ST. LOUIS — "There's no black knight to save you. There's no white knight to save you. There's no Latino knight to save you. You have to save yourself!" The speaker is Bertha Gilkey and the message is the same everywhere she goes: Poor, powerless people must do for themselves, not rely on government.
What Gilkey preaches across the country she practices at St. Louis' Cochran Gardens, a downtown public housing project once so hellish that residents called it "Vietnam." Gilkey, who has lived in Cochran for 25 years, is president of the Cochran Tenant Management Corp., which has not only renovated the project but also acquired other property and started a janitorial service, health and day-care centers and a food catering business.
And what Gilkey practices in St. Louis a growing number of black conservatives are advocating nationwide. With moral support from the Reagan Administration, they are insisting that blacks themselves must take the initiative in solving a host of daunting problems afflicting blacks--teen-age pregnancies, joblessness, poor education, crime.
In a broader sense, this approach represents a bold attempt by conservatives to seize the initiative in the renewed debate over how to deal with the deep-rooted problems accompanying black poverty.
Glenn Loury, a Harvard professor of political economy and key exponent of this black conservatism, is one of those who call for more "personal responsibility." He complained in an interview that many of his fellow blacks are "losing that grit, that determination that we had to have in the old days when we didn't have the government and white liberal guilt on our side."
'Dependent Class of Citizens'
Assailing the Great Society approach to problems of the underclass, Loury charged in a recent speech in Washington: "We have created a dependent class of citizens who have little incentive to avoid trouble with the law, to remain employed, to keep their families together, to ensure that their daughters do not become pregnant."
Like other black conservatives, he harshly criticized traditional civil rights leaders for "undermining the dignity of our people" by advocating government-financed social programs and affirmative action in hiring and promotions. High on the agenda of the conservatives is a roll call of proposals that they say would modify current government policies to encourage individual initiative:
--Sub-minimum wages for teen-agers, designed to enable more young blacks to get jobs for which employers would be unwilling to pay them at the standard rate.
--Education and housing vouchers to replace current federal aid programs and give recipients an opportunity to choose their own schools and housing.
--Federal enterprise zones, which would use federal tax and regulatory relief to attract businesses to impoverished neighborhoods.
To traditional civil rights activists both black and white, such as Douglas Glasgow, vice president in the National Urban League's Washington office, Loury and his compatriots are "misleading blacks to believe that all programs have been bad." Moreover, said Glasgow, "the notion of blacks taking greater responsibility is not new." Traditional civil rights groups, he said, have long advocated such an approach.
Jesse Jackson's Theme
"Look at Jesse Jackson," added Barry Goldstein, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "He's been touting this theme for the last decade." Goldstein complained that blacks who "trash" government assistance to minorities are "playing into the prejudice of those who oppose civil rights for the wrong reasons."
Twenty years ago, when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), then an assistant labor secretary in the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, urged a national strategy to bolster black families, blacks castigated him as a racist. Now many blacks say that response--the tendency to blame racism for all of blacks' social ills--got in the way of a needed debate over the nature of the problems and their solutions.
This time around, conservatives are asserting that some blacks doubt their own worth because they got their jobs through government-supervised affirmative action programs. Dennis Johnson, a 38-year-old black certified public accountant in a Denver firm that bears his name, said that blacks should stick together economically but reject special treatment.
"It is incumbent upon us to show that we're competent," he said. "People aren't going to do business with you just because you're black."
Some Involvement Desired
At the same time, even the staunchest conservatives concede that it would be a mistake to wipe out all government support. "It is obvious that in the areas of education, employment training, enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and the provision of minimal subsistence to the impoverished, the government must be involved," Loury said.
The black conservatives are winning a broader forum for their views than they thought possible even five years ago.