Understanding Farrakhan’s Appeal To African-Americans

In the last year, anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks have been on the rise.  Concurrently, several commentators have noted, with dismay, that the Nation Of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, as of late, appears to be getting more succor from mainstream politicians, celebrities, and thought leaders.  We should all be alarmed that those who so freely spout anti-Semitic remarks are not met with immediate condemnation.  This, of course, includes  remarks made by Minister Farrakhan.

Objectively, the Nation’s positions that Jews are “blood suckers” and the White Man is the “devil”, are statements that are so clearly anti-Semitic and racist, that nothing else should need be said about them, but to condemn them unequivocally.  Yet, when it comes to attacks against Jews, it seems that for many, such statements, even if troubling, offer insufficient reason to criticize Minister Farrakhan publicly.

As a Black Christian who, at the age of 19 almost joined Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam, I offer my perspective on what makes Farrakhan so alluring to the Black community, and what we can be done by the broader White-dominated American society to undermine the Farrakhans of the world.

Put succinctly, the tendency of many to accept Farrakhan lies in his angry eloquence and longstanding service to a community that has struggled with institutional prejudice and injustice.   Indeed, there can be no doubt that Farrakhan correctly identifies and complains of White racism;  that he encourages Black self-reliance; that he discourages drug and alcohol use; that he encourages strong healthy marriages, and that he encourages Blacks to  pursue education and the attainment of marketable job skills.  All this is seen as good.  And his message resonates with people otherwise angry with the status quo.

And it is an understanding of the mindset of people who have been historically oppressed that helps to understand Farrakhan’s allure.  Many persecuted people respond to oppression with anger and bitterness.  And who can blame them?  Intellectually, we know that, as Benjamin Franklin said, “What’s done in anger, ends in shame.”  We all plan to maintain our cool, even when provoked.  But, as former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson says, everyone’s got a plan–until they get punched in the face.

The historical suffering of Blacks in America is, in some ways, unique in the world.  Blacks got here in 1619 and, as of 2018, we still haven’t achieved equality.  Though slavery has been around forever, Blacks were made slaves solely because of our physical appearance.  And because of that appearance, for over a century we were denied the freedoms granted to non-blacks – including those liberties enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.   Indeed, while in our presence, repeated waves of White immigrants came to America and were allowed to assimilate and prosper.  In contrast, even after slavery was abolished, Blacks were victims of discrimination – from segregation to lynchings – based solely on our looks.  Even today, Blacks are regularly on the receiving end of stigmas inferring violence, sexual promiscuity, dishonesty, intellectually inferiority and lack of hygiene.

And in response to very real concerns of double-standards and brutality at the hands of police, most in White mainstream society gaslights us—telling us that we’re just imagining all this racism.  We are told our outrage is exaggerated even when shootings and beatings are caught on tape.  And our freedom to protest is frequently challenged, including attacks on our word-choice, whereby our sincere cry of “Black Lives Matters” is called divisive.  When NFL players take a knee to protest police brutality, this is considered controversial.  Our 2018 world-view is shaped by the fact that 70% of NFL players are Black, but none of the 32 NFL teams are Black owned, and that when Black men go to a Starbucks for a business meeting,  their failure to buy coffee leads to them being arrested.   For White America, these are mere news events. For Black America this has been our daily experience since 1619.  It is in this reality that Farrakhan’s message thrives.

Farrakhan doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  People can only follow the leaders they have, not the leaders they wish they had.  His smooth delivery, combined with his community service,   make his vitriol that much more pernicious.  It’s like coating a cyanide pill with honey–you don’t know what you’ve swallowed until it’s too late.

President Donald Trump’s reception by his supporters can help illustrate how the experiences and perceptions of an audience can desensitize or insulate people to the faults and flaws of a leader.   Trump supporters love what Trump represents: a middle finger raised to establishment politicians of both the Democratic and Republican party.  Many Trump supporters are angry and bitter at the establishment because they feel that their fortunes have seen better days, and that the establishment doesn’t care about them.  They love that Trump is willing to take on the establishment, ostensibly on their behalf.  Accordingly, Trump’s divisive and caustic rhetoric, past examples of outright misogyny and immorality, and support from bigots is forgiven and overlooked – even from groups that wouldn’t tolerate his behavior in other circumstances.  Why? Because the enemy of my enemy is my friend.   Nowhere is the case for this interpretation stronger than in Elliott County, Kentucky – a mostly White, rural area that has voted for Democrats for president in every election since the Civil War.  Yet, despite voting overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 and 2012, in 2016 Elliott County voted for Trump by a landslide (Trump got 70% of the vote.)  If all Trump voters are motivated by nothing but bigotry, then how could Obama have won Elliott County twice?  Bigotry can’t explain that.  But bitterness can.

Anyone can fall victim to bitterness.  At one time, I did so myself.  One day, when I was 19 years old, I attended a community rally in Harlem.  As I left the rally, I was feeling very Black and very pissed.  My anger was not directed at anyone in particular; I was angry at White people, collectively.  So, when I noticed myself feeling hungry on my walk to the subway, and my first impulse was to eat at some national chain fast food restaurant, I thought to myself, “no way, that’s the White Man’s restaurant!”  When I looked around for a Black owned restaurant and saw a sign saying, “Soul Food Restaurant,” I was shocked to find that everyone behind the counter there was Asian.  With my blood boiling, I thought to myself: “Damn, can’t Black people own and control anything?!  Can’t we even have a monopoly on Soul Food in Harlem?!”  Without a word, I walked out of the restaurant silently fuming.  I looked at the sign again–in disgust and contempt, thinking: “The nerve of these Asian people to open a Soul Food restaurant in Harlem.  If a Black family opened a Chinese take-out restaurant in China Town, would Asians eat there?  I bet they wouldn’t!”  It was then that I noticed that I hadn’t read the restaurant’s sign properly.  What I had read as “Soul Food Restaurant” actually said, “SEoul Food Restaurant”.  As-in Seoul, South Korea.  I felt so stupid.   The incident taught me two lessons.  First, bitterness gets us nowhere.   Bitterness colors our perception and clouds our judgment.  You just can’t think straight when you’re bitter–regardless of how justified your anger and bitterness are.   Secondly, bitterness, left unchecked, spreads like a cancer, to infect unrelated things in your life.  When I walked into that Seoul Food Restaurant, I was angry at Whites, not Asians.  But look how quickly my anger got directed towards Asians!

This is how I view Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic remarks.  I don’t know (and have no reason to believe) that anti-Semitism was part of the Nation’s original message or platform.  Farrakhan’s bitterness appears to have begun with White Christians, but then spread to include Jews.  Of all the minority groups in America, Jews have historically been the most helpful to Blacks.  So being bitter against Jews is not only wrong, for Blacks it’s counter-productive.   Bitterness can make you cut off your nose to spite your face.

There was a time that my anger and bitterness led me, a Black Christian, to want to join Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam.  Or at least, so I thought.  When I began undergrad in Harlem and took several Black studies classes, I was already conscious of racism.  My family and I lived it daily.  I was very conscious that Whites perceived young Black men, like me, as a threat to be contained and a problem to be dealt with.  I remember several young Black men wearing t-shirts that said, “No White lady, I don’t want your purse”. I could relate. At that time in my life,  I didn’t know of a single Black man who had not been stopped by the police for no good reason, or followed around by police and security guards just for being Black.  Not a single one. When I was in college I worked as a security guard part-time, and I had White managers ask me why I wasn’t following certain “suspicious looking” customers around the store.  It was always a young Black male that looked “suspicious” to them.  I would ask the managers what was so suspicious about the customers.  I knew race was the only reason.  I also knew that the managers would never admit that to my face.  By asking them to tell me what made the customer “suspicious”,  I made the managers feel awkward and they were forced to back down.  I couldn’t stop White folks from being racist, but I’ll be damned if I was going to help them.    By studying Black history, I learned how Blacks were and continued to be persecuted–in detail.  These details made me very angry.  One of the most infuriating things I learned is the role the White Church played and still does play, in condoning racism.  The White Church largely supported the interests of slave owners and taught that God ordained that Blacks should be slaves forever.  White Christians appropriated Jesus by turning him into the one thing he was most certainly not—a White man.  This meant that for Blacks, we not only had to submit to White people in this life, but also in the life to come.  I learned the truth–that Jesus was a Jewish man of color.  For me it was comforting to learn that.  This meant I can rest assured that I won’t be prejudged at the Pearly Gates.

After learning such things, I became angry at White people in general.  And it was then, as an 18-year-old, that I first heard of Louis Farrakhan from several students on campus.  They told me about him, and how much they liked what he had to say.    So, I listened to some of his speeches.  And I was electrified.  I didn’t hear him say anything about Jews. But he had a lot to say about White racism, especially White Christian racism.  Having never heard anyone talk like that, I was attracted to Farrakhan because he was speaking up for us, and doing it with manly firmness: raw, abrasive, bold, loud, and fearless.  He expressed the anger that so many Black people felt, but dared not express directly to Whites.

 

When someone speaks up for you like this, you view him as your champion.  Warts and all.  And when someone criticizes him, even if the criticism is valid, you’re not going to listen to it.   In fact, you may reflexively attack the person who offers the criticism by questioning their motives or their intelligence.  You don’t want  anyone to drive a wedge between the champion and his people.   American president FDR expressed this human tendency to defend our own champions at all costs, when he famously said of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of bitch!”

Notably, it wasn’t religion that led Farrakhan’s message to appeal to me.  Having been raised in a Christian home, there was nothing about Islam in particular that appealed to me.  What appealed to me wasn’t Farrakhan’s theology, it was his virility-his testicular fortitude .  And I wasn’t alone in my feelings.  Other Christian students expressed similar feelings.  Indeed, Muhammad Ali joined the Nation for similar reasons–even though he was raised in a Christian home.  He too was drawn to the Nation’s Black Power message. To see Muhammad Ali discuss how he saw Christianity as excluding Blacks, click on this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxB9M2u8T9Y&t=3s

When I asked how I could join the Nation, I was told there was a multi-week course of instruction that I had to complete.  Though I began the training, by the second week I’d had enough.  By that point, I hadn’t heard anything about Jews.  Perhaps that was to come later in the curriculum.  What led to my decision to leave was the Nation’s official teaching on race relations – particularly their view that behavior is determined by race – which I found offensive.  The idea that human beings are in any way programmed to behave differently based on skin color is abhorrent to me.  And, as a 19-year-old, I was left unsettled, still searching for answers, still aware that Black people were being persecuted, and still angry.

Luckily, I found my answers in the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  For me, Dr. King provided a balanced view of Christianity.  I can’t be a good Christian if I hold on to bitterness.  But, on the other hand, being a good Christian doesn’t require that I become a door mat, and let people walk all over me.  I thank my Black Studies professors at the City College of New York, in Harlem for teaching us about Dr. King.   Without those professors, I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with my anger and bitterness constructively.  Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy, his way of teaching and modelling the message of Jesus Christ, and the way he combined all that with the political strategies of Ghandi was masterful.   This potent mix provides a way for the persecuted to fight oppression without becoming bitter.   We don’t have to choose between hate and capitulation.  Dr. King paved for us a middle road.

Now I have to caution you that when I talk about “Dr. King”, I mean the real Dr. King; not the milk-toast version of Dr. King that most Whites are comfortable with.  I’m talking about the Dr. King who wrote 3 books that folks rarely read, much less talk about or quote from;  the Dr. King who called America “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence”;  the Dr. King who said that Whites have cut Black folks legs off and left us in a wheelchair, then mock us for being crippled;  the Dr. King who said that America found money to bail out Europe after WWII with a Marshall Plan, and money to subsidize White immigrant farmers, but somehow can’t find the money to compensate Blacks for hundreds of years of slavery; (To see a video of Dr. King talking about America’s need to compensate Blacks, click on the link below);

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4vdfugMFbg

the Dr. King who said that most Whites do not really believe in equality for Blacks, they only believe in ending lynching;  the Dr. King who said that the squalid condition of Blacks in America is the “White Man’s Burden”– a result of White racism, and that morally, White America owes us compensation and retribution;  the Dr. King who said that as long as America wants to be a first class nation, she can no longer have second class citizens;  the Dr. King who said that Black is beautiful, and that Blacks should never let anyone take our manhood; the Dr. King who said that Blacks should develop a strong sense of group identity;  the Dr. King who said that Blacks should pool our money to support our own businesses and boycott racist businesses;  the Dr. King who said that no one can ride your back, unless its bent;  the Dr. King who condemned the violence of riots, but made it a point to condemn with equal fervor, the  White racism that made some people  desperate enough to start a riot in the first place; the Dr. King who publicly declared that Ronald Reagan was a “B” list actor, and that he was the moral equivalent of the outspoken segregationist George Wallace;  the Dr. King who said that we should always use nonviolence, but that our nonviolent methods must amount to “coercive power” against evil–we can’t expect those in power to willingly give up their power; the Dr. King who met with Elijah Muhammad (the founder of the Nation Of Islam), and didn’t care if some people were upset about it.

And I’m talking about the Dr. King who said anti-Zionism IS anti-Semitism.  He’s the Dr. King who told Blacks to emulate the sagacity of our Jewish brothers and sisters by focusing on education and social and political activism.

But, alas, this is not the Dr. King that we’re shown.  Instead, we’re usually shown only Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream” speech from 1963.  Rarely are we informed that in 1967 Dr. King himself criticized that speech as overly optimistic and naive.  He lamented that “the dream I spoke about has turned into a nightmare”. To see Dr. King discuss the new phase of the civil rights movement, click on the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xsbt3a7K-8

The real Dr. King offered a reasonable middle road. But the truth is much of White America can’t stomach even a middle road.  Most of White America didn’t like the real Dr. King when he was alive, and they don’t like the real Dr. King now either.   They like the neutered image of Dr. King that they feed us.  Yet, ironically, it’s White racism (especially from White Christians), with its now familiar arrogance and recalcitrance, that has provided Farrakhan his Black constituency. Because it’s human nature for people to support their champion – regardless of how flawed or dangerous that champion is.

White America has the power to undermine most of Farrakhan’s Black support.  How? By owning up to the reality of racism, and doing what it should’ve done centuries ago.  Make Blacks whole.  As long as people are discriminated against, there will be large numbers of us who will respond with bitterness.  That’s inevitable.  That bitterness provides fertile ground for bigotry to grow.

Can White America support Black leadership that is true to Dr. King’s legacy? Black leadership that is neither bigoted nor docile?  I can’t think of a time in American history when most Whites have supported Black leadership that was anything less than servile to White interests.  Blacks have been here for 399 years, and we’re still waiting for equality. It’s not just about compensation for slavery or Jim Crow, it’s about what’s happening right now. Just a few months ago, an Uber driver told me that he’s been pulled over by White cops several times.  He’s originally from India. He’s bald, clean-shaven and looks like a Black man.  White cops have pulled him over several times, and asked him for his license/registration/insurance.  When he gives it to them and they see his Indian name, they ask him what kind of name it is, and where he’s from. Once he explains that he’s Indian, White cops have said, “oh, so you’re not Black. Sorry to have interrupted you sir, you have a  nice day.”  They hand him back his license/registration/insurance, issue him no tickets, and apologize to him for pulling him over because they mistakenly thought he was Black. The Uber driver told me that after having this experience several times, he apologized to his Black friends for disbelieving their stories. Up until this point, he had dismissed their complaints of constant racial discrimination as mere oversensitivity or paranoia. For us these experiences are frequent and visceral.  In light of all this, it’s only fair to ask, what will White America do to make us whole, and when will it be done? Until these questions receive just answers, unfortunately there will always be Farrakhans.

About the Author
Patrick D. John is a Black Christian attorney living and working in Chicago, IL. He is a member of Chicago's Decalogue Society of Lawyers, and serves on its anti-Semitism committee. He believes that Christians should embrace the Jewishness of Jesus and speak up against anti-Semitism. He grew up for several years in Brooklyn, NY and completed his undergraduate education at the City College of NY in Harlem, where he majored in Urban Legal Studies and minored in Black Studies. Patrick is originally from Guyana, South America, a place of great religious diversity. Guyana celebrates the major religions of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Guyana's first female president was Jewish--Janet Jagan (f/k/a Janet Rosenberg).
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