First, the effectiveness of these approaches has been ever more seriously questioned in recent years. There is growing factual evidence of counterproductive results from noble intentions. Some of that factual evidence will be presented here in the sessions that follow. In addition, numerous political trends in recent years indicate declining voter and taxpayer support for these approaches, to which some of the older and more conventional black “spokesmen” remain committed. The events of 4 November were only the most dramatic examples of this. They were not the only examples. In California, we remember Proposition 13; across the country, the defeat of school bond issues and spending proposals. With future elections, the shifting fortunes of partisan politics may change the party labels of those in power. But Camelot seems unlikely to return. And we certainly cannot bet the future of 20 million people on its return. So we have a historic responsibility implied. We cannot simply run around claiming that the sky is falling — popular as that sometimes seems — because that implies that there is one approach which is the only approach. It implies that the partisans of that approach have some monopoly of either wisdom or virtue — which may be a convenient assumption to them, but no reason why the rest of us should take it seriously.
What is a more responsible approach? First, we need to recognize that many methods were failing even before they lost public support. We have to accept the challenge of reexamining why these approaches were failing. We need to accept the responsibility of seeking and devising new approaches for the decade ahead. That is why we are here—to explore alternatives, not to create a new orthodoxy with its own messiahs and its own excommunications of those who dare to think for themselves. The people who were invited to be presenters and discussants here are people who are seeking alternatives, people who have challenged the conventional wisdom on one or more issues, people who have thought for themselves instead of marching in step and chanting the familiar refrains. The various speakers and discussants have varying philosophies and different areas of expertise. Some are Democrats, some are Republicans, and some like myself are neither. We are here to assess where we are, where we are going, and what are our alternatives.
We can start by looking at the present situation. We have come through a historic phase of struggle for basic civil rights — a very necessary struggle, but not sufficient. The very success of that struggle has created new priorities and new urgencies. There are economic realities to confront and self-development to achieve, in the schools, at work, in our communities. The sins of others are always fascinating to human beings, but they are not always the best way to self development or self-advancement. The moral regeneration of white people might be an interesting project, but I am not sure we have quite that much time to spare. Those who have fought on that front are very much like the generals who like to refight the last war instead of preparing for the next struggle.
What are some of the pluses and minuses of our present situation? On the plus side, a dramatic economic rise of blacks during the 1960s, but which has slowed, in some cases stopped, in the 1970s. Many social problems are worsening. Continued disintegration of families; rising numbers of broken homes — one-third of all black homes now — a skyrocketing unemployment rate among black youths, five times as high in the late 1970s as in the late 1940s; runaway crime rates of which blacks are the chief victims (there are more blacks murdered every year than whites, in absolute numbers). There is also a threat of a permanent underclass whose problems seem immune to prosperity, to equal opportunity, or to the advancement experienced by other blacks. We can see on the horizon the rise of racist groups such as the Nazis, the KKK, not only among the ignorant, but in places where you would never expect such groups, where they never had a foothold before. We can at least ask whether, or to what extent, the policies of our times have contributed to these problems of our times.
Looking to the future, one of the things that we need to focus on are facts about results — not rhetoric about intentions. We need to look not at the noble preambles of legislation but at the incentives created in that legislation. Very often, legislation intended to help the disadvantaged in fact pays people to stay disadvantaged and penalizes them to the extent that they make an effort to rise from disadvantage. I mentioned that in the 1960s there was a dramatic increase in black income relative to white as well as a dramatic increase in numbers of blacks in high-level occupations. Much of this has slowed down, and in some cases stopped, in the 1970s. We need to ask whether the policies that were followed in the 1970s had anything to do with this.
The question is not whether on the one hand “affirmative action” sounds better than “equal opportunity,” but whether, in fact, the results show further progress or slowing down. There are some serious economic reasons why the latter would be so. When we talk about rent controls, we need not be satisfied with clichés about affordable housing. We need to ask the factual question: will there be more housing or less under rent control? When we talk about minimum wage laws, we need to ask not whether a decent wage is a good objective, but whether there will be more jobs at higher pay or no jobs and no pay for increasing numbers of people. If we are going to talk about the future, we have to talk responsibly. We have to have a responsible dialogue with those who disagree with us. If you are serious, it means you are not concerned with scoring points; you are concerned with confronting the actual arguments, not straw men. We don’t need to talk about “trickle-down” theories. I know of no one who has set forth a trickle-down theory. I know of many people who set that up as a straw man to avoid confronting the arguments that have been set forth by those who want to depend upon different mechanisms and different processes from the ones that are in fashion.