CHICAGO — WHEN Ronald Reagan captured the White House in 1980, black conservatives sprung into the American consciousness. Not so African-American Muslims.
Yet, this once-isolated group represents many more blacks than the conservatives ever have. It reflects a broader spectrum of opinion, and it voices an enduring dilemma for frustrated black voters.
Should they work within the system or fight outside it? An increasing number of young blacks, observers say, are choosing the latter.
On the third floor of Chicago's East-West University, Farid Muhammad is talking politics.
"When we have more of our college-age African-Americans in prison than in institutions like these, that's a problem," he says, indicating the classrooms around him. "When one-third of the African-American community is in poverty, that's an issue."
But he's pessimistic that voting for Bill Clinton or George Bush would solve the problem.
"It's an intimate family discussion," he says of the all-white presidential race. "Since it's a family discussion, some of the stepchildren are going to have to go with the program."
Traditionally, all African-American Muslims have avoided mainstream politics. But with the passing of Elijah Muhammad, considered a prophet by African-American Muslims, they have split into two highly charged camps.
The first is a loose confederation of Muslims led by Muhammad's son, Warith D. Muhammad.
He has moved away from his father's race-based teachings and pursued a moderate course.
"We as Muslim-Americans want to and feel obligated to exercise our rights as citizens to the fullest extent," says Ayesha Mustafaa, editor of the Muslim Journal, which represents Warith Muhammad's views. "We shouldn't waste that privilege."
Warith Muhammad over the years has campaigned with several Illinois Democrats and has even made favorable public comments about President Bush.
The other camp is led by black nationalists. The best-known is Louis Farrakhan, who continues the teachings of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. The movement preaches black separatism and, until recently, avoided mainstream politics.
Here in Chicago, the galvanizing force was the 1983 mayor's race, in which Harold Washington became the city's first black mayor. The race caused several high-profile nationalists here to work for a campaign for the first time. By 1990, however, the Nation of Islam had begun endorsing specific candidates in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
Abdul Alim Muhammad, for example, ran for Congress in a Maryland district. George Cure, a legal adviser to the Nation of Islam, vied for Congress's nonvoting delegate representing the District of Columbia. This year, the Nation of Islam was active on behalf of US Rep. Gus Savage (D) in Chicago.
All these candidates lost, however.
The nationalists have trouble maintaining ties even with liberal black politicians. During his 1984 presidential bid, Jesse Jackson met with Mr. Farrakhan, a one-time prot of Malcolm X.
"It was like the heirs of Malcolm X and the heirs of Martin Luther King coming together," recalls Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor of In These Times, a left-wing weekly newspaper based in Chicago.
But the alliance quickly fell apart. Jackson came under pressure to repudiate Farrakhan for his comments that Hitler was "a great man." Both sides have backed away from each other.
Willliam Grimshaw, an associate professor of political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology, worries that the separatists will abandon mainstream politics.
"In Chicago, they just came to embrace the system in the '80s," he says. "Now the sense is that, once again, it's a bankrupt system.... There's a nationalism among the young that I find absolutely shocking. They are angrier and a little less restrained."
"I don't dismiss the hate that comes out," adds Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science at Howard University. "It's a reflection that traditional black politicians are not helping poor blacks. It's the inevitable nationalism that will come out of the ghettoization of a people."