Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars
The New York Times OP-ED MONDAY, JULY 20, 1992
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
During the past decade, the historic relationship between African-Americans and Jewish Americans -- a relationship that sponsored so many of the concrete advances of the civil rights era -- showed another and less attractive face.
While anti-Semitism is generally on the wane in this country, it has been on the rise among black Americans. A recent survey finds not only that blacks are twice as likely as whites to hold anti-Semitic views but -- significantly -- that it is among younger and more educated blacks that anti-Semitism is most pronounced.
The trend has been deeply disquieting for many black intellectuals. But it is something most of us, as if by unstated agreement, choose not to talk about. At a time when black America is beleaguered on all sides, there is a strong temptation simply to Ignore the phenomenon or treat it as something strictly marginal. And yet to do so would be a serious mistake. As the African-American philosopher Cornel West has insisted, attention to black anti-Semitism is crucial, however discomfiting, in no small part because the moral credibility of our struggle against racism hangs in the balance.
When the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in an impassioned address at a conference of the World Jewish Congress on July 7, condemned the sordid history of anti-Semitism, he not only went some distance toward retrieving the once abandoned mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s humane statesmanship, he also delivered a stern rebuke -- while not specifically citing black anti-Semitism -- to those black leaders who have sought to bolster their own strength through division. Mr. Jackson and others have learned that we must not allow these demagogues to turn the wellspring of memory into a renewable resource of enmity everlasting.
We must begin by recognizing what is new about the new anti-Semitism. Make no mistake: This is anti-Semitism from the top down engineered and promoted by leaders who affect to be speaking for a larger resentment. This top-down anti-Semitism, in large part the province of the better educated classes, can thus be contrasted with the anti-Semitism from below common among African-American urban communities in the 1930's and 40's, which followed in many ways a familiar pattern of clientelistic hostility toward the neighborhood vendor or landlord.
In our cities, hostility of this sort is now commonly directed toward Korean shop owners. But "minority" traders and shopkeepers elsewhere in the world -- such as the Indians of East Africa and the Chinese of Southeast Asia -- have experienced similar ethnic antagonism. Anti-Jewish sentiment can also be traced to Christian anti-Semitism, given the historic importance of Christianity in the black community.
Unfortunately, the old paradigms will not serve to explain the new bigotry and its role in black America. For one thing, its preferred currency is not the mumbled epithet or curse but the densely argued treatise; it belongs as much to the repertory of campus lecturers as community activists. And it comes in wildly different packages.
A book popular with some in the "Afrocentric" movement, "The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man's Racism, Sexism, and Aggression," by Michael Bradley, argues that white people are so vicious because they, like the rest of mankind, are descended from the brutish Neanderthals. More to the point, it speculates that the Jews may have been the "'purest' and oldest Neanderthal-Caucasoids," the iciest of the ice people; hence (he explains) the singularly odious character of ancient Jewish culture.
Crackpot as it sounds, the book has lately been reissued with endorsements from two members of the Africana Studies Department of the City College of New York, as well as an introduction by Dr. John Henrik Clarke, professor emeritus of Hunter College and the great paterfamilias of the Afrocentric movement.
Dr. Clarke recently attacked multiculturalism as the product of what he called the "Jewish educational mafia." And while Dr. Leonard Jeffries's views on supposed Jewish complicity in the subjection of blacks captured headlines, his intellectual cohorts such as Conrad Muhammad and Khallid Muhammad address community gatherings and college students across the country purveying a similar doctrine. College speakers and publications have played a disturbing role in legitimating the new creed. Last year, U.C.L.A.'s black newspaper, Nommo, defended the importance of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious Czarist canard that portrays a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. (Those who took issue were rebuked with an article headlined: "Anti-Semitic? Ridiculous -- Chill.") Speaking at Harvard University earlier this year, Conrad Muhammad, the New York representative of the Nation of Islam, neatly annexed environmentalism to anti-Semitism when he blamed the Jews for despoiling the environment and destroying the ozone layer.
But the bible of the new anti-Semitism is "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," an official publication of the Nation of Islam that boasts 1,275 footnotes in the course of 334 pages.
Sober and scholarly looking, it may well be one of the most influential books published in the black community in last 12 months. It is available in black oriented shops in cities across the nation, even those that specialize in Kente cloth and beads rather than books. It can also can be ordered over the phone, by dialing 1-800-48-TRUTH. Meanwhile, the book's conclusions are, in many circles, increasingly treated as damning historical fact. The book, one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled, was prepared by the historical research department of the Nation of Islam. It charges that the Jews were "key operatives" in the historic crime of slavery, playing an "inordinate" and "disproportionate" role and "carving out for themselves a monumental culpability in slavery -- and the black holocaust." Among significant sectors of the black community, this brief has become a credo of a new philosophy of black self-affirmation.
To be sure, the book massively mis-represents the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotation of often reputable sources. But its authors could be confident that few of Its readers would go to the trouble of actually hunting down the works cited. For if readers actually did so, they might discover a rather different picture.
They might find out -- from the book's own vaunted authorities -- that, for example, of all the African slaves imported into the New World, American Jewish merchants accounted for less than 2 percent, a finding sharply at odds with the Nation of Islam's claim of Jewish "predominance" in this traffic.
They might find out that in the domestic trade it appears that all of the Jewish slave traders combined bought and sold fewer slaves than the single gentile firm of Franklin and Armfield. In short, they might learn what the historian Harold Brackman has documented -- that the book's repeated insistence that the Jews dominated the slave trade depends on an unscrupulous distortion of the historic record. But the most ominous words in the book are found on the cover: "Volume One." More have been promised, to carry on the saga of Jewish iniquity to the present day.
However shoddy the scholarship of works like "The Secret Relationship," underlying it is something even more troubling: the tacit conviction that culpability is heritable. For it suggests a doctrine of racial continuity, in which the racial evil of a people is merely manifest (rather than constituted) by their historical misdeeds. The reported misdeeds are thus the signs of an essential nature that is evil.
How does this theology of guilt surface in our everyday moral discourse? In New York, earlier this spring, a forum was held at the Church of St. Paul and Andrew to provide an occasion for blacks and Jews to begin dialogue on such issues as slavery and social injustice. Both Jewish and black panelists found common ground and common causes. But a tone-setting contingent of blacks in the audience took strong issue with the proceedings. Outraged, they demanded to know why the Jews, those historic malefactors, had not apologized to the "descendants of African kings and queens."
And so the organizer of the event, Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, did. Her voice quavering with emotion, she said: "I think I speak for a lot of people in this room when I say 'I'm sorry.' We're ashamed of it, we hate it, and that's why we organized this event." Should the Melanie Kantrowitzes of the world, whose ancestors survived Czarist pogroms and, latterly, the Nazi Holocaust, be the primary object of our wrath? And what is yielded by this hateful sport of victimology, save the conversion of a tragic past into a game of recrimination? Perhaps that was on the mind of another audience member. "I don't want an apology," a dreadlocked woman told her angrily. "I want reparations. Forty acres and a mule, plus interest."
These are times that try the spirit of liberal outreach. In fact, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, himself explained the real agenda behind his campaign, speaking before an audience of 15,000 at the University of Illinois last fall. The purpose of "The Secret Relationship" he said, was to "rearrange a relationship" that "has been detrimental to us."
"Rearrange" is a curiously elliptical term here: If a relation with another group has been detrimental, it only makes sense to sever it as quickly and unequivocally as possible. In short, by "rearrange," he means to convert a relation of friendship, alliance and uplift into one of enmity, distrust and hatred. But why target the Jews? Using the same historical methodology, after all, the researchers of the book could have produced a damning treatise on the involvement of left-handers in the "black holocaust." The answer requires us to go beyond the usual shibboleths about bigotry and view the matter, from the demagogues' perspective, strategically: as the bid of one black elite to supplant another. It requires us, in short, to see anti-Semitism as a weapon in the raging battle of who will speak for black America -- those who have sought common cause with others or those who preach a barricaded withdrawal into racial authenticity. The strategy of these apostles of hate, I believe, is best understood as ethnic isolationism -- they know that the more isolated black America becomes, the greater their power. And what's the most efficient way to begin to sever black America from its allies? Bash the Jews, these demagogues apparently calculate, and you're halfway there.
I myself think that an aphorist put his finger on something germane when he observed, "We can rarely bring ourselves to forgive those who have helped us." For sometimes it seems that the trajectory of black-Jewish relations is a protracted enactment of this paradox.
Many Jews are puzzled by the recrudescence of black anti-Semitism in view of the historic alliance. The brutal truth has escaped them that the new anti-Semitism arises not in spite of the black-Jewish alliance but because of it. For precisely such trans-racial cooperation -- epitomized by the historic partnership between blacks and Jews -- is what poses the greatest threat to the isolationist movement.
In short, for the tacticians of the new anti-Semitism, the original sin of American Jews was their involvement -- truly "inordinate," truly "disproportionate" -- not in slavery, but in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle.
For decent and principled reasons, many black intellectuals are loath to criticize "oppositional" black leaders. Yet it has become apparent that to continue to maintain a comradely silence may be, in effect, to capitulate to the isolationist agenda, to betray our charge and trust. And, to be sure, many black writers, intellectuals and religious leaders have taken an unequivocal stand on this issue.
Cornel West aptly describes black anti-Semitism as "the bitter fruit of a profound self-destructive impulse, nurtured on the vines of hopelessness and concealed by empty gestures of black unity."
After 12 years of conservative indifference, those political figures who acquiesced, by malign neglect, to the deepening crisis of black America should not feign surprise that we should prove so vulnerable to the demagogues' rousing messages of hate, their manipulation of the past and present.
Bigotry, as a tragic century has taught us, is an opportunistic infection, attacking most virulently when the body politic is in a weakened state. Yet neither should those who care about black America gloss over what cannot be condoned: That much respect we owe to ourselves. For surely it falls to all of us to recapture the basic insight that Dr. King so insistently expounded. "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," he told us. "Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." How easy to forget this -- and how vital to remember.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is professor of English and chairman of the AfroAmerican Studies Department at Harvard University
Dr. John Henrik Clarke's response to "Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars"
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