When Louis Farrakhan speaks, America listens.
Whether he is asserting the need for black economic development or accusing Jewish people of a media conspiracy against him, he has the power to pull worshipful cameras into his orbit, the power to take his words from the periphery of African-American thought to center stage.
And he has the power to move black people. According to a Time/CNN poll, nearly three-quarters of all African-Americans are familiar with Mr. Farrakhan, and more than 60 percent of those view him in a positive light. Sixty-two percent say he is good for the black community, 63 percent say he speaks the truth, and 67 percent say he is an effective leader. Many say he is the most effective black leader on the scene.
Why? I don't think it is because African-Americans buy into Mr. Farrakhan's anti-Semitic rhetoric. Instead, I think Mr. Farrakhan's your-face discourse touches a nerve among those African-Americans who are forced to swallow the bitter bile of the race conflict.
The best way to view Mr. Farrakhan is in the context of Ellis Cose's book on black middle-class angst, ''The Rage of a Privileged Class.'' Some African-Americans respond to Mr. Farrakhan because they can't respond to the discrimination and pain they experience each day. And white America would be well advised to deal with the roots of that discrimination and disparate treatment, not with Louis Farrakhan.
Mr. Farrakhan carries the historical mantle of the ''bad black,'' the black man who was defiant and angry, and who confronted white America. He is the late-20th century incarnation of upstarts like Gabriel Trotter and Denmark Vescey, of Marcus Garvey, and of Malcolm X, when Malcolm spoke for the Nation of Islam.
Indeed, the parallel between Mr. Farrakhan and Malcolm is ironic since Malcolm mentored Mr. Farrakhan, and since Mr. Farrakhan's role in Malcolm's assassination has never been determined. But the two men are admired for much the same reason -- because they are up-front, angry and articulate, and because beneath the confrontational nature of their anger there is the redemptive nature of their mission: black empowerment and economic development.
If our economy generated more equal results, Mr. Farrakhan's fire might fizzle. If those who wanted to start businesses could get loans, then the Nation of Islam's alternative might look empty.
But, truth be told, many adherents to the Nation's philosophy have had doors slammed in their faces. They've given American free enterprise a chance and they retreated to the Nation under the weight of broken promises. Mr. Farrakhan's rhetoric about the ''white man'' and the ''Jew'' strikes a chord in those who find the system unfair.
Mr. Farrakhan and the Fruit of Islam offer an image of African-American manhood that contrasts sharply with the image that gets the most media exposure. While national news focuses on the extent to which black men are unemployed, criminal, careless and marginal, the disciplined and bow-tied Fruit appear to be their antithesis. They stand at attention when a Muslim official enters a building. They circle their leaders in tight, silent webs and jostle anyone who moves counter to their unspoken rules. Their mystery is riveting, hostile, peculiar. And it is so counter to the way white America works that it attracts the support of black America.
The difference between the way white folk and black folk feel about the American dream and its outcome is at the crux of black acceptance of Mr. Farrakhan. Flawed interpretation of history aside, he tells a truth so awful that most white Americans turn away. Mr. Farrakhan says there are no clean hands in the slave foundations of our nation's history.
The seeds of slavery are the roots of our nation's contemporary ** inequality. Our avoidance of those issues makes Mr. Farrakhan's raw rhetoric appealing to African-Americans in a nation that has room for a Holocaust Museum but no Slave Monument, for a ''Schindler's List'' but no true depiction (like Howard University Professor Haile Germina's film ''Sankofa'') of slave realities.
When viewed from a historical prism, Louis Farrakhan isn't America's only bad black. His appeal is as real as that of Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey or others who spit in the wind at the American dream.
The challenge is not to rail at the spitting, but at the source of the anger. When the American dream is not a nightmare for so many African-Americans, then Louis Farrakhan's rhetoric will twist, not spit, in the wind.
Julianne Malveaux is an economist and syndicated columnist.