So, as New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman once asked in a column, “Why do so many people — whites above all — take as a given that any black public figure, including one with a celebrated mouth like Mr. Sharpton, has to answer for Louis Farrakhan?”
Haberman then went on to ask, “Why, once Mr. Farrakhan’s excesses are on the table, do so many black public figures either couch their criticism of him in squishy language or, worse, as with Mr. Sharpton, dismiss them as not so bad?”
Answer to question #1: Maybe it’s because some white people will always need black leaders to denounce controversial (read: threatening) figures in order to feel comfortable with the very notion of black leadership.
Answer to question # 2: Maybe black people have a hard time denouncing – at the command of whites — other black people, especially those who despite their worst characteristics, have also done some good for the larger black community.
Haberman asked these questions in a 1997 column. What’s sad is that they’re still relevant today.
Even when black politicians do agree to denounce Farrakhan, it seems not to be enough. Witness the exchange between Obama, Russert, and Clinton, on Tuesday.
Senator Clinton, who fought her own battles over unsubstantiated charges of anti-Semitism during her 2000 race for U.S. Senate, seemed delighted that Senator Obama was being put in an untenable position. By egging on Mr. Obama to go beyond his comments during the debate and give Farrakhan a complete verbal slap-down, she was calculating the political stakes. She was clearly reaching for the possibility that Obama would be tainted merely because Farrakhan said a few kind words on his behalf.
Perhaps this sounded as old and tired to others as it did to me. Surely voters can be trusted to judge Obama by the content of his character and not Farrakhan’s.
Twenty-three years is a long time. Maybe it’s time we put the Farrakhan litmus test to rest — for good.
Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.