Farrakhan and the Cycle of Stupidity

Chuck D introduced me to Louis Farrakhan.

In the late 80s, I was a hip-hop loving teenager growing up in New York City. My favorite album was the groundbreaking It Takes a Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy’s sophomore effort.

Public Enemy was unlike anyone else in the rap game. Its logo was a silhouette of a b-boy in the crosshairs of a gun sight. Its bodyguards looked like armed members of the Black Panther Party. And the music. Loud, angry, funky, brilliant. The album opens with the blare of an air raid siren. The first song is Bring the Noise. In it, Chuck D declares:

“Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to what he can say to you.”

I was 14. I looked up to Public Enemy. Public Enemy looked up to Farrakhan. Who, I wanted to know, was Farrakhan?

I spend the next decade or so — mostly my high school and college years — seeking answers to that question, and the dozens more inspired by my search. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and then more of his own writing. I watched Spike Lee movies; his adaptation of the aforementioned and, of course, Do The Right Thing (music by Public Enemy). I became a bit obsessed with Muhammad Ali, writing several papers about him in college. I bought copies of The Final Call. And I continued to listen to any rap album I could get my hands on. Many included shout outs to the long-standing leader of the Nation of Islam.

During this same decade, I became bar mitzvah. I lived in Israel, twice; each time for almost a year. I was not religious, but I was a leader in the Jewish community. I helped start a Jewish journal in college, and published a Jewish magazine for two years after graduation.

The Jewish community had one opinion about Farrakhan. He was an antisemite. A dangerous antisemite. He was, you might say, public enemy number one of the Jews. 
The Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization whose focus over the past century has been more or less (depending on the times) about protecting Jews, led the charge against Farrakhan. The pattern was easy to predict. Farrakhan or another NOI leader would say something critical of Jews (often something antisemitic). The ADL would blast them for it and demand others (mostly Black leaders) condemn it. Those leaders whose condemnations were deemed insufficient would themselves be condemned. Finally, the media would cover and often sensationalize it.

It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Both NOI and the ADL used it to grow larger and more influential. Each saw the other as evidence of their own importance. And it was great for fundraising.

It was not great for the rest of us, who lived with the polarization inflamed by both sides. The NOI had no real power, only moderate influence in the Black community, which, relative to the white (Christian) power structure, had very little power itself. Yet the ADL and its allies treated Farrakhan and NOI like the second coming of Hitler. By the 1980s, the credibility of the ADL had taken a hit among civil rights advocates. It had opposed the use of quotas to increase the number of Black (and other) students admitted to colleges, breaking the heart of long-time ally (then Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. The ADL was also an aggressive advocate for Israel and against Palestinian claims, often equating dissent from Israeli policy with antisemitism. Things only got worse when news broke in the early 90s that the ADL had been spying on religious and non-profit groups, including Black and Muslim or Arab groups it considered to be anti-Israel. 
When the ADL and NOI fought, lines were drawn in the sand and individuals from Black and Jewish communities were told to choose sides. Once we had all chosen sides, we asked our friends to choose sides. Rinse, wash, repeat. 
As I learned about Farrakhan and NOI, it was clear that antisemitism and anti-Jewish conspiracies were fundamental to both. And yet, the relentless focus on that one issue served to obscure what was, I believed, a much more interesting fact: Farrakhan and NOI seemed like… conservatives. They believed that women should serve men. Homosexuality was a sickness and perversion. Bootstrap capitalism and self-help was preferable to socialism. Integration and race-mixing was immoral. They railed against the so-called “culture of dependency,” sounding just like whites that sought to blame the Black community for poverty, violence, unemployment, and more. NOI’s origin story includes spaceships and racial determinism, the latter of which clearly runs afoul of left ideology, as I understood it.
When I was an undergrad at Vassar College, a liberal bubble 70 miles north of NYC, Farrakhan called for a Million Man March in DC. While many other local African American organizations were involved in the mobilization, it was rightfully seen as Farrakhan’s gathering. Jewish groups suggested that attending the March meant endorsing Farrakhan and his antisemitism. On my campus, that perspective was manifest by a Jewish columnist for the campus newspaper. One of the Black students who was planning to attend the March wrote an op-ed explaining his decision. In brief, he felt like Blacks had been screwed over by white racism and that Farrakhan was being attacked for speaking truth to power. The columnist responded with what amounted to ADL talking points.

I also wrote a response, agreeing with the student’s assessment of the legacy of white supremacy on Black America, but suggesting that Farrakhan was perhaps not the right person to fix it. “I will not claim that Farrakhan has done nothing to help Blacks in America…. [But] by spreading conspiracy theories, engaging in scapegoating, preaching separatism, and embracing economically and socially conservative values, is Farrakhan ultimately answering the needs of the Black community?” I don’t know if it changed any minds, but the author of the op-ed did let me know that he appreciated the constructive engagement. It felt like perhaps I’d stumbled upon something useful.

Of course there were also non-Jews speaking out against Farrakhan in the 90s. Some condemned his antisemitism, while others took issue with other aspects of his ideology. Yet those voices felt secondary, by design or otherwise. 
Fast forward to 2018. Farrakhan and the NOI are even less influential than they were at their peak in the 90s. Membership is down. Pop culture allies are harder to find. They have a bizarre partnership with the Scientologists, in which NOI encourages non-Blacks to join its church. The ADL, run for decades by Abe Foxman, is under the leadership of an Obama White House alum named Jonathan Greenblatt. It has spoken out repeatedly against Trump and on behalf of Muslims and other targeted groups. Perhaps it realized that the more dangerous enemy is white supremacists and the alt-right, and their enablers in conservative political circles.

And yet, when Farrakhan recently showed up in an old photo with Barack Obama, the ADL and friends called for renewed condemnations, even from those who had done so previously. And when Farrakhan reverted to his familiar antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic language during his 2018 Savior’s Day speech, a speech attended and praised by one of the high profile leaders of the Women’s March, the cycle seemed to have started again. Friends of Tamika Mallory rallied to her defense; Jews condemned them (and her, and him); the media swooned.

So, what to do? Are we doomed to get sucked back in to this cycle of stupidity? Has anyone learned anything from the past few decades? 
There have been some encouraging signs. Social media, the bane of our collective existence, has allowed more people to express themselves on this issue. And, guess what? Most people don’t think very much of Minister Farrakhan, including quite a few women, people of color, and queer folk. In recent years there has been a concerted effort by Jews on the left and their allies to have honest conversations about antisemitism, taking it seriously as a threat to Jews (from the right) and a threat to our sense of belonging in progressive movements (from the left). Jews of color have played a critical role leading some of these conversations and complicating assumptions about Jews and whiteness. New models of allyship have helped white Jews participate effectively in social movements led by people of color, lessening lingering resentment over cooption. Even the much maligned and misunderstood “intersectionality” is helping.

But we have a long way to go. I’ve lost patience with Farrakhan apologists on the left, given our community’s ability to identify and condemn all kinds of microaggressions, insensitivities, dog whistles, and cultural bias. Posting selfies with Farrakhan provides a tacit hechsher to the kind of anti-Jewish conspiracy that props up white supremacy and patriarchy (as James Baldwin noted more than 50 years ago, “anti-Semitism among Negroes… does not operate to menace this control, but only to confirm it. It is not the Jew who controls the American drama. It is the Christian.”). I’ve also lost patience with all of the feminist and LGBTQ groups that have been free riding off the ADL for years. It is possible for them to speak out about Farrakhan’s speech without resorting to the kind of “guilt by association” approach we see from many Jewish leaders. Their voices would help make this less of a “Blacks vs Jews” issue. 
And finally, the ADL and friends. They insist that being correct is enough. OK! Farrakhan is an antisemite! We get it! How about they also try being constructive? Forcing Black leaders to kiss the ring was never a good look, but in 2018… they have to do better. Maybe give some space to those who are in relationship with these leaders to address this challenge in a way that creates a genuine shift? Or quietly encourage other communities to step up and speak out, to break this out of its profoundly unhelpful dynamic.

It’s been thirty years since Chuck D introduced me to Louis Farrakhan. He’s not bold enough to be a prophet, and not important enough to be the devil. We are blessed to live in a moment with so many incredible leaders in our communities. We can do better. And we can move on.

It’s worth reading the statement put out by the Women’s March, this perspective from Yehuda Kurtzer, this article in The Root, Adam Serwer’s piece in The Atlantic, and April Rosenblum’s booklet The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance To Antisemitism Part of all Our Movements (pdf).