City Journal

Tamar Jacoby
A Whole Different Crop of Black Leaders
Some new, dynamic, independent black spokesmen, uneasily conservative, are finding listeners in the African-American community.
Summer 1995

For over half a century, from Booker T. Washington's death in 1915 until Thomas Sowell's emergence in the late 1970s, the words "black" and " conservative" seemed almost to be opposites. Not until the eighties and early nineties did the drought of black conservatives gradually give way to a trickle as other intellectuals—Glenn Loury and Shelby Steele were the best known—followed Sowell out of the liberal camp, questioning age-old civil rights assumptions like the idea that government holds the answers to black problems. Like Sowell before them, these thinkers had to endure ostracism and hate mail as the price of their convictions: though they have recently met with accolades in the mainstream press, not one was embraced by his own community.

Now, rather abruptly, all of that seems to be changing. With both whites and blacks rethinking issues from welfare to affirmative action, the trickle is growing into something more substantial. A survey of cities actress the country reveals a surprising number of emerging black spokesmen who are willing to question the old liberal vision. Not all embrace the c-word; not all are orthodox conservatives. But all are unhappy enough with the state of affairs in their community that they are willing to risk the label, long considered a virtual curse among African-Americans. "Pain makes you seek for new answers," explains 46-year-old magazine publisher Emanuel McLittle. "My wife and I are typical baby-boomer blacks. We got an education, got advanced degrees, had 23 kids and moved to the suburbs, But even black families like us cannot keep Johnny away from prison and drugs, can't stop Susan from having her second or third abortion. Even middle class blacks are living in excruciating pain, and this is causing us to look for answers in places we never thought of looking before."

McLittle is part of a new generation of would-be black leaders urgently seeking fresh solutions. Thirty- and forty-something, mostly self-made members of the middle class, they cannot yet claim to speak for the majority of their community. Still, in their number and the vigor of their ideas, they pose a sharp challenge to the old guard. McLittle's magazine, Destiny, is one of half a dozen new black publications willing to call themselves conservative. Right-leaning blacks are also well represented in the army of radio talk-show hosts in nearly 20 cities, from Washington to Denver to Seattle. In November 1994, 27 black Republicans ran for Congress—nearly twice as many as in 1992. And several successful while Republican gubernatorial candidates received as much as 40 percent of the black vote, once considered to be 90 or even 95 percent die-hard Democrat. Most recently, this spring, with the subject of affirmative action dominating national TV, as often as not the chat-show debates pitted one black guest in favor against another firmly opposed. 

The new black conservatives are anything but a uniform group. Though many of them know each other, publish each other's work, network at conferences, and sing each other's praises, their movement—if it can be called a movement—is emerging, ragtag and heterodox, from the grass roots. Like McLittle, most members have come to conservatism on highly personal paths: through a traditional religious upbringing, a disappointing flirtation with the civil rights movement, or an even more intimate experience, like 12-step recovery from drug addiction. In striking contrast with the earlier generation of dissenting black intellectuals—Loury, Steele, and others—McLittle's cohort shares a determination to translate its ideas into some kind of action, be it publishing, grassroots organizing, or working with troubled youth. Still, at this early stage, each activist's vision is slightly different, and even the most confident have more questions than answers about how to help their community. Not yet a real network, its ideology still not fully formed, what's bubbling up across the black community is best described as a conservative ferment. Full of ideas, bristling with energy, hungry for support—and sometimes awkward, naive, and in a little over their heads—the new generation of black conservatives is sure to be a force to reckon with in the coming decade.

So what exactly does conservatism mean to these young blacks? For some, like Emanuel McLittle, it means mainly not liberal. The son of a Detroit auto worker, McLittle was by his own description "a typical angry black teen" who broke windows during the 1967 riots and dropped out of high school. It was by sheer accident that he finished his education: a nearby college where be worked as a security guard offered free tuition. He was in his late twenties, and by then a parole officer, when he began to question the civil rights orthodoxy he had been reared on.

Assigned to a halfway house for inmates awaiting release, McLittle interviewed his charges about why they had raped, robbed, or stolen. "One inmate after another," he recalls, "when we got down to brass tacks, it was the same. All my thinking, all that I had heard about why black men are in prison, turned out to be false." Expecting testimony about white racism, about the unfairness of the system and the lack of opportunity for poor blacks, McLittle instead heard stories of family violence. "'She hit me when I was a kid.' 'I was never loved.' 'There was sex when I was seven years old. ' By the time I'd heard this from the eighth or ninth one, I was convinced that the notion that white people caused all our troubles was false. At first I thought what I had always believed was a mistake. Then I realized it was a lie. Pretty soon I wanted to know what other lies there were."

Even after this first revelation, McLittle did not rush to declare himself a conservative. Among blacks, he explains, "the word 'conservative' is like a detonator. It's something black people automatically respond against." In a community that has always perceived itself as the ultimate underdog, conservatives are seen as champions of privilege and power. After decades of divisive racial politics, they are also regarded as the allies of whites determined to resist change. If "conservative" isn't exactly a synonym for " racist," for many blacks it comes uncomfortably close. When McLittle started to ask questions about what he saw as black dependence and "the notion that white America owes black America," he was promptly branded an Uncle Tom. "My own family members looked at me with a jaundiced eye," he remembers. "It really burst the day I announced I was supporting Ronald Reagan. I'd never experienced anything like it. It was as if I smelled bad or something. I was suddenly and forever an outcast." 

By then it was too late for McLittle to turn back. His moved away from the community that had spurned him, leaving the inner city of Detroit for a middle class suburb of Lansing. Working as a psychological consultant, he began to publish a friends only newsletter airing his newfound doubts. Thrilled by the chance finally to speak his mind, he took out a second mortgage on his house to turn the newsletter into a bimonthly magazine. Produced by McLittle and his wife on a desktop computer, Destiny began in 1990 with a circulation of 5,000. Even then McLittle hesitated to hoist the banner of conservatism: the magazine's logo defines its subject and audience as "the new black American mainstream."

But by the time he had been publishing for nine months, McLittle found himself, willy-nilly, in the middle of a polarized Right-Left battle over Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. The August 1991 issue of Destiny, with Thomas on the cover, had a print run of 100,000 and was distributed in cities across the country. Though not all blacks who supported Thomas agreed with his views, for many the episode broke the taboo on dissenting from liberal orthodoxy, and it put McLittle and others on the map as rallying points for future dissidents.

With a national circulation of 20,000, Destiny bristles with the raw energy of the new black conservative movement, its innovativeness and its rough edges. Unafraid to take on the hoariest sacred cows, McLittle and his staff have denounced affirmative action, school desegregation, the NAACP, rap music, Afrocentric education, even the label African-American. Still a bit the confrontational ghetto kid, McLittle likes to be outrageous: one early issue of the magazine included a story defending Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates. But on the whole, his middle-brow bimonthly is devoted to earnest and often painful questioning of the civil rights orthodoxy an orthodoxy McLittle thinks has wreaked serious damage to the black psyche. 

Sounding a key theme of the new black conservatism, the magazine takes a dim view of traditional civil rights leaders. "Black representation on Capitol Hill has all too often been too 'race conscious,'" one piece charges, "pulling the country toward greater political division. A different focus must emerge, [one] that looks for what is good for all constituents." Another article reports on "the civil rights tax" that Americans pay to support government lawyers in race-related litigation. Every issue includes news and profiles of other black dissidents: both the relatively well known, like GOP Congressman Gary L. Franks, and just-emerging figures like Chicagoan Lee Walker, who is preparing a public school curriculum on Booker T. Washington. Still other articles celebrate the success of ordinary blacks who have eschewed government help and what McLittle calls "the politics of victimization"—welfare mothers who've made good, happy two-parent families, entrepreneurs.

This personal focus is important to McLittle. "Political issues are a distraction," he says, "from personal, psychological issues—things that happen in our households." The problems of his community are "not about racism," he insists. "They are about deep emotional deficits. Our young men are growing up dysfunctional, and instead of trying to help them, we blame white people. We champion the problem and call it a virtue. If you're not angry or psychotic, you're denying your blackness."

This emphasis on the internal is a hallmark of the new black conservatives, particularly these—a significant number, though not all—whose politics grow out of their religion. Ron Freeman, one of the 25 black Republicans who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last November, came to conservatism the old- fashioned way, in a family that taught him traditional values. Freeman grew up poor as poor could be in the town of Booneville, Missouri. His mother worked in kitchens and took in laundry and, for a while when he was small, resorted to welfare. As a child, Freeman says, he was told he "would never amount to anything," that just because he was black he would be dead or in jail by the time he was 18. Now 34, when he looks back, he can think of 20 friends who ended up just that way. 

What made the difference for him, he is convinced, was his mother, who above all was determined to get off and stay off welfare. She worked as many jobs as she could; she saved and taught her seven kids to work hard. Ron was eight years old when he decided he wanted to be a football player; by 12 he was playing with hefty 16- to 20-year-olds. It was a bruising business, he recalls, but he'd learned his mother's lesson of never giving up. His determination paid off in a Kansas State College football scholarship. After college he played pro football for three years, then spent seven years as a Christian counselor for inner-city youth—the job he left to run for office.

Freeman's politics grow directly from his hard-times childhood. An ordained Christian minister, he is so devout be will not go to a "pagan" Halloween parade and is educating his four children at home, where they can pray as well as study. In his job as a counselor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he worked in city schools organizing "huddle groups" for young athletes: bolstering them—with Bible study and simple attention—against peer pressure to take drugs and be promiscuous.

Dark skinned and powerfully built, Freeman is the very definition of a role model: gentle, soft-spoken, concerned, and absolutely sure of his values. At the same time, anything but an ideologue, he is deeply wary of religious intolerance, and like many of the new black conservatives, he insists that his values came first—before any camps or labels. "This is what I believe to be right," be says quietly. "My views are conservative views, but they are commonsense views. Personal property, rewarding achievement, going to school and learning to respect your teacher. When you say it, people label you in this camp or that camp. But these are commonsense values held by a majority of black Americans."

The political lesson Freeman draws from these commonsense values is the essence of the new black conservatism. His diagnosis of what ails his community boils down to one word: dependency—dependency fostered by well meaning liberals. Just recently, he recounts by way of illustration, he took his children to the county health clinic to be inoculated, and without even asking about his circumstances, the bureaucrat on duty suggested he apply for welfare. "Simply because we are black," Freeman says, still smarting and softly indignant. "I assume that's why, because there is no other reason."

Not a man for slogans or glib answers, Freeman knows that ending this dependency will not be easy—and he believes it would be "evil" to end welfare abruptly. Still, he is convinced that with a little push, even the most helpless blacks will find a way to free themselves. "If you have to be responsible for yourself," he maintains, "you find a way to do it. lt's a simple matter of giving people an opportunity to do for themselves." The government can help by creating incentives: providing regulatory waivers for inner-city entrepreneurs, permitting welfare recipients to save money, rewarding two parent families, and encouraging parents to start and run their own schools. The rest is up to the individual as it was up to Freeman's mother. 

Like many of the black Republicans who ran in November, Freeman is convinced this vision has a deep appeal for his community. Whether or not blacks accept the label, all these candidates say, at heart most are conservative. In fact, like most ordinary citizens—as opposed to intellectuals or politicians black voters tend to hold mixed and inconsistent political views, with improbable contradictions among their beliefs. 

Though blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic, on many issues particularly social issues—they lean heavily toward conservatism. On the death penalty, according to the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies, blacks tilt 48 to 42 percent in favor. (Gallup's number is even higher: 60 percent for—in marked contrast to congressional black Democrats, who are unanimously against.) On denying increased welfare payments to recipients who have more children, 58 percent of blacks approve. Among those who follow the debate on school choice, 88 percent support the idea. Roughly three quarters back mandatory sentences for drug dealers, and 61 percent feel black leaders are too quick to cite racism as an excuse for black crime. As black GOP Congressman Gary L. Franks tells African-American audiences after a show of hands on these issues, "Congratulations! You're honorary Republicans." Even more striking, when the Joint Center polled blacks about their political identification, 34 percent described themselves as conservative, 32 percent as moderate, and only 29 percent as liberal.

The one snag in the scenario concerns black views of the role of government. Whatever they think about social issues, on the question of the state as provider, blacks are extremely liberal. One recent Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found that more than two-thirds of blacks—compared with one- third of whites—feel that hands-on government programs are the answer for the ghetto. Still, Freeman and other black conservatives are convinced, blacks will eventually come around to their view on this issue too. 

Though initially suspicious of Freeman's November platform, many Kansas City black groups ultimately warmed to him. Pundits as far away as Washington and New York were astonished to find him within sight of winning in a district that had voted Democratic for half a century. 

Less than a week before the balloting, polls gave Freeman over 40 percent of the black vote, and he believes his defeat can be traced to a last-minute misinformation effort. (Voters were falsely told that they could not split their tickets.)

Still riding the momentum of the campaign, Freeman has raised more than $400,000 to fund a think tank and a grassroots lobbying group.

Many of his supporters are white—as is much of the district where he ran—but by no means all of them are, and Freeman is determined to go on pressing his case in black precincts. "There is an audience for this message," he says.  "I know there is. And change will have its own momentum. The people who break the cycle first will build and grow. Then the next wave. And pretty soon, instead of an angry generation waiting for government, you'll have a generation of free people who can take care of themselves." 

Oklahoman J. C. Watts, who won his bid for Congress, is one of a tiny handful of blacks with a chance to translate this vision into policy. A country boy from the hamlet of Eufaula, Watts is the showy, national-network version of Ron Freeman. Also from a hardworking family with old-time values, also a football hero (quarterback for the University of Oklahoma) and an ordained minister, Watts is now one of the GOP's hot national stars. Robust and self-confident, with a bright, flashing smile, he has a natural politician's ease and rhetorical flourish. Elected from a district that is more than 90 percent white, he is at home among Oklahoma farmers as well as young black conservatives. He speaks regularly to black groups, plays a leading part in the Republican Party's minority outreach effort, and makes something of a specialty of poverty, crime, and welfare issues. His vision, too, is much like Freeman's, but it is formulated in sound bites that even Newt Gingrich could envy. Welfare is "sick" and "pathetic." To fix it, " reform is too gentle a word." As for liberalism, "Congress has for too long defined compassion by how many people are on food stamps and in public housing, I think we should measure compassion by how few people are on food stamps and in public housing." No wonder the party cannot showcase him enough now. 

Tellingly, like many black conservatives, Watts plays the part—and he doesn't. His reluctance to sign on fully as the Republicans' Great Black Hope helps make him appealing to both whites and blacks. He does not like to be described as a black leader. "My message is one that transcends race and color," he says, "and I like it that way. I won't allow myself to be forced into being a black spokesman." Similarly, when it comes to ideology, like McLittle and Freeman and other black dissidents, Watts is still a little gun- shy about the conservative label. He makes no secret of his ambivalence toward the GOP, telling reporters pointedly that there is "a certain connotation" to being a black Republican—a connotation of which he is plainly wary. "They can't say J. C. Watts has danced to anybody's music except his own," he states, emphasizing that he learned the politics of self- reliance from his hardworking father, not some Republican operative.

It isn't hard to understand why these disclaimers would appeal to blacks, but in a subtle way they also reinforce the quality that makes Watts and other black conservatives attractive to white voters: their authenticity. Unlike Gingrich or even Kemp, Watts and Freeman know whereof they speak when they talk about poverty. They seem genuinely to care about the people whose welfare benefits they are cutting and when they argue that reform is in recipients' best interest, their passion is convincing. 

Not that Watts's chariness about the GOP stops him from participating in its revved-up efforts to court black voters. For Republicans and conservatives generally, the black community has long been an unexplored, untapped market—but as with all untapped markets, once it was discovered, there was no stopping the stampede. The party now sponsors two national groups that coordinate chapters in black communities. In addition, this spring it gave a much-publicized training seminar in Washington for black would-be congressional candidates. Watts's speech on "Building a Permanent Republican Majority" was a highlight. "If we remain true to our principles," he urged, "if we govern according to our convictions, by the end of the decade just three more elections—there will be more black Republicans in Congress than black Democrats." 

In addition to his party work, Watts helps a number of the not-for-profit conservative groups that have mobilized alongside the party's official outreach to woo blacks into the COP orbit. One of the better known, Project 21, tries to get media attention for conservative black congressional aides and businessmen. The first clause of its recently issued "Contract with Black America" calls for a law endorsing Martin Luther King's vision of "a nation where people are judged not 'by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'" Another clause asks Congress to investigate "how perverse incentives contained in government programs and regulations burr those on the bottom rung of America's economic ladder."

What exactly do Watts and the COP plan to do for black America? Watts's policy proposals can seem sketchy and unstructured—deliberately so, like Freeman's and McLittle's, his is essentially a negative program: undo the effects of the past 30 years, they all suggest, and the black community will heal itself. The government can create incentives; it can, in Watts's words, " devise policies that will encourage rather than discourage." But at bottom, the conservatives' hopes rest on faith in black Americans—faith that left to themselves, they still have the strength and resilience to "renew their culture." "The city is filled with caged eagles ready to soar," Watts maintains. "We just need to give them the opportunity." 

Programmatically, this means mainly cutting back. On the campaign trail and in Washington, Watts has pressed for cutting welfare (though supplementing it with job-training, day-care, and employer outreach), cutting capital-gains taxes (to spur investment in the inner city), and—perhaps most important—simply getting out of the way (no more promises that the government will take care of everything) so that old-time values can sprout again in the ghetto. Unlike some fellow conservatives, Watts doesn't spend much time attacking the liberal civil rights vision of government as answer to black victimization. " I don't have to," he says. "Its track record—or the lack of one—speaks for itself." And when the bureaucracy it has spawned falls away, as he is sure it will, he would not put much of anything in its place—little beyond moral exhortation.

Like McLittle and Freeman, Watts is convinced that the real answers to black problems are internal—a matter of personal change, not government programs. "I'm absolutely confident," he says, "that if we advocate family and church and community and responsibility and morality and education—if we advocate that over the next 30 years as fervently as we have advocated the idea that you need government to make it, then I guarantee you that within a few decades we will have created a 'Great Society.'" For millions of desperate people, this is a huge, fateful leap of faith. But for Watts and his fellow black conservatives, virtually nothing could be worse than the elaborate system of discouragement and disincentives in place now.

The Reverend Buster Soaries is just the kind of man Waits and other black Republicans hope will step in when the government gets out of the social welfare business. Pastor of one of the fastest growing congregations in New Jersey, the 3,800-member First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, Soaries is part of a cohort of ministers taking the mantle of neighborhood change on their shoulders. A natural and ambitious showman with a revival-preacher's voice, the 44-year-old Soaries sees it as his role to harness congregants' spiritual energy for community needs. 

Located just outside New Brunswick in the rubble of an obsolete industrial zone, Soaries's church has attracted millions of dollars and middle-class black help for a flagging ghetto enclave. Church members come from the neighborhood and beyond. They help each other—with volunteering, mentoring, organized neighbor-to- neighbor kindness—and they help themselves. Among church initiatives: a small alternative school for troubled youth, a networking and counseling service for unemployed congregants, and a "micro-loan" program to help local entrepreneurs qualify for capital. The church's nonprofit community development corporation—supported by Johnson & Johnson, AT&T, and other companies—will soon move into a $2 million headquarters, where it plans to offer job training, senior medical care, and small-business incubation services. "Black churches are the only hope," says Soaries, "the only way to address the pathology that plagues the black community." 

Soaries's vision of what the church can do grows directly out of his disappointment with liberal activism. "A child of the sixties," as he puts it, he was a student leader who rose to be one of Jesse Jackson's top lieutenants at Operation PUSH. Already a magnetic speaker with a national reputation and a golden future, he had what he calls a revelation in 1975. " It was sparked by my father's death," says the disarmingly direct minister. " I looked around and saw that what we were doing was irrelevant. We had marched to change the way America treated people, and we had won, but nobody seemed to have noticed. We were already out of Egypt, but still living like Egyptians, still blaming Pharaoh. Drugs, crime, pathology, and loose morals were the dominant life-style in the community, undermining all the progress of the sixties. And we in the movement were still giving speeches blaming Nixon." 

Determined to help in a more effective way, Soaries went back to school to be trained as a minister, deciding sometime in the 1980s that he didn't care what label people pinned on him. By 1990 he was leading a coalition of pastors for Clarence Thomas, and he still maintains good relations with Kemp, Gingrich, and black self-help guru Robert Woodson. Yet with his hands-on activism and intense moral focus, Soaries likes to distinguish himself from what he calls "generic conservatism" and its idea "that market forces can solve all the problems." For him the church is a kind of third way the only institution  around that can enforce some "Do nots" while also instilling hope for a better future.

How exactly do Soaries's church-based social programs differ from the ones the government might try in New Brunswick? Consider his work with at risk youth. He started his church's alternative school a year ago after a fight at the local junior high school led to arrests and a racial protest by activists charging police mistreatment. Approached by parents, Soaries told them to look beyond the racial complaint and find out why their kids were getting into scrapes. He also intervened at the juvenile court and got the youths turned over to him instead of the criminal justice system. The school he established in the basement of the church provided intensive attention for 12 troubled boys: not just certified teachers but, for each kid, an after-school tutor, a psychologist—counselor, and a family-service worker—most of them church volunteers.

The focus of the program was to teach skills but also, like Freeman's "huddle groups," to change attitudes: to prove to the youths that someone—indeed an entire community—cared, and to make each student accountable for his actions. "We must do something," says Soaries, "for this generation that doesn't seem willing to accept responsibility. It's understandable that the black community is better at fighting for rights than accepting responsibility. But we must teach these young people that they can't wait until racism disappears to achieve excellence."

A year later all 12 of Soaries's troubled youths are back in regular school, and six have become honor students. During the summer the church kept them and 150 others off the streets with a program of field trips, sports, and workshops on drug abuse prevention. Still another youth program prods would- be gang members toward entrepreneurship. "We're trying to teach them they don't need to sell drugs to make money," says Soaries's aide Abbe Abboa-Offei. "We tell them, 'There's a way to make $100,000 a year by the time you're 30—legally. But you have to change your attitude, your dress. You have to get serious about your education and about yourself."'

Unlike the government social services that black conservatives scorn, such programs work because the church knows the community. "Which kid is salvageable? Which struggling business could pay back a bank loan?" asks black thinker Glenn Loury. "These are discriminations that are beyond the ken of the bureaucracy." Soaries and his volunteers have moral authority and the capacity to induce shame in a world where both are in short supply. In Soaries's view, the church is one of the only forces that can inspire the ailing community to help itself. "Whether or not a person has hope, whether or not he is making plans for the future, whether or not a 16-year-old kid is buying his own casket—as they are doing in some communities—these are all spiritual issues, and they're at the heart of the crisis we're trying to address here." 

Errol Smith moves in a very different world from Soaries, with a different set of problems from those that worry Watts or Freeman. Yet in his way Smith is preoccupied with exactly the same issues: responsibility, accountability, self-reliance, and achievement. Founder and chief executive of a $5-million-a- year contracting business, he belongs to a social class that hardly existed 20 years ago: the self-made black upper middle class. Just shy of 40, a native New Yorker turned Californian, he moves effortlessly among white clients, lives in a mixed suburb, flies an airplane for sport, and carries a cellular phone. 

As a champion of individual effort, he looks to neither the government nor the church to solve blacks' problems. In his view, the answer lies in old- fashioned entrepreneurship and upward mobility. At the same time, Smith believes, many blacks must be taught—and prodded—to take advantage of the opportunities open to them. A well-known radio host and a major figure in the California battle over affirmative action (he's the only black on the advisory board behind tire pro posed ballot measure banning racial preferences), Smith has devoted himself to trying to clear away the obstacles mostly attitudes and self-serving excuses—that seem to him to stand in the way for all too many young blacks.

Like Freeman and Watts, Smith is a model of the vision he advocates. Growing up poor, the son of Caribbean immigrants, he watched his father and uncles hold down two or three jobs to buy their own homes and put kids through college. "Never was I told," Smith says, "that by virtue of color I was starting out disadvantaged or in any way less well positioned to achieve the American Dream." By his own account he stumbled into business, and that, " more than anything," he says, "is what has shaped my view of this country.

Merit and competence, whether I can get the job done—that's what matters in business, not the color of my skin." His firm, which brokers building- maintenance contracts, has over 500 accounts. "That's a huge number of businesses willing to trust me," he says proudly.

But Smith is brokenhearted when he looks around the city and sees how few other blacks are making it in his world. He tells of trying to raise money for minority business after the Los Angeles riots and coming on a Chinese banker who was willing to help. "He said he saw opportunity in the Latino community—saw money to be made there—and he said he would help a few blacks too, because the government was leaning on him. When he looked at blacks, what he saw was a liability and an obligation. What kind of an image is that for the world to have of us?"

The young blacks who concern Smith are apparently successful middle-class youths already navigating in an integrated world. Like McLittle and Soaries on the subject of ghetto youth, Smith talks about these upscale young people with mournful desperation. "I believe," he says, "that we've lost a generation. It's a tragedy—unimaginable" The culprit, in his view, is affirmative action, which he condemns in much the same terms used by critics of welfare dependency. "We've created an entire generation of Americans," he says, "who believe that if it were not for racial preferences, they would not be able to achieve. Affirmative action is a crutch, a narcotic. They have no faith in their ability to make it on their own. They equate 'taking responsibility' with 'letting white America off the hook.'" 

Like many other black conservatives, Smith feels the answer is partly advocacy, partly hands-on work in the community. As an advocate at the center of the California fight over affirmative action, he writes op-ed pieces, appears on TV, and organizes other blacks who can carry the battle to the media. On the air, debating Jesse Jackson or California Assembly leader Willie Brown, the young-looking Smith is a soft-spoken but formidable adversary. He quotes Martin Luther King: "Social policy based on skin color is 'wrong, it's unjust, and it's evil.'" Off the air he adds, "All my friends and business partners are from different ethnic groups. I wouldn't know what to do in a world—the world we're headed for—where we have to break up into tribes."

At the same time, Smith believes the real changes needed are internal—and he sees it as his job to motivate people to make that kind of change in their own lives. "We've done as much legislatively as we can do," he says. "The last leg of the journey has to be achieved by merit and excellence and upward mobility."  

Accordingly, Smith has published a best-selling book of inspirational advice for black men, and he runs a mentoring program for young men, 25 to 40, already on the road to mainstream success—already participating in the business world, working in government, or on the edge of the professions. An upscale, secular version of Freeman's "huddle groups" and Soaries's basement school, the program provides a kind of advanced surrogate parenting; Smith meets with his protégés once a week and tries to pass on some of the lessons he found useful coming up: a short course in critical thinking, self-awareness, and the setting of goals; Sessions range from the personal (a hardheaded "self-assessment") to the political (a formal debate about affirmative action). The idea is to spur the young men to achieve but also to look beyond themselves: to get involved politically and to use their skills to aid others in the community. Several already have: organizing a shopping service for ghetto residents without access to supermarkets and putting together a theatrical "showcase" that will inspire youth to rethink their values. His first five graduates are already helping to provide the same counseling for 20 more young "leaders" like themselves. "It's a small step," says Smith, "but you have to start somewhere." 

What kind of following do the new black conservatives command? What kind of inroads are they making in their deeply alienated community? Even with extensive polling, it's hard to say. Critics point out that many of their supporters are white: some 40 percent of McLittle's readership, well over half of both Freeman's and Watts's districts, a good portion of Soaries's funders, and the lion's share of the voters behind Smith's ballot measure. In fact, this says little about the dissidents' appeal to blacks—though it speaks volumes about changes in white racial attitudes. And better-known black conservatives say the black political climate too is changing perceptibly. "People used to call me," says Shelby Steele, "and whisper into the telephone—they were so afraid of being overheard. But that reticence is changing. There's been a real shift in thinking. People are accepting that there's another side to things." Glenn Loury agrees: "There is more resonance now—a little more resonance, anyway—if only because reality is crashing in. The cities are going to hell in a handbasket; the Democratic Party is weak so more people are interested in hedging their bets."

If nothing else, the center has shifted. Even a year ago it would have caused a minor sensation if a black celebrity considering politics had publicly flirted with conservatism. Yet in December, basketball superstar Charles Barkley did just that, spending a day in Washington with Clarence Thomas. The new black conservatives haven't yet inspired a mass following, but they are providing countless confused and worried blacks with a new vocabulary to talk about their problems.

Editor, counselor, congressman, minister, entrepreneur: like any new movement of young men with fresh ideas, the new black conservatives come on bright, brash, and can-do. Still, unlike white conservatives, at a certain point in the conversation, even the surest grow somber. Whatever path they've chosen, all agree that the old answers no longer work—and often add to the woes of a demoralized community. "We are not just one more Great Society program away from solving the problems of African-Americans," says Minnesota businessman Peter Bell, who founded the National Institute for Traditional Black Leadership to encourage more new conservative voices. Yet, it anything, the challenge the newcomers are taking on is much harder than the one the older generation struggled with. The old guard sought merely to change the world in which blacks lived; the new cohort is looking for inner change—in an entire generation. "How do you transform people, or enable them to transform themselves?" asks Shelby Steele. "I'm not sure anyone knows the answer to that question. At best, like the grassroots self-help groups, you save them one life at a time."

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: