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Behind the Farrakhan show.

The latest installment of the Louis Farrakhan media sideshow is less news than soap opera. Who will repudiate him next? Who will refuse to do so? How should we judge each response? What will Farrakhan do about Khalid Muhammad? How will Khalid respond? Who will pop up in the cycle of soliloquies of pain/hurt/fear/grave concern? Who will take the stage next to lament the harm "black anti-Semitism" does to the "historic alliance" of blacks and Jews?

The whole spectacle is quite like the other mass-mediated melodrama, the one sociologist Francesca Polletta has characterized as a version of the underclass morality play. I mean, of course, the saga of the deserving (respectable, aspiring, attractive, intact) working-class family versus the undeserving (disorganized, trashy, tacky, broken) lower-class family, starring Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

But there's more going on in the Farrakhan show. The obvious and odious anti-Semitism of Farrakhan and Khalid Muhammad, when all is said and done, is only a pretext for the furor. Most revealing and distressing is the way this carnival captures the poverty of public discourse about race in American society. Somehow, the earnest op-ed page discussion provoked by Khalid Muhammad's remarks has managed to avoid the obvious point that race is a central element in a system of enforced hierarchy and inequality.

Take the editorial in The New York Times insisting that black leaders (whoever they might be) "renounce root and branch Mr. Farrakhan's . . . message." The Times graciously suggests that "in return, black organizations and leaders have a right to ask for heightened white sensitivity to the commonplace discrimination of everyday life and to the increasing tolerance for parlor - and campus - prejudice against blacks."

Black people, that is, must prove that they deserve basic protections accorded automatically to all other citizens by passing The Times's litmus test for moral and ideological responsibility.

Two themes underlie this point of view. One is the idea that "racism" is a problem of individual psychology and attitude. The other is the lofty ideal of interracialism, which floats on pieties about universal brotherhood, harmony, communication, and sympathetic, mutual understanding.

Thus, The Times and other mainstream media voices urge us to be appalled at the bigoted, often noxious views that Farrakhan and his minions in the Nation of Islam express about whites in general and Jews in particular. A recurring theme is that black people who support Farrakhan are squandering the moral capital acquired for them by the early civil-rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s transcendent interracialism - "Black and white together, we shall overcome some day."

In the mainstream press's overheated rhetoric, Farrakhan's racism and anti-Semitism have been presented as equivalent to that of David Duke, legendary Southern segregationists, even Hitler. The comparisons are laced with a sense of irony or studied surprise that black people, the most familiar victims of American racism, can themselves succumb to the most heinous racist beliefs.

To say that Farrakhan's racism is different from David Duke's does not depend on a claim that blacks deserve some sort of affirmative-action points allowing for bigotry on the basis of past suffering. The point is simply this: The more tightly the lens focuses on personal attitudes, the more nearly identical Farrakhan seems to notorious white bigots. And in terms of character or moral worth, the comparison works.

But if we are talking about political significance, things are much more complicated. David Duke has been elected to a seat in the Louisiana state legislature and twice received majorities of the white vote for statewide office (reminding us once again that black enfranchisement is all that stands between us and the Old South). Jesse Helms is now serving his fourth term in the U.S. Senate. The New York Times editorially linked Farrakhan to Ross Barnett and George Wallace. But Barnett was a governor of Mississippi and has a state park named in his honor, and Wallace was four times governor of Alabama.

Farrakhan has no power or influence in our official institutions. He can neither make nor enforce any law or public policy. He has no constituency outside his own small, esoteric organization (most estimates of the Nation of Islam's membership range between 20,000 and 30,000), which may even be in decline. His main claim to fame is that he commands the attention of a willing news industry that accords him visibility and the mercurial celebrity of an entertainer.

Can we really imagine Louis Farrakhan - or any other black person - leading a successful fascist takeover of the United States?

That Farrakhan does not pose a social and political threat equal to Duke and the others in no way diminishes the reprehensible character of his views. (And not just his attitudes about whites, either. He advocates a nightmarish, repressive regime for black Americans, as I wrote in The Nation in January 1991. In the current episode of this national racial psychodrama, only Joe Wood in The Village Voice has even raised Farrakhan's reactionary agenda for black Americans the one domain in which he could be truly dangerous.) But the simplistic, tit-for-tat patter about racism on the editorial pages of The New York Times and elsewhere - the luxury of the privileged - is grossly inadequate. It equates the danger posed to a superordinate white majority by a fringe black ideologue who depends on the mainstream news industry for his audience with the danger posed by racists who hold public power.

Two wrongs, to descend to the level of The Times's pieties, certainly do not make a right. But in this case only one of them has the potential to lead to genocide. And we can see from the current crime bill, punitive welfare reform, wanton police terror unrestrained by legal redress, etc., which one it is.

Even The Times acknowledges that comparably scurrilous white racists have not provoked anything at all like the public uproar that Farrakhan has - no breathless daily updates, no insistence on generic white repudiation of Duke, Helms, Fritz Hollings, Charles Murray, and the others. This asymmetrical reaction is telling because it points up the defectiveness of the interracialist ideal.

Farrakhan outrages whites in part because he breaks flamboyantly with the rhetoric of interracialism, adherence to which is a sine qua non for blacks' participation in respectable public discourse. But the concern with interracial harmony that has long been a shibboleth of American discussion of the "race problem" is an empty abstraction. It doesn't tell us anything about concrete social relations.

Slavery, for example, was an interracial economic and social system. It featured blacks and whites working together in an organic division of labor. The point is not whether blacks and whites are engaged together but how they are linked and toward what ends.

Southern Redeemers of the late Nineteenth Century argued that they wanted to restore racial harmony, a project that in their view required white supremacy. Eric Arnesen's Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class and Politics, 1863-1923, shows how the period's most successful example of interracial labor solidarity was predicated upon blacks' acceptance of a two-tiered wage structure and occupational segregation that reserved higher-paying jobs for whites. And Southern segregationists denounced civil-rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s on the grounds that it disrupted harmonious race relations and inflamed racial tensions.

More recently, Pat Watters, writing in The Nation, offers Lafayette, Louisiana, as a model for contemporary race relations because he believes, and states quite unabashedly, that inequality is enacted there in a spirit of mutuality and interracial civility and respect. Proponents of the "New Liberalism," associated with the Democratic Leadership Council and its journalistic and academic publicists, have joined the Reaganite Right in castigating virtually any attempt to push against the boundaries of racial hierarchy on the grounds that it destroys the prospects for interracial unity. One of the most preposterous bits of sophistry decries efforts to create electoral districts allowing minority voters to elect candidates of their choice as violations of the interracial ideal.

So we see the world turned upside down in allegations that, for instance, the reapportionment plan that enabled the first blacks to be elected since Reconstruction to the Congressional delegation from North Carolina - a state that is a quarter black and has a history of systematic disfranchisement - foments segregation "apartheid" and "ghettoizes" black voters.

The particular furor surrounding the image of Farrakhan and "black anti-Semitism" - and, course, the obligatory denunciation ritual - derives from two deeply ingrained and disturbing premises, as University of Chicago professor Kenneth Warren has noted. The first is that black Americans' claims to equal rights depend on their demonstration of moral rectitude. The corollary is that blacks' membership in the polity - unlike other American citizens' - is not conferred directly on individuals but is mediated by designated group leaders.

These premises give the lie to all the banalities about abstract interracialism - from teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony to cynical appropriations of Rodney King's lament - and the mindless noodling about individual prejudice. What the American "race problem' is about ultimately. is not feelings, sensitivity, understanding, respect for difference, or any other such airy babble. It is about justice and equal access to the fruits of citizenship.

Even George Wallace - who now, ironically, seems more troubled than the Clinton Administration by racial inequality - claims, no doubt sincerely, that he never embraced racial hatred. But that's hardly the point. Neither did Eichmann.
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Title Annotation:Class Notes; Louis Farrakhan
Author:Reed, Adolph, Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:1559
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