Spokesmen for the powerless
The seemingly endless media hysteria that surrounds every utterance of the Nation of Islam's leader, Louis Farrakhan, sadly reveals yet again the large gulf between white and black America. If we are to be a healthy multiracial society, it is imperative that we all take the time to reflect upon one another's plight. Although progress has been made in recent years to affirmatively include blacks and other racial minorities into the mainstream of American journalism, it is still true that the American media remain essentially white.It is therefore not necessarily an indictment of that institution to suggest that most of what passes for news in our society is a reflection of that society as seen through essentially nonblack or other racial minority eyes.
The affair has precious little to do with whether Farrakhan did or did not (1 ) threaten to put William Coleman to death; (2) call Hitler a great man or merely a ''wickedly'' great man, and/or (3) really intend to refer to Judaism as a ''gutter'' religion. Given Mr. Farrakhan's apparently inexhaustible gift for making statements so outrageous that by their very nature they negate themselves as subjects for rational discussion, the wonder is why they are so assiduously, breathlessly reported.
What then is the reason for this Farrakhanomania? Is it his role as an adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, even though his influence should be minimal, since he officially speaks for at most 10,000 people out of a nation of 20 million blacks? One suspects not. Yet, why was Jackson so reluctant to repudiate him? Certainly the decision to reverse the Muslims' decades-long policy of studied indifference to electoral politics in support of Mr. Jackson plays a part. But given the small number of Farrakhan adherents, this surely cannot be the reason.
Perhaps the most important reason is that both men represent essentially dispossessed and economically depressed sectors of Chicago's black South Side.
To appreciate fully the linkage of these two men, it is necessary to see fully the importance of Harold Washington's bitterly contested mayoral victory last year. The pride that black Chicagoans feel in their mayor is evident to even the most transient of blacks there.
Chicago's blacks have finally become a community, if not a family. It is this sense of shared sorrows suffered and the vision of oppression finally within sight of being overcome which bonds Jackson and Farrakhan.
There is another reason for Farrakhan's curious hold, not only on Jackson but on many disparate blacks. It is the politics of powerlessness. Countless times this writer has been asked by nonblack friends how he, as a presumably well-educated and middle-class black, could possibly endorse, or at least not loudly denounce, ''terrorists'' and ''demagogues'' as disparate as Yasser Arafat , Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Robert Mugabe. The answer is, one can empathize profoundly with the condition of alienation such people feel, and understand how that ''outsiderness'' leads them to words and deeds beyond the bounds of ''polite'' society. The condition of oppression, and more important, the act of oppressing, is manifestly not polite.
Remember that George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Menachem Begin were in their times considered by many to be terrorists, thugs, outlaws, and worse.
While there are many who would say that Farrakhan suffers from no such liabilities in modern America, his perception, and that of millions of voiceless blacks, is of a very different reality. Many blacks who do not share or endorse any of his more inflammatory rhetoric intuitively resent learning of his views ''filtered'' through what they rightly or wrongly regard as an alien and insensitive media establishment. Because blacks intuitively support black leaders, particularly those under attack, this does not mean they lack the intellectual capacity to see beyond black charlatans, when such exist. They discern all too well who their accusers are.
If the media and society as a whole paid closer attention to the message and less to the messenger, in due time the messenger would fall silent, his voice stilled of necessity by the absence of a clarion call.