Farrakhan's Moment

Where do we go from October 16?

ON SUNDAY THE news cameras were out stalking the Capitol Mall and points west in anticipation of the Million Man March, asking the same old disingenuous question: What, what, what do black people want? Unity and renewal were the most popular answers, with variations. "We're desiring forgiveness for our shortcomings in the past. That's what the march is about," said one man. "I want to take this positive feeling back to my community and register to vote," said another. He went on to complain of the Newt acolytes who've commandeered the federal agenda. I wondered what Minister Louis Farrakhan would have made of that last bit of analysis. Newt and Farrakhan have far more in common than meets the eye.

This is Farrakhan's moment, and there has never been another quite like it. Its genesis has less to do with the long history of the civil rights movement than with the backwash of white reaction and black disillusionment. His celebrity is the product of a white America grown tired of demands on its pocketbook and its moral attention and a black America tired beyond reckoning of broken promises. And even as Farrakhan preaches atonement to black men, he offers an ironic kind of absolution to white institutions. Beneath the fiery talk, his vision is conservative to the bone.

Above all he's in accord with contemporary Washington's resolve to ignore questions of equity, opportunity, and justice in the name of letting the market heal all ills; like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he thinks bootstrap capitalism accompanied by moral exhortation is the answer. All he asks is sympathy and perhaps financial assistance for the business class that will save a separate but equal black America. The avatars of the free market--who have worked for a generation to redefine democracy not as people talking but as money walking, and who now busy themselves dismantling the public sector--could not invent a better channel for the political energies of African-Americans.

The practical contradiction is manifest: Mom-and-pop entrepreneurialism can't stop the economic hemorrhaging of black communities or the social disintegration in its wake, which is one reason the black middle class has fled those communities. The situation has only grown worse since global capital flight started in earnest in the mid-1970s. Black workers were among the first casualties when steel mills and car plants closed down, and social decline has marched in lock step with economic decline. But it's not a black thing per se. On the morning of the march, CNN's headline stories included a report that single-parent households accounted for 13 percent of American families in 1970, 22 percent in 1980, 28 percent in 1990, 30.8 percent in 1994. As for that 1994 figure, the race breakdown was 25 percent for white families, 65 percent for black families.

So it appears the years have wrought a substantial breakdown in families of all colors--coinciding, for some vexing reason, with the declining fortunes of most American wage earners. But "crisis of the family" rhetoric never talks about the role of jobs and money in sustaining families, and it never talks about white people. It's always cast in moral terms and targeted at blacks, starting for contemporary purposes with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan's infamous 1965 report pronounced the pathological condition of fatherless families the chief problem in black America, effectively defeating the best efforts of government and business to promote harmony and prosperity there; by thus reversing cause and effect, he helped lay the foundation for race-baiting by both parties down to the present day. If Kevin Phillips's fabled Southern Strategy, concocted for Nixon in 1968, proved that racial divisiveness was a route to perpetual rightward drift at the ballot box, it was the Democrat Moynihan who showed pols how to jump on the bandwagon without an unseemly amount of outright bigotry. In root and branch, the racism of modern politics is truly a bipartisan effort.

Farrakhan is comfortable in this milieu. He's always believed in tough love for the poor. In 1990 he told an interviewer from the racist-right Liberty Lobby's magazine The Spotlight, "If I am sick and I'm a member of your household and I have a communicable disease, what you do (so that the disease does not affect the whole family) you remove me from the house and you put me in a place which is separate to allow me to come back to health.... You have... millions of [black] people who are out of it in terms of our ability to take advantage of even the laws that are on the books right now. We are not creating jobs for ourselves. We are sitting in a dependent position waiting for white people to create a job for us. And if you don't create a job for us we threaten to picket or wait on welfare to come."

Farrakhan, who once was quoted in the magazine Emerge as saying, "I am to black people as the Pope is to white people," stands uniquely poised. His appeal to black pride and purpose has profound resonance on the streets, where he is the first political hero since Jesse Jackson crept back behind the Democrats' coattails after his 1988 campaign. No one else on the national stage can claim to speak to or for black youth as he can. But there's a political contradiction as well as an economic one in the Farrakhan program. He has advanced his claim to leadership in part by condemning the same black Americans (namely, young and working class) whose allegiance and respect made him a national force in the first place. What will he offer them in the days and months following October 16? If the march fallout means a few federal small-business grants for minority neighborhoods, that's some small good. But at the end of the day trickle-down is still trickle-down: good for the tricklers, not so good for the trickled upon.

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