It was the fall of 1985 when Min. Louis Farrakhan burst onto the New York City political scene. I was a journalism student at Columbia University at the time and, truth be told, I was woefully naive and politically uninformed. I had only a vague idea of who Farrakhan was until he gave a controversial Madison Square Garden speech to 25,000 people.
His arrival would prove to be one of my earliest lessons in the hypocrisy of the media and of the white political establishment. One after another prominent black political leaders were sought out by reporters and asked if they would publicly denounce, condemn, or repudiate Farrakhan. White political leaders called on black leaders who did not respond to promptly do so, and harshly criticized those who refused. It was all very surreal, and even as an inexperienced political watcher and budding student journalist, I knew there was something very wrong with this picture.
Bullying black leaders to represent the entire black race and to speak and think as one, while also treating every loud-mouthed, controversial black leader as if they represent the opinions, political views and personal aspirations of every black American, seemed to me to be a journalistic and political double-standard that was rarely, if ever, applied to white leaders and politicians.
Tuesday night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama took me back two decades. NBC newsman Tim Russert pointedly quizzed Obama about Farrakhan's recent speech in which he sang the Illinois Senator's praises. (Contrary to some reports, Farrakhan stopped short of endorsing him.) Still, Russert nudged Obama not only to denounce Farrakhan but to outright reject his support. It made me wonder when black people are going to stop being called to account for the deeds and words of other blacks.
First a word about Farrakhan. Yes, his history of anti-Semitism — and make no mistake about it, that's what it is — is ugly, hateful, and counterproductive. If Farrakhan were a white man who said about black Baptists what he said about Jewish people, many of us would call for his head. But would we ask every prominent white politician to stand up and publicly repudiate and reject him? Recent history indicates we would not. How many white politicians would even feel any compunction to actually do so?
The larger question is why Farrakhan is the litmus test for black politicians' views on race and not the politicians' own record of comments, actions and legislative votes? Why is it that only after they repudiate Farrakhan are they then deemed not to be closet black militants? Farrakhan does not have the political influence over black people that some white Americans apparently believe. Nor does Rev. Al Sharpton, or Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., or any of the other prominent black people that the media treat as proxies for all black people.
Reporters did not run out in droves to ask white politicians to reject Don Imus after he made his remarks about the black female basketball players at Rutgers University. White politicians did not eagerly line up to do so. Nor did they repudiate fellow white politicians who did not. A few, and only a few, said they would no longer go on the Imus show. (Tim Russert, who appeared often on the Imus show, was not among those who said they would no longer be a guest.)
Most black people saw Imus as an irresponsible white man with a powerful microphone, not as the living embodiment of white America. We know the difference. We also understand that the major reasons Imus eventually lost his job was not because he hurt our feelings, but because he was hurting NBC's pocket once advertisers started pressuring the station to lose him.
Isn't it time the statute of limitations ran out on Farrakhan? The portion of the black American population who are followers of the Nation of Islam's brand of Islam is minute. Most blacks in this country could give two hoots what the man says or thinks. They do give him props for pulling off the Million Man March – that's credit where credit is due. But they are hardly looking to Farrakhan for direction on how to vote.
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.