Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March on Washington on Monday could not come at a worse time in the state of race relations and race politics in America. While the O.J. Simpson trial did not create the racial divide in America, it has widened it, with both whites and blacks, in the week after the verdict, moving beyond the issue of Simpson's guilt and innocence to question the legitimacy of each others' reactions.
Within the traditional liberal coalition, things are particularly strained, with feminists put off by the celebration of a man they view as a wife-beater; Jews distraught by Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s use of Nation of Islam guards and his invocation of Adolf Hitler; liberals complaining that at least they denounced the Simi Valley verdict in the first Rodney G. King-beating trial, and prominent blacks defending the jury's verdict and accusing its critics of hypocrisy and racism.
Enter Farrakhan, probably the country's most controversial African American leader, certainly the last choice of most white Americans--and also many blacks--to lead the healing process. His message of responsibility and self-reliance, and his followers' rejection of drugs and senseless violence, have made him an increasingly popular and powerful figure in the African American community. He has been embraced by the Congressional Black Caucus and has made peace with many traditional black leaders--including Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks, who will attend the march.
While the march began as an all-Muslim event, it has expanded its reach since ousted NAACP executive director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. signed on as Farrakhan's co-organizer. A deal was struck with a group of prominent Protestant ministers to stop criticizing the march, and many churches, including First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, are sending large delegations.
But Farrakhan remains a highly divisive figure. He has refused to condemn anti-Semitic and racist positions taken by his adherents and has himself referred to Jews as "bloodsuckers" and Hitler as a "wickedly great man." The Anti-Defamation League is warning that the gathering will be "the largest event led by an anti-Semite in recent U.S. history." Henry J. Lyons, the black leader of the 8.2-million-member National Baptist Convention, told his group that joining Farrakhan's march would be a "violation of the Word of God."
The fact that this march is limited to men was controversial even before the Simpson acquittal brought the gender issue to the front burner; and Farrakhan's admonition to black men, women and children to boycott white businesses on Monday has just increased the controversy. "We're closing down on that day," Farrakhan said. "We are absenting ourselves from a racist system." The only thing that could stir the pot even more is if Simpson marches--as some news organizations have reported.
Who will benefit from all this politically is anyone's guess. There is the Powell theory: An increasingly polarized and divided electorate will turn to Colin L. Powell as the only person capable of moving us off the road to hell. Recent polls show a Republican Powell draws far more support from white voters than black--but his popularity in the African American community would surely increase if he ran. As one black woman said, "How could I ever explain to my kids why I didn't vote for a qualified African American? Colin Powell is no Clarence Thomas."
Powell, who was able to use his book tour as an excuse for declining Farrakhan's invitation to march, has stated that he "supports its purpose"--revealing an ability to walk the sort of lines that a political career would require. But Powell has yet to decide whether to run. Even if he does, Sen. Bob Dole and his supporters can give him a run for his money in the GOP primaries and caucuses--where the rules are far different from the days when party leaders could offer a nomination to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. And many contend that if the electorate becomes too polarized, it will not elect a black President--even if he's a Republican.
There is also the conventional wisdom: Racially polarized elections help Republicans--just as Willie Horton helped elect George Bush and "law and order" helped elect Richard M. Nixon. In this view, the fight to save some forms of affirmative action, already an uphill battle, may become virtually impossible; the argument that white women would save affirmative action is getting harder to make in the wake of the Simpson verdicts, and the all-male march hardly helps.
Then there is the Clinton theory: No one is better at bringing this country together and dealing with race politics than President Bill Clinton, who won election two years ago in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots by skillfully pursuing racial harmony while, at the same time, using Sister Souljah to send a message of independence from Jackson. Particularly in these troubled times, an overwhelmingly white GOP, obsessed with affirmative action, may scare away moderate white voters.
So far, Clinton has reacted cautiously both to the Simpson verdicts and to the march. Last weekend, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said that, while the President supported the march's goal of responsibility to the family, he was "very concerned" by Farrakhan's participation. Black men who work at the White House are not being given the day off.
Clinton has promised to say more on the subject of race relations in a speech tomorrow. Clearly, he must. This is a President who is at his best addressing issues of race, as comfortable in a black church as a white one, unafraid to challenge whites and blacks to do better.
The irony is that the approach Clinton has taken in the past--acknowledging the realities of racism, but also emphasizing the importance of personal responsibility, of family and community, casting government not as the solution to every problem but as a potentially positive force that can empower individuals, through education and training, to take care of themselves--is strikingly similar to the central message of many of the march's sponsors, including the Nation of Islam.
The tragedy of American politics today is that the much-needed positive message that could unite most Americans is likely to be overshadowed, at least tomorrow, by the divisive aspects of the gathering: by Farrakhan himself, by the exclusion of women, by the rhetoric of anger and fear. The challenge for Clinton is to remind Americans of all we share, and to address the underlying crises of crime, racism and lack of opportunity now fueling the polarization of U.S. politics.
However the march ultimately influences the 1996 election, its more immediate effect may well be in the 1996 budget. While the million men march, and NOW conducts its protests and blacks boycott white businesses, Congress is cutting programs that provide the safety net for poor Americans--many of them African American. The only remaining questions on welfare and Medicaid are how much to be cut. Nearly one-third of all African Americans in this country live at or below the poverty level. Summer jobs programs, Head Start, homeless assistance and home-heating-oil subsidies have all been targeted for cuts--part of the budget-cutting process that the Simpson verdict and tomorrow's march at least obscure, and may make easier. At a time when a strong, united civil-rights movement is more important than ever, it is instead as divided as it has ever been.
Black economist Glenn C. Loury argues, "If I had a million black men together to do something, I wouldn't march them to Washington. I'd march them into these housing projects. I'd march them into orphanages. I would march them to boys who don't have fathers and try to reconstruct the civil life of the African American community."
There are many women and many whites, along with many blacks, who would march together for those goals. It won't be happening Monday. But if Clinton can figure out how to lead that march, it could mark the path to a second term.