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Gary Younge
A man made by racism

He looked up to see two other black parishioners, Absalom Jones and William White, being hauled away in the middle of their prayers after being told that they could not kneel there. When the prayer was over, Allen led them out of the church and set up one of his own, where black people could worship with self-respect. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he founded, today boasts more than a million members in America.

The history of black America, like a good Southern baptist sermon, is a litany of calls and responses. Called upon to live as human beings; yet responded to first as chattel and then as second-class citizens. Racism followed by resistance; dignity in the face of discrimination. A dismal dialectic of spiritual impoverishment in the wealthiest country in the world.

Take the call without the response or vice versa and non sequiturs abound. Like walking into the middle of a film, you can see what is happening but have no idea why. Remove the incident in St George's church and Richard Allen is no longer a Christian in search of a house of worship but a segregationist looking for a new power base.

Likewise, those whose understanding of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam begins and ends with his anti-semitism and distaste of whites see only the response and will never fully grasp his function or his importance.

Not because those charges are not true - his record of Jew-baiting and white-hating is both irrefutable and deplorable - but because they say more about what repels whites and Jews from him than what attracts black people to him. "He's said a lot of things that are anti-semitic, but the question is, does it represent anything significant about black politics?" asks David Bositis, a Washington-based academic. "The answer is no. It may be central to his message but not to his meaning."

Farrakhan's meaning is firmly rooted in America's racial landscape, both black and white. He reflects and contributes to racist discourse in America but he didn't invent it.

He rises from a tradition of black nationalism stretching back to the beginning of the last century - a time when lynching, segregation and share cropping in the south and urban deprivation and racist unions in the north, led some activists to believe that seeking equal rights in a predominantly white America was futile.

Instead they sought either to leave the country altogether or establish a certain degree of autonomy within it. His anti-semitism stems from a longstanding, problematic relationship between African-Americans and Jews which has, at different times, displayed both mutual antagonism and great solidarity.

His current high standing among African-Americans is partly due to the fact that the American political establishment has spent the past 20 years sidelining the moderate black voices it was not able to co-opt. When Bill Clinton stood for president in 1992, he made every effort to distance himself from Jesse Jackson.

With no collective leverage within the mainstream, black America looked to the margins and Farrakhan was waiting with open arms. He is the one they always go back to, because he is the only one who has no interests or pretensions outside the black community. He will not be humiliated when trying to negotiate with the white power structure because he has had no interest in doing a deal with it.

While his message is often crude, many admire his candour. The year after the Million Man March, 70% of black people said Farrakhan was saying things the country needed to hear, 63% said he spoke "the truth" and 53% called him a model for black youth. Only a third considered him "racist or a bigot". Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery sparked the most decisive period in the civil rights movement, was just one of many who supported it.

But, Farrakhan's core constituency is the lost sheep, those who for whatever reason have no shepherd and are part of no flock. The vast human wasteland of urban, black Americans who live in areas which look as though they have been bombed - not quite the suburbs but way out on the fringes of city centres, beyond the shadows of the skyscrapers.

He appeals to the outsiders and outcasts that the rest of the country tries its best not to see. He presents, for public consumption, what most of them would only dare say in private. He is the only one talking about them, and the only one talking to them. Like Malcolm X, many are recruited in prison; like Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan's predecessor, many others are delivered from drink and drug addictions.

To understand his appeal is not to defend it. Farrakhan's faults go way beyond anti-semitism. He is a homophobe and sexist, with a problematic attitude towards other racial minorities too. He can bring Washington to a standstill for a day but he has neither the politics nor the programme to advance the causes of the black diaspora. Little more than a year after the Million Man March, the Nation of Islam held a political convention to build on its success: only a few hundred turned up.

As minorities throughout Europe and the Americas, black people have to make alliances with the very people Farrakhan so wilfully alienates - Jews, gays, feminists, progressive whites and other minorities - to make any political headway. We need precisely the forces cohered in Jesse Jackson's rainbow coalition during the 80s.

Only we need them without Jackson's ego, so that we can build a movement that is functional all year round rather than only at election time. Farrakhan is politically incapable of leading, or even participating in, such a movement.

His arrival here will not have any lasting impact on black British politics, because he will fly into a completely different context. Black Britain has neither the demographic nor financial resources of black America. In the US there are far more black people and they have far more money, which makes supporting a separatist movement a viable option in a way that it is not here.

And most importantly, Britain has only recently shown signs of the voluntary segregation that is so prevalent in America. In the US, African-Americans are the ethnic group least likely to intermarry; here they are the most likely. Here half of the British-born Caribbean men and one third of the women who are in relationships have chosen white partners. If he comes to preach racial segregation he could also stage a mass divorce ceremony for all the mixed-race couples.

None the less, both his fame and his notoriety will ensure a rowdy reception from black communities here if he comes, particularly among the young. Alongside Nelson Mandela and Jesse Jackson, he is one of the best known black faces on the global political scene. He will be greeted as a celebrity, not as a role model. He is the desperate response to a callous call; the hate that hate made.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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