. . . The fear and loathing are predictable The wooing of Minister Farrakhan

May 24, 1994|By Garland L. Thompson

Washington -- BLACK leadership summits make many white Americans uncomfortable -- and none more so than when blacks whom they call "responsible" leaders try for detente with their brasher counterparts.

Witness the flurry of white comments on the Black Caucus Weekend rapprochement between Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, Benjamin Chavis of the NAACP and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.

Not to worry, said the nervous-sounding analysts. Everybody knows Louis Farrakhan is irresponsible. He'll soon say something outrageous, chasing away every responsible black leader.

The predicted outburst came not from Mr. Farrakhan, but from a relative unknown, Khalid Muhammad. When Mr. Farrakhan refused to disavow all of Mr. Muhammad's diatribe, Representative Mfume predictably was put on the defensive. A chorus of prominent blacks and whites joined in questioning Mr. Mfume's judgment, if not his sanity, and congratulating themselves that the feared linkage was now dead.

One might wonder why the attack tape came out just then, as Mr. Farrakhan was seeking ways to find a truce with American Jews. Interviews before the Muhammad contretemps, with this correspondent and others, showed that Mr. Farrakhan recognized he'd have to come to a new heading in order to be accepted on the broader stage as well as to move to the center of black leadership. But that's another story.

Mr. Chavis kept saying he'd keep talking to Mr. Farrakhan. That prompted misgivings among many of black America's professed friends. Didn't Ben Chavis know Mr. Farrakhan was a demagogue? Hadn't Congress spoken? This was dangerous ground, particularly for the NAACP.

Such friends should read James R. Gaines' Feb. 28 Time magazine column on the "perception of a subtle form of white racism -- the sense among some black leaders that . . . 'some whites feel a need to make all black leaders speak out whenever one black says something stupid.' "

"That this feeling of grievance exists is not just Time's opinion," Mr. Gaines said. "It is a fact."

Mr. Chavis recently concluded a meeting with his national board with some members still smoldering over an earlier "summit" he had held with 40 people who had been castigated by the press as dwellers of the left-wing fringe. It is not clear whether Mr. Chavis still will invite Mr. Farrakhan to his June 12 summit. But the possibility apparently keeps many people awake at night.

But let's get back to the grievances mandating a summit. In a nation which pushed civil rights to the back burner for more than a decade, the agenda must be bigger, broader. We have civil rights laws dating from the 1860s, but now whites are using them to attack civil rights.

Other grievances await. The 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery is history, with big fanfare at the Statue of Liberty, but Randall Robinson almost had to starve to focus an American president on changing a hateful policy of forced return of Haitian refugees.

Since then, American reporters have watched a man marked for death forcibly repatriated on the excuse that a partially defanged policy of on-deck asylum interviews had not yet gone into effect.

A recent NAACP membership survey found economics, education and crime atop the list of black concerns. There is food for thought in that.

Others share those priorities. Philadelphia attorney Craig Thorpe and a law classmate, Theo Brown of Washington, are talking up a national summit of black professional groups -- all meeting at the same time in the same town -- to discuss business and economic issues. It's still in gestation, but key proposals are for cross-attendance at workshops of mutual interest, mass networking sessions and a caucus for leaders to set a new black business agenda.

Mr. Chavis struck a chord in Mississippi with a march on the state capital to protest plans to close or merge black colleges after the Supreme Court found discrimination in Mississippi's college system. Ten thousand people joined the march, which was held as a judge postponed hearings on remedies.

Blacks have been pushing education for a long time. Lest we forget, the whole of segregation came down over blacks' demand for better schooling for their youth.

And the youth have responded. Despite lags in big cities like Baltimore, three quarters of all black youth finish high school these days. With 23 percent of all college-age black males in trouble with the law, 28 percent are actually going to college. Some observers call black colleges an anachronism, but they still produce outsized shares of the black college graduates. That progress is often overlooked -- a cause of still more grievances -- but its impact will be large in future generations.

It is thus predictable, with a college education a basic ticket in the high-tech, service-oriented 1990s, that attacks on black scholarship programs, assaults on blacks on majority-white campuses and attempts to close black colleges generate simmering anger.

Mr. Farrakhan's Fruit of Islam may not be a better police force, but it does go into drug-infested areas to try to fight crime. As Thulani Davis wrote in a letter to Time magazine, "Minister Farrakhan's pat formulations of our troubles sound like the scapegoating diatribes of haters elsewhere, because they are soothing drinks drawn from the same well." But she adds, "Anyone who really wants to deal with the impact of Minister Farrakhan had better start standing on the same corners he stands on, going in the same doors."

Yes, there are issues of conscience and responsibility to bring to Mr. Farrakhan's table, as well as issues of white intransigence and societal disingenuousness to discuss at Mr. Chavis' summit. The main thing is to get on with it.

Garland L. Thompson is a former editor of Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP. He writes from Washington.

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