The multitude of black men gathering in our nation’s capital today has the potential of being the second most important day of the century for African Americans -- the first being Martin Luther King’s Washington march of more than 30 years ago on Aug. 28, 1963. In at least one aspect, it may well be the most important day in the lives of black men since the first of them were brought here in chains nearly 400 years ago. The event and its purpose, after all, are by and for black men only. Rep. Donald Payne was asked by Robin MacNeil last week on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour why women were expressly excluded from the march. The New Jersey Democrat, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, said that if the call had gone out for black people to march, 600,000 women would have showed up. The men would have shrugged, saying their women would take care of their responsibilities, and for the most part stayed home. The direct call to men was taken as if it were a call to arms. There has never been anything quite like this before in American history. It is extremely important that the white community put aside preconceptions and try to understand what is going on here. I can’t say I know for sure, but this brief essay is an earnest attempt at that understanding. I hope it will be found merely provocative, not offensive, and it is certainly not meant to be definitive.
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Martin Luther King represented the matriarchal side of the black community -- the non-violent, compassionate, patient, motherly side. He envisioned the successful integration of black Americans into white America as the primary goal of the civil-rights movement. His method embodied the soft, communal, non-threatening side of the black community, which is why it preceded that of Louis Farrakhan’s in black America’s historic struggle to bridge our national family’s racial divide. It was hard enough for white America to deal with this passive best-foot-forward from Dr. King, which succeeded because it attracted enough support in the white community finally to overcome the legal barriers to black progress. By 1975, the entire civil-rights legal agenda that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People set forth in 1908 had been completed. What remained were the social barriers to black progress and development, the most important being the social pathology of the black man in America. It is a barrier which, by its very nature, black men must overcome without the help of the rest of us.
It is a social and cultural pathology that traces back 400 years, to the inability of the black African male to resist enslavement, a total defeat of his manhood. This involved centuries of standing aside and passively observing white slave masters borrowing their women for sexual pleasure. Black women have, of course, always been more welcome in white America than black men, which is the basis of the black matriarchal tradition. Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves with a civil war and a stroke of a pen, but he could not so easily restore the lost manhood of the black male. This has continued to the present moment via the destruction of the black family by a welfare system designed by paternalistic white politicians of both political parties. The system invited unemployed black husbands and fathers to abandon their wives and children, who could then get the cash and care that their men could not provide. Where it exists, the verbal and physical abuse of black men toward their women has been characteristic of this cultural pathology. (The welfare state’s perverse incentives have, of course, produced similar characteristics among white men.) It has been especially evident among black athletes, the most physical of men. Jack Kemp, who spent a career in close quarters with black football players, says he could never get over the abusive way so many of them discussed their women -- as if constantly to prove to each other they were in control, not emasculated by their women. The black women of the O.J. Simpson jury knew well enough that his physical abuse of his wife was no indication of a capacity to murder, contrary to how it must have struck Marcia Clark, his white prosecutor.
This is the cultural deficiency that Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, has tapped into and seeks to rectify with his Million Man March. He advertises it as “a day of atonement” by black men for their treatment of their women. It is much more than that. Think rather of an assertion of black manhood and I believe you will come closer to understanding what is going on here. Why an Islamic leader? As a venue to make this secular statement, none of the mother churches of the Christian faiths was adequate. The Islamic center of gravity is masculine and patriarchal. From the white perspective, particularly from that of the American Jewish community, Farrakhan seems an extremist. From the black perspective, he is clearly viewed by both ardent supporters and fervent critics as a man drawing close to the center of black thinking, a father figure of scrupulous, even rigid moral example, but a fiery and righteous one, who would reach for the sword rather than turn the other cheek. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the most important black leader in America in the lineage of Dr. King, will march with Farrakhan, knowing Farrakhan is filling a void that he cannot. At least for the time being, until an electable political leader emerges from this movement, Farrakhan today will be anointed by a significant fraction of black Americans as their leader for this new day of black development and progress. White Americans wonder if this is a man to be feared. “A million black men marching in Washington scares the hell out of me,” a wise leader in the American Jewish community told me Friday, when I called him to talk about it. Yet his philosophical tone suggested he was not afraid at all. “It should be no surprise that Farrakhan has risen to the top. It has been in the cards for a long time.”
Why now? In my commentary after the Simpson trial, “Four Black Men,” I wrote of four others who have come center stage, one at a time, in this critical national conversation about the racial divide -- Mike Tyson, Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson and General Colin Powell. It is Farrakhan’s turn to move the conversation along, and in that sense he is not to be feared at all. It is Farrakhan who must surround himself with bodyguards. His predecessor in this cultural initiative on behalf of the black man, Malcolm X, did not protect himself, and was assassinated before he could get very far. Farrakhan’s mission is to transform the perception of the black male, an animal species, into the black man, a civilized species, one who restrains his dark impulses, who treats his woman with respect, who not only provides for his children, but also is there to teach them the spiritual values and secular rules of God and man. It is not realistically possible to do this singly, one man at a time. It may be that the chemistry and the time is now right to do it en masse, with at least tens or hundreds of thousands of black men bonding together in their nation’s capital, all others watching either in support or in suspicion. If he succeeds in his mission, Farrakhan will have narrowed the racial divide in America, with black men becoming more politically effective, but less threatening physically to their fellow Americans, white and black. We should even be able to observe a decline in the black crime rate after this Contract Among African Americans.
In recent days, I have found myself wondering with black and white friends who are deeply offended or suspicious of Farrakhan if he is really a racist separatist and bigoted anti-Semite, which is what appears at first glance in his deliberately inflammatory rhetoric. More often, I hear a language of black identity, not separatism, a message aimed more at economic and social divisions than racial or cultural classes. There was a time when he seemed to call for an intense black separatism, but it is really a more interesting and subtle idea that I’ve gotten from listening to him, as I did to Malcolm X. Where Martin Luther King’s matriarchal sense of community led him to proclaim integration of the races as the primary goal of black Americans (“I have a dream”), Farrakhan insists this is an impractical goal, a demeaning one that in any case cannot be reached straightaway, a goal that should be put aside. The primary goal should not be for blacks to aspire to white society, any more than it was a primary goal of my immigrant grandparents, from Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine, to dream of living amidst those other ethnic communities that had settled before, from England and Germany, Scotland or Scandinavia. The primary goal was always self-fulfillment, the realization of individual potential in the Land of Opportunity. It was presumed that individual achievement would open most doors, although there was not much thought of entry to private clubs or High Society. If it happened, it happened.
Dr. King’s integration route was direct. It not only involved the opening of public places. It inspired legislation and judicial decisions designed to integrate forcibly blacks and whites. There was forced school busing to realize Dr. King’s dream of black and white children walking hand in hand. Public housing was built with the aim of accommodating the needy of both races, side by side. Affirmative action programs in the building trades and federal contract “set-asides” were advanced to hasten the entry of black labor and black business. A raft of anti-poverty programs, begun by Democrats in the Johnson administration and extended dramatically in the Nixon administration, siphoned resources from white America for distribution in black America. The matriarchal approach, after all, is inevitably communal. Equality of result is preferred to equality of individual opportunity, which is the preferred approach in a patriarchal world. The two worlds, white and black, that the Kerner Commission found in 1970, were worlds divided into the capitalistic and the socialistic. Some significant portion of the philosophy underpinning these political gifts from white America to black America rested on the unspoken assumption of inherent, genetic, intellectual inferiority among people of color. Among the most generous of these political gifts came from Jewish liberals, who are to this day the last of white America to assimilate socially in this largely Christian country. The followers of Dr. King in the black community remain politically bound to the American Jews of both political parties, and are of course the most hostile to Farrakhan, his movement and his march.
In a strict sense, this helps explain why Farrakhan appears to be “anti-Semitic,” when there really is nothing in his rhetoric that suggests he does anything more than goad the Jewish political community. There is no intimation in any of his remarks of Jewish inferiority, only sulphuric assertions about Jewish economic history -- either involving the slave trade or the financing of the Third Reich or of real or imagined Jewish profiteering in black ghettos. These have been specifically aimed at infuriating the Jewish political community. The remarks sound as offensive to my ears as they do to most other white Americans and black opinion leaders, but on close inspection they are class assertions, not racist statements. Had Farrakhan ever threatened Jews, or white Christians for that matter, he could not today be assembling a million men in one place and fastening the attention of the rest of black America on the event and its significance. Not the tiniest fraction of the million men could be considered anti-Semitic in the sense the Hitler’s Nazis were. After their ascension to power, the Nazis were at the top of the white political pyramid of Germany, the Jews at the bottom, which today is where black Americans are in America.
If there had been a million blacks beneath the Jews, who doubts that they would have accompanied the Jews in the Holocaust? When we take the trouble to look at the world from Louis Farrakhan’s vantage point, we see a social pyramid in the United States that sees the Jewish community layered just above the black, although in a power pyramid American Jews are near the top. They can get elected to power positions in business and politics in greater numbers than their proportion in the general population. These are ladders scaled through merit. Yet it remains almost as difficult for Jews to break the barriers of social clubs as it is for blacks. Farrakhan’s message of black separation is exactly opposite of what the white community has been led to believe it is. Instead of organizing to break into the white communities, the white schools, the white country clubs, he would organize to have blacks climb the ladders of business and politics that are scaled only through individual merit. American Jews have never wasted much of their time or energies organizing to scale social ladders. They have gotten rich enough to build their own social clubs, private golf resorts, charitable and religious institutions, and political action groups. The great American melting pot was never meant to blend us into a uniform broth.
The only authority at Farrakhan’s command is moral authority, and the sense in the black community that only a man like him might be able to save his people. Can those of us who are white have any doubt that there is need for salvation, when we know that one third of all black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are either in prison or on parole? In the controversy last year regarding The Bell Curve, the pseudo-science book on the genetic inferiority of blacks by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, I got a chilling sense of what black leadership in America is up against. Except for a handful of critical reviews by science writers like Gregg Easterbrook, who pointed out the absurdities of the Bell Curve propositions, I found a general acceptance among white opinion leaders, both conservative and liberal. The propositions were, of course, identical to those that underpinned the eugenic Master Race quackery of the Nazi regime. Is it indelicate of me to note that there was enthusiastic support for the book among many otherwise intelligent American Jews?
Was Louis Farrakhan not supposed to notice? When I am reminded that Farrakhan has in the past referred to white people as evil, President Reagan’s reference to the evil empire of the USSR occurs to me. At the time, political liberals were horrified that Reagan would use so incendiary a term, although I was personally thrilled, as were most political conservatives. To me, the term evil equates not with cruelty or with viciousness or with criminal behavior. It equates with darkness, as opposed to light. The road to communism, after all, was paved with good intentions. So too has been the paternalism of white America to black. What will it take for a light to go off among white Americans who believe they are enlightened, yet continue to live in darkness as far as this racial divide exists? The Rev. Martin Luther King tried and failed. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has tried and has failed. Now comes the minister Louis Farrakhan, who will not try to persuade white America that black Americans are their equal. He would challenge black Americans instead to demonstrate to themselves that they are, not to prove anything to others.
Where is this million man march heading? To begin with, not in one direction, but in two. The monolithic black community has hung together politically in order to mass its strength, first beholden to the Republican Party of Lincoln, then to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt. It has now reached a stage of maturity and self-confidence that enables it to divide. We might think of this as part of the post-Cold War restructuring of the political coalitions that took root with the New Deal. In the national political realignment underway, this emerging patriarchal, capitalistic fraction of the black community will find its home in the Republican Party. There it will join with the Gingrich revolutionaries to rebuild entrepreneurial capitalism. It will, of course, moderate the tendencies of the GOP toward excess. The matriarchal wing of the black community will remain tied to the Democratic Party, attended to by the Rev. Jackson. Its continuing mission will be to represent the assimilationist goals of Martin Luther King, which, now moderated, will find greater acceptance and less resistance by white America.
In The New York Times “Week in Review” section yesterday, the lead article by Don Terry, “A Million Drummers,” noted this political tendency: “‘I have often made the point,’ said Salim Muwakkil, an editor at In These Times who is a former member of the Nation of Islam, ‘if it were not for his expressions of anti-Semitism, Minister Farrakhan would be the candidate of the Newt Gingriches, because he is basically talking their talk. It’s the same message they are trying to sell, but the young aren’t listening to the church. They are listening to Farrakhan.’”
Unless I am greatly mistaken, Farrakhan will be seen today and hereafter as a less incendiary figure in American politics. He has used rhetoric as a battering ram, both to gain attention and to attack the integration paradigm constructed by Dr. King and his followers and supported by the political and financial generosity of the Jewish community. His message does not involve hate, but reflects a rage in the black community that always accompanies injustice, intended or not. For a black population that has seen its leadership so often sell out to the white power structure, at least on that score they have no doubt that he is a leader to be trusted. The fact that Jews have taken the brunt of that rage reflects their proximity to African-Americans. If Farrakhan cannot get the Jewish community to realize its own benevolent racism, how can he ever hope to break through to the WASPs at the top of the social and power pyramid?
Curiously, Farrakhan has identified 1913 as a critical year in the white power structure’s oppression of black aspirations. It was the year in which the Federal Reserve was created, the national income tax was instituted, the FBI created, and the Anti-Defamation League founded. To the conspiratorial mind, these might be the institutions created to end the nation’s early history as a fluid society, to pull up the opportunity ladders before the black community really had a chance to scale the heights of America’s promise. I’ve argued for nearly 20 years that the monetary inflation and tax progression that have crippled our economy -- just as the civil-rights goals were achieved -- have had their most damaging effects on the black community. If capitalism is denied men above ground, they will seek it underground, which is why there is a lost generation of young black men behind bars.
With the spotlight on him, Farrakhan last week did invite dialogue with the Anti-Defamation League, noting that if Arabs and Israelis could cross rivers of blood in order to discuss their differences, the Nation of Islam and the ADL should be able to dialogue without having to cross rivers of blood. The ADL understandably rejected Farrakhan’s overture, insisting there first be apology for his past statements of racism and bigotry. There has not been apology yet, but Farrakhan takes a step in that direction when he says his past statements have been taken out of context. If he is as smart as I think he is, he will soon be seen as taking his own message at the Million Man March, and end his verbal abuse of the Jewish community. If we note that Yassir Arafat is now being entertained at the White House, photographed side-by-side with Jewish leaders in the Rose Garden, we might also imagine Farrakhan in a similar embrace.
There is only so far Farrakhan can personally get in American politics, but it is not the job of revolutionaries to get elected to political office. Instead, the march today will generate a new set of black political leaders. The younger generation will gravitate toward the Kemp wing of the Republican party, which lately has seemed to desperately need some new blood. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who last year headed the Congressional Black Caucus, has in the past year dropped hints of switching parties. He is a solid supporter of Farrakhan’s mission. He is also a Colin Powell enthusiast who privately seems to be urging a Powell candidacy, knowing it would take place in the GOP. We cannot help but notice that Newt Gingrich now is saying that if General Powell intends to seek the GOP presidential nomination, he should first present himself on Capitol Hill for a private meeting with the Republican leaders. The GOP right-wing fears a Powell presidency would end the Gingrich revolution, which they interpret as meaning a demolition of the New Deal and its social programs. At the same time, Farrakhan is saying that the day is over when the black community supports political candidates just because they are black. If Colin Powell wants to run for President, he says he would not have any trouble voting for him if his policy views are in line with economic opportunity for blacks. The political world is registering high numbers today on the Richter Scale. It will never be the same, and that is all to the good.