A good idea backed by the wrong person

October 11, 1995|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Some critics argue that Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan's planned ''Million Man March'' is a sign that black Americans are too race-conscious, even ''reverse racist.'' I would argue that it is a sign of quite the opposite, that black Americans have not been race-conscious enough to help our least fortunate brethren become more productive.

The idea behind the march is a good one. It's just too bad the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People didn't come up with the idea first. But even if the nation's oldest and largest civil-rights organization, had thought of it first, the idea would not have had the same in-yo'-face edge and appeal that Mr. Farrakhan brings to it.

Secret of successful propaganda

''Why,'' Bertrand Russell once asked, ''is propaganda so much more successful when it stirs up hatred than when it tries to stir up friendly feeling?'' I am sure Mr. Farrakhan, in his private moments, asks himself that question. We can hear his answer in his speeches, which have lashed out at a variety of targets ranging from Zionists to homosexuals to Santa Claus.

Faced with a growing crisis of crime, drugs, poverty, joblessness, family abandonment and despair, I have no doubt that millions of black men are primed and ready to respond ''It's about time'' to Mr. Farrakhan's call to next Monday's march on the National Mall in Washington.

That's because it is not only about time but long past time for black men to ''straighten our backs,'' as Mr. Farrakhan puts it and take direct action to restore the traditional role of protector and provider, particularly in the lives of young black males, who have destroyed more young black lives each year than the Ku Klux Klan did in a century.

Although most young black males and females are law-abiding and try hard to be responsible citizens, you don't have to look very hard to see much of black America is in crisis. You have only to look at the predominance of black women in churches, colleges and professional management and the predominance of young black men in jails, unemployment lines and cemeteries.

Relations with other groups, Jews included, are important, but on the minds of many blacks one hears the constant mantra, ''We need to get ourselves together first.'' For that, many are willing, sad to say, to ignore Mr. Farrakhan's record of unapologetic Jew-baiting or pretend it doesn't really matter in the face of the larger crisis closer to home.

Significantly, there is a modest recognition of this reality in the full-page ad that the Anti-Defamation League placed in the New York Times. ''We understand the need of African Americans to come together in a march on Washington,'' it read. ''We understand and support the urgent need to correct these problems.''

''Unfortunately,'' the ad also points out, ''this march will be the most mainstream event led by an anti-Semite in recent American history.

''And this cannot be ignored.''

No, it cannot and should not be ignored. But I suspect most of the marchers will ignore it anyway, partly because black Americans can fall as deeply into denial about their own prejudices as white Americans can.

Most of the marchers, I am sure, will cloak themselves in deep denial as easily as some ''angry white male'' voters cloak themselves in denial about the deeper implications of Ronald Reagan's attacks on ''welfare queens,'' George Bush's attacks on Willie Horton or California Gov. Pete Wilson's attacks on ''preferential treatment'' and ''illegal immigration.''

The "proper role" for women

Even many black feminists and ''womanists,'' to use author Alice Walker's favored term, have put aside their ambivalence about Mr. Farrakhan's invitation for them to fall back into the ''proper role'' for black women that day, to stay on the sidelines, to take care of the children and to support the menfolk in good pioneer fashion.

Despite vocal objections from some, like outspoken author Jill Nelson, I suspect that the Nation's machismo appeal evokes a favorable response from most black women, as it does from others, when Mr. Farrakhan calls on black men to resume their proper role as provider and protector of the family and community.

While the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently endorsed the march after withholding his endorsement for months, some other black leaders can't get far enough away from Mr. Farrakhan, if not his positive message.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the 8.2 million-member National Baptist Convention, denounced as ''an absolute lie'' Mr. Jackson's statement that Mr. Lyons and the Rev. Bennett W. Smith Sr., head of the 2 million-member Progressive National Baptist Convention, had endorsed the march.

Like those Baptist ministers, we don't need Mr. Farrakhan to tell us to ''straighten our backs.'' Like the proverbial two-by-four on the head of a stubborn mule, he only focuses our attention. The more urgent question still remains: Where is he marching us to?

8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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