Re-examining Race : CULTURE : Three Black Men Redefine the Image

Michael Eric Dyson, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the author of "Reflecting Black" (Minnesota University Press), "Making Malcolm" (Oxford University Press) and "Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture" (Oxford University Press)

Three recent events--the O.J. Simpson "not guilty" verdicts, Colin L. Powell's adroit uncandidacy and Louis Farrakhan's bid for mainstream leadership--have shaken America's self-confidence in its rules of race. Each episode, invariably inflated into a morality play garishly draped in soap-opera exaggeration, reveals the difficulties of transcending or transforming race.

In Simpson's case, the unresolved tensions of racial differences were compounded by the collision of gender, sex and celebrity. In Powell's, the glistening surface of moderation and military heroism reflects the country's deepest desires to rise above race. And in Farrakhan's attempted leap from the fringes to the front line of black leaders--with his "Million Man March" in Washington on Monday--the desperation of millions of African Americans and their disappointment in mainstream black leadership are captured. Ironically, given the conservative values that each advocates, Powell and Farrakhan may be flip sides of the same coin of racial rehabilitation.

It is precisely the hope that Powell can heal racial wounds by transcending race that makes him such a compelling figure for many whites. But barely before his appeal as a potential racial healer took hold, the Simpson double-murder trial and its outcome raised the stakes of Powell's crossover ambitions. Before the verdicts, the hype surrounding the general's political ambitions depended on a delicate denial of the racial bad faith that persists in pockets of American society. Post-verdict, Powell's plausibility as a presidential candidate hinges on a negative charisma--his ability to translate the transcendence of race as its erasure.

For many whites, nothing short of Powell's repudiation of any gesture of group solidarity with blacks will satisfy them. Where the schism between racial and national identity is pronounced, race loses its power to hold the trust, or interest, of those outside its ranks, because it is seen as distressingly particular--hence, not universally appealing. Thus, the transcendence, or erasure, of racial identity becomes the condition for its survival. This is the paradox that Powell's success both reinforces and obscures.

To date, Powell has remained distinct from Simpson because of his refusal to ignore his race, even as he worked against bigotry to prove his worth. Now, Powell lurks in the unconscious of many whites as an O.J. replacement, a "nice Negro" who must extend the illusion of colorlessness to prove his gratitude for being allowed to live the American Dream. In fact, the cost of colorlessness is always an investment in whiteness. African Americans can never effectively transcend race by remaining black, while whites need not ever bother with the business of getting beyond their race to ensure their acceptance as authentic Americans.

Accordingly, the Simpson jury could only transcend race--and satisfy the demands of justice and legitimate citizenship--by finding the football hero guilty of murdering his wife and her friend. Because they found Simpson "not guilty," the jurors, in the eyes of many whites, delivered an un-American judgment unavoidably rooted in racial solidarity. Whites, on the other hand, are rarely asked to consider the role their race plays in the decisions they make, especially those involving the unconscious expression of group loyalty and identification. To be successful with many whites, Powell must not only finish the job that Simpson failed to complete; he must also atone for the fateful rejection of a transcendent American identity symbolized in the jurors' decision.

Powell's patriotism and conservative values may take him a long way with both whites and blacks, but his intriguing racial ambiguity could turn off many African Americans. So far, polls indicate Powell's greater strength among whites than their black counterparts. But that could change.

Farrakhan's recent rise to black mainstream prominence must be viewed against this backdrop. In crucial ways, he is the blackened version of Powell's conservative cultural beliefs and social values. Anyone doubting this need look no farther than Farrakhan's alternately brilliant and grievously bloated peroration at the Million Man March.

Farrakhan's nearly two-and-a-half-hour homily was drenched in just the sort of self-help prescriptions that give him league with Powell's vision of racial uplift. His advocacy of atonement within African American culture--especially because of the pathologies Farrakhan believes to be rampant in poor black communities--gives him the sort of ideological identity rooted in conservative politics. Indeed, Farrakhan's address, and his beliefs about the causes and consequences of social suffering, bring him dangerously close to the philosophical musings of writers and politicians whose racial views make them the enemies of black people. And Farrakhan's notorious homophobia squares with the more civilized anti-gay themes that Powell struck near the end of his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Of course, Farrakhan's arc of leadership is hampered by the currents of bigotry that swirl in the Nation of Islam, and not just toward Jews, but toward women and blacks willing to be critical of deferential behavior toward anointed leaders. But as the success of the Million Man March proves, Farrakhan's deeply spiritual passions hold bright promise for many blacks in search of answers to the demoralization of black America.

But what is perhaps being ignored is how Farrakhan's philosophy is a complex combination of beliefs--about the causes of crime; about the role of gays and lesbians; about women's place in our culture; about the roots of racial suffering--that shatter narrow categories for understanding his broad appeal. The most troubling aspect of Farrakhan's rise may not be his offense to whites, but the way some of the beliefs that blacks have deemed harmful to their communities are given a hearing through the minister's rhetoric.

Simpson, Powell and Farrakhan prove that race, far from receding, is at center stage in the struggle for the soul of America.*

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