In a recent column for Townhall, Thomas Sowell wrote: “I am so old that I can remember when most of the people promoting race hate were white.” So am I. As I consider the current state of race relations in America, it is clear that the long, hard march toward racial harmony has taken a turn in the wrong direction. In his column for Townhall, Sowell asks the question that many of us who share Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream have begun to ask ourselves: “Is this what so many Americans, both black and white, struggled for, over the decades and generations, to try to put the curse of racism behind us—only to reach a point where retrogression in race relations now seems at least as likely as progress?”
In other words, is the current state of race relations in America what people of good faith of my generation worked so hard to achieve? I cannot speak for Dr. King, but it is highly unlikely that a man who dreamed of a time when people would be judged by the “content of their character” rather than the “color of their skin” would be pleased with the state of race relations in America today. What would Dr. King—a Republican—say about the character assassination of black Americans whose great sin in the eyes of liberals, white and black, is that they espouse a conservative worldview? Did Dr. King give his life to bring about true equality and harmony among the races or just to reverse whose ox is in the ditch?
For those of us who supported Dr. King and his vision of character over skin color, it is hard to understand how liberals in government could enact policies that are harmful to black Americans and how liberals outside of government could support those policies. There were many strong voices for racial equality prior to Dr. King’s time on the world stage. One of the strongest of these voices was Frederick Douglas, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln. One of the most famous statements made by Douglas is almost chilling in its prescience: “Everybody has asked the question…’What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is give him a chance to stand on his own legs. Let him alone!”
I cannot think of a more powerful renunciation of the liberal policies that have led to the government entitlements that have held black Americans back for decades. Dr. King spoke, marched, wrote, and eventually died trying to win equality—not special treatment—for black Americans. Frederick Douglas wanted only to see black Americans afforded the same rights as all other Americans. He did not demand Affirmative Action programs or government entitlements. He simply wanted blacks to have the same rights as other Americans to pursue a better life by applying themselves to the task without artificial racial barriers put in their way.
There is no question that the foundational elements of Civil Rights legislation—equality in voting, housing, education, and access—were necessary steps in the right direction. The original Civil Rights Act was neither liberal nor conservative. Rather, it was simply Americans of good will finally setting things right that should have been set right long before. Civil Rights legislation represented the steps necessary to do what Frederick Douglas demanded for black Americans: give them a level playing field and then get out of their way. But the ink was hardly dry on Civil Rights legislation before liberals started using the power of government to do precisely what Douglas so clearly warned against.
An objective analysis of liberal policies since the 1960s shows that government social engineering and coercion has done more to harm black Americans than help. Much progress has been made by some black Americans. There is no doubt about this. However, those who have made the most progress—black conservatives—are pariahs among liberals, white and black and particularly among black “leaders” such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. It’s as if blacks who are living out the American dream by applying initiative and hard work rather than remaining chained to the entitlements of a paternalistic federal government are somehow traitors. I doubt Dr. King and Frederick Douglas would view them as traitors. In fact, I suspect both of these true black leaders would hold successful conservative blacks up as exemplars of what they both fought so hard to achieve.