It's self-sufficiency, not help from the government

For decades black Americans have blamed racism and discrimination for their slow economic progress, and have looked to Washington for redress. The National Research Council's recent report A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society echoed this theme. Describing the stagnant economic condition of blacks in America, the authors hurled their indignation at all the usual suspects, including lack of government programs and a "legacy of discrimination and segregation."

Today, however, this rhetoric masks a subtle and largely unnoticed change in the mind-sets of many African-American leaders. Instead of expecting help from white America, these leaders are looking toward self-help, community development, and the nurturing of an independent black entrepreneurial economy. "People like Jesse [Jackson] focus on what the government can do," says lawyer and publisher Peter Grear, past chairman of the powerful North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus. "We have been led by people who stress government programs more than self-help. We have to make our leaders change."

In public speeches, Jackson and other leaders emphasize such programs as affirmative action and special treatment for minority-owned businesses. But behind the scenes, say influential black Americans, the traditional civil rights community also recognizes the importance of entrepreneurship.

Danny Bakewell Sr., for example, is a private developer who heads the Brotherhood Crusade Black United Fund, one of the most influential black organizations in Los Angeles. "Jesse Jackson is a close friend, and when we talk in private among ourselves, we talk about self-help and entrepreneurship," says Bakewell, whose organization sponsors seminars on starting businesses. "What we actually think is not what you hear in the speeches. There's a new consciousness in the community today."

One source of this new consciousness, of course, is a pragmatic reading of the current political situation. With the huge budget deficit and a Republican in the White House, the conventional black focus on government programs seems more and more misguided. Then too, African-Americans have begun to notice the progress being made by immigrant groups, such as Koreans, Chinese, and Cubans, who have passed blacks on the economic ladder by building self-sustaining entrepreneurial communities.

Anyone spending time in Bakewell's community -- south-central Los Angeles -- can see the latter phenomenon at a glance. Almost totally black only a decade ago, the neighborhood is now about one-third Latino. Latinos are working in the hundreds of small manufacturing companies that make Los Angeles the nation's leading industrial center. And Latinos, along with a large number of Asians, have taken over most of the gas stations, restaurants, dry-cleaning establishments, and convenience markets on once-black strips such as Central Avenue and Broadway. Paul Hudson, executive vice-president of Broadway Federal Savings & Loan Association -- one of Los Angeles's leading minority-owned, black-controlled thrifts -- says that his business has followed the neighborhood's trajectory, all black to 25% Latino in only 10 years.

"There are enormous numbers of Latino start-ups and Asians buying into existing businesses," observes Hudson, whose family has been active in Los Angeles business for at least 60 years. "They are becoming the owners while the black community is becoming powerless." The remedy, he believes, lies with the thousands of black Americans now working in corporate America, who may be frustrated with their lack of mobility in large companies. Their role: to emulate the immigrants.

If Hudson is right -- and I hope he is -- the future of black America will lie not so much with spellbinding orators such as Jesse Jackson as with people like restaurateur Ronald Tate. A native of St. Louis, Tate came to California in 1974 as a trained computer repair technician. By 1984 he was a supervisor, making well over $40,000 a year.

It was a good life, but with limitations. As a black in the white corporate world, Tate noticed a lot of managers and customers who seemed uncomfortable with the color of his skin. "I'd walk in for a service call, and I could see the looks on their faces," he recalls. "They'd say, 'What do you want?' And I was there to solve their problem."

Rather than raging against racism, Tate gave up his job and along with his wife, Emma, gathered $90,000 from savings and a second mortgage on their house. They opened up a shop called Sandwich Plus in the predominantly black Crenshaw section of Los Angeles. Tate sought no federal loans, set-asides, or any other assistance. "I look at the Koreans and the others around me, and I realize that you can learn from anybody what makes them successful," Tate says, taking a break from his busy lunch hour. "The important thing is the spirit. It's a capitalist spirit, but it doesn't have a color."

By itself, of course, Sandwich Plus can't solve the black community's problems. It's still modest in size and only breaking even, although Tate dreams of expanding the business. And to some, the dreams of entrepreneurs such as Tate will seem pretty thin when compared with the dreams evoked by the late Martin Luther King Jr.

But King's dream focused primarily on gaining access to other people's shops and restaurants. What Tate and other blacks are trying now is in some ways the logical next step. Instead of eating at the white man's shop, they want to own it. Instead of asking white-run companies for jobs, they want to be doing the hiring themselves.