What are women to make of Farrakhan?

The black male crisis of identity will not be solved by demanding a return to traditional gender roles: The opportunity is lost for black men to learn self reliance from their women
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The Independent Online
For the first time in a generation, black America has this week put itself on the mainstream map. For the media, the most striking thing about Monday's Million Man March on Washington was that all of the 400,000 present were black. But just as important for the long-term may be the fact that they were all men. Whereas Martin Luther King's rally three decades ago embraced black and white, women as well as men, Louis Farrakhan's march kept women away. No longer is one emancipation - that of race - automatically linked to that of gender.

The reason is simple. The crisis besetting America's black community is a crisis of black masculinity. The collapse of the US's manufacturing base since the Fifites has hit unskilled black men the hardest. By 1964, the year after King's march on Washington, black unemployment was running at 12 per cent, more than double the rate for whites - and one reason why King, when he was assassinated, was turning to jobs as the key issue. (Sidney Wilhelm, author of Who Needs the Negro?, describes the shift thus: "Increasingly he [the black man] is not so much exploited as he is irrelevant. The dominant whites no longer need to exploit the black minority.") Today, while black unemployment rates overall are static at 11.3 per cent, teenage black unemployment is 36.4 per cent, almost two and a half times the rate for white teenagers.

Economic redundancy is not the only problem. It has been matched by redundancy in the family: 68 per cent of black households are now headed by single mothers, and with one in three black men under 30 in prison, or on probation or parole, a wider process of disconnection is under way.

In the UK there are similar trends. A report published by the TUC this week, aptly called Black and Betrayed, found that if you are black you are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. In London it is even worse, with three out of five young black men unemployed.

Here, many people respond by wanting to push forward the liberal agenda of rights. But in the US many see the emergence of Farrakhan as a straightforward result of the failure of the liberal agenda. A survey by the Washinton Post found that 81 per cent of black Americans feel there is a dearth of black American leaders capable of articulating black concerns. Old civil rights organisations are seen to have been tried and found wanting. The OJ Simpson trial vividly captured the racist underbelly of white America. Many of the tools by which King and others hoped his dream would come true have crumbled. Even the success story of the past 30 years - the burgeoning black American middle class - are resentful because they have gained income but are still denied respect.

We are now seeing the results of this swing away from the liberal agenda. One indicator is a shift in language away from rights towards responsibility, self-reliance and self-esteem. Another is the emphasis on enterprise, which appeals to Farrakhan's numerous middle-class supporters. According to one poll, 69 per cent of the people on the march had an annual income of more than $30,000 and 59 per cent had attended college.

However, the key point is that for Farrakhan and his followers the priority is liberation from within rather than from the outside. Blacks must all become agents of their own destiny and the black community of men, in particular, needs to sort itself out.

Farrakhan's appeal to black men to take pride in themselves once again, to reclaim their communities and be responsible to their families is one that many black women will endorse. After all, many have struggled for years to be the best possible mothers to their children, and have kept their communities going against the odds while many black men have gone astray. Monday's events may lead to the redirection of energies that Farrakhan pleaded for, that blacks should organise, register to vote, join political parties, shape their own destiny.

This was more than a plea for black activism. Instead of seeking salvation through the constitutional system, black America must, in Farrakhan's view, reject the slave mentality of a victim group calling for rights and entitlements. They must recognise that rights without responsibilities are meaningless. This is, of course, a subliminally threatening message for the white majority, precisely because Farrahkan is arguing that blacks should no longer depend on them. In this sense the politics he espouses symbolises a shift away from a culture of victimhood to power politics.

Yet, modern as his politics is and in ways that white commentators have found hard to appreciate, his argument is profoundly flawed. In the first place history suggests that it is not often wise for minorities to declare war on majorities or to try to separate themselves off, especially when, as is the case in America, the white majority feels profoundly insecure about its own jobs and prospects. In South Africa, for example, the black leadership took extraordinary pains to ensure their movement did not become a separatist one.

Perhaps more important in the long run is Farrakhan's failure to offer a convincing analysis on gender. His message offers little to the thousands of American black women entrepreneurs, nor to the girls who are doing better in school than their male peers. They may sympathise with the agenda of self-reliance and personal responsibility, and the demand for better behaviour from black men, but they are unlikely to buckle down to traditional and submissive roles. And his gender blindness also means that the opportunity is lost for black men to learn the virtues of self reliance and responsibility from the women in their communities.

Many of these tensions are apparent in Britain, as well. Here, many young black women ask why they need black men at all, if they cannot get jobs and be reliable fathers. Papers such as the Voice run stories about the unsuitability of African Caribbean men as partners to their women. Similar trends are apparent in the white community, but the debate becomes particularly acute among a group that is still unsure of its identity.

In Britain Farrakhan's politics has yet to strike many chords, except perhaps in one or two London boroughs. But the style and the themes are likely to reverberate here soon, not least because the underlying causes of disconnection are also evident. This is why we should take note. For Farrakhan is not just emblematic of the new black politics, he is also a mirror of the new white male Christian movements to redefine and shore up masculinity, and the busting apart of the old certainties of race and gender politics.