To those outside the black community, the Nation of Islam’s persistent appeal, despite its bigotry, can seem incomprehensible.
by Adam Serwer
When I was 17, I was a scruffy-headed biracial black and Jewish teenager, and a furious Louis Farrakhan hater. In the mid-1990s, Farrakhan’s fame and influence was at its height; I had once been thrown out of a middle-school gym class for calling the Nation of Islam leader a racist. His Million Man March, a massive collective act of solidarity and perhaps the most important black event of the decade, had been one of the loneliest days of my young life. I sat in homeroom, one of just a few dozen kids in school, wondering why so many people hated people like me.
It was a story my high school English teacher Cullen Swinson told me, years later, that helped me understand why people might associate with the Nation. Scott Montgomery Elementary School was located in what The Washington Postcalled “The Wicked District” in a grim series on black youth in D.C. in the 1950s. Things were still bleak in the late ‘60s when Swinson began attending Scott—one year, there was a crime scare that enveloped the whole neighborhood.
“Fear would soon become a daily companion in the short walk to and from school every day,” Swinson told me, until “a host of clean-cut, friendly, polite, and ramrod straight, bow-tied young men from the Masjid took up daily residence on every street corner from 7th Street to 1st Street.” They were from the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s paramilitary wing. “I will never forget how they calmed the fears of so many mothers and children, just by their mere presence,” Swinson said.
From the outside, seeing a liberal activist associating with an organization like the Nation of Islam can seem incomprehensible—particularly if you’re Jewish, and you hear in Farrakhan’s speeches the venom that poisoned Europe for millennia and led to the annihilation of a third of the world’s Jews in the 20th century. But I thought back to the story Swinson told me after Farrakhan made national news again in recent weeks, in connection with the Women’s March, the organization that led a massive protest the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It’s a reminder that the sources of the Nation of Islam’s ongoing appeal, and the reasons prominent black leaders often decline to condemn Farrakhan, may have little to do with the Nation’s prejudiced beliefs.
The national co-chair of the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory, was present at the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviour’s Day event in late February, where Farrakhan railed against Jews for being “the mother and father of apartheid,” declared that “the Jews have control over those agencies of government,” and surmised that Jews have chemically induced homosexuality in black men through marijuana. The Nation continues to produce volumes of propaganda blaming Jews for the world’s ills. After the Anti-Defamation League posted a write up of the event noting Mallory’s presence, Mallory and her colleagues were accused of dismissing the concerns of critics on social media who felt they were, if not endorsing anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism, failing to publicly rebuke it.
“There were people speaking to me as if I was anything other than my mother’s child—it was very vile, the language that was being used, the way I was called an anti-Semite,” Mallory told me. “I think that my value to the work I do is that I can go into many spaces as it relates to dealing with the complexity of the black experience in America. It takes a lot of different types of people to help us with our struggle.”
Then there’s the timing—at a moment of rising anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad, resurgent white nationalism, and anxiety among many liberal Jews about their place in the progressive movement, Mallory’s presence at the NOI event shocked many who identified with the Women’s March.
SOURCE: The Atlantic
ADAM SERWER is a senior editor at The Atlantic, covering politics.