The Key To Farrakhan's Middle-Class Appeal

As the sea of men came together on the Washington Mall, many felt a certain ambivalence. Asked why they were marching, few invoked Louis Farrakhan's name. When one speaker called for the crowd to affirm Farrakhan as its leader, there was a decidedly tepid response. They came instead, men said, for "the cause." Yet Farrakhan is probably the only person who could have pulled it off. The unavoidable question is, "Why?"

Why are so many African-Americans willing to pay homage to a self-righteous demagogue whose message is marinated in mysticism and intolerance? Why, given the massive amount of black oratorical and intellectual talent available, did it take such a divisive figure to bring black men-and not only the openly disaffected-together?

Much of the answer lies in Farrakhan's style, in his willingness-even eagerness--to speak what he calls "truths"-about Jews, whites and any likely target that drifts into his sights. That his so-called truths often amount to slander, nonsense and misinformation does nothing to diminish his appeal, which is rooted in a reputation not for accuracy but for frankness. In an age in which more traditional leaders are seen as timid and ineffectual, he is perceived as something they are not: a strong black man unbeholden to white power.

He is also widely viewed as white America's just reward. "They got Farrakhan because they didn't want to deal with Jesse Jackson or anybody else," said a black Washingtonian active in political circles. "They never wanted to give up any victories."

The fact that he is so outrageous to whites makes him more attractive to many blacks, and his is an appeal that cuts across class lines. "He says what we can't say," confided one lawyer who attended the march, meaning that Farrakhan expresses an anger and a frustration that many black professionals feel they must hold inside. Although white America is keenly aware of the alienation of the black underclass, it is largely oblivious to the deep sense of racial injustice that middle-class blacks feel. Whether a black man "is a judge or a janitor, race always becomes the issue," says New York-based television producer Dan Gasby. And as Washington public-relations executive John Britton put it, "Racism kills you a little bit at a time, every day of your life."

For those who feel besieged by racism, Farrakhan is "part of the catharsis . . . a release valve for the pressure," observes Dwight Ellis, a vice president with the National Association of Broadcasters. Farrakhan's words do wound his targets, but they are also a source of guilty pleasure to some blacks who feel aggrieved. And they are easily excused by his admirers--especially since Farrakhan's biting insults mimic a long-running game (variously called signifying, playing the dozens and snapping) in many black communities in which caustic words are not meant to harm but to demonstrate verbal virtuosity.

Many blacks also credit Farrakhan with being a doer. According to them, he saves lost souls, launches black businesses and chases drug dealers out of neighborhoods-all without government handouts. Like many perceptions about Farrakhan, this one is only partly true. He has yet to start a major business endeavor, and many of his smaller ones have faltered. Even the security enterprises operating in housing projects-and actually funded by the government--have a very mixed record.

The myth, in short, is considerably larger than the man; but it is a myth that many people, even while rejecting Farrakhan's dark side, find attractive. And it allows them to forgive Farrakhan's many failings. Milton Morris, vice president of research for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, finds that deeply troubling. Blacks' "place in this society--our survival--rests on a clear and unequivocal commitment to racial and ethnic tolerance," he says. In Farrakhan, he sees "a massive, national shrugging off" of those values: "Precisely because we are fresh out of slavery, we have a tremendous responsibility to remain in touch with the values that make slavery abhorrent and that make racial intolerance abhorrent." Precisely because Farrakhan cannot be trusted as a "custodian of those core values," Morris believes blacks must reject him. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and others argue that the march was not about Farrakhan, and that people will come to see it as an occasion for "healing" and for laying to rest self-delusions about deliverance through government. The task ahead, Mfume believes, is to "find new ways to do healing outside the Mall . . . to reach beyond ourselves, beyond our own racial group."

Transforming a one-day march into an ongoing, effective, ecumenical movement would be a daunting mission under the best of circumstances, even if all of the movement's leaders were above reproach. It may well be impossible for leaders (particularly Farrakhan) who are unwilling to recognize that the ability to give voice to--and sometimes cause--pain is far different from the ability to alleviate it.