Jim Sleeper: Has History Canceled Farrakhan’s Endorsement?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.]

The gravely ill Louis Farrakhan's endorsement of Barack "Hussein" Obama was so rightly buried in the avalanche of commentary anticipating the vote in Texas and Ohio that I'm speaking almost out of turn in educing one more reason why it was stupid to try to tie part of the Jewish community in knots over this story.

But I doubt we've seen the last of such efforts. Even though Hillary Clinton looked silly pushing Obama about the Farrakhan endorsement in the last debate, and even though John McCain may well not mention it himself, it'll be back, in some form, as long as Obama remains a contender. The irony is that something about Farrakhan's Million Man March of 1995 in Washington, DC. showed the folly of black vs. white race-card playing as nothing had before.

In 1995 hundreds of thousands of black men turned Farrakhan's march into something he hadn't intended or been known for. It left his Nation of Islam disoriented and on the defensive, where it has been ever since, especially since 9/11, for reasons even those who enjoy scaring themselves with bogeymen should have enough of what Jews call "sey-khel" (call it mental acuity) to understand.

The danger of Farrakhan was always that, abetted by our sensationalist media, he would shatter a taboo on public expressions of anti-Semitism even more vile and protean than the kind in the Nation of Islam's loopy cosmology.

Yet there was also something "retro" about Farrakhan's rants, redolent of the days when Jews had been classic urban intermediaries between elites and the black, inner-city poor. If you were black in Chicago, New York, and not a few other American cities in the 1950s and early '60s, it was often Jewish shopkeepers, landlords, teachers, and social workers who decided whether you could get a job, credit at the store, a apartment, a passing grade in school, or even an acquittal.

Most such encounters weren’t unfriendly, as the late black Brooklyn newspaper editor Andrew Cooper told me years ago for my The Closest of Strangers. But they were bound to grate, and every so often some aging urban black leaders like Farrakhan -- or like the City College of New York Prof. Leonard Jeffries, who ranted in the 1990s about Jews running the slave trade -- usher black listeners of a certain age back into a psychic landscape flickering with old, familiar demons.

The rest of the world seldom cares, and the Million Man March showed that most African-Americans don't care much anymore, either. Sure, that weekend there was a televised hate fest of Malik Al Shabazz, Amiri Baraka, and other souls frozen in time, but they had to stage their implosion not at the march itself but, the night before, at a public high school to which they'd been shunted. The multitudes of black men who'd come on long bus rides to Washington never heard them.

At the march itself, Farrakhan delivered an anti-Semitism-free skein of non-sequiturs and Masonic-like numerological divinations so stupefying that, when cameras panned the crowd, it was obvious he'd lost his audience. They'd come to bond as fathers and sons, brothers and strangers, and to claim, with a quiet poignancy, the credit blacks deserve for having built and died for the grand marble monuments all about them in Washington.

Immediately after 9/11, Farrakhan gave the most patriotic speech of his life, and no wonder: Suddenly, an entity called "The Nation of Islam" wasn't a cool place to be. American flags flew all over black neighborhoods, and, in a burst of American bonding across race and class, many blacks sought a kind of reprieve: For once, no one could blame blacks for what had gone wrong. If anything, the burden was shifted to Islamicists.

That reminded me of something a Jewish community relations representative had told me in 1990 during an acrimonious, sometimes violent black boycott of two small Korean groceries in Brooklyn. Apologists for the boycott portrayed its ugly name-calling and intimidation as the understandable response of a black neighborhood to price-gouging outsiders. But the "neighborhood" was far less involved than a notorious crew of racial street-theater impresarios who roamed the city in those days staging passion plays of archetypal black suffering for their own extortionist and dubiously therapeutic purposes.

"Whaddya think?" I asked the Jewish community-relations man, a genial, rumpled peacemaker in his mid-50s who'd weathered many such storms over the years.

'Oh, s'wonderful, s'wonderful," he murmured.

"S'wonderful? Why?"

"Look, the merchants aren't Jewish anymore, so they're not taking potshots at us there. The mayor isn't Jewish anymore, so they're not taking potshots at us there. We can be like the Quakers now. We can mediate!"

Well, maybe not, and my interlocutor knew that very well. Yet he had a point: Times change, and so do horizons.

How much sey-khel should it take to see that if the day ever came when a man stood on the Capitol's South Portico intoning, "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear....," it would be a victory for the American promise that we need not stay trapped in our pasts, a promise whose fulfillment in this case would leave more than just Farrakhan's Nation of Islam in the shadows?

Not everyone can or even should let go of the past. Yet only the same failed Americans who also worried that the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Nazi could worry now that Obama is a danger just because a dying, perhaps even somewhat repentant Farrakhan tried to glom onto him in the end. And only people who are still too fearful to affirm what's best in this country would believe them.
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Stephen Kislock - 3/10/2008

We are electing a President of All the Peoples of America.

This next President, must undo a foreign policy, that has made the U.S., the Hypocrite of the World.

Equal Justice for all People and to take a Balanced approach especially to the Middle East.

Just say No to War, Not with Iran, China, Russia. Lets come home and let the world, breathe a little.

Money for Medical, Education, etc., But little for War.