Civil Rights

Selected Skirmishes: 'Hood Winks

Victims and victors at the Million Man March

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Did you see me at the Million Man March on the Day of Atonement? I shouldn't have been hard to spot. I was the white guy.

I bought a cap and a button, and was as buzzed by the affair as the reporters who went ga-ga. It was a festive atmosphere. There was no hint of the rage that usually grips Nation of Islamers whenever the klieg lights go on.

But I wondered: What did these guys have to atone for? Most appeared industrious folks, businessmen, working stiffs, family men. I thought it curious that fellows who seemed to have nothing to be punished for were paying penance for the sins of others, their only connection being pigmentation. I decided not to wreck the mood by shouting, "Racist!"

I'm not surprised that the turnout was underestimated by the Park Service (I lost my own count at 231,456). What was surprising was how important it was to the marchers. The argument they gave was this: Every time you hear a stat involving black men, it's negative–the number in gangs, the percentage in prison, the jobless rate. The whole point of the "Million Man March" was to produce a huge positive number.

Question: On whose pocket calculator are the negatives punched? Answer: It is the Victimization Lobby that delights in showing us how poorly African American men have been served by capitalist America. The proof is in the numbers! The United States of America was served notice on the Capitol Mall: The decent, hardworking black man is tired of serving as the country's poster boy for failure.

But we've boxed the black man in. Ninety-nine percent of his life is the same sleep–­get showered­–get to work­–pick up the kids­–pay the bills–­remember to get the damn radiator leak fixed­–call your mother routine that the rest of us melanin-challenged peons expend our calories on. Making him out to be a worthless cast-off of Racist Amerika seems a bit harsh. Particularly to him. He may escape the 'hood, but it's tougher still to slip the chains of victimhood or white pity. We refuse him the American Dream. To embrace our Dream–so noble and Kingly an act just one generation ago–would be to sell out his roots, to "act white."

A black man who dares to make the leap to old-fashioned American values had better be prepared for combat. To wit: Colin Powell. He is a Norman Rockwell tableau, the plucky under dog triumphing in America. But, even by those who respect him, Powell is frequently labeled "white." It is a despicable charge. Naturally, it stings more powerfully amongst Africans than Anglos, and Powell's ratings are commensurately lower with black Americans. Still, Powell emerges as a great, patriotic hero; his four general's stars shielding him (partially) from the insult of quislinghood.

Minister Louis Farrakhan has quite another method of inoculation: scapegoating Jews and vilifying the "white devils." His approach to life is insanely racialist; why else the preoccupation with the color and creed of 18th-century slave traders when preaching salvation for young men today? It is not to excuse Farrakhan's maniacal metaphysics to note, however, the extreme conservatism of his Million Man March behavioral advice: Get off drugs, stay in school, get a job, don't commit crimes, respect your woman. A T-shirt I saw on a marcher would have made George Gilder blush. It said: "Man–the Provider, the Maintainer." Forget Sexual Suicide–it was quoting the Koran.

Farrakhan routinely condemns women's liberation, affirmative action (welfare for white women), and welfare (which sends the cash to women and so makes the man superfluous–the very crux of Gilder's critique). He lives his message: the mansion in an upscale Chicago neighborhood, a concert violinist, the short-cropped haircut (no do-rag for him). The suit and bow tie–a virtual uniform for Nation of Islam officials–brings back a custom so dorky even George Will has given up on it as insufficiently hep.

This preacher is no bad boy from the 'hood or the victimhood. He is a proud black man, supremely self-confident, independent of the blandishments of the welfare state. He now bellows the "family values" that need to be heard by black Americans. And who's going to call Louis Farrakhan an Uncle Tom?

Most commentators said that the Million Man March succeeded in showing the great humanity that survives in the souls of black men across America; the pundit debate was over whether one could "separate the message from the messenger." Certainly, people of good sense–who do not live in fear of the "white devils" or harbor an inordinate consciousness of the number 19–wanted to. Yet it was the consensus view that none but Farrakhan could have inspired such a celebration. Only the most dubious messenger could deliver this message.

Such is the debate over race in contemporary America. We have demonized our heroes and, in the process, empowered demons. The one man who is allowed to speak sense to a million men of color is a man who has proven his capacity for nonsense beyond all doubt.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu), an economist at the University of California at Davis, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.