There's more than Farrakhan to worry about

June 14, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Pratt Street yesterday morning, with God in his heaven and Minister Louis Farrakhan inside the World Trade Center breakfasting with the NAACP, the Rev. Jesse Jackson looked reporters in the eye and said, What about it?

Everybody's making too much of this invitation to Farrakhan, Jackson said. Unfortunate distraction from the real issues, he said. Focus on the pain in the black community, he said. And, on all counts, Jackson was on the money.

"If I were sitting at a table with Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms," declared Jackson, "nothing would be said. And these are men who flirted with racism and who had state power."

Notice Jackson's use of the diplomatic verb; these U.S. senators "flirted" with racism the way Richard Nixon "flirted" with paranoia. In an hour of contentiousness, with the NAACP drawing hurt and furious outcries for inviting the white-bashing, anti-Semitic Nation of Islam's Farrakhan to its national summit here, Jackson reminds us of the give and take of real-world politics.

This is America; the NAACP is free to commune with whomever it wishes, and Farrakhan is free to say what he wants, in or out of NAACP earshot.

To deny this is to deny our belief in the fundamental nature of the country, which is the free and open exchange of ideas, swapped in lieu of more damaging things.

One reason some white people have a problem with Farrakhan coming here this week -- and it's only one reason among many, but it's important, and nobody's mentioned it -- is the assumption of a silent conspiracy among blacks. It's a notion that ideas aren't as important to them as mere skin color and that all this brotherhood talk we used to hear is now considered outdated since Farrakhan seemed to find some untapped vein that unites blacks by telling them all their problems are caused by white people and they should withdraw from that world.

This shows precisely how far white people have come in the decades since race relations were placed at the center of the national consciousness: Nowhere. Whites look at other whites and understand there will always be differences of political and social and cultural opinion; but many look at blacks and assume an underlying, universal sham, that they secretly have no use for white people except to cash in on white guilt, real and imagined, past and present.

Thus are many blacks and whites united on at least one thing: our mutual, lock-step suspiciousness. Black suspiciousness is that underneath white folks' talk of good intentions, we've got our own universal conspiracy to keep all blacks as socioeconomic second-class citizens.

And Louis Farrakhan taps into these suspicions and plays them like no other divider of our cranky, combative time.

But let him talk. And let's also remember there's a time to respond, a time for others at this NAACP summit to tell him where he's wrong and a time for those outside the gathering to formulate their own responses.

It's already begun, and Farrakhan's argument has thus already begun to fray. On Sunday, at the Bethel A.M.E. Church in West Baltimore, Farrakhan vowed to lead a boycott of any corporation that "refuses to donate to the NAACP because they've included me as a member of the family."

Excuse me? It's Farrakhan who's made the repeated pitches to withdraw from white America, corporate and otherwise. Would he deny white America's right to withdraw equally from black Americans who do their own withdrawing? Would he deny the right of corporations to listen to his rhetoric and act however they wish to act?

The NAACP hasn't lived so long -- longer by far than any other civil rights organization -- because it's been oblivious to such potential reactions.

The NAACP is free to embrace Farrakhan, and Farrakhan's free to speak his piece; but those who watch, and who listen, are free to form their own responses.

Jesse Jackson's right: There is more important business than Farrakhan. To watch black America now is to feel your heart ache. To watch black leaders gather here now, and talk of "coming together," of strengthening families, of curbing crime and drugs, is to realize they've been talking a good game for a long time, but the suffering continues.

In the face of that, we all have more to worry about than Louis Farrakhan.

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