Since 1976 the Reverend Floyd Flake has been pastor of one of the nation’s most prominent black churches—the Allen African Methodist Episcopalian (A.M.E.) Church in Queens, New York. Flake has also enjoyed political prominence, serving as a Democratic Congressman for eleven years beginning in 1987. Interestingly, though, Flake chose to resign from the House in 1997, declaring that “There is more important work to be done in the church.”
Flake’s first book, The Way of the Bootstrapper, is thus of great importance, embodying as it does the political and religious views of one of today’s most thoughtful black leaders. But the book is not a political or religious tract, nor an autobiography (though it contains many autobiographical passages). Instead—as its subtitle suggests—it fits into the self-help niche, offering readers “nine action steps for achieving your dreams.” Thus it makes sense that purchasers of Flake’s book (according to amazon.com) also shell out for books like First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.
Bootstrapper has a flaw common to much of the self-help genre. It occasionally suggests that all of our dreams can be realized, regardless of how realistic they are. For most of us it’s just not the case that “within you is everything that you need to make [your] wishes come true”—unless the capacity to wish moderately is one of the things within you. In other respects, though, Bootstrapper breaks from the genre, in ways that are much to its credit. What is delightfully different about it is the commonsensical morality that undergirds it. The book could just as aptly have been called First, Follow All the Rules of White Middle Class America—the traditional rules dictating the behavior that generates upward mobility.
Thus one of the secrets to success is getting a job and working hard at it: “If you’re unemployed and aren’t even trying to look for a job, you’re lazy.” Another is saving: “Don’t depend on the lottery—you can use those dollars more wisely by investing them or putting them into your bank account.” A third is maintaining a unified family: “Poverty is a reality for many individuals because they have not gotten their family relationships in order . . . .With the divorce rate as high as 50 percent [and with] the single-parent rate even higher, it is our responsibility to reclaim the sanctity of marriage and the family.”
Underlying all of this advice is the belief that self-advancement is to a substantial extent within the power of those who seek it, even if they are poor or members of a racial minority. That is the central message of Flake’s book, which accounts for its unusual title. Bootstrappers are those who eschew dependency and therefore strive to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps: “Bootstrapping is a way of taking responsibility for and building your own life . . . . Bootstrappers do not see themselves as victims but have confidence in their ability to rise beyond the limited expectations that others may have imposed on them.”
In effect Flake argues that you achieve success in large measure by believing that you can achieve it—which then leads you to make efforts that will be rewarded by success. Significantly, much social-science literature substantiates this insight. As political scientist Lawrence Mead has noted, the sense that you control your fate is strongly linked to getting ahead in life—and to being happy.
In pleading the case for bootstrapping, Flake explicitly rejects the doctrine of victimization loudly proclaimed by the majority of self-appointed black spokesmen: “Today, when you tell people that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they will accuse you of blaming the victim. They argue that sociological imperatives mitigate against the possibility of success, especially for those who live in inner cities. This attitude has contributed to a condition of malaise that has caused people to believe that the government and others are responsible for taking care of them.”
Flake is also critical of certain “well meaning” social programs, even ones which were designed to help people “recover from economic disaster and injustice and springboard them into self-sufficiency.” In practice, however, these programs—he doesn’t name them, but the late unlamented AFDC is presumably an example—“have backfired into a pervasive, self-destructive mind-set of dependency and blame,” which “prevents us from assuming responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds.”
Thus Flake believes that his mission (and, more broadly, the mission of the black church) is to encourage the return to personal responsibility. He rightly touts the Allen A.M.E. Church as “a nationally recognized model of economic self-improvement and self-help.” Flake observes that the A.M.E. Church “has subscribed to a spiritual, educational, social, economic, and self-help interpretation of the Gospel” ever since its 1787 founding. Believing that God helps those who help themselves, Flake understands his role as helping to “facilitate this holy transaction within people.”
In terms of personal experience, few leaders of any race are as qualified as Flake to make the case for self-help; thus the autobiographical sections of the book are in many ways the most inspiring. Flake was born in Los Angeles in 1945, but he grew up in segregated Houston as one of 13 children of a poor couple. His tiny two-bedroom house lacked running water, and neither of his parents had more than a sixth-grade education. While growing up he wore secondhand clothes and ate plenty of meatless meals. Nevertheless, he was heavily influenced by the strong moral beliefs of his parents, and by four excellent teachers who challenged him “to expunge words like can’t, inferior, and second-class” from his vocabulary.
At a time when George W. Bush and Al Gore vie with one another in expressing support for faith-based charities, Flake’s ability to assemble a broad political coalition in support of his work may not be all that surprising. Still, the coalition is broad indeed. Thus the book’s introduction was written by Bill Bennett, but the foreword was written by Flake’s former congressional colleague Maxine Waters, a notably partisan liberal Democrat.
Despite their joint support for Flake’s work, both Bennett and Waters note that they disagree with him on various issues, and one can see why. Unlike most liberal Democrats, Flake supports school choice (he serves on the board of advisers to the Children’s Scholarship Fund) and opposes third-trimester abortions. Unlike many conservative Republicans, Flake believes that government can serve as a “leveraging tool” to help bootstrappers. Furthermore, asserting that “there is still too much discrimination to consider ourselves a ‘color-blind’ society,” Flake endorses a modified version of affirmative action.
It is therefore plausible that Flake abandoned electoral politics in part because he did not fit altogether comfortably in either political party. Be that as it may, he makes a persuasive case that religious work can now do more than political work to further social welfare. His efforts and those of other urban ministers have already done much good. To the extent that he and his many counterparts can construct a coalition that makes room for Maxine Waters as well as Bill Bennett, they may do far more good in the future.
Joel Schwartz is a contributing editor to Philanthropy. His book, Fighting Poverty With Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000, will be published next fall by Indiana University Press.