I received many responses regarding my column from last week, the subject of which was Minister Louis Farrakhan. The majority of the comments ranged from effusive praise to mild disagreement. Most people indicated that the essay was “interesting” or “a good read” — even if they did not completely agree with it. A few people were unsparingly critical, which I welcome as much as I do the positive reviews. I genuinely appreciate everyone who took time to respond.
While I consider most of what I write to be cogent and straightforward, I sometimes miss the mark. (I can admit this, even though I would rather place sole blame on my detractors’ lack of critical thinking skills.) I don’t always have someone who I trust to read my essays ahead of time, so I risk sharing thoughts that will not always be received in precisely the way that I intend. This happened (to some degree) last week. Still, I stand by what I wrote. Each and every word. And though I consider myself to be a decent logician who carefully articulates my case, I know that my eighth-grade daughter is smarter than I am. Thus, I asked her to read my prior essay, as well as a selection of responses, and then let me know what she thought. (Sadly, she was brutally honest.)
While I had anticipated that some people would be critical, I was somewhat surprised by the level of anger that a few readers expressed. They felt that I had “attacked” Farrakhan. Some accused me of “repeating lies” about him. (One person decided to launch an ad hominem attack on me, the language of which was as antiquated as it was farcical.) Minister Farrakhan’s followers must own what he says, as should those who revere controversial public figure. The uncritical, even fawning, admiration of Farrakhan reminds me of many of President’s Trump followers who — despite unequivocal evidence to the contrary — deny much of what comes from his mouth (and thumbs). Words have meaning. Words have power. Words can unite and they can divide — sometimes simultaneously depending on the audience in question. Few people know all of this better than does Louis Farrakhan.
For what it’s worth, my intent was not to be unnecessarily condemnatory of Farrakhan; neither did I want to be dishonestly laudatory. My goals were (1) to present a balanced view regarding this longstanding leader, (2) examine certain similarities between him and President Trump, and (3) offer thoughts regarding why some people are captivated — and others repulsed — by these men. However, certain questions/issues have emerged. Space constraints require that I address them succinctly:
First, what prompted me to write the column? The main factor is that I have been following the news about members of Congress, as well as organizers of the Women’s March, who have been castigated for being “friendly” with Minister Farrakhan. While he is never quite out of the public eye, he resurfaces more prominently at certain times. And he is never irrelevant. In short, he was near the top of my mind.
Second, why was I so critical of Minister Farrakhan? To be clear, I harbor no ill will toward him. Indeed, if my goal had been to “tear him down,” I would have written a much different essay. The fact is that I don’t accept anyone’s words or actions uncritically. Much to the chagrin of some, that includes Farrakhan. Unfortunately, it is difficult for many people to get beyond their loyalties, biases and presuppositions. I wrote a couple weeks ago that no one is above criticism. In doing so I referenced President Obama, Cornel West, and Ta- Nehisi Coates. I could have included Martin Luther King, Minister Farrakhan or anyone else. It is not my job to be a press agent for public figures; it is my job to offer a reasonable perspective on any number of topics. That’s what I did in this case.
Third, why did I “lie” about Minister Farrakhan’s record? The answer is pretty simple: I didn’t. Some of his followers accused me of taking him out of context. The problem with that argument is that there is plenty of video footage of Minister Farrakhan. One can find hundreds of hours of his speeches online, which is a much more reliable way of learning about him than conducting a Google search. Some of what Farrakhan says is downright bigoted, especially as regards Jewish people. In truth, I unambiguously affirm that Louis Farrakhan has made a positive difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people — especially Black men. The Nation of Islam is a highly disciplined, highly principled group of men and women who change lives and communities for the better. But that does not absolve Minister Farrakhan of his bigotry — in my opinion.
Finally, why did I compare Farrakhan to Trump? This is perhaps the least clear aspect of my original essay. Allow me to state that I did not intent to suggest that Trump’s bigotry is “the same as” Farrakhan’s, either in its origin or its impact. President Trump’s bigotry falls squarely in the sordid history of racial privilege that has been afforded to white men since before America was a nation. Minister Farrakhan’s bigotry is a direct response to white privilege and its attendant racism; thus it is not the same either in kind or in effect. Still, it is reasonable (not to mention accurate) to point out that both of these men have followers who are attracted to the racial superiority that is inherent in their respective messages. The bottom line is that those messages don’t have to be “the same” for each to be wrong. Blacks do not accept sentiments from white people who refer to us in racially insensitive ways – and we should not explain away Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. We must demand better from ourselves and our leaders even as we demand better from others.
I look forward to continuing this painful-but-necessary dialogue.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.