize success, not victimhood

Issue: "Drawing the Line," Feb. 22, 1997

Black History Month in Austin, Texas, began terrifically with a Feb. 1 gospel concert at the University of Texas. The concert was a tribute to one man, Elmer Akins, who has set a record-50 years-for consecutive hosting of a gospel music show on one Austin radio station. It also highlighted the singing of a group that first became known four decades ago, The Mighty Clouds of Joy.

Such records of perseverance are impressive. But many of the performers on Feb. 1 stressed not the glory of music but the glory of God: They were excited about being able to "lift up the name of Jesus" at a state university largely hostile to Christianity. For one night at UT, "diversity" meant consideration of not only race but religion, with Christ freely praised.

As I have written throughout February on this page, Black History Month is worth celebrating, and Bible-based lessons taught by Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) are worth remembering. Often, however, those lessons are forgotten. Often, African-American Studies departments at major universities blame slavery for social problems that exist in black communities-conveniently forgetting that, through the teaching of Mr. Washington and others, those problems had been reduced tremendously by 1960.

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For example, as economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, each of the first five decennial censuses taken after Mr. Washington's death-those from 1920 to 1960-showed that at least 60 percent of all black males at least 15 years old were married. Each 10 years the percentage of blacks who were married increased, as did the rate among whites. The difference between black and white rates of marriage was always less than 5 percent throughout that period.

If blacks from 1960 on had continued making social progress at the same rate as they had over the earlier decades of the century, black poverty by now would be unusual, and the economic despair that now dominates many urban communities would be rare. Sadly, as blacks jumped over legal and political barricades during the 1960s, some thought they could ignore Booker T. Washington's wisdom.

By 1980, fewer than half of all black males age 15 and up were married, and the gap between white and black marriage rates had risen to 17 percent; by 1992 the gap was 21 percent. This is crucial because race makes far less difference in income than family composition: White, female-headed families are twice as likely as black, two-parent families to live in poverty.

Other statistics also show the importance of Booker T. Washington's emphasis on marriage, family development, and education. As Mr. Sowell notes, as early as 1969 black males who came from homes where there were newspapers, magazines, and library cards had the same incomes as whites from similar homes and with the same number of years of schooling. By the 1980s, black husband-and-wife families where both were college educated and working earned slightly more than similar white families.

Many blacks, of course, have taken Mr. Washington's advice, and they are doing well. But others who grew up in the God-is-dead 1960s (and their children) fell prey to a revolution in values. With less affluence to start with, blacks generally had less of a margin of error; middle-class white kids could do drugs as a lark and then return to sobriety, but many poor black kids who fell behind never caught up.

Since the '60s, of course, single parenting has increased throughout our society, but most dramatically among blacks. Public schools have gotten worse; that's exactly what we would expect when God is ignored, discipline erodes, and a lack of competition protects oldline monopolies. Many black children grow up under horrendous circumstances, their bitterness fanned by those who, as in Booker T. Washington's time, politically and economically profit from tearing down rather than building up.

The positive lessons of Black History Month will take years to put into practice, but they are conceptually easy. Churches that teach the whole counsel of God concerning life both in this world and in the next are crucial. Access to better schooling, which for millions of children will require development of either private scholarship or public voucher programs, is essential. It is vital for good students to go to college and major there not in African-American Studies but in accounting or engineering or other fields of knowledge that help them to build businesses.

At the end of this century, as at the beginning, Booker T. Washington's recipe for progress can be encapsulated in 12 words: Build strong churches. Build strong families. Build strong schools. Build strong businesses.

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