Apologizing for Farrakhan weakens blacks politically

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- At some point you have to wonder what Louis Farrakhan has to do to be politically ostracized beyond redemption. Until it happens, the Democratic Party is exposing a fault line too wide and glaring to be overlooked.

The tension between blacks and Jews within the liberal Democratic coalition has been an increasingly apparent fact of political life. It is as if some of the younger black leaders -- in contrast to those heroes of the civil rights movement such as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia -- have forgotten the role Jews played in bringing to fruition the legislation of the 1960s that has made it possible for blacks to become an important force in American politics today.


And it is as if they don't recognize that the strength and influence of minorities within the Democratic Party, and thus in national politics, depends on at least a comfortable level of mutual trust -- something that cannot be reached if Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are allowed a pass on anti-Semitism.

But memories seem short. It has been only 10 years now since Farrakhan called Judaism "a gutter religion" and embarrassed his candidate for president, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. But that was not enough in 1984 for Jackson and some other black leaders to repudiate the leader of the Nation of Islam. On the contrary, that was the year Jackson himself was caught talking about New York as "Hymietown" and adding to the tension.


And many black leaders have continued to temporize with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, clearly in some cases because they recognized the appeal of the organization to some in the black community. The result last fall was the spectacle of the Congressional Black Caucus making a deal -- a "sacred covenant," it was grandly called -- to join forces in promoting the most positive precepts of the Nation of Islam against violence.

Now, however, it is apparent that the Nation of Islam is not really any less anti-Semitic than it was a decade ago, which means essentially that the Black Caucus is trying to paper over that huge fault line.

First, there was the disclosure that a Farrakhan associate, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, had unburdened himself of some outlandish rhetoric in November at a New Jersey college, calling Jews "the blood suckers of the black nation" and urging blacks in South Africa to "kill everything white" in their nation.

This was enough, finally, to move some black leaders -- most importantly Jesse Jackson himself -- to come down hard on Khalid and to demand that Farrakhan disown his views. But Farrakhan is a hard case, and he quickly replied that Jews were "trying to use my brother Khalid's words against me to divide this house." Said Farrakhan: "The members of the Jewish community are the most organized, rich and powerful, not only in America but in the world. They don't want Farrakhan to do what he's doing. They're plotting as we speak."

You would think that might be enough for Kweisi Mfume, the congressman from Baltimore who is chairman of the Black Caucus, to throw in the towel on the "sacred covenant." Instead, he has appeared to continue dancing around the issue, condemning the inflammatory language in strong terms but leaving the door open for a relationship between the Black Caucus and Farrakhan.

This is a failure to recognize, as Jesse Jackson clearly has done, the reality of racial politics these days. There has been a steady rise in racial resentment directed at blacks as the memories of the civil rights movement and the reason it was needed have faded. Black candidates and liberal whites closely identified with them have been victimized by white defections on economic issues, as, for example, Harvey Gantt discovered in his race against Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina less than four years ago.

The last thing that these black leaders need if they are to be influential representatives of their constituents is to appear conciliatory to a Farrakhan. As Roger Wilkins, a longtime black leader and spokesman, put it so aptly, "We can't say to people, 'We will be in alliance with you no matter what you do.' "

At least not in politics. Blacks and Jews are the heart of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that already is being dismissed by many of the "new Democrats" as a throwback to issues that no longer matter. The last thing they need is the kind of dissension bred by a Louis Farrakhan.