July 20, 1992 | Lecture on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Slavery to 1992: A Historical Perspective of Black American Success Through the Free Market System

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Slavery to 1992: A Historical Perspective of Black American Success Through the Free Market System

By Armstrong Williams In 1992 it is hard to imagine a world in which human b eings were captured in their home vil- lages, bound-in -chains;-andforced-as shrves to bear-the-many burdens-of-bondage. My African ancestors lived in harmony with nature and kept alive religious traditions that revered life. However, many African-America n s today are but the latest generation of our people who have never come to terms with life on this continent. To other African-Americans, the market econ- omy has been a blessing from which they derive ample incomes for a comfortable and satisfying way of life. From slavery to 1992 is a long way, and, in fact, some have not made it yet. The souls of some are stiff bound in the chains of slavery. Perhaps the key to success in the American free market economy is accepting the idea that it is morally permissi b le to be prosperous. It may seem incredible that any Americans in our commer- cialized society would hesitate to validate the fruits of one's labor as professional or business persons. Consider, however, that African culture at the time of slavery was a w a y of life that for count- less centuries had revolved around simple subsistence. Cows and goats were added for goods, so there was not a sense of valuing money. Even today, some people in Africa have no use for money. The concept of buying and selling is n ot part of their world. To slaves who were brought off the ship in Charleston, South Carolina, and sold on the auc- tion block, the idea of being traded for pieces of paper must have seemed strange indeed. The value of money was one of many things to be l e arned in a strange land while living in slavery. Wealth and Poverty. Another thing that slaves were taught was the Christian religion, which has an underlying theme that views money as being evil. "Money is the root of all evil" is a say- ing that is as C h ristian as a Baptist hymn book. We also could look to Christ's statement in the New Testament that it is harder for a rich man to get to Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. We could also look to the vows of poverty, chastity , and obedience that members of religious orders take as they seek lives of piety and holiness. Somehow, poverty seems more noble than being wealthy, and the assumption is that to gain wealth, one must make compromises with the world that endanger one's so u l. To African slaves, who often sat in the balcony of churches and listened to the same sermons as their masters, the Christian attitude toward money must have seemed highly compatible with the attitudes they had brought with them to this country. Poor pe ople often see themselves virtu- ous and console themselves with the assurance that they remain close to God, which rich people, in their view, obviously cannot do.

AnnstrongWilliarns is Managing Partner of the Graharn-Williarns Group, and international public relations firrn. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on February 11. 1992, as part of a lecture series observing Black History Month. ISSN 0272,1155. 01992 by ne Heritage Foundation.

Even after the Civil War, when many former slaves remained'on the plantations as day labor- ers, the occasional black entreprendur was looked upon with disfavor by members of his own race. Again, there was a presumption so heavily weightedagainstwealth that if -a black man be- came rich, he must have done something terribly wrong to have prospered in such fashion. It would be hard today to assess the attitudes in the black community about money and suc- cess. Undoubtedly, however, one would still find a certain fatalism about poverty to which many have condemned themselves. These poor African-Americans accept their station in life. Their minds are not geared toward striving to get out of poverty. They endure their lives of poverty n ot with despqation but. with. resignation. The idea that God must have loved the poor because He made so many of them, is prevalent among poor whites and the poor of other ethnic groups. The mountains of Appalachia are thinly populated with hill people wh o live hand to mouth and are thankful that they are not sinful like the rich. The free market is an impersonal economic system that offers its rewards to those who build a better mousetrap, sell the mousetrap, repair the mousetrap, insure the mousetrap, or represent the mousetrap's purchaser when he sues the manufacturer because the trap allegedly won't catch mice. Money, of course, is essential to the f1ree market, so that prices can rise or fall with demand and so that supply can match the requirements of the market. Morally Neutral. In a free market economy, moral virtue is not a saleable commodity. One can contribute to the GNP by being a crook as well as by being a choir director. It is not that the free market economy is immoral; it is simply amoral. T h e question of morality doesn't enter the picture. As an example of what is meant by amoral, consider a house. It is a physical structure. The structure has a roof and walls to enclose a space so that it can be used for whatever purpose the owner chooses. A house can be a monastery, or it can be a place where crack dealers sell their dope. The house is neutral as far as morality is concerned. Thus it is with the free market. Within the free market, one may sell Bibles or assault weapons. Either would boost t he GNP by the amount of total sales. Some people do get rich while cutting the throats of other people in business deals. Sometimes fraud is involved. Sometimes other crimes are committed. But it is not always true that success in business is the mark of t he Devil. Now, you may never have had any doubts that it's morally justifiable to earn a fair profit or a decent salary from enterprise or hard work. However, I would submit that many people in Amer- ica, including many African-Americans, are happy to rem a in poor because their value system warns them against the sins of riches. Those of us who are sophisticated in the ways of the free market may find it extraordinary that anyone would hesitate to expend effort to earn money. Not everyone operates according to the same value system. Americans who have become successful, including African-Americans, take it for granted that economic success is desirable. They realize that it is not just that you are suc- cessful but how you became successful that counts. Ther e are ethical manufacturers and unethical ones. The same is true of wholesalers, retailers, professionals, and managers. In fact, even among the clergy, now and then a preacher makes news by straying from the straight and narrow. No field of economic endea v or is inherently moral. Any economic activity can be subverted by unethical dealings. However, the vast range of our incredibly complex economy consists of honest people producing or selling honest goods for an honest price or honestly providing -needed s ervices for competitive fees or salaries. The ffiarketplace simply reflects humanity in all its goodness and its weaknesses.


As African-Americans have come to terms with the market, they have developed a value sys- tem that permits them to pursue suc cess and which validates honest endeavors. Such a value system is vital if more African-Americans and Americans of-other races areto break with the cod@ of poverty and begin trying to make more affluent lives for themselves. The question of how to lead th e African-American people into greater economic success has been with this country since the freeing of the slaves. Even under slavery, some African-Ameri- cans not only gained their own freedom but became wealthy landowners. Ironically, some of those blac k landowners were also owners of slaves, members of their own race who were still in servitude. Early freedmen gained success as farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and artisans. There were also many who .4plied themselvEs academi c-ally add became preachers , teachers, accoun- tants, and journalists. Unshackling the Mind. When society changes, and the shackles are taken from the wrists and ankles, it is still up to the former slave to take the shackles from his or her mind. Once the shack- les are removed fro m the minds of African-Americans, they are able to compete in the free market as everyone else does. I believe sincerely that there are no black issues or no white issues or beliefs. We are all shaped to some extent by our backgrounds, but there is an Amer i can belief system, and we all are free to share in it if we choose.. I am African-American, but, like my father, I am also a Re- publican, and I believe 'in the work ethic and the concept that -success follows hard work. The free market respects merit. Th e free market rewards merit. You can be a scoundrel and make a killing in the stock market, but in most fields your reputation goes before you. For most people, character and integrity are important, and sustained business depends upon fair dealings. Assum i ng that fraud or some other crime is not involved, the willing exchange serves society well by matching a willing seller with a willing buyer. Where there is a mutual will to carry out a transaction, there can be no harm. Where there is good faith on the p art of the buyer and good faith on the part of the seller, goodwill should remain long after the transaction has been com- pleted. Karl Marx called it capitalism, but the true term is economic freedom, the freedom to buy, to sell, to own, and to lease or r ent without government interference. We have only to read the news about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to know that Marx- ist socialism has failed. There was a system that tried to improve on freedom by rigging the system so that everyone would have economic equality. This scheme didn't work, and in the end, -the Soviet people rebelled against those who had imposed an artificial and unworkable system on them through armed force. Institutionalized Welfare. In this country, we don't try to achieve abso l ute economic equal- ity, but we have institutionalized a welfare system t:fiat is based on ideas about equality. Our government has -said that there shouldn't be any poor people in our society. To combat the prob- lem of poverty, our government gives paym e nts to those who are poor. Consider the motion picture, Field ofDreams. The voice in the cornfield said, "If you build it, he @ill come." So the protagonist built a baseball,field in Iowa, and the ghost of his baseball- playi:r father did come. Another vo i ce could say, "If you pay them, they win be poor." As long as we reward people to stay in poverty, they will, indeed, show- up'to collect the money and stay on the welfare- rolls. To use another illustration, if you were to sit down on a park bench in Was hington, D.C., with a fifty-pound sack of grain and start feeding the pigeons, eventually you would have just about -every.pigeon in. D.C. at your feet.


The truth is, we as a society cannot provide instructions to every citizen in poverty about how to become economically viable. But we can be sure that as long as we provide subsidies for stay- ming poor, the poor will always be with us. It will become necessary for the poorto be weaned away from their monthly checks if we ever are to deal with the prob l em of poverty. By the same token, some say there is a "Field of Dreams" syndrome at work with the home- -less. We have built shelters and established kitchens, and they have come. Many were living,%ith relatives, perhaps on the sofa. But society created a place for.them in the shelters, so they aban- doned the sofa or were shoved out of their uncle's apartment, and-now they are homeless. It is good to help people, because anyone might need temporary help at one time or other. But help thavis permanent is i n jurious to the spirit. It creai6s' dependency and'iobs ihe individual of his or her ability to cope independently. One of the problems with the free market is that it doesn't -have a doctrine of altruism. But, of ,course, the free market was not created f o r altruistic purposes. It sprang up and evolved as a way to provide goods and services to society, not to provide assistance or redistribute income. Investing in Individuals. To the African-American people, the question of how to inspire Our poor brothers and sisters to success is very important. Solidarity is very strong in the African- American community, and there has always been a debate about the.way for all our people to .achieve success. I believe that a way should be found within the context of the free market to en- able:and empower people, including African-Americans, to achieve success. We have plenty of companies that provide goods and services and invest in plants and equipment; what we need are .companies that will invest in individual human b e ings. If we had human resource development companies, a person could obtain funds for education, training, or a small business loan and repay the company through the proceeds of increased earn- .ings. A company could deal with a client throughout the clie n t's working career, so that the client could advance with changing technology. Because technology is changing, the time is 'coming when workers will have to change specialties three or four times during their working lives. Human resource development comp a nies could provide a wide range of services to clients, all of which the clients could repay on a deferred basis. The economy would benefit from better. trained, better educated workers. In some cases, the result would be a business loan so that an in- di v idual might open a small shop or start some other kind of small enterprise. Self-help is important, but also some outside help usually is needed to make the act of self-im- provement a success. Our free market system needs a greater social sense in order t o be fully human. We need to learn to help others in an institutionalized way so that there is dignity on the part of both the service provider and the client. African-Americans who are poor would benefit from human resource development companies, but so w ould all poor Americans. If such companies were established, we could begin to move away from the welfare system and toward a system in which each able individual is expected and empowered to work and to succeed. Since slavery, millions of African-America n s have been -as- similated into the mainstream of the nation's economy, having adopted a value system compatible with the free market. In the area of retail business, Afiican-Americans sometimes have hurt themselves by prefer- ring,to do busines -s with p e ople of other races. It's strange that a black man can open a store in a black neighborhood and go broke, whereas a Korean or Jewish merchant on the same block will .succ Ieed. Something in the African-American heritage causes our people to distrust those of our


own race who gc into business. This is a phenome-non that must change if our people are to suc- ceed As entrepreneurs. However, a people are defined by their idiosyncrasies -as well as by their aspirations for suc- cess. My people have their pa rticular and sometimes peculiar ideas, but we are also deeply spiritual, and it is always hard to reconcile the spiritual with the material. In some ways, we bring the spiritual to the marketplace, just as we bring our spirit to the arts, entertainment, s p orts, and fashions. Some of us have come a long way in a relatively short time, historically speaking. Others of us have a Iong-way-to-go -and -have-not-star4i ed. the-journey yet. Meikwhile, -there can be no safe gen- eralizations about how African-Ameri c ans are competing in the free market. We are rich, we are middle class, and we are poor. But despite problems unique to our people, we are like anyone else. We know joy and sorrow, happiness and pain, hope, and despair. We are your brothers and sisters, a nd whether you realize it or not, you share in our struggle. May the day come when all who aspire and work hard will succeed, and it can no longer be said, "The poor will always be with you."



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