After 10,000 people turned out to hear the controversial Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan here last week, the question must be asked, what is the appeal of this enigmatic leader for a diverse group of black people?
The answer is probably rooted deep in the paradoxical black experience in America, and tinged with no small amount of frustration, cynicism and rage.
Farrakhan's appeal runs broad and deep. Black Americans, like other Americans, have always had a deep yearning for economic opportunity and self-reliance. Only a few years after the first of their number arrived in Jamestown in 1619, blacks were trying to accumulate land and capital in America.
"Behind the demonstrations, behind the petitions and protests and revolts, behind Jamestown and Montgomery and Watts," writes historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in "The Shaping of Black America," "lies this deeper and more basic struggle for bread, shelter, clothing, food, raw materials, resources, skills, and space for the heart."
But America always denied this quest. By the mid-17th century and continuing throughout the Colonial period, massive repression in the form of slave codes and other discriminatory laws limited the economic options of even free blacks.
Still the quest for black economic opportunity continued through churches, lodges of fraternal orders, banks and other institutions. Against the odds, a few businessmen flourished. Blacks dominated the New York catering industry for a half century before slavery's end, and black businesses thrived during the early part of this century before coming apart at the seams with the Depression.
Economic development and self-reliance for blacks were the main goals of both Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. And by 1973, Elijah Muhammad, the first leader of the Nation of Islam, had created a multimillion-dollar economic empire that included 4,200 acres of land, a weekly newspaper and a nationwide chain of supermarkets, barber shops, restaurants and clothing stores.
While many blacks were not prepared to become Muslims and did not agree with the philosophy that regarded whites as "devils," they had to respect the achievements, accomplishments and gains of Elijah Muhammed.
Yet, despite all of their efforts, despite the civil rights movement and political progress, blacks still have not been able to take advantage of the free enterprise system as other groups have.
Blacks are "poor, yet making many rich; deprived, yet providing capital for many; empty-handed yet possessing in the mass enormous productive and consumptive potential," writes Bennett.
Why? Largely because blacks have been denied access to a full range of entrepreneurial banking services (i.e., capital and credit), suffered social, economic and political discrimination, and received low wages.
However, there is another reason why blacks have not fully participated in the American economy, and it's a painful one. One of the legacies of racism has been its divisiveness for blacks. Consequently, many American blacks distrust each other and cannot work together to form economic unions or corporations or even to support black businesses.
It's against this backdrop that Louis Farrakhan must be viewed. At his rally at the Convention Center last week, the black Muslim minister-turned-capitalist announced again that he was forming a company (using a $5 million interest-free loan from Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi) to manufacture household detergents, soaps and toothpaste.
While Farrakhan's message to black people speaks to a 300-year-old yearning for economic empowerment and self-reliance and is admirable, his anti-Semitic remarks are deeply disturbing, unconscionable, to be condemned. They fly in the face of the struggle most black leaders have waged to end hatred and villification. Empowerment does not come from the villification of other people and scapegoating is a too-easy answer for a complex problem. To point an exclusive finger at Jews is not only to oversimplify but to tell a historical untruth.
Black people's desperation for self-reliance and an economic base in this often hostile society unfortunately makes some people vulnerable and susceptible to a powerful economic message, even one wrapped in hate.
It seems pretty clear that government and the private sector must be pressured to seriously support black economic development, and blacks themselves must also support their own businesses to create jobs and improve their economic well being. If this happens, it will go far to undercut the appeal of Louis Farrakhan as well as lay the foundation for true economic empowerment.