Work to overcome Farrakhan's message

October 19, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- A week ago, in the midst of the din that arose upon O. J. Simpson's acquittal, I wrote that while the verdict was certainly a blow to race relations in the United States, it wasn't the apocalyptic moment it seemed to some. Good sense on both sides would eventually prevail, I said.

The piece seemed to astound some readers. One whose judgment I usually consider reliable politely called me an ostrich. If I couldn't see that the racial divide in our country was now just about unbridgeable, he suggested, I must have my head wedged. And what about Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March?

Well, like so many others before it, that march has now come and gone. Nothing terrible happened. My optimism, though shaken, remains.

At the moment, the respectable public response among both blacks and whites seems to be that all in all it wasn't such a bad thing, no matter that its sponsor's rhetoric and ideas might be a little outre.

This is, of course, grotesquely patronizing, for it implies that blacks -- unlike members of other groups -- can't be called to account for the rhetoric or the behavior of those they choose to consider leaders. The insidious old double standard demands that Mr. Farrakhan and his message be separated, no matter what intellectual gymnastics that requires.

Thus if his march promoted unity, if it made African-American men feel good about themselves, then -- runs what I take to be the general consensus -- it must have been all worth while. ''Despite the demagogy, an important truth,'' said the little italicized blurb preceding The Sun's editorial, brilliantly distilling into six words the overwhelming message of the mainstream commentary.

The demagogy was there, certainly, but the truth wasn't so obvious. For my part, I thought the Million Man March was both preposterous and discouraging.

It was preposterous in its pretense that by taking hundreds of thousands of men away from their jobs (if they had them) and families (if they acknowledged them), it would encourage them to be more responsible individuals. And it was discouraging to see so many people listening to so much nonsense and apparently believing it.

Mass movements

On the other hand, to those of us who tend to be suspicious of all mass movements no matter what their ideology, it was at least familiar. Almost all the human tidal waves that periodically inundate The Mall and the Capitol grounds tend to appear preposterous and discouraging. This is because they're not about debate, they're about muscle-flexing, or bullying if they're big enough for it.

Mr. Farrakhan's Monday camp meeting on The Mall was in the great Washington tradition of the March on the Pentagon, the Poor People's Campaign, those noisy tractorcades of surly farmers, demonstrations for and against abortion, and countless other now-forgotten outdoor assemblies.

All these were conducted to energize the faithful, intimidate the opposition and capture the fickle attentions of the national news media. If they raised money and made temporary celebrities of their most visible leaders, so much the better. The Farrakhan march appeared to score well in all categories.

Whether it advanced the interests of black Americans in any significant way is another matter. From here, it looks as though they've been set back.

The perspective of Havre de Grace, a racially diverse and unusually well-integrated small city, is obviously not that of West Baltimore, of Anacostia, or of the South Bronx. To say there are no racial animosities here would obviously be naive, but there are certainly fewer reasons for them to fester than in the areas from which so many of the Farrakhan followers seem to come.

Some African-American men from Havre de Grace attended Monday's March. Many did not. Locally, the event was shunned by many black ministers, business and professional people, and women. Among both blacks and whites, it probably drew less attention than the Simpson trial.

A composite sketch

I've been thinking this week of a hypothetical young black man, a composite of a few people I know and thousands I don't. He's a man who has made his way through school, who's a good husband to his wife and a good father to his children, who works hard at a job and tries to do useful things in his community. He stayed away from Monday's march, mostly because he just didn't have the time for it.

Mr. Farrakhan certainly hasn't made this good citizen's life any easier. Instead, with his separatist screechings, he has quite deliberately done all he can to isolate him -- from whites on the one side and blacks who buy the racial-solidarity propaganda on the other.

This is tragic, and it's evil. But those of all races who want to undercut the Farrakhan message should take note. You can do this no more effectively than by reaching out -- socially, financially, or in any other way -- to people like this hard-working young man.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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