Farrakhan is not the Problem

Thirteen years ago, when I first started out on the lecture circuit, speaking about the issue of racism, it seemed as though everywhere I went, someone wanted to know my opinion of Louis Farrakhan.


To some extent, this was to be expected, I suppose. It was 1995, after all, and Farrakhan had just put together the Million Man March in DC. So when race came up, that, and sadly, the OJ Simpson trial and verdict seemed to be the two templates onto which white folks in particular would graft their racial anxieties. Though OJ has long since faded as a matter of conversation among most, discussion of Farrakhan never seems to end. As controversy has erupted regarding comments made by Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Wright’s occasional words of praise for Farrakhan’s community outreach programs have caused many to suggest that he, and by extension, Obama, are somehow tainted. Although Wright has never indicated that he agrees with the more extreme comments made by the Minister over the past two-and-a-half decades (and indeed, much of Wright’s own ministry and approach to issues of race, gender and sexuality suggests profound disagreements with Farrakhan on these matters), his unwillingness to condemn the Nation of Islam leader is used to write him off as an extremist and a bigot. But the simple truth is, Louis Farrakhan is not the problem when it comes to racism, sexism or heterosexism in this country; nor is he any real threat to Jews as Jews, or whites as whites, contrary to popular mythology.


Honestly, what ability does Farrakhan have to do me any harm, or any Jew for that matter? When was the last time those of us who are Jewish had to worry about whether or not our Farrakhan-following employer was going to discriminate against us? Or whether our Fruit of Islam loan officer was going to turn us down for a mortgage? Or whether our Black Muslim landlord was going to screw us out of a rent deposit because of some anti-Jewish feelings, conjured up by reading the Nation’s screed on Jewish involvement in the slave trade? The answer, of course, is never. If anything, members of the Nation, or black folks in general, have a much greater likelihood of being the victims of discrimination at our hands–the hands of a Jewish employer, banker or landlord, and certainly a white one, Jewish or not–than we’ll ever have at theirs.


Even worse, for white Americans to condemn Farrakhan, while still admiring some of the people for whom we have affection–who have not only said but done far more evil things than he–is evidence of how compromised is the principle we now seek to impose on others. It is evidence of our duplicity on this subject, our utter venality as arbiters of moral indignation. It isn’t that what Farrakhan has said about Jews, or gay and lesbian folks is acceptable–it isn’t. But the fact that his words make him a pariah, while white folks actions don’t do the same for us, is astounding. Louis Farrakhan didn’t bomb the home of a foreign leader, killing his daughter in the process, or arm a rebel group in Nicaragua responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 civilians, or give guns to governments in El Salvador and Guatemala that regularly tortured and executed their people. One of white America’s favorite white Presidents, Ronald Reagan did that. And millions of white folks (and pretty much only white folks) cried tears of nostalgia when he passed a few years ago, after which point thousands of these went to his ranch in California to pay tribute; and they name buildings and airports for him now; and some even suggest that his face should be added to Mt. Rushmore. Louis Farrakhan didn’t say that his adversaries should be hunted down until they no longer “remained on the face of the Earth.” One of America’s most revered white presidents, Thomas Jefferson, said that, in regard to American Indians. And he’s on the two-dollar bill that I used to buy some coffee this morning.


And even if we were to restrict our comparative analysis to extreme statements alone, the fact is, white folks who say things every bit as bigoted as anything said by Farrakhan remain in good standing with the media and millions of whites who buy their books and make them best-selling authors. Take Pat Buchanan, for instance. Despite a litany of offensive, racist and anti-Jewish remarks over the years, Buchanan remains a respected commentator on any number of mainstream news shows and networks, his books sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and rarely if ever has he been denounced by other pundits, or grilled by journalists, the way Farrakhan has been, in both cases.


So, for instance, Buchanan has said that AIDS is nature’s retribution for homosexuality; that women are “not endowed by nature” with sufficient ambition or will to succeed in a competitive society like that of the United States; and that the U.S. should annex parts of Canada so as to increase the size of the nation’s “white tribe” (because we were becoming insufficiently white at present), among other things. Most relevant to demonstrating the hypocrisy of the press when it comes to Farrakhan, however, consider what Buchanan has said about Adolf Hitler. When Farrakhan said Hitler had been a “great” military and national leader–albeit a “wicked killer” (which is the part of the quote that normally gets ignored)–he was denounced as an apologist for genocide. Yet, when Buchanan wrote, in 1977, that Hitler had been “an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the great war,” a man of “extraordinary gifts,” whose “genius” was due to his “intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path,” it did nothing to harm his career, and has done nothing in the years since to prevent him from becoming a member of the pundit club in Washington. Nor would he receive the kind of criticism as Farrakhan–at least not lasting criticism–when he wrote in 1990 that survivors of the European Holocaust exaggerated their suffering due to “Holocaust survivor syndrome,” and that the gas chambers alleged at Treblinka couldn’t have actually killed anyone because they were too inefficient.


In other words, a white guy can praise Hitler, can cast aspersions on the veracity of Jews who were slotted to be killed, and can make blatantly racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and ultimately nothing happens to him, and no white politician is ever asked their opinion of him, or made to distance him or herself from the white man’s rantings. But black folks will have to do the dance, will have to make sure to reject Farrakhan, because otherwise, apparently, we should intuit that they are closet members of the Nation, just waiting to take office so they can pop on a bow tie and put Elijah Muhammad’s face on the nation’s currency. Perhaps when white folks begin to show as much concern for the bigoted statements and, more to the point, murderous actions of white political leaders as we show over the statements of Louis Farrakhan, then we’ll deserve to be taken seriously in this thing we call the “national dialogue on race.”


~Tim Wise, Author, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. SeeĀ longer versionĀ at www.timwise.org.