LOS ANGELES -- Black History Month arrives as the winds of change breeze through the African-American electorate.
Witness the South Carolina primary. No candidate captured more than 40 percent of the so-called black vote. The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose platform is not being white, barely captured one out of every six black votes. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, despite getting the prized endorsement of South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, a Congressional Black Caucus member, couldn't pull off a victory among blacks.
Shocking as it may be for many in the Democratic political machine to realize, blacks are beginning to think for themselves. Hints of what we're seeing now were evident in a poll done by the Joint Center for Political Studies showing that in 2002, 63 percent of blacks identified themselves as Democrats, down from 74 percent in 2000.
Blacks, particularly young blacks, have lost interest in the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson-style politics of blame and shakedown. What excites them are issues such as school choice and new black leaders such as Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee who talk about ownership and wealth creation.
New black skepticism toward government should come as no surprise. If growth in government and political power translated into well-being, blacks would be in great shape today. Non-defense-related federal government spending, as a percentage of gross domestic product, has doubled since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Today, there are 39 black members of Congress, eight times as many as in 1964. More than half of our states and the District of Columbia have cities with black mayors.
Yet these considerable gains in political power have not translated commensurately into better lives for black Americans.
Certainly, a new black middle class has emerged. The number of black households earning more than $100,000 a year has increased tenfold since the 1960s. But this amounts to just 6 percent of all black households, and a third of the percentage of white households in this income bracket.
Overall gains by blacks over the last 40 years are, on average, modest or nonexistent. Median black incomes are now about 80 percent of those of whites, up from 70 percent 40 years ago. Median black household net worth remains about 17 percent that of whites. Black life expectancy is about five years less than whites, a modest improvement from the 1960s.
Although there have been impressive quantitative gains in black educational achievement -- the number of blacks with high school diplomas and college degrees has tripled since the 1960s -- the qualitative picture is more sobering. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom report in their new book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, that the average black student "at the end of high school has academic skills that are about at the eighth-grade level."
In important ways, the quality of black life is not just lagging behind whites, but dramatically deteriorating against where blacks were 40 years ago. Seventy percent of black families were intact then, with fathers and mothers at home. Today, two out of every three black children grow up in fatherless homes. Seven out of 10 black babies are now born to unwed mothers, triple the number in the 1960s. Crime and drug use are rampant in the inner cities. About 50 percent of young black males in the inner city are both unemployed and not in school. Fifty percent of new AIDS cases are in the black community.
Some claim that these troubling statistics show that blacks need even more government. In a recent article in The American Prospect, Lisbeth B. Schorr of Harvard University says that it would take $125 billion every year for another 25 years ($3,000 per year for every black man, woman and child) to achieve parity between the races.
I would argue exactly the opposite.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced affirmative action. Hand-wringing liberals and ambitious black politicians joined hands, laying the foundation of a new political plantation that displaced the pillars of values, faith, family and personal responsibility with the catechism of victimization and dependency. The result is what we see today.
The success of welfare reform in 1996 hints at what we can expect if we allow blacks the dignity of freedom and choice. Despite predictions by liberals of impending doom if we started to dismantle the welfare bureaucracy, today there are 37 percent fewer mothers with custody living in poverty and 47 percent fewer children reported by the Agriculture Department as being hungry, compared with before welfare reform.
Let our black history lesson for 2004 be to recall that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s victories were achievements of courage and character. He succeeded despite racism, with little physical or political power.
Blacks today, particularly black youths, want real freedom.
They must remember that, as with Dr. King, the answer lies within ourselves.
Morally, we must reconstruct the framework of values within our community. Politically, we need school choice, lower taxes and personal retirement accounts to replace the regressive payroll tax.
By embracing freedom, morally and politically, blacks can achieve both Dr. King's dreams and their own.
Star Parker is president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) and author of Uncle Sam's Plantation.