Organizing a richly diverse political coalition is tough. Keeping it together can be even tougher.
That’s the big message in the cancellation by local organizers of plans for a 2019 Chicago Women’s March after months of controversy over links in the movement’s national leadership to the perennially controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
On their Facebook page, Chicago march organizers cite high costs and limited volunteers for canceling the march. They would plan another activity yet to be announced for Jan. 19, the day of the scuttled march. Organizers also urged supporters to join marches in other cities, including some elsewhere in Illinois.
Unmentioned in that announcement is the condemnation by the Chicago chapter of the national Women’s March leadership for its ties to anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ statements by Chicago-based Minister Farrakhan.
National co-chair Tamika Mallory raised an uproar in February by attending the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviour’s Day program in Chicago’s Wintrust Arena and defending her attendance later. There Farrakhan slandered “the powerful Jews” as “my enemy” and “the mother and father of apartheid,” who, among other things, are supposedly doctoring marijuana to turn black men gay by blocking their testosterone. (If that doesn’t reduce pot smoking, in my sarcastic opinion, nothing will.)
Amid the backlash, Mallory tried to mend fences by denouncing Farrakhan’s divisive rhetoric but praised the help given to her, particularly by women of the Nation of Islam after her son’s father was murdered in the late 1990s.
My reaction: Here we go again. Having observed, interviewed or commented on Minister Farrakhan and his controversies for more than three decades, I’m disappointed but not surprised by this latest dust-up. The minister’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, in particular, has been disrupting interracial appeals of black politicians for more than 30 years.
Among other notables, the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his first presidential campaign in 1984, former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in his first campaign a year earlier and Barack Obama in his first presidential run in 2008 were called upon to denounce anti-Semitic comments by Farrakhan without committing political suicide by alienating their own political base.
The Daily Caller, among other conservative media, has called out black lawmakers for merely meeting with Farrakhan or sharing the same stage with him.
Yet countless African-Americans, particularly those who live in troubled neighborhoods, have a more complicated view of the minister as a champion of the black poor and dispossessed. They’ve seen his bow-tied Fruit of Islam patrol tough neighborhoods and run off drug dealers. They’ve seen the Nation reform family members who went to prison and came out as self-respecting workers, family leaders and entrepreneurs.
Some were present as I was at Farrakhan’s historic Million Man March on the Washington Mall, where he uttered not a divisive word about other races or gender preferences. Instead he offered a revival-like message of hope and unity that even impressed some conservative commentators. Many had mistaken him for a liberal, instead of a bow-tie-wearing self-help Booker T. Washington conservative.
Nevertheless, like others, I have often asked why black political leaders have such a tough time denouncing Farrakhan’s bigoted remarks. Ironically my efforts to understand President Donald Trump’s support base have helped me to understand Farrakhan’s appeal.
When we criticize Farrakhan by focusing on his radical, ethnic or gender bias, we run the same risk that we run in attacking Donald Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants and others as racist. We can unintentionally glorify him in the eyes of his target audiences as a false prophet of black American aspirations, in much the same way that Trump turns criticism into evidence for his base that he must be doing something right.
Like Trump, although more eloquently, Farrakhan offers a narrative that names the cause of his audiences’ oppression, often in an oversimplified explanation that gives them someone upon whom they can blame their troubles. When I run into Trump supporters who say they support him in spite of his racial-ethnic fearmongering, not because of it, I am now reminded of Farrakhan supporters who say pretty much the same thing from our side of the color line as African-Americans.
But those of us who want to build true coalitions across racial and gender lines cannot afford to ignore the divide-and-conquer approach that makes Trump and Farrakhan’s messages ultimately self-defeating. We all make choices in voting for one candidate over another in spite of certain shortcomings. But the shortcomings that turn us into warring tribes are too dangerous to be ignored.