The call of the tribe

January 31, 1996|By Salim Muwakkil

CHICAGO -- Early on December 7, a black couple was brutally murdered while walking down a street in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The alleged killers, two white members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, apparently chose their victims for no reason other than their racial identity. The soldiers are reportedly adherents of a neo-Nazi ideology that has found a home among some members of the nation's armed forces.

A day later in New York's Harlem district, an enraged black man with a gun and a can of paint thinner burst into a Jewish-owned store, shouted, ''brothers get out,'' and fired on fleeing customers. He wounded four people before igniting the paint thinner and shooting himself. Seven people died of smoke inhalation.

These two events aptly symbolize the past year's dominant motif: racial polarization.

Identity politics gone awry

The tragedy at Freddy's Fashion Mart on 125th Street in Harlem is a potent example of identity politics gone awry. For many weeks prior to the torching, demonstrators protested against Jewish owner Fred Harari, who wanted to expand his business by evicting the Record Shack, a popular black-owned store that carried music from all over the African diaspora.

The protesters viewed the conflict as part of a larger struggle against a conspiracy to restrict black businesses on the famous thoroughfare. As the dispute heated up, the use of anti-Semitic slurs became common among demonstrators, whose number included Roland Smith, the 51-year-old gunman.

It may be inaccurate to make causal connections between that inflamed rhetoric and Mr. Smith's murderous arson, but it's hard to deny that one helped set the stage for the other.

The call of the tribe is an alluring summons; it is especially compelling when there seem to be few other lines of defense. And in an era of largely uncontested conservative hegemony, other lines are dropping fast. How can black activists be persuaded to ignore racial distress signals when African Americans are so clearly, and so desperately, in distress?

''The nationalist project aims to improve the lives of black Americans by concentrating the scarce resources of time, money and political will on reconstructing the institutions of black civil society,'' explains Eugene Rivers III, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Values and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School and a longtime community activist. Mr. Rivers' evolution from a 1960s integrationist to a 1990s nationalist exemplifies the spirit of the times.

Some progressives, sensing their precarious position, are urging feminists, civil-rights advocates, gay-rights activists and others

to abandon the politics of identity for the good of the commonweal. Identity politics not only imperils the notion of community by glorifying difference, they argue, it also diverts energy and attention from more immediate causes that cry out for action.

'Symbols of insult'

Todd Gitlin's new book, ''The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked By Culture Wars'' (Metropolitan Books), makes this argument most eloquently.

''Instead of moving to organize against rock-bottom class inequalities and racial discrimination,'' he argues, ''many activists have chosen to fight real and imagined symbols of insult.''

There is much to recommend that view. In a fragmenting nation, our duty seems clear: halt the fragmentation. The logic of identity politics, and its multicultural offspring, seems to lead to chaos.

Nationalism fills a powerful human hunger and has both progressive and reactionary potential. Progressive nationalists understand the importance of curtailing the scapegoating excesses that lately have tainted the movement. The torching of Freddy's in Harlem should serve as a wake-up call to less progressive nationalists.

We need an alternative to reactionary nationalism, just as we need an alternative to the ultraconservative right-wingers in Congress. As the disparity between rich and poor becomes wider, the anti-democratic tendencies of the radical right will become increasingly apparent.

More and more Americans will begin searching for an alternative to the right's scorched-earth politics. The time to develop that alternative is now.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times, from which this article is taken.

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