Outside Nation of Islam, Farrakhan is nobody's leader
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There's always been something bogus about the notion of top-down black leadership. It's been decades since a black leader was capable of rallying folks to protest anything other than police brutality.
There have been plenty of spokesmen for the race over the years, though -- some self- appointed, most anointed by others, including the mainstream media.
In the pre-Obama age, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were the go-to guys for black leadership as far as the press was concerned. A few years ago, Bill Cosby started getting those calls because he was a contrarian when it came to many forms of black popular culture.
At any given moment, millions of black Americans are told by the media that we are represented by someone who fits the "Great Man" model of leadership in the post-MLK era -- usually an older male who is a politician, an entertainer or a celebrity.
Anyone smart or humble enough to snort at the notion that one person speaks for an entire race is not going to get the call.
That's why I'm always skeptical of those presumptuous enough to take the designation "black leader" seriously. Other than having been born with black skin, what, exactly has he or she done to earn such a title?
What is a "black leader" today, anyway? Is there some characteristic that defines "blackness"? While we're at it -- what does it mean to be "black"?
Even veterans of the civil rights movement are beginning to acknowledge that race as an immutable biological category has more to do with ideology than science. There isn't a scintilla of scientific evidence underlying belief in racial differences.
That isn't to say that race doesn't exist. As long as individuals in power continue to make distinctions based on skin color, racism will remain as American as apple pie. It doesn't matter that race is -- at best -- a social construct. Most Americans continue to subscribe to spooky pre-modern racial theories either out of ignorance or blind deference to our tortured customs and history.
Race is a fascinating subject because the social and political history swirling around antiquated notions of difference, white superiority and black pathology continue to reverberate.
I was asked several times this week if I thought Minister Louis Farrakhan's appearance at "The Disappearing Black Community" forum at the August Wilson Center tonight represents a setback to Black-Jewish relations in Pittsburgh.
Of course not. Again, black folks are not a monolithic bloc so easily persuadable that a man with Minister Farrakhan's dubious track record on community-building can easily influence us.
While media have always exaggerated his influence on black folks when outside the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan is nobody's leader. That's why protesting his appearances is always counterproductive. It plays into the weird notion that he is some kind of monolithic black leader. For once, he should be able to slip into a town and slip out without controversy.
Jewish folks aren't monolithic either. Plenty of folks give black folks enough credit to listen critically without succumbing to hateful notions, too.
As someone who has heard him speak at a mosque in Philly in the 1970s, at Madison Square Garden in the 1980s and at the Million Man March in the 1990s, I can attest to the fact that he rarely says anything memorable. People don't leave his speeches buzzing with spiritual insights or with the knowledge of how to build institutions.
Still, without minimizing or excusing his anti-Semitic slurs, there's a value to hearing what someone who has traveled Minister Farrakhan's particular path has to say about the fate of the black community.
As a community of blacks and Jews in Pittsburgh, we have to develop the capacity to deal with our mutual and inevitable shortsightedness. We need to rediscover the power of hearing each other's fears again and empathizing. We've been estranged for too long.
Certainly, Minister Farrakhan would not have been on my list of folks to invite, but it isn't my call. Still, I want to at least see what results from this conference before damning it. At the very least, it was naive to not anticipate the negative reaction his scheduled appearance has generated.
First Published March 11, 2011 12:00 am