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Gary Younge

Michael Jackson: black or white?
Back into the fold

When Michael Jackson wrote the lyrics "But if you're thinkin' about my baby/It don't matter if you're black or white" in his hit single Black or White, he could claim significant expertise. Jackson has had a fair crack at being both. First there was the African-American child star from Gary, Indiana - which became the most segregated city in America - who was the ethnic and aesthetic antithesis of the white-skinned, white-bread Osmonds.

Then came the raised cheekbones, thinned nose and lightened skin that transformed him into ... something else. The surgeon's knife did not make Jackson white exactly, but it did not leave him looking black either. Instead he took on the characteristics of a transracial experiment, a combination of features that had never before been seen collected in one human being. In the process, Jackson proved that race was a construct by altering his face beyond all racial definition. If ever there was a candidate to tick the box "Other" on the racial categories of forms, it was him.

If his first attempt at racial conversion was cosmetic, his second, more recent one has been political. Only this time he is going in the other direction. In what may yet prove to be his boldest transformation yet, Jackson is trying to reinvent himself as black.

Under siege from both reporters and prosecutors, following charges of seven counts of child molestation, Jackson has reportedly teamed up with the black Muslim racial separatist organisation the Nation of Islam. Among other things, the Nation supports the creation of a separate country for black Americans and was founded on the principle that white people - literally born with tails and fur - are devils.

Jackson's former spokesman, Stuart Backerman, resigned two weeks ago, claiming that leading members of the Nation have begun making decisions for Jackson on strategy for his legal defence, business affairs and dealing with the media. The Nation's chief of staff and Minister Louis Farrakhan's son-in-law, Leonard Farrakhan, is now working out of the Los Angeles office of Jackson's lawyer Mark Geragos.

"The Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan's son-in-law have taken over completely and are in full and total charge," one senior Jackson employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times. "They have gone in and taken over control of the finances in terms of who's getting paid, how much," the employee added. "They're approving all funds and have decided they have control of the business manager and accountant, without signing authority or power of attorney. They are working out of Geragos's office; in essence they're telling him what to do."

"These people are basically brainwashing him," said the associate, who is also a friend of Jackson's. "They tried to do the same thing to Whitney Houston. They offer a false sense that they can control everything. Everyone is scared of them. They pretty much keep Michael semi-captive."

Another Jackson employee said: "They're negotiating business deals with him. They're negotiating media deals, who can talk, how much. You've got a lawyer who's scared to throw them out. Michael doesn't know what to do with them."

Both the Nation and Jackson insiders deny the claim. "The idea that there is some takeover by the Nation of Islam - someone is spinning you," said Gregaros. "Nobody has told me what to do and what not to do. Leonard, I believe, is someone Michael consults with, just like in excess of 25 people." But just a couple days earlier, during a recent televised news conference, Benjamin Muhammad, a senior member of the Nation, was there, larger than life, standing behind Geragos.

Quite how a celebrity who has been in flight from his racial features, let alone his racial identity, ended up in the arms of an organisation that is defined by race is a moot point. Why a socially conservative institution committed to racial uplift should open its arms to a man charged with child molestation is similarly baffling. At the heart of it, however, lies not just Jackson and the Nation but three of America's most intense obsessions after terrorism: race, crime and celebrity.

The most generous explanation would be that, given the state he had got himself into, Jackson was once again in desperate need of new management and representation. The Nation has some experience in that field, as well as providing security, and was only too pleased to help. Its anti-white rhetoric has mellowed in recent years - indeed, you will find a handful of white supporters at its annual convention - and it has been attempting to reach out to some communities it had previously alienated.

But because it remains self-sufficient and independent of the white power structure, the Nation is always there to catch prominent black people brought low by scandal, when no one else will touch them. Attend its large meetings and you will see Marion Barry, the former mayor of DC filmed taking crack with a prostitute. Benjamin Chavis was fired as head of the nation's oldest civil rights organisation, the NAACP, after he diverted £200,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim. Now he is Benjamin Muhammad. Jackson, then, is just one more lost sheep coming back to the fold.

A more cynical theory is that this is one more black celebrity marriage made in opportunism. Forced yet again to explain himself out of a sordid hole, Jackson has fallen back on the defence of last resort: the hidey-hole of identity politics. He is being pursued not for what he has done, but for who he is.

Sadly, the latter interpretation is the more likely. Following the familiar pattern of the trials of both OJ Simpson and Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jackson is yet another African-American celebrity whose interest in anti-racism has coincided with finding himself in trouble. The handcuffs click and the rest of the story writes itself. They reach for Johnny Cochrane's number (the one call it appears Jackson has yet to make, but who was first on the Rolodex when OJ and Puffy needed representation), then they start to circle the wagons, mobilising the broader community to protest their plight. Amid the noise, the gravity of the original charge - murder, manslaughter, paedophilia - gets lost.

It is not the first time that Jackson has chosen to identify with the African-American community at moments that were more propitious for himself than for the community. Eighteen months ago he rode through Harlem with the African-American presidential candidate, Al Sharpton, accusing record companies of being racist. "The record companies really, really do conspire against the artists," Jackson told an audience of 350 at Sharpton's headquarters. "They steal, they cheat, they do whatever they can. Especially against the black artists."

In a bitter denunciation of his record label, Jackson said of Sony's chairman, Tommy Mottola: "He's mean, he's a racist, and he's very, very, very devilish." Referring to one African American artist, Jackson said, Mottola "called him a fat black nigger ... And I can't deal with that, you know. It's wrong." One wonders whether Jackson - rarely seen in Harlem before or since - had only just realised this, or whether the epiphany had anything to do with a flagging career.

Sony dismissed the comments as "spiteful and hurtful", implying that the campaign reflected Jackson's own frustrations at the recent shrinking of the market for his work after his album, Invincible, sold only two million copies worldwide and Sony demanded that he pay back tens of millions spent on promoting the new album.

And his accusation against Mottola was not the last time Jackson would use the word racism to describe his treatment. On the day when he was led into the Santa Barbara court in handcuffs, his brother, Jermaine, called CNN and went live on air stating, "This is nothing but a modern-day lynching."

Nor is it first time that the Nation has provided security for or helped manage celebrities. Its most famous client was Muhammad Ali - although he, of course, was a member. But more recently, it provided security for OJ Simpson during his trial, Sean Combs during the height of the rap wars, and for a host of other rappers and artists. The Nation is not just a religious organisation but a business. It does not hook up with embattled black people through altruism, but because there is either some political or financial gain through the association. The group did not want to be too closely linked with Ali initially because he was expected to lose to Sonny Liston.

What its true motivations are we will probably never know. Michael Jackson is a complex character. What is going on in his mind is no easier to discern than the original features on his face. Similarly, the Nation is a highly secretive organisation not given to the kind of free exchange of information that might shed some light on its strategy.

But while this union may be driven by cynicism, it is made credible by racism. The reason trials such as these revert to such an atavistic and visceral level which can resonate so strongly among African-Americans is because the last hidey-hole of identity politics is often the first place black Americans end up.

They are all too often pursued not because of who they are, but what they do. According to a report by the US justice department, if current trends continue, black men born in the United States in 2001 will have a one-in-three chance of going to prison during their lifetime. "Our contemporary prisons basically replicate the social order that produced the offenders to begin with," Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Given such statistics, racism becomes a powerful rally cry when any prominent black American stands before the law. Whether African Americans will answer the call remains to be seen. What is certain is that Jackson has few other places to go. Having discovered that there is more to race than physiology, Jackson has clearly realised that no amount of celebrity can allow him to live the logic of his lyrics. In America, in the 21st century, it does matter whether you're black or white.

Jackson understands how this might work to his advantage in a tight spot. Sadly, we have yet to find any evidence that this awareness might benefit anyone other than himself.

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