Masters of the Dream, by Alan L. Keyes
Masters of the Dream: The Strength and Betrayal of Black America.
by Alan L. Keyes.
Morrow. 224 pp. $23.00.
A full quarter-century after the heyday of the civil-rights era, blacks remain the most reliably liberal voting bloc in American politics. Even as practically all other groups have moved to the Right, blacks have retained an overwhelming allegiance to the Democratic party. Indeed, Republicans consider it something of a moral triumph that the black vote for the GOP crept into the double-digit range in November’s midterm landslide.
As for black political leaders, typified by the Congressional Black Caucus, they have long and steadfastly resisted any rethinking of traditional assumptions about taxing, spending, the role of government, crime, welfare, or military policy. Led by such figures as Ron Dellums and Maxine Waters, black congressional Democrats remain the most Left of the Left, the most paleo of paleo-liberals.
At the same time, however, there is mounting evidence that while blacks in general may vote Left, their thinking about the life around them, the condition of their communities, and the future of their race is beginning to move in an increasingly conservative direction. Whatever their leaders and elite spokesmen in the media may say, many blacks today are less reliant on Washington, less likely to seek solutions in government intervention, less prone to cite racism as an excuse for criminal behavior, more skeptical of the welfare system, and more favorable to local initiatives than at any time since civil rights became a key national issue.
No little credit for this shift, embryonic though it still is, must be accorded the small group of black writers and community organizers who have broken with liberal orthodoxy on race matters. While itself ideologically diverse, this group shares a common conviction: that the obsession with white racism which has for so long dominated black thought and civil-rights policy-making serves not as a spur but as an obstacle to racial progress. Today, members of this group find themselves included somewhat more often in discussions of race relations, though all have endured, and continue to endure, sneering disdain from a black liberal establishment whose passion for diversity does not extend to intellectual adversaries or different ideas.
Alan Keyes is a charter member of this cadre of black dissenters. A radio talk-show host and writer, he twice ran (unsuccessfully) as a Republican nominee for a Maryland Senate seat. He also served on the staff of Jeane Kirkpatrick during her term as ambassador to the United Nations. His strong support for the Reagan administration’s foreign policy added little to his popularity within liberal circles.
In Reyes’s view of black America—which he sets forth in Masters of the Dream, a passionately argued survey of the African-American condition—the black community’s problems are at heart moral and spiritual rather than economic. Keyes therefore places little faith in liberal or, for that matter, conservative policy solutions such as those that would achieve inner-city “empowerment” or create an “opportunity society.” Nor, unlike many conservatives, does he believe that black America would particularly benefit if cities put more police on the beat or if courts consistently handed out longer sentences to criminals.
Keyes does share with conservatives, however, a hostility to the welfare system. On this subject, indeed, he is something of a radical, going so far as to compare the welfare state to Communist totalitarianism. Like Communism, he writes, welfare is predicated on a “bad concept of the human person,” one that “stresses individual helplessness and weakness,” undermines personal responsibility, encourages passivity, and strips the individual of the will to improve his condition. Keyes is therefore dismissive of welfare-reform schemes, and would prefer to abolish welfare altogether. He is especially scornful of workfare requirements, which he regards as yet another instrument of state restriction on individual freedom.
When it comes to political strategy, Keyes acknowledges that once it was essential for blacks to look toward Washington—namely, when the goal was the passage of anti-discrimination laws. But now, he maintains, this approach has come to impede the development of local political institutions and community-based economic initiatives. By continuing to rely upon federal assistance, black leaders only contribute to the dependency of the black poor, tying their future to the federal dole. At the same time, the black political elite finds its own destiny linked ever more tightly to the perpetuation of welfare and other government-spending programs through employment in the social services cum welfare professions.
It is no exaggeration to say that Keyes disagrees with the black political leadership—and in particular the Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus—on practically every issue of the day, from affirmative action to foreign policy to abortion. Instead of representing what, to his mind, is the basic conservatism of the black middle and working classes, the Black Caucus has aligned itself with the white Left, whose cultural radicalism has had an especially harmful impact on black America. Among the worst effects of this has been the creation of an intellectual climate within the black community in which any departure from orthodoxy is interpreted as an act of racial betrayal. This is something which Keyes knows from first-hand experience, having had his own racial authenticity called into question more than once.
Had a book expressing such iconoclastic views appeared, say, five or more years ago, in all likelihood it would have been ignored or condescendingly dismissed. But in today’s drastically altered political environment, there is reason to hope that the opinions of dissenters like Keyes will increasingly frame the debate about the future of black America. It is precisely for this reason that one wishes Keyes had devoted more time to analysis and less to sermonizing.
Although he raises a series of provocative ideas which directly challenge the ideological foundation upon which black politics has rested for decades, Keyes’s arguments are too often put forward on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and are seldom given the thorough elaboration that would be required to convince a skeptical audience. And so, while Masters of the Dream may reinforce the views of the already converted, it is unlikely to win new converts among the growing ranks of Americans whose faith in state intervention has been shaken and who are now seeking an alternative approach.
There are, also, serious questions about two of Keyes’s central conclusions. One is that the black family emerged unscathed from slavery and Jim Crow, and that its travails today owe far more to the ill effects of the 1960’s counterculture and dependency-inducing welfare policies than anything else.
The impact of slavery on the black family has generated a great deal of heated debate among scholars. Keyes aligns himself with those, like the late Herbert Gut-man, who held that as an institution the black family survived slavery largely intact, and remained a source of communal strength.
Now, some who advanced this argument in the 1960’s were motivated in part by a desire to knock down Daniel P. Moynihan’s famous report on the black family, which traced problems in black family structure to the uniquely difficult history of African-Americans. Others were eager to deny the seriousness of black family deterioration altogether. Although Keyes parts company with both of these sets of critics, he does maintain that the decline of the black family was triggered almost exclusively by a combination of welfare-state growth and a secular-liberal culture which, among other things, actually celebrated the demise of the traditional family.
One can certainly agree with Keyes that welfare and countercultural attitudes toward work, family, and sexual responsibility played an important role in creating the crisis that confronts American blacks. But many readers will find unpersuasive his easy dismissal of the historical factors that have contributed to the current black plight.
Doubts can also be raised about a second conclusion of the book regarding the role to be played by the church in the moral recovery of the black community. There is no question that religion was central to black life during the period of segregation, particularly in the South. And, of course, the church also supplied the leadership of the black freedom movement through Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
There are, however, a number of reasons for skepticism regarding the church’s ability to emerge today as the dominant force in a campaign for moral regeneration, and Keyes unfortunately fails to give serious consideration to any of them. For one thing, the organized black church was never as powerful in the northern inner city as in the South, a fact which King ruefully came to understand when he attempted to shift his peaceful civil-rights focus northward.
Another problem is the politicization of the black church itself. The agenda for the black community that Keyes finds most objectionable is, too often, the one advanced by black ministers. Obviously, this phenomenon has not affected the majority, but precisely because black churches hold a position of great authority among their congregants, it is particularly distressing to find some ministers leading boycotts of Korean-owned inner-city businesses or hurling glib accusations of racism at law-enforcement officials during controversial criminal cases.
Though Alan Keyes has obvious gifts as both an intellectual and a political polemicist, in this book he has let the polemical side get the better of him, which leads him to treat issues like the black church as abstractions rather than the complex realities they are. Still, he is largely right about the self-defeating course of the liberal black agenda, and one hopes that he will emerge as an important voice in the increasingly free-wheeling debate over America’s racial predicament.
As COMMENTARY’s music critic since 1975 Samuel Lipman set the most exacting standards of musical taste and judgment while creating a deep intellectual framework for understanding the place of music in our cultural lives, and of high culture in our political and spiritual lives. We mourn the loss of a dear friend and colleague.