How to grow bigots

March 15, 1994|By Shelby Steele

BRAVE though they were, A.M. Rosenthal's columns challenging black leaders to repudiate Louis Farrakhan for his (and his spokesman's) latest venture into anti-Semitism did not go far enough.

Something much larger than Mr. Farrakhan must be repudiated, and many more of us than the black leadership must do the repudiating.

Mr. Farrakhan personifies a specific territory in the collective imagination of black America. (Only this place in the imagination explains the vast disparity between his prominence and his rather small actual following.)

It is the territory where the group ceases to be a mere identity or culture and becomes a value in itself. Here the group becomes synonymous with truth and therefore beyond any need of approval from others.

All groups have such territories and the characters to fill them.

Meir Kahane, Louis Farrakhan, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the grand dragons of the Klan -- all such people are unassailable in themselves and among their followers because they take their specific group as a truth higher than any universal truth.

It is precisely their break from universal truths -- tolerance, brotherhood, fair-mindedness -- that enables them to assert the supremacy of their group.

So when Jesse Jackson and the members of the Congressional Black Caucus repudiate Farrakhan in a show of universal principles, they burn him in a fire that purifies his partisanship.

What might be more wisely repudiated is the pattern of social reform that America has offered its former victims for 25 years -- entitlements offered to groups (by race, sex, ethnicity and sexual orientation) rather than rights guaranteed to individuals and developmental help to those in need.

This is a pattern of reform that calls out the Farrakhans in every group so they can be used as wedges in the group's negotiations with the larger society.

The black caucus did not strike a "covenant" with Mr. Farrakhan because he had the political clout to get their members elected. His value was emblematic.

He personifies the black outrage at oppression that justifies entitlements for the group.

If you are seeking entitlements on the basis of oppression, then you must have your Farrakhan, or your Act-Up, or your radical feminists. Oppression must be seen to have driven them to hate, to have spoiled their reason and made them dangerous.

They are icons of oppression and their role Whenever a democracy allows entitlement by group -- as America allowed white entitlement for centuries -- it calls out extremists who both justify and enforce the entitlement.

in America's group politics is to embody a degree of alienation and anger that could become manifest in the entire group if entitlements are not forthcoming.

So Mr. Farrakhan is a result of a formula of social reform set up to reward past oppression with current group entitlements.

The Nixon administration -- in which group preferences were first employed -- is as responsible for his prominence as any actual oppression blacks may still suffer.

Whenever a democracy allows entitlement by group -- as America allowed white entitlement for centuries -- it calls out extremists who both justify and enforce the entitlement.

It was backward and extremist whites (the Klan and its fellow travelers) who, seeing their race as truth in itself, enforced white entitlement through Jim Crow segregation.

Whether justified by past oppression or notions of racial superiority, group entitlements always require thugs and goons to patrol their borders and ignorant mythologies to justify their advantage.

For 25 years the American formula for social reform has been based on the old formula for white supremacy. To reform centuries of white entitlement, we do not enforce the democratic principles it violated. Instead we grant precisely the same undemocratic entitlement to minorities and women in the name of redress. We use the old sin to correct its own damage.

But this difference is not as great as it seems, because in both cases we allow the mere claim (of oppression or of white superiority) to become a currency of entitlement.

This claim does not have to be supported. The child of well-to-do black parents gets preference in college admissions without any evidence of oppression, just as whites were once preferred without any evidence of superiority. Group membership alone seals the advantage.

This puts minorities and women in the same position as whites in the era of segregation -- as rationalizers of a dubious group advantage.

And the technique of rationalization is the same in both cases: to posit their oppression or racial superiority as an absolute in the world that not only justifies entitlements but also lifts them into moral proprieties.

Now the group advantage carries the weight of propriety, so that conformity to it is a show of decency.

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