And here we are again, back to the same question. What to do about Louis Farrakhan?
The leader of the Nation of Islam has, for years, been a toxic fount of anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric. “These false Jews,” he preached in 2006, “promote the filth of Hollywood that is seeding the American people and the people of the world and bringing you down in moral strength. … It’s the wicked Jews, the false Jews, that are promoting lesbianism, homosexuality. It’s the wicked Jews, false Jews, that make it a crime for you to preach the word of God, then they call you homophobic!”
The hatred in those words is as clear as if they had been spoken by David Duke – as, indeed, they easily could have been. And faced with that hatred, the obligation of moral people would seem obvious.
Condemn it. Condemn it loudly. Condemn it with vigor. Condemn it unflinchingly.
But for some African Americans, it has never been that easy where Farrakhan is concerned. Consider Illinois Rep. Danny Davis. Asked about Farrakhan earlier this month by a reporter for the conservative Daily Caller, he danced like Baryshnikov around the NOI leader’s record of Jew-bashing.
“That’s just one segment of what goes on in our world,” Davis said. “The world is so much bigger than Farrakhan and the Jewish question and his position on that and so forth. For those heavy into it, that’s their thing, but it ain’t my thing.”
To which there can be only one proper response: Huh?
He’s not the only one being questioned about the NOI leader. Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory has also come under fire after news broke that she attended the Nation’s annual Saviours’ Day event in February, where Farrakhan delivered the keynote.
The question of how black folks should (or should not) engage with him is thornier than an outsider may appreciate. Many of us are genuinely impressed by the NOI’s philosophy of self-reliance and its record of turning black lives around. And when Farrakhan gets ranting on his pet hates, some of us tend to write it off, to tolerate him as you would a dotty uncle.
That instinct is understandable. But hate demands more. Hate must be taken seriously, always.
Farrakhan, then, requires a difficult balancing act. Anthony Clark, a teacher who is challenging Davis in the upcoming Democratic primary, has gotten the balance about as right as anyone. While making clear his respect for Farrakhan’s record of black empowerment, he has also made clear, as he put it on Twitter, that “Farrakhan or anyone who shares anti-Semitic or homophobic viewpoints should be called out. I don’t care who they are.”
Clark argues that African Americans who support Farrakhan for his good deeds while ignoring or downplaying his antisemitism and homophobia are like the white people who claimed to support Donald Trump for his promise of economic miracles while forgetting to care that he is a racist and a misogynist. It’s a sobering thought.
Yes, Louis Farrakhan has said and done some powerful things. But he has also said and done some things that are truly hurtful and reprehensible. So let’s not rush to make harmless this dotty uncle of the African-American experience. Let’s not fall into the trap of condemning bigotry when it comes toward people who look like us, but tolerating it when it comes from people who look like us. We are required to be better than that.
There is, after all, a reason the obligation of moral people when faced with hatred seems obvious.
Ultimately, it is.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.