Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 2001 / 1 Kislev, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

What's good for the Delta ... is good for the country -- IF there is a single socioeconomic principle that ought to guide public policy in a free country, and there isn't, it would be: Give people a stake in society.

Let people know that what they earn is theirs to keep and build on. So that the next generation can start on a firm foundation and do even better. That's why the latest news out of the Mississippi Delta, unlike so much in the past, is good news:

The W.E. Kellogg Foundation, as in Kellogg cereals, is putting up $20 million over the next five years to help poor families in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana buy their own homes, that is, become taxpayers and landowners and solid citizens.

This investment translates into an estimated 5,500 more home loans and 4,000 more jobs in a part of the country that could sure use both.

And that's just the start. Fannie Mae, the federal housing corporation, is going to invest $45 million in this program, and the people at Kellogg say their investment in the Delta could grow to $55 million. Here's an example of private and public philanthropy that's also good business.

It's not just the money that's welcome, it's the spirit of this enterprise. Its emphasis on home ownership and self-reliance strikes a note that has been neglected too long by the kind of economic planners whose plans go no further than academic studies, and often amount to little more than bureaucratic empire-building.

Too often talk about the nigh-eternal question -- what are we going to do about the Delta? -- turns into a search for the usual suspects. Which is a recipe for demagoguery, not democracy. There has got to be a better way to build the Delta, or it ain't gonna get built. It'll just stew in its own bitterness. Like our own Third World.

To quote Rick Foster of the Kellogg Foundation: ``People have to change attitudes about equity, about diversity, about racism. That's a critical issue. But more importantly, people have to have new capacities (though) work force development, new skills for a new economy. That requires a whole new set of training.''

He's got it right. Attitudes will change as the facts do. Injustice is not going to be simply lectured out of existence. Labor omnia vincit. Work conquers all, including blind prejudice.

Refusing to tolerate the prejudices that have held us back for so long is only a first step. More importantly, to quote Mr. Foster, institutions need to give people the tools to defeat it. Institutions like schools that actually transmit skills, not just politically correct attitudes.

Real progress requires institutions -- charitable foundations, for example -- that don't just scatter money and advice around, but can make loans. Institutions that invest in people.

Booker T. Washington tried to tell us at the end of another century that the best solution to questions of equity, diversity and racism -- though he was too clear a thinker to use those catchphrases -- was self-reliance. A home and trade of one's own.

Give us a chance to buy and live in our own house, on our own land, and pay taxes on it. Teach us a marketable skill. Let us earn and invest our own money. Then we might all be surprised at how rapidly racial discrimination and grinding poverty would dissipate.

Then we would be citizens, not dependents. We would be shareholders, not victims. Our idea of politics would progress beyond what we can get out of government and how we can prevent government's getting too much out of us. We would stop eyeing each other either enviously or suspiciously.

We would see things whole -- and realize that we all have to prosper if any of us are going to prosper for long. We'd realize we're all in this together. Our interests only seem to clash. Actually, they converge. None of us can prosper alone.

This mutual progress is called economic growth. And when growth ceases, business stagnates, opportunity vanishes and hope dries up -- and with it self-respect. And only demagogues prosper. The Delta has known too much of that kind of self-defeating, blame-the-other-race politics, whether it is practiced by a Bilbo or some racist of a different color.

An old man who was young when the South was still segregated (and un-air-conditioned, too) noticed an interesting social phenomenon when he was growing up in his small city. The most shiftless whites all got courtesy titles -- Mr., Mrs., Miss -- but almost no Negroes did. In academic parlance, you might say the white folks got honorary degrees while the black folks had to get earned ones. Children notice such things and ask about them; their sense of justice is still strong. They want to know why.

Slowly the boy came to realize the social dynamic behind this artificial distinction. He realized that Mr. Ford, a black man he knew, was called Mister not just because of his age but because he was a skilled tailor. He could run that sewing machine till it smoked, stitching the finest hem you ever saw, and make you a custom suit out of scraps lying around the shop. He was a registered voter, too, at a time when Negroes had to jump through every hoop to get on the list while the most illiterate whites thronged to the polls in a one-party state, no questions asked. Mr. Ford had a measure of political power and social status because he had a trade, because his services were needed. He had bargaining power.

Yes, it's important to overcome inequity and racism. And the surest way to do so is to give people a skill, to let us all have a stake in society, so we become homeowners and investors and voters. In short, give us a chance to be a somebody -- a Mr., Mrs., and, these days, a Ms. Yes, knowledge is still power. And not all the self-esteem in the world can make up for a lack of self-respect, which is built on reality.

It takes some of us long, hard experience -- the experience of an Arkansas, a Louisiana, a Mississippi -- to see through the collectivist fraud, whether it's called welfare or the plantation. It's so much easier not to take responsibility for our fate, and blame our problems on The System, on some nebulous Them, rather than free ourselves. That way we can have all the satisfactions of a lifelong bitterness.

All most of us really need is a chance, a loan, a job, a decent education. Which is what outfits like the Kellogg Foundation and Fannie Mae have realized.

Booker T. Washington still lives because his wisdom is rediscovered every time a new generation sees through the nostrums that replaced his common sense. He told us to put our bucket down where we are, to make of our own home what we would fain seek elsewhere, to improve and prosper ourselves, and then we would find we'd improved and prospered society.

Maybe that's why Professor Washington chose to become an educator, a builder, a conciliator. He knew what real strength was, and that its basis was independence, not dependence. Come to think, the principles he preached, and that will one day invigorate the Mississippi Delta, could apply to a lot of places.

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